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Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Kind of Town

Springtime in Chicago

It was unseasonably cold in Chicago for the middle of May. But then I remembered snow and an ice storm in this city of broad shoulders around this time of year in the late 1980s. One evening, I got off shivering from the El (short for Elevated), the train service that ferries people back and forth from Oak Park to downtown Chicago, just nine miles apart. In the parking lot, I found my car encrusted with sheets of ice. Using the key to crack the ice, I managed to open the door and drove home. The temperature was below freezing but I held my curses, looking forward to the scotch I would pour myself at home in a few minutes. The prospect was heart warming, especially because Prakash would soon join me to share in the experience.

Prakash and I were neighbors and saw each other at all times of the week. We were never confined to the American ritual of meeting on weekends. Mostly we sat in my yard or his, savoring the spring weather, munching on deli sandwiches or enjoying an after dinner drink while it was still light out. We did that in the winter too, sitting indoors, eating pizza or hamburgers, even devouring an occasional steak. And as days grew longer and warmer, mornings we packed our cucumber sandwiches and frozen gins, put on our whites and drove 30 minutes away to suburban Oak Brook (often called New Delhi West) to play cricket on the wonderful grounds of Hamburger University (the training school for McDonald’s, which is headquartered in the suburb).

This spring was nothing like that; just cold, though the skies were blue and the sun was shining high in the sky at six in the evening. Driving to Prakash’s house, it struck me that I didn’t miss a beat steering through familiar terrain. It was as if I never left. Despite many changes, Harlem Avenue, the main drag, remains the same. In the early days, on trips to Chicago from Delhi, I had to remember to turn left from Harlem onto Augusta Street into River Forest; all the years that we lived in Oak Park, we always turned right to get home. Nevertheless, despite remembering the left turn, my mind was distracted by the fabulous jazz on WDCB, my favorite radio station. Thus, I automatically turned right. Realizing the mistake, I turned around at the corner of Woodbine Avenue, where my house was, and drove into River Forest.

Cold though it was, I had the car window open to gaze upon street corners and home gardens that were ablaze with sweet-scented lilac and to savor the wondrous aroma of barbecues amid freshly-mowed lawns. After a Chicago winter, any temperature above freezing is considered warm. People were out jogging and pottering about their gardens. The song on the radio said it all, “Heaven, I’m in heaven…”

“Why did you ever leave this gorgeous place,” my sensible self wondered. Steering the car toward Prakash’s magnificent home, the answer eluded me. Granted, we have a wonderful life in Delhi that is often the envy of my friends in America. Our neighborhood is tree lined, where you hear birdsong in the morning, not that different from Oak Park and the neighboring River Forest where Prakash lives. Trouble is when we drive out of my compound, we are faced with the chaos of India. When I pull out of Prakash’s driveway to go anywhere, it is a pleasure to deal not only with organized traffic but courteous drivers even as my senses feast on the flower-bedecked beauty of the neighborhood.

In the early days, just after we relocated to Delhi, my trips to the Oak Park-River Forest area were always laden with nostalgia. I used to drive past our house, my wife’s Montessori school, our daughter’s first primary school and various other significant landmarks with tears in my eyes. Like Odysseus, my visits to Chicago were struggles of “memory against forgetting."

Over the years, my trips have become less nostalgic and more fun. Breakfast with my friends Suresh and Pappi Hathiwala; beer with Divyesh and Darshana Mehta, brave souls to toughed it out in India for 15 years but returned to Chicago in the end. Then there's lunch at my friend Arsen’s downtown Armenian restaurant Sayat Nova with my old buddies: Larry Townsend, Mike McGuire and Dan Tucker from Chicago Tribune, the daily in which I wrote regular columns; coffee with my lawyer friend Jim Genden and his Dutch wife, Alma, an art historian; dinner at buzzing restaurants with Prakash and Alice, my hosts and drinks with Satu and Anu Pitroda. When all's said and done, there's my comrade, Angad Mehta; to spend an evening with him is to be the company of Chauncey Gardner, the protagonist of the Jerzy Kosinski novel, “Being There.” Played by Peter Sellers in the movie of the same name, Chauncey’s TV-driven character was built around the axiom that perception creates reality.

With the nostalgia out of my system, I’ve grown to love Chicago differently…as a place to relax, engage in debate and have epicurean fun. It sometimes does play on the mind: what it would be like to move back and partake of civilized life with an edge of sophistication. I am less convinced today than 15 years ago that moving back is a not a good idea. But then, as my daughters unfailingly remind me, I am weird that way: left the land of opportunity at the peak of my life and am now ruminating on the possibility of spending my later years there. But then, this is the age when your intellectual powers are at their peak and America is more hospitable. India, meanwhile, is bereft; forget intellectual pursuits, there’s no room even for intelligence.

On the other hand, India is like Circe, the sorceress who kept Odysseus from returning to his beloved Ithaca of Greek mythology. It offers seductive pleasures such as food and spices and intense human relationships; but it makes it difficult to stay the course on your moral compass. You live with dirt, filth, corruption and venality and forget about civilization and its higher pursuits. The troglodyte writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, was insightful when he called India “The Continent of Circe.” And like Odysseus, we must live in this sinful Aeaea, where the sorceress lived, even though it is plastic and crass, and spurn the pleasures of America, the modern version of Ithaca.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Education: India’s Achilles Heel

Caught between Elitism and Crassness

On a recent flight from Goa to Delhi, I was seated across the aisle from three loutish young men. Clearly newly rich, they bristled with flashy phones and watches. They did not turn off their cell phones even after the stewardess made an announcement; instead, they went right ahead playing with their toys. I asked them to switch the phones off. They stared at me insolently and went into a huddle from which emerged crude sounds that I finally understood to be mocking laughter.

This is the newly emergent middle class that an open India has thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. It is the polar opposite of the privileged classes that presided over closed India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. While I have been a champion of the emergent middle class, I guess my view was colored by my utter disdain for the privilegentsia of Fabian socialist India. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the Vulgarians.

The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: right connections, right schools, Oxford and Cambridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. On the other hand, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, members of the privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The emergent class of vulgarians makes no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.

During the privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites, who dominated state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided no public goods in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, no water, no public transport, no roads, no airports, no telephones, no jobs, no primary education, no housing, no public health care and no sanitation.

The minuscule middle class was virtually targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate saw conditions decline rapidly: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation in 1975 and finally total bankruptcy, which the forced the government to fly out its gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.

Forced to open up the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and various other controls. In the process, it unleashed animal forces that transformed India. We went from being pitied as a “basket case” to being admired as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With GDP growth of nine percent and more for over the past five years, millions were lifted from poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and became one of the world’s sought after market segments. Global business rushed in to cater to their needs and desires; local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive services.

Sadly, the flawed education system inhibited the transformation; it achieved less than what it should have. Under the privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them.” Thus, the ordained ones went on to Oxford and Cambridge to return to appointed positions in the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or stayed behind in an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble for political parties.

On the other hand, with the establishment of the IITs and IIMs, it produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift “Ambassador Car” economy. As such these subsidized elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business that are trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.

With the rise of the vulgarians, education has become a commodity; something you must have to get a job. All manner of dubious institutions have sprung up to cater to these needs. With the unprecedented growth of the economy, the need for talent has become so acute that just anyone with a degree or even a modicum of education can get a job. The three louts sitting across the aisle from on that flight from Goa to Delhi were clearly among those. They probably had some education and were snapped up by some company and enrolled in an internal training program. They were like trained circus performers.

We have three types of “education.” The first was the classic Oxbridge type where it didn’t matter because you came back to an appointed place in the elite establishment. The other was a technical sort of training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations or universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs.

Whatever happened to liberal values and civil norms as crucial objectives of education? Their lack is India’s Achilles heel.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

And Know They Love You

The New Generation Gap

It was the Memorial Day weekend in America. Observed in honor of those who served in the armed forces, the last weekend in May is widely considered the start of summer, though it is still weeks away. But “led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dancing beneath the brilliant canopy of spring,” you begin to anticipate summer.

Granted you can see nymphs but you don’t really see shepherds on New York’s Lower East Side nor hear the sound of bagpipes. But then we don’t write sonnets like Vivaldi; nor put them to music as concertos as Antonio did in his masterpiece, “The Four Seasons” from which the quote is taken. Regardless, it is heart warming to see young people hanging out, enjoying themselves under blue skies, starry nights and warm temperatures.

We were “cruising the hood,” my younger daughter Maya and I. She lives in and swears by the Lower East Side. My older daughter Pia says her sister never leaves her precinct if she can help it.

And so there we were, the two of us, late on a Friday afternoon, wandering the streets, stopping at bars and cafes to drink boutique beer and admire the arrondisement. We had a reservation for dinner at a wonderful restaurant, a few meters down Orchard Street where she lives. We got there a bit early and sat at the bar.

I thought to have a martini and promptly told the bartender, who was stirring the cocktail, that I preferred it “shaken not stirred.” Everyone laughed so I was tempted to introduce myself as “Bond, James Bond.” But seriously though, how do you explain to twenty-somethings that a shaken martini tastes different than the other? I let it go because our table was ready. Now there’s news that indeed there is a difference. You can Google it: just type martini, shaken, not stirred. The study clearly concludes that a martini is better shaken than stirred.

But I digress… it’s the Memorial Day weekend and I am spending it with my younger daughter at her apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. She is my shepherd through the urban meadows surrounding Delancey Street, showing me the pastures and the drinking holes. Where we stop, mostly everyone seems to know and be fond of her, including bartenders and maĆ®tres de.

Just so everyone understands, these are crucial relationships in Manhattan. I can remember one time; she managed a table for us at short notice at a choice restaurant that takes reservations days in advance because she knew the chef. She can mostly get served anywhere she wants in her neighborhood; plus they hug and kiss her. No wonder her sister calls her “Fluffy.”

We topped off the evening at a little restaurant to have dessert. She knew everyone there and the house served me bourbon so rare that even I, an aficionado, hadn’t heard of it. “Yo Dad,” she says to me over the general ruckus, “like it?” I was almost in tears…my little girl introduced me to a rare brand of my favorite drink. In the patois of the time, I could only think, “How cool is this!”

As we walked the streets through the afternoon and evening, late into the night, my thoughts wandered back to the time of my first visit to New York. I fell in love instantly: it was human and real, very different from the orderly, manicured Midwest where I went to school. It felt more like a world city, a polyglot of cultures; eons away from the smiley-face cities I lived in, with what Ernest Hemingway memorably called “wide lawns and narrow minds.”

A generation later, my little girl has established herself in what is indisputably the coolest precinct in the world’s most vibrant city. She laughs at my Midwestern experience of America. To her, the Midwest is unreal. “Dad, people actually smiled and said hello,” she told me about her recent visit to Chicago. She was struck by its “other worldly” air. “Look, Dad, some white dude in Brooks Brothers smart casual actually offered to take a picture” of her and her older sister as they walked in downtown Chicago. Yes, it was nice and all, she admitted but he did it even “without our asking?”

Just like I did years ago with yuppies, my daughter has a problem with “hipsters,” who are gentrifying her neighborhood. This is a new species of yuppies with rich parents. “They feel they are slumming it on the Lower East Side. They spend hours and lots of money trying to look as if they’d just rolled out of bed,” my daughter said by way of explanation. “They push off to their parents’ home in the Hamptons on long weekends,” a bartender told me in affirmation of her comment.

In her perspective, I saw much of my worldview. I was a hirsute hippie, who wore oxford shirts and penny loafers. While I bristled at the inequities in the world, I also worked hard at graduate school. I thought I knew America when I lived in distant India and found when I got there that there was a difference in the image and the reality. My biggest learning was that the cutting-edge thinking in America had more to do with purpose and commitment than with lifestyle.

On the other hand, my American-born daughter lives easily, mixing lifestyle with commitment and purpose. Nothing seems to faze her in any way; she is equal to situations in a way that I simply could not conceive at her age. She deals with Manhattan and its formidable ways as though she was born to live there; not just to make a living but a life. She took me to places that most people would never find and showed me things that are off the beaten track.

Wandering the streets of the Lower East Side, we popped into establishments that were so cool I felt like I was in a Woody Allen film. We chatted mostly about her neighborhood. She sounded not so much like a tourist guide but a proud resident of the coolest “hood” in Manhattan. On the other hand, she reminded me she cooks Gujarati khichri and Goan fish curry but mostly gets by on pastas and salads.

For me the walk around the block was an education. Not just about the buzzy Lower East Side but about my younger daughter. She is a full grown young woman making her way with great aplomb in the world’s most happening city. “If you can make it here,” sang Frank Sinatra, “you can make it anywhere.” And she’s making it in her job as a production assistant in a startup venture that does stuff I don’t really understand. All I know is she “hearts” it.

To see parts of yourself in your adult children is satisfying. My older daughter, who works with me in New Delhi, is organized and incisive and can get anything done. She is the family’s chief operating officer. I am learning from her to see things in the cold light of pragmatism. Over the Memorial Day weekend with the younger one, I found her to be a sophisticate, who is humble but purposive. She is the family wit, ready with a humorous insight and a caustic turn of phrase. I am learning from both my girls that the pursuit of cool is a major behavioral pattern in the 21st century.

This fundamental issue of cool is emerging as the new generation gap. While I admire my daughters’ state of being cool, I do feel a twinge of “been there, done that.” Poor dears: my generation defined the state of cool forever: Kerouac and Miles Davis, Dylan and Timothy Leary, The Beatles and Woodstock are the icons of cool. Deep in their hearts, they know that cool was invented by their parents’ generation. As such, they must know our cool is cooler than theirs.

But we never tell them why, instead, as the cult band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, sang, “just look at them sigh and know they love you.”

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Race, Sex, Age Issues in US Politics

Lessons from the US Primaries

When I was growing up in America as a college student in the 1970s, I was struck by the idealism that seemed to pervade public life. The Woodstock generation rejected the material vision that dominated America in the 1950s and 1960s. Young people challenged the culture of accumulation and the power politics of those years including the GE automated kitchen (advocated by their spokesman Ronald Reagan), the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and favored women's rights, abortion, gun control.

"Why would you challenge the American way of life that has done the greatest good for the greatest number and attracts so many people from so many other countries to make their way in this air-conditioned country," I asked Newsweek's David Swanson, who has been a very close friend for more than three decades since we attended graduate journalism school together. His cryptic answer was, "We can afford it."

Today's "Millenarian Generation" has replaced the "Boomers," who came of age during the Kennedy era; it is in the forefront of a movement against divisive ideology, soulless suburbia and the long-held notion of "manifest destiny," a worldview that was missionary (think Peace Corps) and morphed into a cash-and-carry imperialism that is well-documented in the activities of various American firms in Iraq. Worse, Boomer politics polarized the country as never before. I have a friend, who is so distressed by the new imperialistic mindset that she scours the internet to make herself aware of which companies support the Republicans and refuses to do business with them.

Far more than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, George W Bush symbolizes the ideological divide in America. Many of us in India admire Bush because he brought a dose of realism to Indo-US relations. Nevertheless, I was shocked in New York, Chicago and elsewhere at the visceral dislike he evokes. While he did put together an international "coalition of the willing" in pursuit of his Iraq policy, back at home he is reviled with such ferocity that it takes my breath away.

After eight years of Bush's aggressive neo-conservative agenda, it was clear that Hillary Clinton, the candidate favored by the Democratic Party as its presidential nominee, would waltz into the White House with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in tow. A respected senator from New York, Clinton was considered a shoo-in…until Barack Obama came along.

The forthcoming election was set to be all about Bush and erasing his divisive legacy. That got sidetracked by the campaign battle between Obama and Clinton. I was struck during my recent sojourn in America at the ugliness of the contest. It is as if the Democrats are divided, with working class whites, Hispanics and older people supporting Clinton and affluent whites, Blacks and youth backing Obama. I heard many say that in this battle of primordial issues of race and gender, the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, would benefit.

However, once the Democrats have resolved the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the next major issue that will come up is about McCain's age; he is 71 years old and as such would be the oldest person to assume the office of US President. "We are going to address all our primordial issues of age, race and sex in this election," a lawyer friend told me.

The US media have already written off Hillary Clinton; indeed there is a growing debate about the possibilities of a Democratic ticket in November that has Obama as the presidential candidate and Clinton as his running mate (for vice president). Gnawing questions remains, which Hillary has posed by winning all the major states like California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio: can Obama win over the large numbers of urban working class and rural whites, who gave Clinton huge victories in these states? Or will they simply shift their support to John McCain?

These and other questions persist in keeping the Democratic primary race open. Clearly, Obama has won the popular vote and Clinton has no way of catching up. Even the so-called super delegates, senior leaders of the party, have lined up behind Obama, including Ted Kennedy and now Jimmy Carter. But Clinton has raised the issue of two crucial states, Florida and Michigan that were disqualified for holding their primary elections early in defiance of a party edict.

Clinton maintains that she would have handily won a majority in both states. This, she claims, would have given her a majority of the so-called pledged delegates that are divided proportionately among the candidates based on the popular vote. Combined with her sweeping victory in the large industrial states, her campaign managers assert, this would have pushed her ahead of Obama. Many people think Clinton is right and believe that Obama will lose to McCain in November. Nevertheless, Obama has evoked widespread enthusiasm across the country with his charisma and message of hope in a fragmented body politic.

On relations with India, it is clear that McCain would continue the favorable policies of Bush as would Clinton. Obama remains an unknown and he is seemingly unreachable because his campaign has been driven by popular small-time donations rather than fat-cat funding. I can only hope that South Block has found channels that lead to him through the IT community in Silicon Valley, which energized his campaign with technology.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Incredible India

Going to Hell in a Hand Basket

Everywhere I turn, India is screaming and shouting. Mayawati has done this; Mulayam has done that; Karat is posturing as he may have done in his days at Jawaharlal Nehru University; the cricket guys are in a huge cacophony; and Bollywood is in your face. The business lot is putting out news releases about buying this or that company in the world. Gimme peace, already!

That’s why I retreat to my place in Goa and sit out late at night on my upstairs verandah, contemplating the cathedral of giant coconut trees surrounded by a curia of chickoo and mango. There is a choir sounding softly in the night; a harmony of gentle sea breezes rustling through the palms, like a quiet drizzle of rain.

For the past 28 years, I have been intimately involved in the public affairs of our great country. I thought we could do things differently. Certainly, since I came here from the United States in the late 1980s, things have changed dramatically. People are buying and doing things they never did before: toiletries and cosmetics, refrigerators, air-conditioners, washing machines, cars, houses and, in the upper reaches, designer clothes, yachts and even airplanes; in the realm of doing is the explosion of public transport, telecommunications, vocational education and computers.

India is enjoying the benefits of globalization. There are more choices, more opportunities, more hope. As I sit, contemplating the silence of my house in Goa, away from the chaos and noise in the public space, I can’t help wondering if we are getting it all wrong again. We admired but never practiced socialism; we practiced but never admired capitalism. We mixed our socialist mindset with a very stiff dose of elitism. Our recipe had ingredients of privilege, prejudice and perfidy. The concoction tasted of feudalism and authoritarianism.

Growing up in the primeval India of the 1960s, I realized that connections ruled. A reasonably talented young person from the middle class could only do what I did: emigrate. We fled socialist India to seek our fortune elsewhere, especially America. Back home, the privilegentsia dragged the country down into the abyss of poverty and pity. It became a basket case, scorned by the world. In the end, in 1991, the government was reduced to sending secret shipments of gold to the Bank of England to demonstrate solvency.

I was back in India when the Narasimha Rao government was left with no choice. In a historic budget, then finance minister Manmohan Singh scrapped the industrial licensing system. Reforms served up in that budget faced several political challenges including the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the rise of Hindu nationalism. Most subsequent measures were undertaken by stealth. Such changes went against the very grain of the culture of bribery and corruption bred by controls. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, the options for the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats declined.

Even today, there are vocal and powerful opponents of reform. The BJP stance is puerile politics. The Left is a dupe of the mandarins in Beijing. Within the Congress there are still several lobbies that feel it has tarnished the party’s self-image as a “pro poor” formation. Then are there are the “others,’ who feed off the trough of government finances: they are insidious opponents of reform.

With such formidable opposition, the government’s initiatives have been stymied except in the most esoteric areas of capital markets. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal could have major benefits aside from the obvious ones that will bring India out of its pariah status. Sadly, it is on hold because of the Left servitude to Beijing and the infantile opposition of the BJP. Within the Congress, various mindless forces have contrived to sabotage India’s growth story because, like the wily Arjun Singh, they believe in nothing, profess only sycophancy.

The government’s botched effort at handling growth indicates the old mindsets still rule. So if there’s inflation: too much money chasing too few goods, the Congress poobahs would rather opt for the failed solution of demand management when the obvious thing to do is to remove obstacles to the production of more goods and jobs.

But no! We can’t have retail bloom; we will curtail growth in telecoms by all manner of stupidity; we will shackle financial services; we will not remove the barriers to real estate growth and continue to sabotage the crucial education system with rules and regulations set out by the corrupt and inept All India Council on Technical Education (AICTE). We seem to be going back to the starved sixties in a leaky boat whose officers and crew have no clue how to navigate in the changed economic circumstances.

So now we have choice between the devil: the loud, crass nouveau riche India; and the deep blue sea: the old scheming one in which the privilegentsia reigned supreme. With growing prosperity, India’s privileged classes, who wield more power than their legitimate bank balances, won’t have the wherewithal to maintain legions of low-wage servants: maids, bearers, drivers, gardeners, guards and assorted flunkies, all paid for by the feudal government and the rapacious private sector.

At the rate things are going, the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, activists and fixers will have our country on its knees again, hunting for nuts and berries on the margins of the global mainstream.

copyright rajiv desai 2008