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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Funeral Blues

The Indignity of Death

"Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

"Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message she is dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves;
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves."

With the words of W H Auden buzzing in my head, I sat in the hearse that bore my mother’s dead body to the crematorium. It was the twilight hour, the most melancholic time of day. I have always hated the transition from day to night and here I was staring at my mother’s lifeless body as the hearse battled Delhi’s horrendous early evening traffic. We were on Delhi’s much maligned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor.

Incredibly, I found myself telling my brother and my cousin that the reaction against the BRT was a knee-jerk dehati response against modernity. Already, the feeling of sublime spirituality was destroyed; my sorrow was momentarily overtaken by the slings and arrows of Delhi’s outrageous traffic. In a way, it mitigated the emptiness I felt as I looked tearfully at my mother’s lifeless form. The reality of India is such that it won’t really let you grieve or wonder philosophically about life and death.

When we reached the funeral place, I was hustled into an “office,” where a priest told me he had made the arrangements for pooja and whatnot and that it would cost 6500 rupees. Distraught though I was, it was very clear to me that I wouldn’t let my mother go with the meaningless recital of slokas by a mercenary. Instead, we had friends from Delhi’s Capital City Minstrels choir sing hymns and bhajans while we waited for a slot at the electric crematorium. The music brought solemnity and beauty to the occasion.

Inevitably, the moment came for us to let her go; she was put on a conveyor belt and rolled into a furnace. There was no dignity in the process. I felt as though I had consigned my mother to a Nazi death camp. Until then I had managed to keep my composure. That moment was traumatic and I broke down. I sobbed for the loss of my mother, to be sure; I must confess, however, that some of the tears were for the undignified manner in which my mother was consigned to nothingness.

For anyone who believes that the dead go on to an afterlife of peace and bliss, the electric crematorium suggests hellfire and brimstone. There is no spirituality in the way we dispose of our dead. It is brutal. When I saw her disappear into the furnace, I felt affirmed in the feeling that in Hindu-majority India, where there is no respect for life, to expect dignity for the dead is too much to ask.

So much for the public aspect of death; the loss of a mother is numbing. I lived with her as part of a nuclear family for just nine years in the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond that I was always a visitor and as such not bonded but close. My mother was more spirited than spiritual even at the ripe old age of 85. “I’m sorry,” she said to me the day before she died, “I came here for comfort and joy and instead you had to hassle with doctors and hospitals.”

It was this stolid worldview that allowed me to make a life for myself. For all our differences, I will never forget her determined effort to push me into language and literature even while the whole world shoved me into science and engineering.

But that’s personal. Mothers are precious but they are not immortal; to lose a mother is indescribable. Even though they may play on guilt and behave like giant pains now and then, they are irreplaceable.

"The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;"

And so with deep sorrow and wonderment, I watched my mother slip gently into the night. Thank whatever Gods there be, she had no experience of her cremation.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vox Populi

Aside from the two comments posted on the website, one by Chicago's Suresh Hathiwala and another by Jimmy (identify yourself, please), I've had several responses by email.

1 Rajiv Badlani, Ahmedabad:

That was very amusing, my friend.

Championing the cause of the emergent middle class as a whole is one thing, but encountering individuals from that class is traumatic for badly brought up people like you and me. We’re anachronisms in today’s India, seeking some refined ideal that has existed only in our wishful thinking.

Its not just India. Brought up as I was on Wodehouse, I wasn’t at all prepared for the reality of England in the 80’s. That was also a shocker.

Ahmedabad used to be a relatively refined place back when we were growing up. There were a few rich folks who made it a fetish to tastefully conceal their wealth. Never would they be seen in ostentatious clothes or cars; they even made it a point to never give larger gifts at weddings than their less fortunate brethren could afford.

But all that good taste clearly didn’t inspire the rest of the city to emulate them. Instead Ahmedabad has made Delhi it’s role model.

This city now vies with Delhi to show off its wealth and every wedding competes with others to see who can literally burn more money by bursting crackers and bombs in the middle of the street.

Every member of this new group of have-it-at-lasts has a chip on his shoulder about people who speak softly and in English. That is considered downright offensive. We’re clearly doing this to put them down, and they will show this resentment as aggressively as they can assuming, quite correctly, that he who shouts loudest will prevail, and by virtue of prevailing, be right.

Welcome to the new India. Fly business class in the more expensive airlines and there is a 60% chance that you will escape encountering this reality, but don’t count on it. Them guys is also aspiring to that! Maybe 2nd class in the train will be a more pleasing experience. In fact, I'm sure it will. The poor are far more graceful.

2 Siddharth Mehta, New Delhi:

Very interesting reading. I loved the title. Cannot but agree with your comments and reactions. We are certainly becoming a nation of rude and crass people. God help us.

Manjeet Kripalani, Bombay:

You have spoken what I have been thinking and feeling for so so so long!

We will be a crude and crass culture, and nowhere is it more evident than the low cost airlines.

I refused to travel Kingfisher, even, when I found that my fellow passengers would turn on their headsets to the highest pitch, watch the TV screen in front, and heave with loud laughter as they watched a slapstick performance that masqueraded as comedy. When I asked one of them to turn down the volume, he turned to me balefully, glared, and turned back to his screen, heaving again with laughter.

They couldn’t have been bothered, the whole plane. Disregarded the staff requests. So I try and fly Jet whenever I can, because the premium price ensures premium passengers, who know their manners and understand that good manners is just being considerate of others around you.

What we are seeing is the nouveau riche – not the Sindhi nouveau riche of yore, who wore big diamonds and had big weddings. No, they look cultured in comparison. These are the nouveau nouveau slightly riche, who have seen little money through dhanda – not professional endeavour – for the first time. They are feeling good, powerful, venal. Are they really middle class? They are aspiring riche, from being low class.

The lower classes, who aspire to middle class status and flying over using the railways, are in fact, more polite, kinder, more considerate. Like your driver and my driver, who has exquisite manners and courtesies.

4 Arthur House, Hartford, CT, USA

Air travel is the most uncivilized means of transport. Here we add short pants, tee shirts and loud talking to the mix. I liked your piece. Reminds me of an excellent George Will piece of writing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Vulgarians

India’s Emergent Lowbrow Culture

After a cool and relaxing week in Goa, I flew back to Delhi on a Spicejet flight. It was then that the new reality slapped me in the face. My experience on the plane made me turn monkish, in the hope I would avoid hell when the time comes for me hand in my dinner pail, kick the bucket, breathe my last, expire, die. The two-hour journey tested me so much that I forgot about my fear of flying. Even though we had a bumpy flight, my white knuckles were overshadowed by the sheer frustration I felt at the uncouth behavior of some fellow passengers.

I realized that, just in case there is heaven and hell, I certainly don’t want to go to Satan’s estate in the event I find all the crude people there that were on the flight. To that end, I have sworn to exercise more and do good turns, even if I have to drag old ladies across the street; or eat sickly sweet offerings from temples or face Mecca and bow several times a day or go to confession in a Catholic church. Heck, I am even prepared to eat health food.

Coming back to the flight, I was granted my request for an aisle seat by a pleasant staffer at the check-in counter. Not just that, I was pleased as punch to note that the middle and window seats remained empty as the doors closed. This was truly fortuitous because these low-cost airlines pack people in like sardines. I thought I would have a pleasant, undisturbed flight. I pulled up the hand rests and prepared to stretch my legs across the two empty seats once the seat belt sign was switched off.

No sooner than the doors closed, the guy in the row behind me loomed over me, gesturing at the window seat in my row. Politely, I got up to let him through, figuring I would still have an empty seat in between. He had four seats…three where his wife and two sons sat and him across the aisle. When I got up, he hurriedly blocked me and got his two sons to move into the two seats next to me while he moved across the aisle to sit with his wife.

Stunned by this display of uncouth behavior, I told him what he did was unfair. He was not conversant with English and his breath was foul so I let it go and buried myself in my book. As the plane took off and when the seat belt sign was switched off, an obese guy in the seat in front of me pushed his seat back as far as it would go, leaving no room for my legs and my book. I asked him to straighten his seat and he launched into the air equivalent of road rage. “You don’t own the airline,” he told me in his “convent” English. “If you have a problem, move to another seat. Or fly another airline.”

Taken aback by the man’s rude outburst, I kept silent and wondered at the hectoring culture of this new and crude India. He was fat and out of shape…clearly a crass Delhiwallah with black money, the type that resident Goans abhor. I asked the steward to move me to another seat. For the record, I have been a cheerleader for this upwardly mobile, emergent middle class that poses a challenge to the privilegentsia: the clutch of academics, bureaucrats and sundry others who feed off the trough of the state.

The privilegentsia proved a thorn in the side of the international community; their pretentious outlook proved offensive to many in the West and left India bereft of friends in the liberal world. But the emergent culture of 21st century India that seeks to replace the elitist lot can only be called vulgarian. Much of it is reflected in the popular culture: on television and in Bollywood films; also in the ostentatious celebration of age-old rituals like Diwali and Holi and in the re-awakening of misogynist festivals like Karva Chauth and criminal practices such as dowry.

Talk about the devil and the deep blue sea!

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ruby Tuesday

Yesterdays Don't Matter If They're Gone

Forty-eight years ago, on April Fools Day, I was a stripling, just 11 years of age. That day was momentous; it sank into me that I would have to leave my beloved Bombay, my precious Christ Church Lane in the city’s Byculla Bridge, Bombay 8 precinct. It was very important not to call it Byculla, which was Bombay 27. It was our awakening class consciousness; the postal codes told the story of middle versus working class neighborhoods.

On April 27 of 1960, as I stood on the train doorway waving goodbye, I already began to miss all my friends, who were much closer to me than I ever imagined: looking back on those years, I believe they changed my worldview. They made me appreciate the vibrancy of diversity. On that day, however, I was not just tearful but envious. They got to stay behind in this wonderful slice of India while I was hustled on to a train to Ahmedabad and to a moffusil life of sarkari hierarchies and the search for more and more exclusivity.

Christ Church Lane was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. As a boy growing up in Court Royal, a wonderful old apartment house with large airy flats and lots of balconies, the only disagreements I had with my friends were about Elvis versus Cliff versus Pat Boone. Yes, my family was the only vegetarian in the building and I, the only Hindu and Gujarati kid. My friends constantly urged me to eat meat but in the end, accepted my cultural hangup.

This was significantly different than my later experiences, where I was often put down because of my beef against eating meat. In Christ Church Lane, there was such a cultural diversity that my food habits were accepted and I was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on. My friend Ruby Rodrigues, now Patrick, told me the other day that we actually had lamplighters, which I found hard to believe.

We met Ruby on Tuesday, April Fools Day. The last time I had seen her was when we bade goodbye at the train station some 48 years ago. The story of how Ruby came to be at our house to dinner that night is about the currency of nostalgia in which modern technology enables us to span gaps of time and reach out to people we have known at different phases of our lives. Ruby is the older sister of my friend Peter with whom I hung around 365 days a years from age six to age eleven.

Ruby was this sophisticated girl from the Clare Road Convent with many good-looking friends. That apart, Christ Church Lane was widely regarded as a happening place with gorgeous girls. We called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, which went: “I’m so young and you’re so old…” We were innocent of sex then, only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl that we saw in the lane. It was pure romance but at a distance; we eyed them and then fantasized, forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all we craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that we were alive.

When Carole Fraser, a green-eyed, brown-haired goddess once said hello, our knees turned to jelly and the only way we could recover is by indulging in physical horseplay, where mostly Peter and Teddy and various others jumped on each other. Because I was the smallest, I usually bore the brunt of it with a stoic grimace…it was for Carol, after all. All those years, we learned through the biblical and cowboy movies that he who is set upon ultimately wins the girl.

Ruby’s older brother Victor was everyone’s hero…he sang, danced and had an easy way with girls; plus he has a hairstyle like Elvis that was in vogue those days. He emailed me when he read an article I’d written about Christ Church Lane and set up this meeting with his sister Ruby. He called the night Ruby visited us…it was the first time we talked in 48 years. He said Teddy was in Bombay. Teddy and his brother Alan Oscar, who was my absolute icon, lived on the ground floor of Court Royal. They moved to Australia and next thing I knew the next day I was talking to Teddy at the Taj in Bombay.

Ever the skeptical writer, the been-there -done-that variety, I am floored by this currency of nostalgia. It turned out when Ruby visited that our old friends Ivan and Ingrid Arthur were there and they also knew Ruby and her family. Ivan was for many years a colleague on the executive committee of HTA (now JWT). How does all this happen? The standard response is that India has a small elite community in which everyone knows everyone by six degrees of separation.

That may be a Western view but this is something of a phenomenon. It’s not just this encounter but over the past few months as I have written about reunions and other nostalgic moments, I have had an outpouring of responses from people I knew from the various phases of my life. I feel fulfilled even though some of my best friends today are people I knew in in high school and university in India and the United States. But these are a new crop of old friends. It is a wonderful feeling to know that over the next few years I will strike up in my life, like John Lennon, renewed acquaintances with “people and things that went before.” It is a wonderful closure. Peter, Victor, Ruby, Teddy, Alan and I have led different lives since we grew up together. Now we will catch up and exchange notes. There is a sense of security and comfort and joy that life is coming to be a full circle.

copyright rajiv desai 2008