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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

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Pater Noster

Coping with Alzheimer’s

It’s been less than a fortnight since my mother died. In the interim, my 87-year old father has spent an unsettled time. In the pink of health, he nevertheless suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. His brain cannot deal with current affairs and causes him to go rambling into the past. He remembers things from the 1950s and 1960s and earlier but when it comes to the present, he is all at sea.

For partly selfish reasons, we brought him to our house in Goa against the advice of a psychiatrist. We had things to do and we needed to escape from the aura of death in our Delhi home. One airplane trip, a tour of the house and fruit-filled garden, a simple home-cooked meal, an ice cream on Baga beach and my dad seemed to perk up. He was excited by the old-style doors and windows and the antique furniture in our house; he marveled at the wells, the trees laden with guava, chickoo, mango and coconut…drinking it all in, wonderstruck.

“Very nice…just like the old days,” he kept repeating. He was struck by the waves breaking on the beach, the lights, and the music. “This is wonderful,” he said over and over again as we finally dragged ourselves away from St Anthony’s Bar and Restaurant at 10 pm. I was beside myself with joy. In the days after my mother’s death, he had drifted, anchorless without his constant companion; like Keats' knight: “alone and palely loitering.”

Now that he lives with us, I think we can light up his life with experiences he has never had in his austere existence. His only interest was travel and so the Goa sojourn opened up a corner of clarity in his Alzheimer-jumbled mind. It was a gamble to whisk him away to Goa. We were worried he might fall apart in the strange new environment. But he seems to have flowered; giving me hope that I could, in the remainder of his life, shower him with care and comfort.

The next day we took him to a supermarket to buy him toiletries. I have always known him to be a frugal, even parsimonious man. He saves things rather than use them. A few months ago at his house in Ahmedabad, I found in his closet unused bottles of after shave lotion and several shirts I had presented him nearly 15 years ago. After we reached our home in Goa, I saw his toiletry kit, which was indescribably modest including two throwaway shaving razors that were past their prime at least five years ago. That’s when we went to the store to buy him new supplies.

He was delighted to receive them and kept rummaging in the bag and looking at his new things through the car journey back home. Promptly, he squirreled them away into his suitcase. Knowing his abstemious mindset, I threw away all his past due date toiletries. The next morning and I don't know how, he retrieved his old shaving razor from the waste basket. However, my hope stayed kindled in that he has started using his new stuff; it is a minor victory in my battle to change his ways.

I am no psychiatrist but I feel that as a man alone now, he has a chance to experience new things, especially ease and choice that he long denied himself. My belief is that the new lifestyle might slow down his steady and inevitable mental decline. Nobody really understands Alzheimer’s. There have been many attempts to research and explain the disease in genetic and medical terms. In my layman’s view, it is about individuals, who have been misfits and therefore turned to simplistic views about life: their definitions of success and their existential happenstance.

The late Ronald Reagan is a classic example. He started out as an actor, never succeeded, got into screen politics, waltzed into the position of the governor of America’s golden state, California and went on to become a two-term occupant of the White House. For all the mythmaking, Reagan was never really cut out for the job and only acted the part…and that too in a B-grade performance. On his watch, certain earth-shaking events took place, primarily the implosion of the Soviet Union. He is revered today for starting a conservative revolution in the United States; his acolytes claim the credit for re-ordering the world.

Whatever Reagan did, he slipped into the personal hell of Alzheimer’s. My view is that his simplistic, black-and-white view of the world left no room for critical assessments. I can see the same happening to my father. He told my wife, “I don’t read because I did all the reading that was needed to top all my exams. Why should I clutter up my mind with useless things?” To add to that, he had no friends, no interests: literature or music or art or theater or even television, cricket and cinema. Alzheimer’s came later; his blankness dates back nearly 40 years, which is 10 years before he retired from his job as a senior government official.

The biggest tragedy in dealing with my father is we have to forget my mother. Already, he is certain that the fuss and the funeral had to do with his mother, who died 42 years ago, when he was just 45. He has no remembrance; at least not that is publicly expressed that his wife is gone, just 20 days short of their 60th wedding anniversary.

In the 12 days since my mother went away, I have grown to be the 59 years that I am. Until April 21, I felt I was just 19.

copyright rajiv desai 2008