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Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Cheer

A Prayer for Family Togetherness

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. As the Yuletide dawned, two things happened: our married daughter moved in with us to spend the Christmas holiday and together, we went to the airport to receive our younger daughter who came to visit us from New York City. We were a family again, together after long. It is magical: the years drop away and we indulge in the same madness we did years ago when both our daughters lived with us

You say yes, I say no.
You say stop and I say go go go, oh no.
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello

For the moment, we’ve said our hellos. We know full well that in a matter of days, it will be time to say goodbye. That is inevitable; what’s important is to stretch the days to enjoy every single moment we spend with our daughters. It isn’t easy because they’re twenty-somethings and strew a few hours around to spend with us. We lap it up and try to make them feel at home with Christmas music, decor and comfort food.

Sometimes I wonder whether ten or 15 years down the line, when we are older, that we can still work the magic for them. These are fleeting thoughts as we try to spend every single moment we can with them. Our love for them is unconditional, not sentimental because we are hugely aware they can be a great pain in the derriere, much as they remind us we can no longer assume they will spend time with us

We take time off from work and bring our social life to a standstill only to find they have their own plans that exclude us totally. Their mother is more sensible about this and while catering to them, she still has her own life. I am a sucker for my daughters and will give up the world to spend a few hours with them and sit on my hands until the next time they deign to spend some with me.

My wife’s approach is a lot more pragmatic. As such, they don’t take her for granted. She makes the most divine food for them which they beg for and lap up. On the other hand, the father has very little to offer. There is a sense of being bereft. When they were younger, I introduced them to the computer, Inspector Clouseau and the music of divinity. I realize with some chagrin, I have very little to offer them now.

It’s easy to get depressed about the situation. But my spirits are uplifted when I listen to them hold forth. They are fearless and opinionated. In those qualities, I see my contribution, especially when it comes to political correctness. But that is hardly the basis of a relationship. We clash increasingly about intellectual issues. They see me as some right wing mastodon.

This is the worst indictment for a liberal soul like me. I wonder if I had been sterner, would my daughters have imbibed the values I hold dear: of dissent and activism? Our daughters are in many ways traditionalist and conservative. The 60s word "groovy" comes to mind; they come unfailingly to midnight mass, for example. They dress for church and ask me to play the wonderful "Jingle Bell Jazz" compact disc through the season. They play in the same groove and seem to resist any change.

In the end, I’m happy we share Christmas together. as a family. Of course, I don't hide and shake a tambourine at midnight to announce the arrival of Santa or leave milk and cookies out for the jolly fellow. Those were magical days when they were still babies; today the charm is about being together.

It is increasingly difficult to believe, as we get older, that things will be the same. They have their own lives now and I'm grateful they find time to spend time with us. They think I'm passe; I think they are uber cool. They have things to do, places to go, people to meet. and as such, less time to spend with me That doesn’t mean they love me less or I them; it is simply an anticipation of the future. Loneliness is writ large on that parchment

When the hurly burly’s done, I will have to look in the mirror and ask myself: were you a good father?

Having said that, it’s Christmas and my immediate goal is enjoy it with my girls in whatever way I can. The music’s on all day at home; the wondrous scent of good food wafts through the house and the togetherness is a great Christmas present. What happens in later years is a cross I must bear on my own. "One" could indeed be a lonely number.

Growing older, or being of “non-traditional age” as a friend’s daughter told me, is to lose hope in the future because of the inevitability of death.. But that's not the point: in the use of that new-fangled phrase, however, our children and their friends firmly place themselves in the "traditional" category. Call it the Woodstock revenge. My Yuletide wish is for the family to be close forever.

Happy Christmas!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Friend, Rajiv Badlani

Too Young To Die

On Sunday December 13, I sat with him, drinking coffee, listening to music and laughing about something I cannot now recall. With Rajiv, it was always that…laughter and joy. His mother walked in, put her hand on his head with an infinite sadness in her eyes. She said something to which he responded, “Mother, I have peritoneal cancer. My life expectancy is between eight to eleven months, of which four are already gone. So let’s not pretend I’m going to get better.”

I wanted to ask him how he felt being on death’s door. Was he scared? Did he sleep well? Wonder about the after life? But I held myself in check. “So,” I said to him, “do you read, watch television?” His eyes were bad, he said, plus he had attention deficit disorder.

We changed the subject and talked of nothing. I was just happy to spend a few hours with him on my trip to Ahmedabad. The previous day when I saw him, he told me to come the next morning at eleven. I showed up and he was taking a massage. “Ah, the good life,” I said. “Well, it feels good, the firm touch on my body,” he replied. He finished his massage, went to the bathroom and showed up in his den and ordered coffee for both of us.

Aside of the fact that his body was ravaged by the brutal assault of cancer, it felt like old times again. He kept asking if instead of coffee, I wanted to have a Black Russian. “Yo, it’s noon on a Sunday. The Lord frowns on people who drink on His morning, when He rests,” I told him.

A half hour later, I grasped his hand in the solidarity handshake. I wanted to hug him. I didn’t for two reasons: we had a waspish relationship that discouraged touchy-feely stuff; plus he looked so frail, I felt he would be physically uncomfortable if I hugged him. So the handshake was all. “See ya next month,’ I said in farewell. “Come back soon, it’s good to see you always,” he said. I left reluctantly and made a mental note to come back to visit mid-January.

On Monday, his wife Manini told me, he was going to the hospital for his chemotherapy and returning home only on Tuesday evening. I made a mental note to call Wednesday morning to see how he handled the latest bout of a cure that is worse than the disease. Early Wednesday at about 1.30 am, my phone rang. He was gone.

Our relationship was nearing 50 years. We were just twelve when we met in the ninth grade. A handsome lad, he made his presence felt, much to the consternation of our class teacher. Asked about his antecedents, he told the teacher he stood second in the eighth grade. “How many students in your class?” the teacher asked him firmly. “Well Sir, there were two,” he announced. The class broke into a spasm of laughter.

Later during the lunch break I sought him out and complimented him on his sense of humor. I also warned him the teacher could make his life miserable for making a fool of him. “True,” he said, “but he will also find out that my father is the education director for the government of Gujarat. That should give him pause.”

Since that day of June 1962, we became good friends. We discovered the Beatles together and Helen Shapiro and the Jarmels and the Cascades of “Rhythm of the Rain” fame. We navigated P G Wodehouse and James Hadley Chase and let our pre-teen hormones run riot, panting after any woman or schoolgirl who merely looked in our direction. Mostly, we built a world of our own, far removed from the moffusil sophistication of Ahmedabad.

Despite his friendship, I hated it in Ahmedabad. I wanted to leave home and after we finished the tenth grade, I left to go back to Bombay. We met subsequently during the holidays and we met again on the campus of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We lived in the same dorm but plowed different furrows; him in Commerce, me in Engineering. I was put off by Baroda in the first few days and decided I would quit and return to Bombay. As I lugged my bag to the railway station, I bumped into him.

“Hello, where are you off to?”

“I’ve had it with this place. I’m going back to Bombay.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he admonished me and grabbed my bag and steered me back to the dorm. He came and sat with me in my room and then told me to get dressed. “I’m gonna show you the magic of Baroda.” I went with him meekly that evening. We walked to the women’s campus where he introduced me to his cousin Sharda and her friends. From that moment, I never looked back and made Baroda my home.

Over the years we drifted apart. He finished college and went to the Bajaj Institute of Management for an MBA. I stuck around in Baroda to finish my course and then escaped to America. We stayed in touch and I made it a point to see him each time I visited India. He visited me too in Chicago. Our friendship survived the test of time and distance. After I relocated to India in the late 1980s, I visited Ahmedabad frequently to visit with my parents and my in-laws. An evening with him was always on top of my agenda.

Now he’s gone. And the Clapton song comes to mind:

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven

That’s the tragedy. “Beyond the door,” the place that Clapton sang about, is a whole new game. I wonder: is there a ninth grade there, where we can start all over again?

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Indo US Ties Nosedive

Obama Has No Time for India

US President Barack Obama has sent a huge message to India. He visited every major country in Asia: Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, China, and South Korea but could not find time to include India in his itinerary. In Beijing, he acquiesced in a joint communiqué that covered a lot of ground. What struck home in India were media reports focused on a passing reference that urged China to ensure peace and stability in South Asia. It is probably true that what Obama meant was to tell the Chinese to refrain from arming Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the statement was a measure of Obama’s inexperience in dealing with India’s prickly sensibilities, especially with regard to China. India has never forgotten the humiliating backstab in 1962 when the Chinese army attacked India; nor has it come to terms with China’s dubious role at the International Atomic Energy Agency conference to approve the all-important waiver that was necessary for the fruition of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Plus India treads warily of the Chinese fifth column, the CPM, which did all it could to scupper the deal; every thinking Indian believes that Prakash Karat and company were acting at Beijing’s behest. More recent, the Indian government has had to deal with Beijing’s aggressive stance on Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern state that it calls southern Tibet.

It is becoming clear to those of us who champion Indo-US relations that Obama really has no time for India. He’s from Chicago, where I lived for the best part of the 1970s and 1980s. And India is not big in the Chicago political mindset. As such, India is not in his list of priorities.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Washington later this month. In a patronizing way, the White House has billed it as the first state visit of any world leader. But that’s meaningless. Every major leader has visited the US and met Obama. The “state visit” business is a piece of diplomatic fluff. It is very clear India is very low in the Obama scheme of things.

Nobody is more pained about the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude to India than those of us who have fought for all these years for a closer Indo-US relationship. Manmohan Singh put his government on the line for the civilian nuclear deal. Not just that, the Indian electorate voted his government back to office with an increased majority.

The Obama administration’s Asia policy puts the Singh government in jeopardy; it fought long-held anti-American mindsets to align with America. This is further underlined by the changed Indian positions on world trade and global warming that are now more in line with Washington’s thinking. As a huge supporter of better and more intense Indo-US relations, I am troubled by this president’s neglect of India; it feeds into the knee-jerk anti-US mindset of the establishment.

As such we are headed for a period of rocky relations with the US government. It happened under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. It was a different India then. Today it is among the world’s fastest growing economies that is raising millions of people out of poverty. Obama does not seem to realize that. I am now not sure Obama is good for India, even though to many Americans and Europeans, he is Jesus Christ resurrected.

Those of us who support a strategic alliance with the US, including the Prime Minister, feel badly let down. The joint communiqué in Beijing apart, Obama has made protectionist noises about the outsourcing business. Little wonder then that the Indian foreign ministry with its deeply-rooted anti-American mindset issued a truculent statement in response to the communiqué.

Obama’s unthinking approach to relations with India will only embarrass and weaken the growing tribe of opinion leaders who support a strategic alignment with America. Willy nilly, it will strengthen the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that is always at play in India’s foreign policy. “I told you so,” is a refrain that is increasingly louder in Delhi. After the romance with Bill Clinton and George W Bush, pro-American opinion is silenced, not knowing what to expect from Obama and his slick PR machine.

The Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to Washington promises to be just a ceremonial exercise. In the event, it will be all style and no substance. There will be a banquet, many speeches, including a stirring one by Obama. Then it will be over. What does the Indian prime minister have to say to Obama in any case?

To begin with, he could take a firm line on the emergent market for nuclear power plants in India. Given Obama’s faux pas, the Indian government could take the view that American firms that do business with China are not welcome in the nuclear power industry for reasons of national security. After all, China has jut asserted that the northeastern state, Arunachal Pradesh, is part of China. It could do the same with other security-related sectors such as the purchase of aircraft and other military hardware. It could disengage from Afghanistan, where it supports the American development effort. Plus, the Indian delegation could take a hard line on Obama’s view on outsourcing.

Time to play hardball.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Seeing Through the Potemkin State

Perhaps it is about getting older. Or that the excitement has waned. Increasingly the prospect of arrival in India fills us with apprehension as the cab winds its inevitable way to JFK or Chicago’s O’Hare. For me, America is a cultural home: the food, the music, the clothes, the humor, the aesthetics, the very idiom of language is all comfortingly familiar. Driving is a pleasure; walking the streets a delight and everywhere smiles and hellos…well, maybe not that many in New York City! But it’s less about extolling America than dreading what lies in wait at Delhi or any other port of entry to India.

Within seconds of landing, the harsh reality hits you between the eyes. The airport is shoddy, grimy and smelly. To exit is to confront a menacing crowd of people, straining at the barricades: vast numbers of drivers pushing and shoving; swarms of noisy families come to receive their near and dear ones; and various other categories teeming around the crumbling arrival terminal. True, such crowds gather at arrival terminals everywhere in the world but at Indian airports it adds another dimension to the chaos that reigns supreme.

Step outside and it is quickly evident there is no system to smooth the way for arriving passengers. You are left on your own to dodge honking and swerving cars torturing the driveway; and everywhere, smoke and fumes and rubble.

However, if you are an anointed “VIP,” as India’s public servants are called, you are whisked away through a plush private terminal to a private parking lot and into your car, all within minutes. Public servants don’t even wait for their bags; there are flunkies to retrieve them and deliver them to your house along the VIP route into Lutyens Delhi of the smooth, wide, tree-lined boulevards with flowering rotaries, manicured parks and expansive villas.

In stark contrast, the taxpaying citizen has to endure subhuman conditions in the terminal and bump along cratered tracks that pass for roads and deal with seriously demented drivers who whiz through the non-VIP parts of the capital as if possessed by demons. It is apparent that you have landed in one of the world’s least developed countries: Incredible India!

You get angry at the rank disparity. In America, things work smoothly for ordinary citizens. Yes, the economy is flagging and people are finding it tough to get or hold on to jobs. But the cities and communities are pleasant and there is a heady rush of egalitarianism in the very air. The entire political and bureaucratic setup in America is geared single-mindedly to the welfare of citizens. The accent on public service is pronounced and evident.

In India, you can have a top job or a fortune as a businessman but unless you are in the VIP zone of the cities and towns, you may not have reliable electric power, adequate water supply and any sanitation at all. Those who can afford it make their private arrangements; the rest suffer. Just in recent days, when it rained consecutively for two days, the capital was submerged. Questioned, a VIP dismissed the water logging and the traffic jams as an act of nature, a result of the heavy rains; he seemed criminally unaware of the problems people faced getting around the city. In his Lutyens Delhi, there is no flooding, light traffic and your workplace is but a pleasant drive of a few minutes.

This disparate order makes the chaos of India not just irksome but menacing. It is as though the system milks the ordinary individual who has a job or business to provide for the VIP. The random but deadly civil disturbances that plague India are spontaneous expressions of civic anger against the system that barely makes room for the middle class, leave alone marginal groups.

In huge swathes of India, the most deprived people have fallen sway to Maoist ideology and have taken to violence. No political party, not the hydra-headed government agencies, not the self-righteous NGOs can control them. Such civil violence will increase in frequency and scope as more and more citizens begin to see the disparity: not just the gap between rich and poor but between the privileged and the rest.

In the past few years, the elite have bought into the notion that India is set to emerge as a world power. Nothing belies the claim so comprehensively than the question mark that hangs over the staging of the Commonwealth Games next year. The controversy has shown up the Potemkin state, a cheap cardboard cutout fashioned by bureaucrats and politicians to fool themselves into believing the world power fantasy.

You don’t have to look too hard to see beyond the Potemkin mirage: dysfunctional highways and airports; garbage strewn cities and hapless villages; deadly traffic and pervasive pollution; the poverty of civic values and the sheer indignity of the human condition.

The slogan “Incredible India!” cuts both ways: one, the Potemkin way that the government intended; two, it is incredible that a modern 21st century democracy with one of the fastest growing economies in the world is in such a shambles.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Times of India, November 16, 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Seminal Revolution

A New Dawn for Education

You get to hear bits and scraps about the government’s education policy in the newspapers . But the media are largely clueless about the fundamental reforms underway in the sector. One senior official of the HRD ministry called them "as significant as the economic reforms of 1991. They could change the face of India in the next decade. As follows:

In 1992, I was appointed adviser to the UNICEF chief in India. Eimi Watanabe told me that the primary education system was a problem. She said the issue was enrolment as well as dropouts. Our advocacy campaign for universal primary education reached far and wide. We looked at ways of influencing politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and businessmen with a plan to push free and compulsory primary education. Our argument was simple: India boasts that its technical and scientific prowess is recognized the world over and yet it harbors among the world’s largest number of illiterates.

We highlighted this paradox to promote universal primary education. We showed the contrast between the lack of enrolment and the high dropout rates at the primary level and the huge demand for higher education. A powerful argument in our campaign was that the paradox of Indian education has created and seeks to perpetuate a class divide with educated elite on one side and a vast illiterate underclass on the other. Primary education is a powerful equalizer, we said. In addition, the UNICEF advocacy campaign sought to demolish several arguments offered by policy experts, including the pernicious one about children of the rural poor being needed to help out in the farm.

Nearly three years of dogged advocacy paid off when on November 14, 1994 (Children’s Day), Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his senior cabinet colleagues made a public commitment to provide “education for all” by the year 2000 at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. Nothing happened as India got roiled in political controversy, which saw an uncertain period of a shaky BJP alliance that was eventually defeated ten years later.

Fifteen years later, in August 2009, Parliament passed the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008. My good friend Kapil Sibal, who, as HRD minister, piloted the bill, described it as the “harbinger of a new era.” For me, it was a vindication. In 1992, we faced severe opposition. But Eimi Watanabe, who is now a member of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel that seeks to ensure the Bank’s activities don’t harm people, is the unsung heroine. Without her commitment to free and compulsory primary education in India, this bill would never have come to pass.

It’s been just two months since the bill was ratified; its impact will be felt over the next decade. Free primary education provides access for the poorest; compulsory will generate a demand that will eventually overcome the bugbears of enrolment, dropouts, absentee teachers and irrelevant curriculums. Kapil Sibal is indebted to Eimi, who placed the issue on the national agenda.

On secondary education, Kapil has proposed a regime to reduce the stress on children in schools by opting for ongoing grades rather than a final exam. In doing this, he has won the support of the middle class parents, who live in dread of exam results. The notion of grading students on a term basis gives parents greater say in the advancement of their children. Teachers will be held accountable for the progress of their wards.

Above all, students will be relieved of the stress of make-or-break exams. Graduating from high school will no longer be a random exercise determined by nameless examiners. Pretty soon, parents will question teachers about their children’s prowess. As such, teachers will have to give up authoritarian ways and will have to work with parents to ensure that their children get the best from their educational experience.

In the event, creativity will triumph over conformism. Students will learn that asking questions is more important than rote learning. Already, the advent of Cambridge International Examination and International Baccalaureate curriculums proved to be a challenge to the moribund Indian school system. There’s been a steady migration of upper middle class students to these foreign certification schools.

Finally, in the higher education sector, the Foreign Educators Providers Bill is about to be passed in Parliament. The bill focuses on providing access by a nine-fold increase in the budget for the establishment of new institutions. It talks about equity without a dilution of standards. Plus it seeks to enhance quality by exposing India’s fossilized universities to foreign competition.

The bill faces a lot of opposition because higher education is totally politicized. Already, as a high level source in the HRD ministry said, there are complaints from vested interests , who seek a “level playing field;” much like the Bombay Club did when the government scrapped the license-permit raj in 1991. The proposed bill also seeks to attract foreign students in the hope it will generate a demand for more relevant curriculums and more funds.

In addition, the bill hopes to encourage private funding. “The key to autonomy is funding,” a senior official in the HRD ministry said. Already in Gujarat, this is happening. Many affiliated colleges have opted to join the newly formed Ahmedabad University. “They have done so in the hope that of a more conducive environment,” a respected Gujarati industrialist told me. His family funds many colleges affiliated to Gujarat University and they have shifted to the new university formed by his family.

Between the changes at the primary, secondary and higher education, a revolution is well and truly underway. It will change the face of India’s education system. It will be transformed from an elite selection process into a knowledge system. We should all cheer. Kapil Sibal champions this radical change. India will owe him a debt of gratitude for facilitating the transformation.

Some decades from now, we will have a Nobel Prize winner and this will continue through the century. We won’t have to put up with a curmudgeon like Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the newest Nobel laureate of Indian origin, who used the occasion to denigrate his roots. Sadly, Venky studied at the same universities in India and the US that I attended.

An edited version of this column appeared in Education World, November 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Delhi Journal

George Bush, Indian Hero

At a recent event in the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi, I found myself with my arm around his waist and his arm around my shoulder, posed for a photo opportunity. George W Bush, the much reviled former President of the United States, was in an expansive mood that evening. Aside of his “base” in America, this was fawning that had to be seen to be believed. He is the unquestioned hero of India’s elite. A senior member of the ruling Congress party said he would recommend him for the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award.

In his early sixties, Bush is sprightly and amazingly friendly. He mingled with guests and stayed on to have what I consider the Taj’s most fabulous spread. Bush has been a divisive item in my immediate family and my friends in America. They hate him for the "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq; his assent for the atrocities in Guantanamo. It is truly terrible. For me though, those are American problems. Why should I get worked up about it?

Having worked closely with the US mission in Delhi and the Prime Minister to steer the Indo-US civil nuclear deal to its completion, I was proud to shake hands with him, be photographed with him. Bush, for India, has been the best ever US President. Bill Clinton, whom the Indian establishment still admires, set the trend. Bush accomplished what seems to have not occurred to Clinton. He brought India into the global mainstream. If Richard Nixon is held in esteem for opening China, Bush should be acclaimed for his outreach to India.

“President Bush, thank you for your support,” I said to him. Hated, reviled and caricatured among my liberal intellectual and activist friends in the US, Bush to me has been an icon; he overcame the traditional US highbrow establishment’s “attitude” about India. Between my friends in the US embassy in Delhi and in the Prime Minister’s office, we worked to see the deal through. It wouldn’t have happened without the unflagging support of Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

With the Prime Minister committed to the deal, the diplomats in the US Embassy in Delhi led from the front. They overcame bureaucratic hurdles on both sides to push the deal. We always knew there would be opposition. For one thing, there was the Left, a key supporter of the Congress-led UPA government. It was also not very clear that the Congress Party was enthusiastic about the deal. Once assured of US support, the Prime Minister put his government on the line and the Congress Party fell in line thanks to Sonia Gandhi’s enlightened world view.

In the event, much drama happened. There was a vote in Parliament and the deal was sealed. Of course, Dr Singh is the hero and Sonia Gandhi, who backed him. Nobody can, however, deny that Bush’s enamored view of India was the driving force. Not to forget, the Congress managed to win another term in 2009.

That’s why I was thrilled to meet him, never mind that my friends in America won’t talk to me. They may have questions about Bush; for India, he is the greatest US President ever. It showed that evening.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ahmedabad Journal

The Butterfly City

Late on a moonlit night, Ashish and his wife Nicole, my niece, drove me along the newly-built embankment on Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati River. Flowing north to south, the river roughly divides the old city with its rich tradition and heritage architecture and the modern suburban development on its west side. As we drove along the river’s edge, I marveled at the sheer beauty of the waterway in full flow. I lived in the city for three years in the 1960s and my parents made their home there. So I have a proprietary hometown interest.

When I lived in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati held no water. Its banks were slum-ridden. In the middle, you had these wonderful sights of people drying their colorful clothes and donkeys laden with sand to fuel the furious building activity on the west side of the river. Every now and then, the river would become flooded as the barrages upstream released water in the monsoon. By and large though, the river ran dry and the many bridges across it seemed pointless.

All that changed in May 1997. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation was set up under the stewardship of then chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela to develop a plan for the riverfront. Twelve years later, Vaghela’s dream is taking shape. The river is full now, fed by the water of the Narmada Dam. When the project is completed, Ahmedabad will join Goa’s capital city Panjim as the only other riverside city in India to develop its waterfront.

The riverfront development in Ahmedabad is a huge and sophisticated urban renewal project. When it is complete, it will transform this city that is already fond of the good life. Traditionally known for its parsimonious ways, Ahmedabad has changed over the years to become possibly the most global city in India; not because of multinational firms as in Gurgaon but mostly because it has a huge connection to the US, where many of its denizens reside. This least Western city in India is curiously its most American city.

As such, Ahmedabad is truly egalitarian. On a recent flight from Bombay, I bumped into my friend Sanjay Lalbhai, scion of the city’s illustrious Lalbhai family and the head of Arvind Mills, traveling with me on an all-cattle-class Jet Konnect flight. His family is, among other things, a benefactor of the city’s famed Indian Institute of Management and the renowned CEPT University.

In an India of new and in-your-face wealth, Sanjay remains an icon of understated old wealth: unassuming and courteous, wedded to larger development causes such as higher education. He does this not as part of some PR-driven corporate social responsibility program; he is convinced, like his forebears, that a publicly-traded corporation has a duty to the community.

People like Sanjay and a relatively enlightened bureaucracy have transformed Ahmedabad from a moffusil place into India’s most dynamic city: its new Bus Rapid Transit System makes its Delhi counterpart look like a third-world system; the city’s airport, roads and its smooth power supply make it closer to global standards than any other city in India.

Historically, the laughing stock of India’s western provinces, Ahmedabad today is the face of new India. Never mind Bombay, people commended even Surat, Baroda and Poona over Ahmedabad. But the city will have the last laugh. It is set to emerge, with its mixture of schlock and exquisite architecture, superb infrastructure and thriving consumerism, as India’s premier city in the 21st century.

This does not mean that Ahmedabad is suddenly a pretty city; far from it. Flat, featureless and dusty, it grew privately. Builders from the north transformed this once genteel city into a treeless monstrosity of ugly multistory buildings. Over the years, conscientious civic authorities decided to take the city back. So you have this unusual combination of ugly private buildings, superb public architecture and now, sophisticated public spaces with a well-designed bus rapid transit corridor and a cleverly designed ring road with flyovers that work.

The expressway that links Ahmedabad to Baroda is a marvelous piece of road engineering that makes the Delhi-Gurgaon highway look like a country road in Burkina Faso. It runs about 100 kilometers, a distance that can be traversed in 55 minutes. The city’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport makes the new terminal in Delhi look like a provincial airport in some remote African country. The city is abuzz with new and lasting solutions to urban problems. They have no power cuts, a brand new water supply and sewerage system and piped cooking gas.

On the other hand, Ahmedabad remains among the most polluted cities in India. There is no getting away from the ugly commercial and private buildings. Its climate has to rank among the worst in India, thanks largely to the absence of trees and greenery.

Already, though, with water in the river, you can feel the climate is changing for the better. The vastly improved and well thought out infrastructure is bringing pride back to the city. As such, this maggot of a city is about to be transformed into a butterfly, albeit with ugly wings.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Life 2

Chicago: The Livin’ is Easy

It’s summertime in this city of broad shoulders and the Grant Park Symphony is performing works by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Haydn in Millennium Park, a 25-acre park built on what were parking garages and railway yards when we lived there in the 1970s and 1980s. The Great Lawn that spreads in front of the stage in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is swarming with people, nearly 10,000 of them, savoring a picnic dinner made mostly of local ingredients and sharing bottles of wine.

What a wonderful tableau of post modern life in America: a city that enhances your life beyond the income you earn, the house you live in, the schools your children go to, the stuff you buy and the social circles in which you live! Chicago has created wonderful public places for people to mingle, surely with their friends but also with people you would not normally meet. Though the word is politically charged in India, Chicago has as such developed “communal” spaces, where people of every hue can intermingle. It is as though Woodstock had a bath and a shave and switched from drugs to wine.

There was camaraderie in the air that evening. People seemed to revel in being denizens of this great city. Everyone smiled, nodded and enjoyed the communal experience. Sure there was huge mess of tourists from other more bland parts of the Midwest. They stuck out like sore thumbs, determined to enjoy the big city. On the other hand, there were locals with an air of entitlement. “This is our city and that’s the least we expect,” their demeanor seemed to say.

We think of Chicago as our hometown. It’s our daughters’ birthplace; the city where be bought our first house. Chicago is where, in the 1970s, we launched a community newspaper that still survives; the city where we created a family of friends who are still very much part of our lives; the city where my twin careers in public affairs and journalism got started. Our particular affinity for the city is ingrained within our souls in a way no resident of or visitor to the city can imagine.

Our many Indian friends in Chicago dream fondly about their Delhi, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Hyderabad, Bangalore or the hundreds of little towns and villages they came from. They paint India in the rose-colored hues of nostalgia, never mind that their cities (and indeed all Indian cities) are hellholes. On the other hand, we live in India and look forward to the next visit to our Chicago that becomes nicer, more exciting with each year that passes.

My good friend Ashis Nandy, India's leading social psychologist,is a leading thinker, whose critiques of the modern development paradigm have won global applause. His reasoned view is development should be on a human scale. He speaks about an egalitarian ethos, an embrace of local culture and a social system in which people can live with dignity.

Unlike most scholars in India, Ashis is an open man, ready to consider new ideas and arguments. He is not, like most Indian intellectuals, de facto anti-American, though he may have problems with the capitalist ethic and its attendant consumer ethos. He is a post modern thinker who worries about unbridled economic growth and the concomitant destruction of traditional values. It is through his eyes that I recognize that America has gone post modern in its approach to development. Urban planners in Chicago especially but also in the rest of America have learned and implemented the values of self reliance and sustainable lifestyles.

While most of the public debate in India is about American imperialism (the Left) and American debauchery (the Right), Ashis is the kind of iconoclastic thinker who would look beyond stereotypes to appreciate the urban revolution that is underway in America. And Chicago is the pioneer. It builds skyscrapers and expressways but also parks and promenades. The humane scale is there for all to see; one children’s park on the city’s newly-developed East Side is paved with a soft, cork-like material to combat scraped knees and bruised elbows.

When we lived in Chicago in the 1970s and the 1980s, India was seen as a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden basket case. Today, it is regarded as a possible engine of world growth. The Indian community in America is lauded as an accomplished minority. Fact is, though, that as India modernizes with all the attendant problems, America is in a post modern state of mind. Nobody really cares how many highways India builds or the rise of its stock market or the rapidly expanding middle class. Question is, as Chicago poses, what have you done for the people lately?

What the Indian establishment should say in response is “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” Without a proper confessional, India will continue to flounder in confused urban development and be strangled by a vicious rural power structure.

Such dark and dire thoughts occur to people like us who care about the India project: a great democracy and a vital economy that is challenged by corrupt and inept governance. Fact is India goes its own sloppy way and there is a palace guard of politicians, bureaucrats and well-off citizens who couldn’t care less. The rest of the citizenry is left to fend on its own. Just think, in affluent neighborhoods too in Delhi and all the cities, towns and villages in India, there is no water supply, sanitation or electric power; there are no decent roads, no decent schools, no jobs; only rapidly dwindling hope. At some point, the crises may become overwhelming.

India's stark and brutal conditions stand out even more sharply seen against the post modern West. Once again, it is being left behind just when it seemed poised to catch up.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

American Life

Manhattan: Shakespeare in the Parking Lot

So there we stood in the parking lot at the corner of Ludlow and Broome in New York’s fabled Lower East Side, watching a performance of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It was a warm August evening and all the chairs were taken. Eventually we just squatted on the ground. I thought it would be some amateur effort but was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the actors and the innovation of their production.

The play was staged by The Drilling CompaNY, an Off-Broadway troupe, which proclaims it is a jazz player that endeavors “to extend the same freedom in creation and production to theater artists that jazz extends to musicians.” The play performed that evening was truly Haryanvi in its intrigues and malafides. It got a bit uncomfortable after an hour of watching it and a Martini beckoned, so we left. It’s not like we didn’t know the end. We luxuriated in the performance, walked to a wondrous bistro: there to eat, drink and be merry with our daughter and her friend.

As we walked back to her place in Gramercy on that night in Manhattan, I couldn’t help marveling at her world of hard work and joyous play. As a twenty-something, our daughter lives this carelessly sophisticated life that is enviable. To live in Lower Manhattan, to have a good job, to have good friends, to shrug off care with awareness and compassion is a life devoutly to be wished.

Beneath her seemingly hard Manhattan exterior, she is good for a cuddly hug and nostalgia. “I’m not ready for this scenario,” I told her: a stereotypical situation when parents visit from the Old World and she takes care of everything. “Deal with it, Dad. This is a different America than when you lived here,” she said. Truth is both our daughters are “cool.” They get it from us because we defined “cool,” way back in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s only a matter of time before they start saying “groovy” and “far out.” Already women are wearing long skirts and caftans; men are letting their shirts hang out rather tucked in. What they need to know is “whatever,” the coolest of all words today, was first articulated by Archie Bunker in the hit sitcom, “All in the Family.” He said that to a Latino woman character in the show, whose name he found unpronounceable.

Regardless, we spent a wonderful weekend with her. She had a problem because I like steak and burgers; her mother prefers exotic foods like tapas and sushi. “Ok, parents, you can visit only one at a time. I can’t handle these different tastes,” she said as we ended up in a low-grade Italian restaurant with terrible food and brown bag wine on MacDougal Street in the West Village, after much this and that.

Our first weekend in Manhattan was a revelation. Our daughter runs an enlightened home, small but neat and comfortable. We got an insight to her life, which seems to be a lot more about quality than quantity. It is so different than when we lived there in the seventies. She fits into the Manhattan life so easily, where we had to make certain painful adjustments living in Chicago. She was born in America but grew up in Delhi; in the past six years she has lived in Lower Manhattan , you’d think she’d always lived there.

And she ain’t never coming back, that’s for sure. That somewhat sad realization for us is tempered by the knowledge that she has a “Sholay” poster on her dining room wall. And that she went to the Independence Day parade and stood in line to have kulfi.

What a difference a generation makes!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Goan Retrospective

Pictures at an Exhibition


Sitting on Goa’s northern Morjim Beach one Monsoon morning, the solitary man on the horizon gazed dumbstruck at the turbulence of the waves, crashing ashore in 20-foot walls of water and giant sprays. He thought it was a spectacular Impressionist water color, with a streak of menace that would be difficult for even Claude Monet to capture on canvas.

Entranced, he gaped at the scene: steel grey skies pregnant with black water-laden clouds lit up by jags of lightning; thundering brown water bearing down on the beach with giant whitecaps and a compelling surround-sound roar of thunder and angry thumping water that eclipsed the soaring Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sometimes called “a memorable page in universal culture,” this masterful last movement celebrates the human spirit and exhorts man to higher achievement. But the Monsoon tableau on display that morning made any achievement of man look and feel shallow. It was an epiphany, a darshana, a terrifying revelation of divinity.

The drama that unfolded before his eyes would not let him be a mere spectator; he was commandeered as a participant. The pounding surf, the ominous thunder and the streaky lightning compelled him to acknowledge the sinister majesty of Nature; sinister because violence was its central core.

For a moment, he thought he’d go into the roiling water. Just then, the rain started pelting down and he stood petrified. The rain disrupted his trance, luckily as it turns out, for to have ventured into the ferocious sea could have been fatal.

Beating viciously on every surface in sight and beyond, the downpour blurred his vision. The incessant sound of the rain and the breakers mixed rhythm and melody like the jazz drummer Max Roach. As the rain came down, he looked around and debated running back to the shelter of his car, decided against it and simply sat there, transfixed.

The man could do no more than to surrender to the storm. Stretching his arms out, he turned his head skyward and let the rain beat down on his face and his body. He seemed to be shouting, not that there was anyone there to hear him. He was the only person on the beach; it was him and the Monsoon, an atavistic one-on-one encounter.

His clothes, his body, his very insides were drenched. But he was like a child, shouting to be heard over the storm. Still the rain kept pouring, and like Credence Clearwater Revival, he wondered if anyone could stop the rain, even God. He felt helpless and yet strangely, deliriously happy. This was sheer abandon: unprecedented, sensual, liberating, joyful, glorious and magnificent. To succumb to the majesty of Nature like he did that morning on Morjim Beach was to assert that the soul is immortal.



But we have fast-forwarded the story by about 50 years. What was the man doing at Morjim Beach? What circumstances led up to that Monsoon morning in Goa? Why had he been coming to Goa for 27 years? What led him to buy a house there some 10 years ago? Answers to those questions paint a portrait of the life and times of the Goan diaspora in Bombay and elsewhere.

So let’s pause and go back to the 1950s. We are in Bombay, looking at a pre-teen boy standing of an evening in his living room verandah. Let’s call him Marco, as in Marco Polo because over the next 50 years the boy would travel far and wide, literally and metaphorically. For the moment, chin on the railing, Marco is looking through the window of a neighboring apartment. He sees a family at prayer. They were his friends from the neighborhood, kneeling with their parents at the evening rosary.

His friends were Goan Catholics. They could be found in the city’s cosmopolitan, culturally diverse neighborhoods. The middle classes tended to cluster in the western suburbs of Bandra and Santa Cruz and in city neighborhoods like Dhobi Talao and Byculla Bridge.

The verandah on which Marco stood was part of a large and airy apartment on the second floor of Court Royal, an apartment building in Christ Church Lane in the Byculla Bridge precinct of central Bombay. It was a middle class neighborhood of breath-taking cultural diversity including Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. A large number of its Catholic residents were Goan, including the family that Marco saw kneeling in prayer that evening. There were a number of Protestants as well, mostly Anglo Indian…and an occasional Hindu family

Named after the school it abutted, Christ Church Lane had the characteristics of cultural diversity balanced by traditional conservatism that Montstuart Elphinstone would have approved. A Scottish statesman, who was appointed governor of Bombay in 1819, Elphinstone was widely respected for his thrust on education. He established the Bombay Education Society that set up schools such as Christ Church.

(For the record, the Elphinstone Road station on the Western suburban line of Bombay’s commuter train service was named for his nephew, John, who was governor of the province in the 1850s.)

Living in Christ Church Lane through the 1950s, Marco came to believe that India was a culturally diverse, tolerant project, little knowing that outside Byculla Bridge, it was racked by caste, ethnic and religious conflict.

The neighborhood was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. Growing up there, the only disagreements Marco had with his friends were about Elvis versus Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone. Yes, he was a fan of Hindi film music and his family was the only vegetarian in the building but the neighborhood was so culturally diverse that his food habits were accepted as part of the diversity. He was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on.

At day’s end, his Goan Catholic friends would go home to be in time for the family prayer. Then they would sit at the dining table and have a convivial evening meal. Marco found it comforting that the family came together every evening to pray and to dine and to talk. Sundays, they dressed in their best and drove in the family car to church and returned to have lunch together.

In the summer vacation, they all set off in a ship from Bombay to spend two months at their home in Goa. On their return, they would regale their friends with tales of the sea journey and talk about singing and dancing on the boat with many others like them. They told stories of their sojourn in Goa: loafing on the beach, splashing in the waves and of guitar-strumming, singsong picnics.

A picture of this wondrous place that was at that time not part of India began to form in Marco’s mind. It got entangled with his impressions of England derived from the novels of Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton (of “William” fame) and countless other schoolboy books: of country lanes, green pastures, bicycles and tea shops.

Christ Church Lane was widely known for its gorgeous girls. Marco and his friends called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, “I’m so young and you’re so old…” They were innocent of sex then; they knew only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl who walked down the lane. It was romance at a distance; they eyed them and generally behaved in an idiotic manner. Forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all they craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that could keep them going for days.

Embroiled in this vivacious diversity, Marco began to believe that all of India was the same. It was far from the truth. This became apparent in the early 1960s; he had to leave Christ Church Lane because his parents were transferred to the new state of Gujarat that was formed when the old Bombay state was bifurcated. Like a refugee, Marco was forcibly relocated to Ahmedabad, a moffusil town that was the designated capital.

And so it came about that on a warm April evening, Marco stood on a train doorway, teary-eyed and desperately unhappy, waving goodbye to his close friends, bound for an unknown future

Plucked from the crucible of cultural diversity, he struggled to grow up in a milieu of moffusil values and suffocating conformity. His teenage years were turbulent as the reality of the hinterland began to cow him down; the comfortable middle class milieu of Christ Church Lane seemed to recede. It seared his mind, the awakening that the drivers of life in India were prejudice, disruption and division.



Last year, I made my first trip to Goa in the Monsoon.

One morning, I took time off to cruise the northern beaches. Ominous dark clouds were gathering low in the sky. As I wandered up and down the coast, I finally settled on Morjim to watch the fury of the sea. Virtually hypnotized by the tableau, my mind floated back to the first time I came to Goa.

My wife and I, along with our infant daughter stayed with her family at their house in north Goa. They introduced me to the place that was just a notion in my head for all the years I had spent with my friends in Christ Church Lane. The experience plunged me headlong into the earthy robustness of Goan life, including food, mindset and scenery.

I still remember vividly my first visit. As we came out of the (still) chaotic Dabholim airport, Goa burst upon us with sweeping vistas of the Arabian Sea and the mighty Zuari River as the car wound its way up and down the hilly highway. Since then, I have probably traveled the road at least a hundred times but to this day, the beauty never fails to amaze me

What adds to the visual experience is the promise of time snatched from the world to luxuriate in the serene green of Goa: long drawn out days in which the major decisions you are called on to make include mostly sensual delights: whether to have prawns or fish for a meal; beer or some other aperitif, perhaps even a slug of Goa’s lethal cashew feni, which can stay in your system for days

Goans call the experience sussegad; a state of mind in which each morsel of fish and every sip of beer is an eternity. There is impermanence about sussegad; it is an altered state of consciousness in which time is stretched to make every nanosecond count.

Given my wife’s umbilical bond and my own fascination with the place, we got our own house in Goa. Then we began to see another dimension not always evident to casual visitors. Suddenly, Goa was more than palms and sand; now there were bazaars and repairmen; rambling drives through quaint villages and glimpses of impressive white churches that dot the landscape. The concept of sussegad also changed; from an eternity on shacks on the beach and frolic in the sea, it became an unhurried pace of life in which things must get done without demanding schedules and dictatorial appointment books.

Every now and then, when the day’s hurly burly’s done, we repair to a small café on the backwaters of the Mandovi River. There, we sit and watch the sunset paint the water and the mangroves with the spiritual hues of color: magenta and crimson, purple and black. It feels almost like a high mass in an awe-inspiring cathedral. We sit quietly but the birds don’t seem to get the message: swallows, gulls and various other avian creatures zoom in and out of the mangroves with sharp cries and the sound of fluttering wings. Thus, we let Goa spread through us like a mood-elevating balm.

Sometimes we head off to Panjim, the capital, at the mouth of the expansive Mandovi River. Decked up in lights at night and by day resplendent with gorgeously painted buildings, Panjim is unrivaled in its big city feel and its small town ways. It feels like an India that should have been but got lost somewhere in the transition to modernity

To many Goans, this restful capital is the big, bad and stressful place. So in what havens do they live? For one thing, there’s our small village that is less than ten minutes away from the busy National Highway 17 from Bombay to Kerala. Anchored by the white splendor of St Elizabeth Church, it is the capital of quiet.

Nestled between river-riven paddy fields and a picturesque hill, our village does not feature on a local map of Goa. Of an evening, residents gather at the church piazza, which has a bucolic view of the paddy fields and an unnamed river in the distance. There, they while away the evening with a snifter or two of feni, watching young people play volleyball in the church compound and talking about things that I would dearly like to know about.

It is an appealing scene. We don’t participate in it but simply in observing it and waving to the people as we drive past the plaza, we feel part of it. In a vicarious way, we feel we belong there. That is the attraction of Goa.



The reason I was in Goa last Monsoon was to sort out arrangements for my daughter’s wedding later in the fall. Fittingly, the ceremony was held in our village church, a stone’s throw from our house.

We had a traditional Goan Catholic wedding with Goan cuisine, band, dance and cocktails at our house. The event represented my traverse of a full circle from the pre-teen years when I first encountered Goan Catholics in central Bombay’s Byculla Bridge neighborhood and the end of my teen years when I met my wife, also a Goan Catholic to my part Goan daughter’s nuptials last year.

The trip to Morjim Beach was special alone time for me, an opportunity to take stock. Mesmerized by the Monsoon tableau and lost in thought, I could feel the hard rain falling on me. I thought to dash to the car but was drenched. I looked up at the sky in abandon. With the rain in my face, the spectacular jags of lightning in my eyes and the roar of thunder and crashing surf in my ears, I yelled at the top of my voice, “Thank you.”

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008