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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Scofflaw Conundrum

So I am driving down the broad, new Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road that is the capital city’s pride and joy. There’s this high-end Mercedes pointed the wrong way in my lane. It’s been stopped by a policeman and the driver is on his cell phone. I stop my car and tell the officer he should get the car off the road and issue a ticket for going the wrong way, northbound on a southbound carriageway. The policeman tells me: “I have stopped him but he is calling his boss to pull strings.”

He was doing what he can without much success. The phone call may have called him off. Given there is just one for policeman for nearly 800 citizens and three for every VIP, there’s not much the police can do. Their job is to smooth the way for VIPs in the chaos of Delhi. We have to lump it.

Meanwhile there is all kind of mayhem on the newly built road. Cars are zipping past, oblivious of the speed limit; others are making all manner of illegal lane changes and turns; as for the other vehicles including motorbikes and rickshaws, transit buses and the newly-introduced “Grameen Seva” shared taxis (they are rickety contraptions with engines not much larger than a lawn mower but with cramped accommodation for nearly 10 passengers), they drive on the road without any concern for safety or rules.

Actually where we live, on the capital’s outskirts, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past year, with the Metro making inroads. There are fancy stations (infested with street vendors), steel-and-glass bus stops (uglified by handbills) and high-tech street lights (which have never been lit because of a turf war between the National Highway Authority of India that built the road and the Public Works Department of Delhi that is in charge of lighting).

The entire modern infrastructure that was supposed to uplift our lives has done little to improve the civic experience. The spanking new and wide road is now a market with fruit sellers, chaat carts, illegally parked cars and lunatic drivers. Chaos rules and you feel you’ve landed in a battlefield of crazed individuals, ineffectual police and poor planning. It is as though modernity has been aborted by the pre-modern economy.

Above all, you get the feeling that putting modern amenities in the hands of neanderthal civic officials and junglee citizens is a bad idea that has metastasized into a life-threatening situation, never mind enhancing the quality of life.

The narrow road that leads from the iconic MG Road to my house is an example of the ineptitude and criminal neglect of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is probably the most corrupt organization on Earth. The only way to describe it is to resort to Hindu mythology: it combines the evil machinations of Ravana and the wicked insidiousness of the Kauravas. 

It is a road I have fought to better with some amount of luck because of the backing of the political leadership. There are superficial improvements but the road still becomes a morass of sewage water and gigantic potholes during the monsoon.

Despite all the new accouterments of modernity, commuting in Delhi is a nightmare. After all, no matter how slick you make the monkey cages in zoos, the inhabitants will still be all over it. In the end, through behavioral modification, primates can be taught to use their new facilities.

But how do you deal with humans, who have mutated into scofflaws over the sorry history of this much-conquered place?

Delhi’s scofflaw citizens are the archetype of a culture that is steeped in mythology, feudalism, ideology, elitism (think Lutyens Delhi) and rampant narcissism. Their gruff and scruffy ways are the despair of citizens whose lives are vandalized by their behavior.

I have lived in the capital for two decades. We live in a bubble suffused with the warmth of family and good friends. Our granddaughter was born here, the first ever in generations of my wife’s and my family.

Plus, the city has an enlightened political leadership under the aegis of a three-term chief minister, who battles constantly with civic agencies that are not really under her control. The only reason Delhi has not degenerated into a Hobbesian mess is because Sheila Dikshit has held fort against the barbarians.

In the interim, infrastructure has improved exponentially but civic life has taken a dive. The metro, the fancy buses, the bus stops, the new roads…all come to naught because of the behavior of scofflaws; 21st century civic amenities are wasted on them.

It hits civil people, and they may well be a majority, between the eyes: modern infrastructure, poorly implemented by the corrupt and inept civic agencies and abused and vandalized by scofflaw citizens.

Delhi’s ugly reality is the outcome of years of feudalism, colonialism, refugeeism, socialism and today’s ersatz culture that mixes mythology, superstition, mercantilism and amorality. Delhi has no modern urban roots; it has, for sure, a pre-modern urban idiom derived from the Mughals, which has been raped and pillaged by the refugee culture that took hold after Partition.

The capital city’s citizens are held hostage to scofflaws, who drive insanely, urinate in public, deface public property, molest women and create mayhem in public spaces.

Delhi is a city on the boil. Unless the capital can muster the political will and the police resources to fight this scourge, the scofflaws will turn it into a moffusil town. It’s already happening on the city’s edges.

This article appears on the Times of India website.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bombay Journal 3

Street of Dreams

On a recent swing through Bombay, I came face-to-face with my past. First, on the way to the St Xavier’s College campus to meet an old friend, I passed the Raj Mahal restaurant on Kalbadevi Road. My mother took me there one day in 1956, June 8, when I was admitted to the nearby and much coveted St Xavier’s High School. As we drove past it, I could almost taste the sense of accomplishment and the masala dosa and sweet lassi I had with my mother. Wind forward to 2012, as I drove past the restaurant; I was agog to see it:  It is still there, middle class and all, 56 years later!

On the way back north, the chauffeur took me past Victoria Terminus (now perforce called CST because of the thugs who run Bombay) onto the elevated road that takes you past Crawford Market (the thugs have renamed it Mahatma Phule Market) and Mohammed Ali Road, past the JJ Hospital and got off at Victoria Garden Road and into Byculla Bridge, a once-genteel neighborhood where I grew up in the shadow of Christ Church School.

We drove through Christ Church Lane, where I lived as a pre-teen and commuted on the weekend with friends to our family home in Juhu Beach to enjoy the Goa-like ambience. The Lane was an eye opener. Living there, I came to appreciate the sheer cultural diversity of India: living among Goans and Anglo-Indians, Bohras and Jews, Muslims and Parsis; I also learned how it felt to belong to a minority: Hindu, Gujarati, vegetarian.

Driving through Christ Church Lane, I saw that it is not as wide as I imagined.  With cars parked on both sides, it was a bit of a struggle driving through. The buildings of my childhood: Court Royal, Lobo Mansion, Blue Haven and what have you are still there; they look somewhat weatherworn. Around the corner on Victoria Garden Road, the storefront Linnet Tailor still stands after all these years. This was the establishment a little boy badgered for delivery of his clothes within 24 hours of being measured up.

It was like a riding in a time machine. This pre-teen boy was leading me through this street of dreams. I was a visitor from the future being led by the little boy through the clouds of a past that shaped my worldview: to nurture diversity, to embrace cosmopolitanism.

My pre-teen guide from the past reminded me that every evening, hormonal young teenagers strutted through the Lane; eyeing the gorgeous “dames” the Lane was famous for. There was a guy, spitting image of Elvis, who would strut and fret his hour upon the Lane, with girls swooning all over him. In my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of a little boy, in his bathroom, wetting his hair trying to swirl up the trademark Elvis pompadour.

The traveler from the future could envision also the same little boy, his companion on the journey through time: perched dreamily in his balcony, listening to the troubadour family that came to sing Friday nights. The song that touched him was Tony Brent’s “Little Serenade” and the green-eyed teenage daughter. “Just a little street down in Portofino,” they sang. An Anglo-Indian, Brent grew up and lived in an apartment house on the tree-shaded Spence Road, just south of the Lane. Though he left India for England a decade before I lived there, he was a legend and his songs were fiercely popular.

In Christ Church Lane those days, there was a sense of urbane sophistication and above all, a feeling there could be no better place than this Bombay. As a pre-teen, the little boy fantasized about cricket but also about football and athletics, Hollywood films, Goa and Gorai. He was, however, always on the margins; restricted in diet and Gujarati conservatism.

These memories surfaced as I drove through Christ Church Lane, the venue of my renaissance. It was as if the little boy from the 1950s took me by my hand and helped me relive a time when my mind opened up. The kid got me all emotional; he reminded me of its beautiful girls, its rock and roll, and its diversity.

In America, in the early 1970s, I used to identify with a monster-hit television show called “Happy Days.”  My friend David Swanson was always befuddled. “How does that work?” he asked me. “It depicts a typical American suburban experience.” It was difficult for me to explain. “Just believe it; for me, the show works because it reminds me of Christ Church Lane,” I would tell him. It wasn’t just the incipient rock-and-roll music of the time but also a shared middle class heritage of work and achievement, play and leisure.

The trouble with memories in India is that the present-day situation mostly always turns out to be grim, nothing like what you remember. In America, nostalgia is treasured and old things are not just preserved but made better. In 2008, citizens of Milwaukee gathered to applaud the unveiling of the bust of “Fonzie,” an unforgettable character in “Happy Days,” which was based in the city’s golden suburbs of the 1950s. Wouldn't it be wonderful if residents of Byculla Bridge did the same for Tony Brent?

And so I drove through the street of dreams with the little kid, who liked to sing in his tuneless monotone Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock,” pant after the gorgeous girls in the Lane and listen to “Binaca Geet Mala” with its Hindi film tunes in addition to the Binaca “Hit Parade.”  Those pre-Beatles-era songs still remain with me; I married a gorgeous Goan girl (who didn’t live in the Lane but hey, nobody’s perfect) and I troll the net to find the Binaca shows (no luck yet).

Soon we turned onto Clare Road (wonder what the thugs call it now?), west of the Lane. As the car got swallowed up in traffic headed north, the little kid disappeared into the haunting memories of Christ Church Lane and I returned to the dreary ordinariness of 21st century Bombay.

A version of this article appears on The Times of India website.