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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

City in Decline

Mumbai Sucks, Bombay Rocks
A global firm recently publicized a survey that found Bombay the second worst city to live in. It rated Zürich as the most livable. By the standard measures used in the survey, Bombay certainly ranks poorly. But those who live in the metro will not agree; they swear by the sheer intensity and vitality of urban life in the metropolis and would live in no other place. It is actually the only real city left in India. Few people in Bombay would want to live in Zürich, except those with Swiss bank accounts. The heart-stopping city is both: the hope and despair of India’s future.

I love Bombay. Juhu Beach is where I grew up. We moved to Warden Road, where I attended a quaint little Parsi school called New Model Infant School in Oomer Park, the setting in Salman Rushdie’s book, “Midnight's Children.” Later we lived in a wonderful art deco apartment house called Court Royal in Christ Church Lane, bordering the school of the same name in Byculla Bridge. Our buzzing lane was known for its gorgeous girls and its melting pot of Catholics, Parsis, Jews, Muslims, and Anglo Indians.

My old neighborhoods have changed beyond recognition. In Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, I believe there are still the bungalows and, I hope, the sense of community. The Besant Montessori School, where I attended pre-school, is presumably still around. To roam on the beach and play on the roads of the Walden-style colony was a treat then but now I realize was a huge privilege.

Walking on the beach from Juhu to Versova on a holiday morning was a treat. I felt I could be happy doing this for the rest of my life. When we said our morning prayer at the Besant Montessori school, unwittingly I replaced the phrase “thank you for the world so sweet” with “thank you for Versova.” This was long before the grim place called Lokhandwala.

In Juhu, my neighbors included Balraj Sahni and Prem Dhavan (the lyricist), among others. Many of them articulated anti-American views even while their children, like me, wore preppy penny loafers and striped T-shirts. This was my first experience with Indian hypocrisy. Diagonally across from our house was Ratilal Parekh, whose daughter Asha went on to make big waves in films. Our next-door neighbor was Devendra Goel, the film-maker who made escapist films that attracted large audiences. Given their fame and wealth, it was a bit of stretch for me to reconcile the Gandhian vision of simple living, high thinking.

Juhu then looked a lot like today’s Goa: coconut groves, white sand and blue sea. We walked freely on the beach and in the neighborhood. It was a wonderful island and to many friends and relatives, a weekend resort. Juhu was especially magical in the monsoon when we had to confront the rough sea and the swaying coconut trees that imperiled our roof.

When we moved to Christ Church Lane from Warden Road, I made friends with kids from different cultural backgrounds and there learned the value of India’s diversity. My friends and I gawked at the gorgeous girls the lane was famous for. It was the time of Pat Boone’s Bernadine, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and Cliff Richard’s Dynamite. On Friday nights, we listened transfixed to a family of troubadours who showed up in our lane every week, singing wonderful songs like Little Serenade and Traveling Light. We used to hang out in our balconies after dinner listening to them but mostly ogling the gorgeous green-eyed daughter who sang seconds.

These wonderful memories came back to me when I read about the survey that trashed the city. Bombay has a unique culture: it is decadent, down market and egalitarian; its essence is the hallmark Tapori dialect. To be fair, the survey portrayed the city as it is today: on the brink, poised on the fine line between civilization and chaos; trapped in the nexus between the chauvinism of its political class and the violence of its underworld. Mumbai is very different from the solid middle class city of Bombay I grew up in.

from daily news and analysis april 4 2007

Yesterday Came Suddenly…

Paul McCartney's Back

Now that he’s older, losing his hair, Paul McCartney has put out a new album, Memory Almost Full, stating his point of view. The songs are full of the past that haunts him and leads him to conclude that “all we wear is vintage clothes.” It is a lilting album that leaves us Beatles fans with a sweet and sour experience. In all his songs, except for the few where he is bitter about Heather Mills, Paul is telling us, as The Beatles have for nearly 40 years that “life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting.”

In one of the songs in the album, Paul expresses disbelief that the years have flown by. “Yesterday came so suddenly,” Paul seems to say in his album. There is an element of gloom in his music, which is perhaps what makes it so haunting. The final song on the album is called “The End of The End”:

On the day that I die
I'd like bells to be rung
and songs that were sung
to be hung out like blankets
That lovers have played on
and laid on while listening
to songs that were sung.

Paul’s latest album is disconcerting.. He and his friends were simple Liverpool boys, jamming and having fun at the Cavern Club. The popularity that followed was frightening. Success turned their heads: it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. Their later albums, influenced hugely by their immense popularity, like The White Album, were individual works with different musicians even while they were marketed under The Beatles label. We didn’t know it then but we still loved the good old rock and roll music. Paul’s latest album is a signal that that we should accept that The Beatles era has drawn to an end; it will, nevertheless, live forever as nostalgia that spans generations and it is up to our children to pass it on to theirs.

Paul, John, George and Ringo made their own way in the world after the split. Their fans kept the band’s myth alive with the serum of nostalgia. In his latest album, Paul seems to be saying that all they did was made good music and later on experimented with new forms of rock. The icon status was bestowed on them and they dealt with it in different ways. In his song, “Ever Present Past,” Paul sings:

I couldn't understand the words that they were saying
but still I hung around and took it all in
I wouldn't join in with the games that they were playing.

The games that Paul laments are the ones we played as fans. We took four Liverpool boys and put them on a pedestal. They represented our middle class values of rebellion without really giving up the comforts. For me as an adolescent growing up in the confusion of India, they made me a member of a global youth community in which music was the currency. Amazingly, they sang about nostalgia to their teenage and adolescent audiences. Why else would “Yesterday” become such a monster hit?

Time magazine compared the Sergeant Pepper album to the works of Brahms and Schubert. Their “Let It Be” is sung as a hymn in churches worldwide. Such superb music! While coming to grips with their huge global presence, the Fab Four continued to make great music that their fans had to admit was getting better all the time. Paul’s new album renews my faith in The Beatles while he is saying “don’t live in the past.”

The Beatles phenomenon is inexplicable. Especially if you listen to what they have said since the split…that the brand was a burden. They stopped public performances and retreated into the studio on London’s Abbey Road to produce path-breaking music. They had no idea of the impact they would make all over the world. Their music will forever remain the sound of a changing world, milestones in our journey from the teens to adulthood.

Forty-five years later, The Beatles story is told; all we have is memories and, as Paul says, the memory is almost full.

from daily news and analysis july 25 2007

Father's Day 2007

Will they still need me? 

New York: “This holiday was one etched in sadness as well as thankfulness.” A pastor in the town of Monangah in West Virginia, perhaps the poorest state in the US, said these words at a service in memoriam of 360 men, who were killed in a coal mine disaster in December 1906. His Central United Methodist Church was the site of the first celebration of Father’s Day in 1908. The prayers were in honor of the fathers who died. The day was observed in different places at different times. It became official when President Richard Nixon proclaimed it a national holiday in 1972; the day fixed was the third Sunday in June.

Many years later, when I lived in Chicago, my first daughter was born. To mark the occasion, my mother gave us a plaque, which said “You should give your children roots and wings.” Four years later, my younger one showed up on a snowy, cold December afternoon. With two children competing for attention and resources, I became aware of the role of the father.

Fast forward to Father’s Day 2007: my younger daughter, a resident New “Yawker,” took me to McSorley’s, the oldest pub, on the buzzing Lower East Side, where she lives, to quaff a few beers with her friends. She is focused on making a life for herself in “this city that never sleeps;” she works hard and when she has the free time, she and her friends make the most of “New York, New York;” as Frank Sinatra sang, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…it’s up to you…”

My older one is the take-charge type, who can fix anything from an insurance policy to an airline ticket; from a major PowerPoint presentation to pointed research. The venue for her achievements is Delhi; she enjoys her free time with her friends from all over the world who happen to live in Delhi. She travels the world with an easy sophistication that I never knew. Fathers should be so lucky, as I have been with both my daughters, who are happy to share their lives with me.

My older daughter’s roots and my younger one’s wings are a perfect foil for my mother’s advice. They both make their way in the world. They are off and running: one protecting the roots, the other projecting the wings. Yet there is a disturbing arrhythmia in my mind. My thoughts go back to the vacations we shared together and I hope we can do it again and again as we did for many years in Goa, in Europe and in the United States. The sadness comes from knowing such togetherness will become less frequent in the years to come.

These sentiments are a luxury that today’s fathers enjoy. When I was growing up, fathers were remote persons. Whether liberal or conservative, they just did not get involved in their children’s lives. The authoritarian ones ran their children’s lives according to their worldview; the more liberal ones simply accepted things. If they couldn’t control their children or satisfy them with material or ideological baubles, they pulled back and became even more distant.

Father’s Day is when children honor and indulge their father. I’m a sucker for the syrupy sentimentality that goes with it. For me, it has always been a pause; a chance to remember the wonderful times growing up with my children; to recognize that the relationship with them is always ambiguous. You love them, let them be and hope for nothing in return. Most times, you experience pure joy; other times, there may be sheer aggravation. That’s unconditional love. Underlying it is a bittersweet taste: as fathers we tried to move heaven and earth to smooth things for our children when they were dependent on us. The haunting question is: will they still need me when I’m 64?

On a brighter note, some day I will have grandchildren on my knee.

from daily news and analysis, june 27 2007

Victory in Vienna

-->Strengthening the Rule of Law
On September 6, 2008 the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 45 countries that seeks to control international trade in nuclear materials, technology and equipment, issued a “clean waiver” that exempted India from its own denial regime. The effort was spearheaded by the United States government and supported by most of the original seven members of the NSG.
Where the global community rose to admirable heights to transcend its domestic political concerns, in India, the saffron and red opponents of the deal plumbed new depths of chicanery. Instead of closing ranks with the government, they dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the importance of the NSG waiver and the potential it offers to transform India’s relationship with and standing in the global mainstream.

The intemperate response from the two opposition parties betrayed a poor understanding of the nature of democracy. The government won a confidence vote in Parliament, signaling it had majority political support for the deal; it went on to get its safeguards plan approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then finally won the confidence of NSG with its assertion that it was against proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

Having tried every trick in the book to stall the deal, the opposition simply failed. They must acknowledge that government won both domestic and international political support. Now it’s time, as opponents do in a democracy, to shake hands and present a united face to the world.

Never mind what happens in specific sectors, the Indo-US deal is a strategic move that will help transform the chalta hai economy. We will engage in a big way as a mature power with the big boys and therefore learn that we must take ourselves seriously. We cannot say one thing and do something else. In that sense, the Indo-US agreement takes Manmohan Singh’s reforms of 1991 to a new level. We will have to play by the rules and not hide behind political barriers as we have done at Doha in the WTO.

As it turns out, the business sector is already at it. For all the companies they have bought overseas and for all the foreign investment they have attracted, business leaders have understood the seriousness of contracts, intellectual property rights and the need for professional management. As such they have been the vanguard. The Indo-US deal simply ensures that government will follow with accountability and transparency.

The only hurdles that remain are the opposition parties. The Left is an ideological dinosaur that opposes the deal because of its irrational anti-American mindset and, as it now has become clear, it is China’s cat paw. They have been consigned, as elsewhere, to the dustbin of history. In the end, the Vienna waiver included the Soviet Union and China as well as the self righteous little countries like Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand and Ireland.

When it comes to the BJP’s protests, we should remember that the whole idea of the NSG waiver was to allow India the opportunity to do civilian nuclear commerce with the world. There is nothing in the agreement that talks about nuclear tests. The fact is the UPA government got the waiver in spite of the BJP’s ill-advised 1998 nuclear tests. The NSG waiver is a palliative against the hostile international reaction to the 1998 episode. We can test but we must be prepared for the global reaction. On the other hand, this government is much more mature than the insecure regimes of Indira Gandhi in 1974 and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998.

If you analyze it further, the BJP’s 1998 tests provoked a tit-for-tat reaction from Pakistan and as such, nullified the huge conventional military and economic superiority that India had vis-à-vis Islamabad. The Indo-US deal restores that advantage for India. The covert support that China provided for Pakistan’s nuclear program is well known. Islamabad remains a pariah, especially given the private A Q Khan network of nuclear proliferation.

It is no wonder that the Left opposed the deal tooth and nail. When it became clear that Karat and company failed, their Chinese patrons resorted to subterfuge in Vienna and when all was lost, absented themselves from the final session of the NSG.

A major learning from the Vienna consensus is that the Chinese could not stand up to the force of the world’s great powers, the US, Russia, France, Britain and Germany and failed to scuttle the deal in Vienna. That should be a sobering thought for the Left. As for the BJP, their loud protest that the government has sold out India’s strategic interest has simply drawn derision and disbelief. Instead of projecting itself as a viable right-of-center alternative to the Congress, the BJP has succeeded in showing itself up as an immature loser.

That’s all history now, though champions of the infantile Left and the immature BJP in the media and in the academy are still yelling and screaming. The deal is done. India can look forward to the fruits and the obligations of being accepted into the global mainstream. The rule of law will be strengthened. And if the saffron and red opposition acknowledge defeat and draw the right lessons, democratic traditions could also be strengthened.

The Acrid Stench of Death

Grief Eases, the Smell Lingers

On September 21, my mother would have turned 86. She died five months ago. But lest anyone thinks this another obituary, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not. Rather I want to talk about the phenomenon of death.

To begin with, there’s no escaping it. We are all on some supernatural death row from the minute we are born. Certainly, we give our lives meaning. We have childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age and old age. We do amazing things: we build nations, machines, welfare systems, philanthropic organizations; we do astounding research in medicine, physics, chemistry; we sing songs, play guitar and make it snappy; we write symphonies and operas, novels, poetry, even columns like this one. It is our only shot at immortality. Buried, burned or otherwise disposed off, our mortal coil is just that: mortal. Remember the root of the word is Latin for death.

It’s not my intent to be a Woody Allen and obsess about death. We don’t need that because the fear of death is programmed into our DNA. We eat healthy, we work out, and we give up cigarettes, booze and the libertine lifestyle. All in the hope we get a few years more on this planet. That desire drives people who live in sylvan estates or in deplorable slums; the investment banker who lives on 95th and Fifth in Manhattan as well the tribal in basic Africa; the person on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean or the desperate immigrant stowing away on a cargo ship.

Nobody told me the only certainty in life is death for all the years I spent is respectable educational institutions. Everything was a mumbo-jumbo in equal parts religion and superstition. In school, we accepted an unstated belief in God advocated by the Jesuits; university life was guided by the Calvinist belief in the salvation of hard work, burning the midnight oil. After that, a job was the Holy Grail. You had find one, keep it and rise through the ranks. Better homes, nicer cars, club memberships, five-star hotels, business-class travel and various other diversions took you mind off from the inevitability of death.

So we build the tangled web of ambition and desire to divert our minds, stuck as we are this wonderful death row called life. Be it clearly stated I am not a dark and foreboding person; quite to the contrary I have a sunny disposition best expressed in the Louis Armstrong song, What a Wonderful World. Satchmo sang the song in 1967, at a time when protest rock began belting out its dark and nihilistic message. The song was written for him by the legendary jazz impresario Bob Thiele. Its opening lyrics went like this:

I see trees of green, red roses too
See them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

And indeed we enjoy this world: springtime in Chicago, autumn in New England, a night in Manhattan, a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, (corny though it sounds) an evening in Paris, a drive through the English and French countryside, a Beatles song, an Ellington tune or some good old Hindi songs by Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt; even mundane experiences like a drink at the Air Force station in Ayanagar near the Delhi-Gurgaon border, dinner with friends in Bandra, a singsong at our house with friends, a great movie, a good concert, an absorbing play, a stirring opera. And for many of us, the satisfaction of work and the concomitant rewards, both spiritual and material.

My personal preference remains Goa in the Monsoon. Sure there are trees of green and blooming flowers. But the skies are grey; the clouds are black and ominous; the night is indeed sacred and dark with sheets of rain and gale force winds. Contemplating the violence of nature, I am reminded that we are mortals and we can be swept away by the sinister forces of nature.

These experiences define our lives. Otherwise there is a void, a few lonely years in a death watch cell. We seek love and solace. When we get that, we are immortal; others want more and they are Shakespeare, Blake, DaVinci, Einstein, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Freud, Marx, Gates or any of the IT pioneers. People like them advance civilization. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their genius.

In the end, there is no greater comfort and joy than sharing a daily dinner table, a weekend lunch in the garden or Christmas with the family. These experiences run for a good 50 years or so in an individual’s life until the children ,both us and ours ,grow up and move away, sometimes physically but always emotionally. We enjoy it while we can and then contemplate the sunset years. Some of us are lucky to have friends to brighten up our evenings and weekends; and work to keep us busy through the day.

Into this cocoon of happiness that we build and protect, sometimes the reality of life creeps in. This happened when my mother died and left my father with us, Alzheimer’s and all. The grief has eased but I cannot get rid of the stench of death in my house. It is an acrid smell that no amount of Lysol, scented candles and room sprays can get rid off. It hangs in there, dismal and irreversible: a sinister prospect of what lies ahead. And in my father with his dementia, I can hear the ticking of the mortal clock.

copyright rajiv desai 2008