Thursday, July 23, 2015



When I first saw Lily Aunty, she had just arrived from Yugoslavia and was sitting in the bare professor’s flat assigned to her in Pune, eating fried chicken and smelling of stale smoke and perfume like European women did in those days.  There was a book of matches on her makeshift dining table, which looked unusual to me, since I was used to matches that came out of a regular little box. The chicken--just legs heaped on a plate--fascinated me. I wondered how one could have cooked up such exotic looking stuff with ingredients we had access to as well and why there wasn't any rice or curry to go along with it.  I was maybe 10 years of age and my mother and I had come to say hello to this new neighbour of ours, who was going to spend a year as a visiting scholar at my father’s institute.

Lily Aunty took to India very well and soon became a close family friend.  She went native, she wore a sari at times, she called my mother Didi and on occasion unwittingly came to our rescue.  When my mother and I tried to get into the Film Institute of India campus to meet some Assamese students, we were halted at the gate by the sentry.  As we argued, Lily auntie whizzed by on the pillion of a friend’s scooter, her blond hair blown by the wind.  She waved to us.  The sentry, impressed by the fact that we knew a white woman, conferred immediate legitimacy upon us and let us go.  One must remember that these were the late 1960s, less than 25 years after independence.

Lily Auntie talked to us a lot about her life.  Told us about her father, who had been a partisan, fighting the Germans in the second world war.  He had been shot to death in a concentration camp and the only memento that she had of him were his blood soaked socks that were left over after they killed him.

She was young, in her late twenties or early thirties, and soon fell in love with a young Indian man with a slim figure and a nice moustache.  He was a reasonable guy who hung around with Lily Aunty.  We did not come to know him too well and my mother, who had become like an older sister to her, viewed him with suspicion.  After a year, Lily Auntie’s term was up and the couple wished to get married and return to Yugoslavia.  This posed a problem.  These were still the hey-days of the communist era and marriage to a foreigner required the Yugoslavian government’s permission, which Lily auntie was denied.  Heartbroken, she returned to Belgrade alone.  I was a kid then—I did not appreciate the pain that such separation can cause.  About a year or so after that my mother met Anil, the young boyfriend, in a public bus.  He had married someone else by then.

Over forty years went by and I was now settled in New York.  Lily Auntie had been the first European lady that I had come to know well, she loved me like a nephew, and I had never forgotten her.  One day, after an afternoon’s conversation where I brought up her story, a good friend from her part of the world dug up Lily Auntie’s phone number in Belgrade from the internet.  I called her up after that.  It was an emotional conversation.  She reminded me of the clay necklace that I had made for her over 40 years back and which she still had in her possession.  She had married a Sikh, had a family, and was settled. She enquired about my parents. Her historical research specialized in India and she was active in all things Indian in Belgrade.  She was a mother, a wife, a family lady, a professor.

Then, towards the end of our conversation, when conclusionary statements begin making appearances in the dialogue, she segued suddenly—and-- with hope and anticipation in her voice asked whether I had any news of Anil. Her disappointment at my answer was obvious in the ensuing pause.  “He was my first love”, she explained.  “And I have always wondered what happened to him”. Even though decades had passed and she was now the mother of adult children, I did not have the heart to tell her about my mother’s 1970 meeting with Anil in the public bus.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A most wonderful marriage

Decades ago, a hastily written American paperback memoir provided good company on a train from Kokrajhar in Assam to Howrah. I had picked it up in a dusty bookshop near the train station and the author was a mid-tier Providence hoodlum by the name of Vincent Teresa.  In my “Life in the Mafia”, Vinnie espoused the theory that—in a case of life imitating art—all the wiseguys in the mob began speaking like Brando did in his role as Don Corleone, after seeing the movie The Godfather.  Decades later one can make a similar argument about Indian marriages.  They have changed in style, across the country, to conform to their representation in Bollywood movies.  At some point, as the evening wears on, these ceremonies end up with groups of men and women dancing indiscriminately to non-descript Hindi film music wearing the sort of uni-culturally Indian formal clothing that takes its gaudy colors straight from celluloid.   Yet, striking differences remain in the philosophy with which different cultures approach a marriage, and I saw no better example of this than in a recent marriage between a Bengali and a Punjabi family that I attended.

In the early evening of the reception, hosted by the Bengalis, the entire Bengali contingent waited (I being part of it) in the portico of a stately hotel for the Punjabi groom’s party to arrive.  It was a handsome Federal style building that looked onto a circular brick driveway with manicured grounds beyond. And arrive they did. A large BMW swooshed by.  Two large buses drew up.  A horse materialized in the distance.  Guests poured out of the buses and the groom alighted and mounted the waiting horse.  Under skies that had darkened to a thunderous gray, the empty courtyard now filled with men in ceremonial turbans, women in bedecked splendour, and a groom who stood ready for action poised upon a horse.  As the party began its fifty-meter walk to the hotel, on cue, the air cracked with the rhythm of a Punjabi beat belted out by a tall drummer in a virile lungi. A troupe of Americans in headdress struck up baraat music with their wind instruments.  A couple of young dancing women in green led the convoy like whirling dervishes and the men and women followed, shoulders snapping to the rhythm, a bubbly, joyous, precious stone laden mass ebbing and flowing like a viscous melt as they made their progress to the lobby. Photographers swarmed and in a sign of the times a drone took to the air angling for camera position.  In the meantime, the gathered Bengalis--themselves representative of a culture whose celebration of even the most joyful of events will strike melancholia into the heart of any normal human being--waited by the entrance, three deep in rows, largely silent, taking in the ebullience of the Punjabis with wide-eyed bewilderment.  And what instruments of sadness they offer for such a celebration!  Slow, delicate, lilting songs that will have you close your eyes in concentration, the heart wrenching note of the conch, the eyes of a bride who you know will cry as she leaves the house.  All this for a marriage.  Imagine their activities during a funeral. And so as the joyous, swaying Punjabi morass met the gathered Bengalis, the two fronts of these poles-apart cultures merged at the seam between the portico and the brick driveway like two muddy rivers, each carrying the fine sand of their differently colored lands. They had two things in common today—no shortage of jewelry and no shortage of warmth.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Delhi + Super Bowl + Lipstick + Kajal

Around 5 am I wake up at a hotel in the Aerocity region near the Delhi International Airport. I am back in this city after exactly a month. Outside, the dust and fog creates a dim early morning haze and the road leading into the hotels complex, with its obstacle course barriers laid out to deter would-be saboteurs, lies empty. There are a few cars in the main thoroughfare beyond and the lights of Radisson Plaza glimmer in the distance.

I am headed out for a quick one night trip to Guwahati. As I get ready to get to the airport, the Super Bowl has begun in the US. I cannot find it shown live on TV here, but I track its progress on the web. By the time I have washed up and am having my morning coffee, the Patriots are up 7-0. Around 6 a.m. I check out of the Holiday Inn and take the short ride to Domestic Terminal 1. I am rooting for the Seahawks and against the Patriots, if only because the Seahawks are coached by Pete Carroll who had brought USC back to its glory days in College Football in his previous job. I had attended USC.

Delhi domestic terminal 1 is a mess on Monday mornings, as business travelers get busy after the weekend. When the traffic is sparse, Delhi airport with its megaplex underpinnings, is a paragon of sleek efficiency. When the passenger count approaches a critical number, like it did this Monday morning, the place takes a different face and appears to be on the brink of collapse. I try to check in at the crowded automated kiosk machines, but I am flagged as being under a “watch list” because I had used a credit card. So I have to then go to the line for people who are checked in but need to do a baggage drop, and they fix it up for me quickly there. Nobody tells me this: I have to ask around, and things do get sorted out in the end. But this type of setup, where in the midst of an apparently smooth and efficient process, an additional and unnecessary twist ends up threatening your stumps is fairly common. The night before, I had disembarked from the United non-stop from Newark, and the staff did not have the customary immigration cards to give out to passengers, because the government did not get it to them on time and would not allow United to print them out either. So while the immigration lines were moving briskly once you were able to join the line, there was a helter-skelter mess prior to it as people ran around looking for forms that were in short supply.

With my luggage checked in and boarding card in hand, I check the web and the Seahawks are now tied at 17-17. While America watches the Super Bowl, I stand in a long, serpentine security line that folds back and forth about seven times, with the sinking feeling that I will miss my flight. I monitor the time on an overhead screen. It is 6:42 am and my flight is at 7:45 am. It takes me about 8 minutes to cover one fold of the serpentine line. I am worried. But things pick up shortly and the line speeds up. Moreover there is an accelerated bypass mechanism. When a flight’ sdeparture time is perilously close, a young representative in a smart thigh length jacket comes by in a loud voice: “Hyderabad Indigo xxx”. People way back in the line who are headed to Hyderabad raise their hands and press forward. They are allowed to go through.

I go through security by 7:10 a.m. and check the scores. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are beating the Patriots 24-14. There is an undercurrent to this game. Carroll was coach of the Patriots at one time. But he was booted out after a miserable win record that was attributed in part to his persona being too “bubbly”. He then brought over his effusive nature to the college game as USC’s coach and—over the course of the next several seasons—turned USC’s, and his fortunes around, ending up as one of the greatest college coaches of all time. When USC teetered at the brink of a scandal regarding rules violations, Carroll jumped ship and went back to the pros, this time as the Seahawk’s coach.

We are bussed to the aircraft, and standing opposite me on the bus is a dapper European businessman--Italian perhaps--travelling to Guwahati with an Indian associate. The man is smartly dressed in a grey suit, a navy blue shirt, a deep blue tie with white dots, and a wristwatch with a black leather strap with white stitching along its borders. His suit has a check pattern and one of the interwoven threads defining the checks is blue, stylishly picking up a color from his shirt. A blue and grey folded silk kerchief projects from his coat pocket. His hair is gelled and he has an old world mustache straight out a Cary Grant film. If a man can be described as being “put together”, then here certainly was the defining example. Seeing him and the other passengers I realize there is a different kind of traveler to Guwahati today. Ten years ago this same flight from Delhi to Guwahati to Imphal would have had people carrying coconuts (or something similar) in industrial bags made of thick inter-woven nylon strands. There was a hardy type of traveler to the North-East who were the last bastions to the connection to the past at urban airports and they too, were now changing.

On the flight the Italian businessman is sitting in the seat behind me. As I return from a trip to the washroom, I catch a glimpse of his laptop screen upon which he is working at a powerpoint presentation, presumably for potential clients in Guwahati. Against a blue background the chart reads:
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for you.
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 1
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 2
Savings Rs. 1.75
Such are the ways of European fashion in Guwahati.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A drive in the suburbs of Chicago and Sydney

The American
An elegant older gentleman with thick white hair drove me from Northwestern to O’Hare the other day, our limousine cruising by the drab suburban sprawl that surrounds midwestern downtowns, years of harsh winter leaving its signature drabness long after the snow is gone.

Limousine drivers will never begin a conversation, but if initiated I have seldom met one who has remained taciturn.  When I tell him I live forty miles North of New York City, the floodgates open.  His grandmother died as a young woman in Yonkers, of the killer flu that swept the nation in 1914.  She was 21 and lies buried in a graveyard in Yonkers.  The grandfather left for Chicago after that.  He went to her graveyard in the 1950s when he had last visited New York City.  

He had the Midwestern habit of using complete sentences in slow cadence, emphasizing the occasional syllable when you least expect him to.  He asked me whether I was a professor.  "An adjunct one at Columbia", I said.  "Well", he responded, "my father almost joined Columbia but then decided to accept an offer to be Comptroller at the University of Chicago.  Sometimes when he had to travel to Argonne, they would send the helicopter out for him.  There was one piece of advise my father had given me", he continued, as young men and women with knee high leather boots and floppy loosely knotted scarves headed for lunch just weeks away from Fall.  "Work hard but leave your work behind when you get home."  Did he practice what he preached?  "Oh, yeah.  He would come home and that would be it. Often he would come home and then my mother’n he would go out.

I wanted to know how long the father had worked at the University.  "Well, my father--he loved his Budweiser and his Chesterfields way too much and he was gone early.  It was 1964 and it was the day that he bought my mother a brand new car.  Went down to the Chevy dealership and bought her a Malibu convertible.  That same day they drove out in the new car to her sister’s place in Wheaton, Wisconsin.  They returned home and that same night he passed away in a massive heart attack.  He was 52.  I was then a student at SIU.  An’ the call came in.  They gave me the news.  So that night I ended up boarding a train.  I was 21."

The conversation moseyed its way, like they can do on such rides, to the music of this city and how Chicago at one time was the music capital of the country.  And not just because the city was churning out pressings of Blues albums, as blacks migrated to the industrial Midwest, but because Chicago’s radio stations, due to their central location in the nation, were able to reach both coasts and therefore held an advantage. 

The man was a repository of the city’s history.  Leaning back on his seat, his white hair in contrast to the dark interior, he would flick a turn signal here, a tap of the brakes there, and let loose, like a slow steam leak on a valve, a stream of words sculpted with a story teller’s chisel. He rattled off the names of musicians who lived in Chicago.  About the Jazz club in downtown that I had visited last year and which he thought had moved since then. We passed by Oak Park. Ernest Hemingway was born there.  Frank Lloyd Wright worked here.  People still came from afar to look at some of Wright’s buildings.  At the turn of the century folks would take the train on the weekend to Oak Park and spend the day picknicking.  Where, I asked him. In the parks!.  That’s why the name.  We pass Arlington.  He shows me the school where Hillary Clinton went.  

He was a throwback.  A seventy year old driver in a big black American limo with a soft leather interior and a softer suspension shushing its occupant in near mechanical silence through the outskirts of Chicago. Imaginings of a past city and visions of a past world dominated by Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Studebakers, and men in dark suits and hats that suddenly felt so real in this massive vehicle with black leather and crimson upholstery.

The Bangladeshi
The morning of our departure from a trip to Sydney we took a cab to the airport. The driver was Bengali and had lived in Australia for over 20 years. I asked him how he liked it. It had been good for his family, he said, not particularly so for himself. He had been a professor of textile engineering in Bangladesh for 18 years and held a Masters degree from Leeds. After arriving with his family in Australia as immigrants, he was unable to find work as a professional and had remained unemployed for the first five years. They had lived on dole and his wife’s income. This led him into his first job as a cabbie on the late night shift. He painted for us a different picture of Sydney than what we had seen—one of crime, gangs and drugs and the dangers faced by a taxi driver on the night beat. He spoke of a Bangladeshi cab driver who was thrown off a bridge late at night, his head bashed on a stone.

Our cabbie seemed happy to be speaking to us, and as a fellow Bengali in a small town would do, gave us a full accounting of his and his family’s situation. He spoke in almost a complete monologue throughout the 30 minute journey, except for my occasional questions seeking further detail or clarification, intrusive by Western standards, but accepted and expected under such circumstances. His family had done well and all four of his children had completed college. The eldest, the son, was 36 and earned good money as an IT professional and travelled the world. A son-in-law was working towards his Ph.D. Two of the daughters worked, one was a housewife. Except for the older daughter, the children's marriages had been arranged. He and his wife had made the arrangements themselves within the Bangladeshi community. He was close to retirement and looked forward to a time when he would start collecting his pension. It was a success story for a man who arrived here in tenuous position but now had 11 grand children in his adopted land. It had been at the personal cost of his professional ambitions and except for a bittersweet acknowledgement of this in his opening sentences, his accounting had remained mostly matter-of-fact, and tinged with some pride as he spoke of his children’s jobs and education.

I have seen the story of the educated cabbie in the West over and over. I have met Pakistani professors of comparative literature, Bangladeshi aeronautical engineers, and numerous Ethiopian engineering graduates driving cabs in cities across America. I have had a Columbian cabbie wave to me a dog-eared copy of a book by Borges that he would read while waiting to pick up a passenger. They have talked to me about their lives, often with a resigned sadness, and an acknowledgement of the counterweights that have been part of the baggage of this balancing of their lives. They arrive in the West and compress their stature, head bowed, crouching as a man has to when entering a short tunnel, and in the end resign to live their lives in this manner doing jobs that are incommensurate with their education, in the hope that their children may stand upright, or that they may be able to send more money back to their families, or that some day they will be able to build a nice house back home and retire on their savings from the West.

Monday, January 5, 2015

India trip December 2014

 Part I: Outbound

Disembarking the aircraft and entering an Indian airport, there is a unique smell, one that mixes the heat, humidity, the counterbalance of airconditioning, and the whiff of disinfectants. Today I sensed this smell much earlier, walking through the passageway that led to the aircraft in Terminal 4 at JFK, New York. I thought it was the mind playing games, for the weather was wholly difference: we had driven in under an overcast sky and a temperature in the mid-thirties (F). But I asked my sons and they sensed this too.

About eighteen years ago we had travelled a similar route, that time my six month old son holding court sitting in a bassinet in the aircraft cabin, flashing smiles at passengers. My older son was then three and engrossed in his books. Today I am travelling with these two young men, heading out to join M who is already in Kolkata. One is eighteen, the other twenty-one, fast asleep either side of me, using my shoulders as a pillow. I had picked them up last night when they returned from college for their winter break. It is not often that the three of us travel together anymore.

Why does a trip to India feel so different and not as any other thirteen-hour flight to say, Sydney or Tokyo or Seoul? Those trips just feel like an extrapolation of a visit to California. India on the other hand, feels like a serious piece of travel. Twenty-five years ago this would have made sense since it gave you the feeling of crossing a certain border: Calcutta looked then like the photographs that you see of Rangoon today, and the old colonial-mofussil style bureaucracy met you right at the immigration when you stepped into the airport.

At luggage pickup at Kolkata airport is a large sign: “Welcome to the City of Joy”. Throughout Kolkata one sees references to this phrase, City of Joy, given originally by Dominique Lapierre, author of the 1985 book by the same name, and adopted enthusiastically by a Bengali audience at a time when India was starved of the world’s attention so that, when a city like Kolkata was the centerpiece of a major, though cliché filled book that was then made into a Hollywood movie, a vestigial colonial mentality immediately picked up the phrase as a moniker for the city. Today the pendulum has swung the other way, the country gets a lot of attention and its proud elite appears overtly reactive, arrogant and even crass in establishing both their Indianness and cosmopolitanism.

A realization strikes me in Kolkata airport. A voice speaking Bengali in isolation sounds wonderful—there is nothing sweeter than a few strains of Bengali heard over a vast sea of people speaking in English in a foreign land: the words waft over as if on rose petals. However, the effect is quite the reverse when there are many such voices in the same crowd--yelling at their straying kids to stay close to the fold, imperious men nodding commands to their drivers, flirtatious bands of college going men and women--then these phrases abrade against the other and the romance is fully wrung out of the language. You have not really appreciated Bengali until you have heard that solo voice abroad in a place where you had least expected it.

Part 2: Server Down Achey

India is one of the cheapest places in the world for mobile voice and data and one of the offshoots of this largesse of instant communication is that a new sentence has graced the Bengali language:”server down achey”.

Over the past few years I have gotten myself a 3G dongle and a SIM card for my phone every time that I have visited India. Getting the authorization for these works in the end, but the path can be a complex series of actions. Forms are filled up, a passport photo submitted, and a young knowledgeable man at the mobile counter hands you the SIM card with the indication that your card is all but ready to go, that it is just a matter of minutes before you will be connected to the network. He is so assured, the affirmative nod of his head so definite, that were he a General sending you to war, you would have thundered into battle convinced that victory was your birthright. You go home and nothing works. You call a help line "executive", and they tell you “Server down achey. O hoye jaabey. Apni chinta korben na.” You hear this a few times, and then some knowledgeable chap somewhere finally fixes it so that it then works. I would just have hoped that Kolkata, the literary capital of India, would come up with a few more creative excuses. Such as, “Bit’er problem dada. Aajkey  to message gulo aschey thik'iy, kintu 1 aar 0 gulo bujhlen to, ekdom ulto-palta hoye jacchey”

I spend the afternoon on the sixth floor of a building in Ballygunge Circular Road looking down at an older building about fifty meters away, a government flat complex, rich with memories from three decades ago. We had gone for lunch to a cousin’s house, and she pointed out to me the corner flat in this older building where they had lived as children and where I would often visit as a teenager. A few days before I left the country thirty years ago I had taken my cousins out for dinner to Kwality’s at Ballygunge Phari and then at 10 pm walked down along Ballygunge Circular Road with them to this flat. It is here that my aunt, to whom I was very close, died. I spend some time looking at the flat quietly. It had’nt changed much. There was a small park just outside its windows and there were children who were playing in the park. The sounds--that of the crows and the traffic--were I thought more or less the same as from that period. Neither the occupants of that building, nor the people in the park would today remember the family that used to live there, or the artistically inclined gentle lady who passed away prematurely twenty four years ago. When a city sits on its haunches upon your shoulders with its memories, it can lengthen a few moments of an afternoon.

part III: Shantiniketan

Just outside of Kolkata there is a complex of sweeping overpasses that one traverses to get to National Highway 2, enroute to Shantiniketan.  We had started at 7 am and within the first half hour I learned that the driver of our rented car had grown up in the same street of Chetla where I had spent my teenaged years.  So while the car sped along and crossed Nivedita Bridge, weaving in and out between trucks, he filled me in on what had been going on in Chetla since.  First off he told me that Bhola Goonda, a notorious Chetla hoodlum from my childhood is now dead, sprayed with bullets by gunmen as he had breakfast at Sannyasin’s Mishti shop about a dozen years ago.  I had seen Bhola when he was a rising tough guy, a fearless bad apple, who would generally hang around the teashops in the area.  There was a time when he became a source of neighborhood rumors for spending time chatting with one of the young mothers of the locality: she would speak from behind the window of her apartment and with him standing outside the property and just beyond the porch.  These exchanges would take place openly in the afternoons for long periods of time when she was alone at home. I had thought nothing of them, until I overheard the hushed remarks in the conversation of grown-ups later.  We had read the poem, The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes sometime around then in school, and its subject matter--the fugitive Highwayman who would arrive at his paramour’s house while she waited by the window--likely affected my perception of the swashbuckling Bhola from then on.  So that was how I remembered Bhola Goonda from then on: rising hoodlum of Chetla and conversational companion to housewives.

National Highway has a fast, well-built blacktop and very soon we were out of the metropolis and heading towards Bardhaman, passing dry farmland on either side with occasional small towns and factories making industrial parts.  At one point we passed the town of Singur, the would be location for the Tata Nano factory in West Bengal.  The cheapest car in the world would have been built there, but an elaborate standoff between politicians, farmers and Tata led to the plant’s abandonment and relocation. The tract of land that had been earmarked for construction abuts the highway and we pass half -built boundary walls and warehouses that, now abandoned, have already started succumbing to the elements.  A little beyond Bardhaman we exit the National Highway and take a smaller road that headed towards Gushkara.  This would eventually lead us to Shantiniketan. 

NASA has available on the public web, night-time high resolution satellite images of the earth for the past two decades.  Cities and townships show up as patches and clusters lit up by electrical lighting.  It is easy to see from these images that habitation in India is heavily clustered around the roadways and grows out from them.  Driving along these smaller roads, this fact becomes readily apparent.  Life springs from the roadside. Business is conducted along the shops that line it, and there is a continuous stream of local traffic--pedestrians, two-wheelers and goods laden carts--along the edges of the road, sharing it with the longer distance car and truck traffic. At times the narrow road passes through small villages.  Little seems to have changed and houses have walls built of mud with small, forlorn square windows inscribed within them, and with droopy thatch roofs like a ragamuffin’s head.  Ponds dot the landscape, usually with a cluster of houses encircling them.  Farmland lines the stretch of road between villages and there are little pump houses every few hundred meters in the fields for handling the irrigation.  Unlike many other jobs, farming seems to have a 50-50 distribution of men and women.

We drive into Shantiniketan, a place with red earth, on the day of the annual Poush Mela (fair) and into a major traffic jam that has clogged the entrance to the place.  It is one of the major annual events of the place.  Parking our car at the entrance to Shantiniketan and somewhere at the edges of the adjacent town of Bolpur, we wait at a busy intersection for our hosts to come get us.  As much as life has changed in the big cities, particularly for the richer sections of the population, little seems to have altered, to my eyes at least, in small town Bengal.  The hodge-podge of storefronts, the brightly colored synthetic fabrics, decaying, gravitas laden buildings from the 19th century--everything is diffuse, everything bleeds out a little bit, every object moves into its adjacent space. People hop across the narrow road blending in with cars; cars drift out to the walking areas by the road and nudge pedestrians, private space often overlaps with public space. This is not a place for someone who arrives from the land of straight lines.  To the untrained eye, a busy intersection in small town in India may seem to be at the precipice of a calamity to the visitor, but in real life, it is usually far from it.

We stand in front of a street side shack selling chickens and ducks, and, at the entrance to one of India’s most artistic and elegant universities, Viswabharati in Shantiniketan, founded by Tagore, one of our first experiences was to witness the execution of a duck by a butcher, deftly done in the classic style of severing the neck against a “bothi” or curved knife.

Enormous crowds throng at the Poush Mela, which is laid out in a large field with folk singers, tribal artisans selling their wares, foodstuff vendors, Ferris wheels, bookstores, and agricultural and jute products shops. The afternoon that we drop in, a pair of singers on the main stage improvises on current affairs. There is an entire of row of stalls where tribal artisans sell Dhokra jewelry, made using a traditional metalcasting process.  The jewelers cast the metal in their small workshops using alloys containing zinc or tin along with copper that enables them to melt the metals at low temperatures. We don't have much time and by late afternoon exit the Mela. 

We have come to visit M’s eldest aunt, a lady nearing ninety.  She has outlived her son and husband, who had been a professor of economics at Viswabharati. In this laid back residential neighborhood called Purba-Palli, Shantiniketan retains its sense of indescribable gentleness. Slightly run down single storey houses with deep red floors and wide verandahs are centered in properties with bouganvillea heavy gardens. Dogs and goats wander in and out of the properties. A little girl plays with a goat tied to a leash on a field.  A few men split bamboo stocks for constructional use. These are the traditional faculty housing, though some of them seem to have been demolished and built up into large vacation homes for the rich from the cities. Though they are more tasteful versions of the US McMansions, they appear incongruous in this egilitarian place. Confined to a wheelchair, the aunt lives alone, spending most of the day in the sunlight verandah that overlooks the front garden and a large field beyond.  She is tended to by a handful of women who all have lived there or nearabouts for years: one the child of a past maidservant who now has a post-graduate degree and is looking for a job and refuses to stay with her alcoholic father, one a superb cook who set down a meal of posto, alu bhaja, daal and chicken for us that will remind you of the sophistication of vegetarian Bengali dishes.  The women take good care of her and are fiercely protective—she is now almost childlike and requires constant help.  She in return, would not stay with anyone else but them. When the aunt passes away, the house and property will be sold back to the university. When this happens, the group of women who have spent decades caring for the old lady and have lived their lives here will be ejected from the property. It is clear that the aunt was hauntingly beautiful at one time. He hair is straight and thick even today, and in her younger days it ran down to her legs. When she smiles, you can see a hint of humor in her steely gray eyes, in a face otherwise slowed down by age.  Combing her hair for her, one of the ladies declared, “When she was young she was the prettiest one among all of her sisters.”

part IV: few quick observations

A day before we were to leave for Guwahati from Kolkata, around 80 adivasi (tribals) men, women and children were brutally massacred by a separatist group in Assam. This was picked up in the national news and there was indignation, but mostly in a matter-of-fact manner.  It would have been a different story if this had happened to 80 Indians in Bangalore, or 8 international tourists in Delhi. A day after the massacre, that included children being shot through their mouths, I saw a poignant photograph on the web of a group of Adivasi men standing and ready to protect themselves and their loved ones.  They were armed with bows and arrows for this is all that they had. 

I am fascinated by the endgame of getting a SIM card. In the final step to approval the internet, SMS and old fashioned clerical paperwork have to climax in unison.  The account is set on the internet, then a SMS message sent to the user with a call back number. A man is dispatched to the user’s house to verify the address. This is all very spy-like.  The wireless outlet store in the mall is manned by a phalanx of customer support staff.  Some of them are very, very good. Some are terrible.  All of them seem to work extremely hard.  The top 5% are as competent as anyone I have seen anywhere—they can connect more dots than what they are paid to. 

The behavior of a small percentage of the Western tourists can be embarrassing—exhibiting a rudeness that they would have dared not to in any developed nation and taking advantage of the courtesy of the Indian wait-staff or airline staff. It is not a level playing field for the staff who accept this treatment for fear of otherwise losing their jobs. Mark Twain had written about such behavior in his 19th century travelogue to India. Some traits remain. Perhaps the visitor feels crowded by the pressures of a high population density. Perhaps it is because very few of the staff in India like to respond with, “I don’t know” as an answer and make up on the spot whatever suits their mind, frustrating the visitor. Or perhaps the Indian attendants are just a bit too fawning. Whatever it is, it looks ugly on the part of the visitors.

Thirty five years ago it was believed that the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority, CMDA-according to my friend Shuvo--actually stood for “Kaatchi Maati Dekhbi Aay”, given the variety of ongoing roadwork projects in the city at any time.  Whether the CMDA still exists or not, I don’t know, but its successors have continued that tradition, and the entire city is dug up with the building of flyovers and new routes for the metro rail that links the city all the way to the airport. Disruptive in the short term, there is a method to this madness that can be best visualized by taking snapshot passages through the city as I have done, roughly @ about once a year. If vehicular traffic increases exponentially and the growth of roadways sub-exponentially, there is a Malthusian-like crisis to be had in the future; which is where the growth of the metro in Kolkata now seems such a clever idea.  And so this city of poets and dreamers today have (I feel) the most pragmatic plan for traffic management among the metros.

Driving to the airport, a little beyond Ultadanga and where a giant flyover headed towards the airport was being built, we saw an enormous construction pit ringed around which a large crowd had gathered.  There was a rickety emergency vehicle parked and a few policemen who appeared as bewildered as the crowd that they were supposed to control. It seems that a vehicle, or something, had fallen into that hole from one on the roads that passed by it. This was not the first time—our driver pointed out—a few weeks ago an entire bus had skidded off the road and fallen into that same pit, killing several people.  A couple of years ago part of a newly built flyover had collapsed under the weight of a truck and that vehicle too, had fallen a good vertical distance. 

Part V: Guwahati

The Muezzin’s call at 4:30 am over the loudspeakers splits the twilight chill of a Guwahati that is quiet after the night’s revelries welcoming in the new year. The sounds of early morning traffic have not yet begun, and the prayer comes across deep, pure, and soulful.  Guwahati is like a small town that has suddenly discovered it is a city.  Housing over a million people, it has no distributed sewage system for human waste and residents are instead forced to install septic systems in small properties with very little land. Today, the municipality has vehicles that will pump out your septic tanks.  But it can take several days to get an appointment. The traditional style of cleaning out septic tanks had been a manual one using labourers, called “sweepers”.  I saw an example of them in action.  First a big hole is dug on the property nearabouts the septic tank. After this the “sweepers” use their advance payment to go fortify themselves with alcohol. This is apparently traditional practice as well. They arrive at the job site drunk and carry out the dirty task of emptying the contents of the septic tank into the pit that they had dug using buckets and without any protective equipment, except that of alcohol that numbs their senses against the stench and the filth. 

“Hobo Diya” is a response that one hears often in Assam, in response to a request for a certain action to be undertaken. Its Bengali and Hindi equivalents are “hobey ekhon”, or “hoga shayad”, but the Assamese version takes the phrase to new heights and imparts a tone that is luminous with ambiguity. Its statement can have multiple objectives.  It can indicate the deferment, indefinitely, of the request for a decision; it can be a gentler metaphor for “no”, similar to the Japanese use of “very difficult”. Or it can simply mean that the responder intends to continue the mindless exercise that he is currently engaged in and does not wish to get into any complicated thinking at this point as to its merits or demerits. 

We return from Guwahati to Delhi via the 3 pm flight on Indigo Air. Richard Gere had taken this same flight a couple of weeks back and had kept the flight waiting since he had arrived late.  This time there is a large group of religious pilgrims from North India on the aircraft. They appear to be an extended family. The men are thick necked and beefy, and their sausage fingers adorned with chunky rings cradle iphones.  Most of them have fierce black mustaches, some have orange colored strings attached to their wrists and some have necklaces.  They speak to one another in a rough, grating dialect.  They have come here to Kamakhya, one of India’s major Hindu temples for a pilgrimage.  As the aircraft takes off, right at the moment of wheels-up, one of them shouts “Kamakhya Maiya Ki” and the others respond in resounding unison, “Jai”. Onwards to Delhi.

When the aircraft lands in Delhi I have a text message awaiting me.  It is the name and number of the driver of the car that we had rented. Thakur was waiting for us outside with my name on a placard. And when you are hitting the badlands of Delhi it is good idea to go with a man named Thakur.