Thursday, December 31, 2015

Two good proposals lost in translation

I like Facebook's Free Basics concept, I showed my support for the project by signing Facebook's electronic petition to TRAI and by sending a 'missed call' (along with 'call drop' these are two of the most frequently used words in urban India) to a number that is collecting support for the project.

I am not sure why people are trying to block Free Basics, according to a debate I watched on television last night, it seems the opposition is not to the concept but rather to the fact that Facebook is pushing the plan. This seems to me a classic Indian case of stopping something good just because the idea has come from outside. I hope it goes ahead despite all the opposition.

Delhi's idiotic response to the odd/even number plate issue is also incomprehensible. It is a straightforward proposal that has been used in crowded cities all over the world, the response to it is typical Delhi brainlessness.

you can never go home again...

India is in the middle of many changes, some obvious to the returning native (that's a silly expression but it sort of works -- and I certainly like it better than the idiotic NRI acronym) -- and some more subtle but very welcome.

We spend our approximately 3-week break split between two cities, Calcutta and Bombay. These are cities we know very well, have grown up in, have worked in and have our roots somewhere deep in their arsenic or otherwise murky subsoil.

I'm going to put down my impressions and thoughts in my usual 'cluster of points' way just because that's always more fun for me to read later. None of these impressions are in any particular order.

POLLUTION: just awful in both cities. Calcutta's air is thick with gray smog as we drive into the city from a very efficiently organized Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport. Our eyes smart, throats scratch after a very short walk from the airport entrance to a waiting car that will take us towards Park Street, the shahibi- para of my childhood. The pollution is caused in a large part by the huge amount of construction activity that has taken over the city. Flyovers, apartment blocks, hotels, shopping malls and every other structure in varying degrees of ugly architectural style are mushrooming all over the place. The result is a churning of incredible quantities of road dust covering every surface in thick unbreathable grayness. The large numbers of cars crowding Calcutta's narrow streets are doing their bit to filthy up the air.

Not surprisingly air purifiers are the new big home appliance in India. Different brands advertise filters of varying numbers each promising to make in-house air cleaner and healthier.

THE DIVIDE: As always rich Calcuttans live a life far removed from the grit dust and pollution of its  teeming streets, lanes and by-lanes. Homes are quiet, cleaned by an efficient army of helpers, beautifully furnished interiors  show off lovely local wood furniture sold by stores like  Fabindia. Despite the apeing of the West, affluent urban Indians are reveling in a resurgence of celebration of all things desi. Beautiful Indian crafts, fabric, silver ware and wood are proudly displayed and used in high-end living room interiors.

Fabindia's tasteful Allenby road store has a beautiful selection of furniture, crafts, home accessories and soft furnishings all sourced from local materials and all celebrating traditional Indian art and craft techniques.

Calcutta's club culture, a remnant of our colonial past, thrives during this late winter season when returning natives visit from their homes all over the world. Afternoons at the Saturday Club lawns in the soft winter sunshine are time-warped in a way only a Calcuttan will understand. Bearers in white uniform and genuinely kind temperament wander between the white cloth covered garden tables serving Darjeeling tea, some kind of coffee, greasy but delicious mutton shingaras, Flury's (without the apostrophe but I am too old-fashioned) cakes and the evergreen favorite lime soda.

Prices in central Calcutta restaurants, stores and tea and coffee places reflect the current Indian
economy. Everything now costs about 50-100 times what it did even five years ago
Sometimes it's impossible to feel comfortable paying 2000 rupees for a pot of tea and some cakes at Flury's  -- though this is just about €28 but in Indian prices it seems absurd. I discussed this with Sadhu, my ground-level guide and my sister's driver and a person who has seen us growing up over
the years. He proudly reminded me how he had been there for all our weddings, 'dekte dekte pandhra-
sola saal nikal gaya' he said with typical Indian nostalgia.

He agrees prices have risen phenomenally but salaries have also risen for the working class. He is doing well enough with his own house in Howrah, but he is also fortunate to have a good well-paying job. He talks about some others who are not faring so well, but on the whole he agrees job opportunities have grown.

He tells me that the minimum amount you can reasonably give somebody asking for alms on the street, is rupees 10. Indian has an archaic law on street begging which is a criminal activity, to get around this poor people sell all kinds of things from helium balloons to soggy rotten strawberries from little makeshift trays that push at car windows stuck in every traffic jam on the city streets.

THE PARK STREET CHRISTMAS FESTIVAL and ENTALLY: so from around December 21 to 31 the south end of Park Street anchored by Flury's the big Queens Mansions-Karnani Mansions blocks down to St. Xavier's college and the seventh day Adventist school is heavily illuminated, shops decorated, and sidewalk stalls selling good quality food and drink and small crafts are set up. This is the grand Park Street festival aimed to capitalize on Park Street's traditional shahibi-para status. The festival is the brainchild of West Bengal's impetuous and temperamental  chief minister Mamata Banerjee. I am not sure what purpose is achieved, but probably it brings in a lot of money for shops and establishments on the massively crowded streets. All of these places stayed open late into the night, vehicular traffic is closed, police arrangements are heavy but all of this seems to attract hordes of people who crowd the streets eating everything from momos to cakes and kathi rolls. Smiling down on all the chaos is a benevolent Santa dressed in dhuti and lit in million lights.

A universe away from this spending festive spree is the sprawl of the Entally basti that we pass a few
days later on our way to the airport. Covered in a cloud of gray dust the basti comprises rows of
makeshift little huts. Children not horribly malnourished as we used to see them before, but normal-
sized and clothed play badminton or ball right in the line of moving cars and scooters. Men sit idly on stringy dusty charpais, woman tired looking weather beaten dressed in sarees worn to rags do small chores, sit around chatting or picking nits from scraggly haired kids. Even amid all this dust, poor ness and desperate humanity I feel there has been improvement. Slums in Calcutta during my childhood years were inhumanly impoverished. Children would roam the streets naked with distended bellies, there would be human and animal defecation in equal measures, there were no make shift huts just tarpaulin sheets. In some ways this seems to be an improved poverty in these bastis, some improved standard of life but still a great yawning gap between these Entally jhupris and the living rooms of Park Street and Ballygunge Place.

PUBLIC RESTROOMS there was a time when I would never attempt to use a restroom anywhere in public in Calcutta or Bombay (unless of course it was inside a club or five star hotel). Over the last two years this is something that has absolutely and visibly changed. When we reached the Chhatrapati Shivaji airport in Bombay my young girls were in desperate need of a loo. Earlier the only possible option would have been to drive to one of the nearby hotels around he airport and use the bathrooms there. This time I took the kids to he restrooms just on the opposite side of the luggage conveyor belts. The loos were clean, really clean, the wash basins were clean and dry. The soap dispensers were filled and clean dry paper towels were in abundant supply. Earlier in Calcutta, my sister found a perfectly clean and usable bathroom in the small Landmark mall near the air conditioned market for my four year old to use. The Title Waves bookshop in Bandra had a wonderfully well maintained restroom tucked away in a corner of the store. While public bathrooms
are always a matter of luck anywhere in the world (one of the filthiest public washrooms I ever
encountered was in Singapore's very fancy Holland Village shopping center) while the cleanest public bathroom I ever used was in Seoul's multi-facility Severance government and teaching hospital, another very clean was one was a tiny little bathroom in a charming breakfast place in Athens close
to a very crowded tourist bus parking spot. In most Indian cities public facilities have always been a
matter of horror even in upscale shops or establishments. This is definitely changing now. Airports, malls, many stores etc are working hard to maintain and keep clean rest rooms and while there is always room for improvement, the very  fact that this is being noticeably done now is very positive.

And I must also mention the new and very modern looking public convenience facility built by ITC on Russell Street in Calcutta. This is particularly praiseworthy given india's truly horrible old style public conveniences.

GOVERNMENT FORMS, MODI AND  KEJRIWAL we filled out forms for our new Aadhar cards, identification documents being promoted by this government (though the system was set in place by the last government).  The forms had a significant 'new India surreal moment' (I call these surreal moments because they are so absolutely out of the place with the rest of everything that is happening around you) for example as we were driving through Calcutta's New Town development which is full of newly constructed apartment blocks, a Metro station, dusty empty spaces, a Novotel and some malls, I saw prominently placed by a bus stop two gleaming steel large size waste bins with the words 'organic waste' 'inorganic waste' proudly inscribed on them in red. There by the side of that forlorn looking bus stop where a mother in synthetic dull shalwar Kameez and worn out face carried a sleeping toddler over her shoulder, those bins seemed almost Kafkaesque in their oddness. Who will be the separator of this waste? Anyway, another such brilliantly odd moment appeared on the Aadhar card firm in the section entitled 'gender' it asked the filler to identify herself or himself as 'male' 'female' or 'transgender'. In a country where the archaic British era Section 377 remains rigidly in
place criminalizing homosexuality and any form of sex between consenting adults other than heterosexual,, india's new found love of transgendered people seems a little misplaced.

I saw my first ever TV interview of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. A wild card man of the

masses seemingly apolitical politician, Kejriwal was impressive in the direct way he spoke, unassuming and so unlike our politicians it made me very happy. Of course there is much criticism of Kejriwal his style of governance and all the rest.

I do not think I am a die hard Modi supporter, there  is much about him that I find objectionable but it cannot be denied that his emphasis on public hygiene is an excellent thing. He is the first Indian Prime Minister to make hygiene and cleanliness such an open and important part of his government. TV ads on the importance of hand washing specially for children cannot be under estimated. India is a country where many illnesses spread just because of poor or non existent hygiene and dealing with this issue in a public way is extremely important.

MALL RATS Calcutta and Bombay are redefining themselves with their malls and supermarkets and in general in the way people shop (I think this would hold true for other big Indian cities as well). People buy books online from Flipkart or Amazon while retail online hubs sell big brand clothing, homewards and food stuff.  The Quest mall in Calcutta is housed in an ugly architectural structure, but this seems to be the way forward aesthetically in much of this city.
The mall itself could be in any city of the world, standard European brands (Zara, Mango) London's Accessorize and an impossibly expensive Hamleys store are all here. Indian big names like Fabindia and the rather eclectic Global Desi also have stores here. The food court on the top most level has been set up in the manner of popular Malaysian malls, in fact much of the mall reminded me of Bangsar Village in Kuala Lumpur.

Godrej's nature basket online offers gourmet food shopping and home delivery in Bombay, Reliance Fresh offers a more affordable option. Health foods in India (think quinoa or oats) are marketed with
a desi touch, breakfast oats is sold in chatpata salsa and nimbu masala  flavors.

COFFEE AND STARBUCKS Coorg grows good arabica coffee and South Indian filter coffee (not the chicory laden stuff but the genuine drink) has always had a strong following in the country, but on the whole Indian coffee is terrible. I was happy to find Starbucks here (though I would never say Starbucks serves good coffee!) just because the espresso was a standard Starbucks brew and that was better than what one would find in most Indian coffee chain shops.