Friday, May 04, 2007

The Delhi, April 2007

I had one of those “stop and think” moments recently. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some interesting and exciting places over the past couple of years. We’ve been to Egypt, Morocco, Barclona, Prague and Budapest. In each place I’ve explored it with the perspective of somebody visiting for the first time, soaking up all the experiences. But I suddenly realized that I’ve also visited most of these places for the last time. I’m not likely to go back to most of them. Considering all the hundreds of places left to see on the planet, it’s more than likely I’ll get to see some of them at least once, but that once will also be my last time. In fact many experiences are probably our “last times” but we don’t always realize it.

You wouldn’t expect such deep thinking in Delhi, but indeed it’s here that I realized this for the first time. This is the first time I’m spending a whole month in Delhi, but equally it’s probably also the last time. It’s the first and may be the last time I’m spending a whole month in a hotel (this is what you call tempting fate). Nonetheless, it’s a sobering thought. So let me tell you about the last time I’m spending a month in a hotel in Delhi.

But first a story. On the second day of our being here, the car came to pick us up at the appointed daily time of 12:30 PM, for office. On the way out of the hotel, we encountered a typical Indian city scene, where somebody, attempting to get into a car park had managed to block off the exit gate and was holding up all the out-bound traffic. The guards wouldn’t let him into the reserved car park but it was bang in front of the gate that they chose to have this discussion. We suggested to our driver that he back up and go around the car if possible. This he did without looking behind – and in doing so rammed into the car behind us. If you know Delhi, the rest of this story won’t surprise you. Out came Mr. Angry Dilliwalla, a swarthy man, with his veins popping out of his forehead. He yanked open the driver’s door, hurled a stream of abuse at him, his mother, sister and much of his clan. And then he slapped him. Hard. Our driver, being a slight man, and in the wrong to start with, was still apologizing. I jumped out at this time to soothe the situation and asked Mr. Dilliwalla to calm down and let it go, wondering how I’d react if he picked a fight with me (was I secretly hoping he would? Probably not). He stormed back into his car, but then came straight out again and this time picked a fight with the guards and their insistence on not letting the original transgressor to get into that car park. He ranted, swore, and kicked over the cones that blocked the way into the car park. In the scuffle that ensued we were able to make our way out, leaving irate guards, Mr. D and a bunch of now involved people in a melee.

This is Delhi. Aggressive, abrasive and a law unto itself. And feudal to the core. In the first moment, people size each other up. Mr Dilliwalla knew in that first moment that the driver of our car was physically weaker and in the deeply stratified social structure, many rungs lower. In Delhi, everybody has a servant, a flunky, a somebody to do the jobs you don’t want to do. Armies of servants with their own hierarchy work in mansion like houses. They occupy the same spaces you live in, only not. There are people to open the gate, people to cook, people to keep watch on other people (Avirook insists that one of the people working in his house has an “intelligence” portfolio). People to look after your kids. Sonia says when she takes her children to the park, she’s the only one who’s not a maidservant. When she goes to birthday parties, all the mothers eat and chat while the respective maidservants feed the kids. It’s common in Delhi to see families come out to restaurants to eat with a maidservant in tow. I personally don’t like the word servant, and it takes dignity out of the equation. Besides neither K or I are too comfortable with somebody living in our space. But, in Delhi, you have servants. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about oppression and most people look after their household help in the best possible manner. But the lines between the classes is deep indeed.

I thought about that driver incident later. Initially I was stunned – not because I didn’t know how Delhi works, but it’s always the shock of re-entry into a different culture. Later I thought that in the US or other parts of the world, you would have had insurance, legal action and effectively a long drawn out process where a few third parties would have made money. On the other hand, here, its one slap and its over. Both sets of people have accepted the crime and the punishment. And as Sinha argued later in the evening as we sat in the Smoke House Grill, it’s the law of the land and it works.

So with that rather blunt introduction to Delhi, we’ve settled into our pattern. Both of us are continuing to work, K on her job, me on my current project, both of which require working closely with people based in London. Her organization has been gracious enough to offer me a desk to work out of, and the march of technology means I can call and receive calls from people in London at local rates and a London number (with a VOIP phone – which uses a dedicated internal line to carry the voice from here to London at little or no cost, and then initiates an external call there). This is also my first (and probably last) time working in a call centre. I’m probably the oldest person in the office by a mile. The biometric security and sobriety of the place apart, it could be a college campus, with a canteen and hundreds of twenty-somethings. Working to UK times means we get in early afternoon and then work through to late evening.

The New and improved Delhi is cleaner than most Indian cities and has smoothly flowing traffic for the most part. Flyovers and bypasses have already been built. Suburban developments such as Gurgaon and Noida have taken care of urban overspill. The new subway system is much talked about – I’m yet to experience it first hand. Quality of life can actually be better in Delhi then currently in some of the other metros. Although as Bhaskar and I were discussing last night, one’s enjoyment of Delhi is steeply correlated with affordability and status – true of most cities in the world, but dramatically so in Delhi.

Gastronomically, of course, Delhi has always stood out – Delhi’s Kababs probably contribute as much to its importance as it’s political or business clout. Be it Kareems or kabargas cooked at home – with hundreds of variations and more nuance than a raag rendition, the Kabab has pride of place in Delhi. Avirook toiled for 3 hours to put together his masterpiece version – which he claimed was direct bequest of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, and the taste of which I’ll probably carry back to London. It’s not just Kababs though, Delhi is the epicentre and embodiment of North India – where as much as the aggression, people revel in the earthly pleasures of food and wine. It is impossible not to indulge yourself. Cosmopolitan food abounds as well. With the “Oh Calcutta” restaurant tucked away at the back of our hotel, and hundreds more to discover at the drop of a hat, and plenty of people who indulge in culinary pastimes, you can safely conclude that we’re well fed, in Delhi. I have to say at this point, that my steely resolve (a largely under developed aspect of my personality) to not put on weight in Delhi means life is a constant struggle. I have to pass through the valley of temptation every morning at breakfast and pass up the parathas, breads, doughnuts and croissants, and restrict myself to fruits, cereal and juices. If somebody up there is in the least bit concerned, I hope I’m getting some brownie points for this. Most days I’m even able to slip in a swim before work, in the very pleasant outdoor pool that stares invitingly at me whenever I look out of the window of our room. In short, I’ve not resorted to my usual pattern of ordering club sandwiches via room service as a staple and staring concernedly at my expanding waistline in the mirror every morning.

As I write this, I have Madhushala playing on my laptop, a gift from Kavita which arrived yesterday. Karuna has been trying to educate me about Harvanshrai Bachchan’s poetry for ages now and this version, performed by Manna Dey is mellifluous to say the least, although I can’t follow the all the words at first pass. I’ll probably be singing it with great feeling but completely ungrammatically at some point till it’s kindly pointed out to me that a glass is female or that the tumbler is male and my “ka”s will be replaced with “ki”s or vice versa. C'est la vie as they say in the Delhi.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mac V PC - The Empire Strikes Back

Everybody knows Macs are cool, and PC's are geeky. Mac users are cool, PC users are cubicle monkeys. Well this article changes all of that.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thoughts in No Particular Order

Thoughts on the passing of Deepak Babu

The passing of Deepak babu or DB as most people who have traipsed through Presidency College will have known him as, brought an inexplicable sadness. I like many of my friends, was one of his less distinguised students, and as such we shared no bond. No friendship. No communication once I stepped out of college. But a man is known by the legends he creates. And Deepak babu was a man whose life was rife with legend. Stories of the things he said, things he scoffed at, the way he taught, the way he chastised, stories of his misspent youth, stories of his dismissive views of people around him... All these are the stories that made the man. Great stories make great men, and DB was a man about whom there were many great stories. Credited with phrases such as "you are innocent of economics" and "boi poro na - literary crossword cheshta koro kano?" - some of us were fortunate to have been the recipient of his wisdom, some fortunate to be the reason for his sarcasm. Most of us were just fortunate to be there when he was. From the time I joined Presidency college, the stories were whispered in the corridors and on the steps - this is where DB once got drunk as a student ... this is where DB told off so and so in no uncertain terms... some almost unreal. Like how he stowed away and worked on a ship to get to England. Or like when he saw a student staring at his wife how he put an arm around his shoulders and told him he would also get a pretty wife if he studied hard... many of them made great story telling and were perhaps far removed from reality. But like I said, great men make great legends, and their passing leaves a very large void in the fabric of our lives, distant though he may have been to us. And that great, distant void brings this inexplicable sadness.

Thoughts on Weather Deterrants
carried an umbrella today. It therefore didn't rain.

Thoughts on Racism in Big Brother

As I write this, Shilpa Shetty is on her way to becoming the face of anti-racism. It’s not an unattractive face, to be honest and one could have done worse. But it seems a bit ironic that such an important issue has surfaced so universally, in the definitively but compulsively banal Big Brother show, whose only claim to noteworthiness is the darker aspects of social engineering it seems to always suggest – couched in its grotesque attractiveness. Its also a sign of the lack of social enlightenment which haunts Britain’s masses – making them no different to their much pilloried American counterparts.

What should worry most British people is not that racism exists, because in smaller and larger doses, it does, universally exist – even in India or Pakistan – but that the ironically named Ms Goody is a publicly known figure who attracts her share of ridicule now and then but is otherwise not seen as racially offensive or right-wing or even a particularly nasty person. This means that for most Britons, she was, hitherto, “one of us”. Suddenly, her new image - insensitive, racially prejudiced, not very clever and not very nice – hurts more because of this reason. It’s not a nice stereotype you’d want beamed across the world. The reality is perhaps ignorance and not racism. But that too is scant solace.

snow in London

woke up on wednesday morning to see the trees covered with white outside the window.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

India Poised

Having spent the last 2 weeks in India, I've been overexposed to slogans from every conceivable brand - from political, to commercial and from civic to the downright cynical, proclaiming that India is "poised". Poised for what? - You may well ask! I suppose that ever better growth, centrality on the world stage, overall inward investments, reduction in absolute poverty are some good things to be poised for. But the question which has been on my mind for a few months now is: how does a country make a transition from being a 'developing' country to a developed country? What are the parameters of that transition? What are it's harbingers and milestones? What are the danger signals of regression? And of course, what are the pitfalls to avoid?

I asked my friend Amit, who is a professor of Economics, but alas, it was already 3 AM and either he was too tired to explain at length or (more likely) I was too sleepy to comprehend. But wandering around Lucknow, Kolkata and now Mumbai, I had to rethink some of my own presuppositions.

The one belief that hasn't changed, though, is my view that the process of development of a nation or a society is not judged through it's most fortunate citizens but by the lifestyle of its least privileged. It's this lens we need to hold up while evaluating progress and growth. This isn't a cry for socialism or equality. I think equality is a somewhat overrated as a premise. In a free economy, growth and wealth creation will always come at the expense of equality. But this progress needs to be measured by the improvement in the reduction of absolute poverty i.e. the actual income and consumption patterns of the poorest sections of the population needs to improve.

The questions still remains in my head... the answers hopefully, will come.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Morocco - Part 1


After the inevitable delays en route, the Menara airport at Morocco proved to be much less intimidating than Cairo was, exactly a year earlier. Then, we were faced by an inscrutable language barrier whenever people spoke with each other in Arabic, and a stern military presence, to be followed by who-blinks-first style negotiations with taxi-drivers outside. Now, we were greeted pleasantly by immigration officials, who nodded us through to where our friends Nachi, Meenakshi and Topu were waiting to pick us up, having arrived earlier in the day. The challenge of a complete lack of a common language – since most Moroccan’s don’t speak more than very fragmented English – seemed to vanish away in the cold night of Marrakech.

Before long we had left our luggage in the Riad and headed out for dinner, with the kind of insurmountable appetite one displays on holiday. The Djema El Fna at this late hour was quiet save dimming light of the shops and café’s lining the Djema and the couple of food stalls, serving rudimentary kebabs, salads and coffee, while we caught up excitedly about experiences since we last met. The chameleon-like nature of the Djema El Fna wasn’t to become clear to us till the next day…

Waking up the next morning in the Riad, was a slow and gradual process with oodles of time passing between wakefulness and any form of mobility, competing amongst the three of us for languor, till we were in danger of missing the mid-day sun. The many sounds of the Riad drifting and sifting through the windows reminded us of the world going about its business outside, like the man collecting old and used vessels who goes by with his plaintive cry and his wheelbarrow,. The Riad set inside the alleyways of the old city, is not unusual to old Indian “haveli”s or the ancient houses you will even today in many parts of India. With the difference that the Riad has been preserved as carefully and vividly as a treasured memory. Gracious to almost every detail and an army of people managing to be ubiquitous but invisible as they go about making your life as easy as possible. Gargantuan amounts of breakfast appear by magic wherever you decide to park yourself – be it in the sun on the terrace or under the covered awning out in the courtyard-gardens. The day in the Riad actually passes like one long breakfast. The floors and walls myriad corridors and staircases that seem to catacomb the Riad are ornately decorated with typically blue-green stones – which sharply offset the pink-red of the walls. Outside the Riad is the real world for many in Marakech – these alleyways and houses are their homes and neighbourhoods. The children who play football late into the night by the lamplight and who always have to pause their game for passers by, the numerous wheel barrows and the 2-wheelers, both motored and pedaled, which form the only forms of transport here, and the loitering men on almost every corner – all are an essential and inseparable part of the old city of Marrakech. The strangely alluring monotonicity of the walls as well as the sense of barrenness they convey – few windows, and high walls in alley after alley make the nights deeper, darker and more ancient.

During the day, through the same walls all over the Djema el Fna and the numerous Souks that lead off from them are splashed with a thousand shades of red and orange. The souks are crowded, bustling and seemingly caught in the perpetual motion of trading. Organized by type of product – you can make your way through the Leather souk, the spices souk, the wood work souk and a dozen that take some finding, the souks are as inviting to shoppers as they are to those just wishing to immerse themselves in the local flavour. As in any developing country, the number of people who appear to be just there, doing not a lot is very high. But somehow, everybody is involved. Everybody can become the face that you turn to for directions or for asking the price. Neighbouring shops may have the same owner, salesmen or you might find shops which are unattended – where the proprietor may have gone for a mid-afternoon siesta, or perhaps to have a neighbourly discussion with a friend down the in souk. You’ll never really know. Through the bamboo slats above, the sun streams in, striping everything in light and shade, adding to the mystery of the Souk. The carpet stalls draw you in eagerly. They tell you they are your friend. As soon as they discover you’re Indian, they reel off half a dozen movies, film stars and burst into Bollywood love songs. Trading is done with a nod to tradition. The man who makes crepes (or what we’ve grown up calling parathas in India) only starts at 4, no matter how hungry you might feel at 3.

When you’re tired of the clamour of the Souk, you step back into the sun at the Djema El Fna – all roads lead to the Djema. At every hour, the tone and nature of the Djema change… till suddenly, it’s a whole different place. At 4 in the afternoon, the snake charmers, and fortune tellers are still going strong. The flea markets, and trinket sellers are thinking about winding up and a little lull has set in after the frenetic activity at noon, where drums from the dancers compete with the pipes from the snake charmers and the acrobats perform outside the cafes. As the sun continues to dip, and darkness shrouds the place, by some miracle there are a hundred food stalls which have appeared and furious consumption of kebabs and tagines is the only activity in the Djema. Interspersed by the prayer times, when the sounds of the prayer ring out from the visible mosques behind the jema. The feeding will frenzy will continue till it all winds down again to the last two food stalls which will serve the late-nighters.

Through all of this, two things stand out quite dramatically, but don’t really present themselves to you upfront – you discover them as you spend more and more time here. The first is the complete lack of aggression. Through the bargaining at the souks, to the jostling in every alleyway, and from negotiating rates to negotiating your journey through the old town as cycles and scooters dodge in and out of pedestrian traffic at impossible speeds, there is a harmony and an acceptance which never rises to aggression or anger. Any angst is kept well controlled, and perhaps expressed in a rueful smile rather than a frown. Apologies come quickly – be it the shopkeeper who tells you how sorry he is that he cannot sell you the piece you want at the price you want it, or the drunkard to tells you how India and Africa share the same sadness. The other is the utter lack of advertising and hoardings. The only signs are at the shops, banks, tourist offices or other places of commerce. There are no advertising hoardings in Marrakech. Whether it’s planned or just another small reason why it continues to preserve its medieval aura – right down to the chamelions, parrots, monkeys and turtles – in cages, on chains or in shows, walking into the Al Medina in Marrakech is like stepping into a time machine.

20 minutes and a thousand years away, across the city lies Guelitz – where you might remember that this is after all the 21st century. Guelitz boasts of bars, Chinese food (best avoided) and even smoky night clubs replete with live performances and scantily clad women. This is a world so hard to reconcile with the old city of Marrakech that it’s not even worth the effort. But the Moroccan pop/rock band and the entire club could have had one entrance in Marakech and the other in a Soho alley in London or New York. But this is best appreciated as a counterpoint to the Marrakech that fascinates visitors.

In that other, old, Marrakech, food can be an exciting experience as well. The Le Foundouk, turned out to be a gastronomic tour de force. The walk needless to say required us to enlist local help to negotiate the labyrinthine alleys, but the wonderful food like my order of lamb tagine with almonds and prunes left a lingering memory long after the taste had gone.

When we finally said goodbye to Marrakech, it was with the same gentleness and hospitality. Loaded into a small minibus, which allowed us and our luggage plenty of breathing room, we had an easy journey to Essouira, stopping for yet another sumptuous meal at a roadside café.

Pictures here

Friday, December 22, 2006


Obi Wan takes a walk through the crowded market... in Marrakech.

Marrakech Souk

Travelling through the Souk in Marrakech, caught by the afternoon sun filtering through the bamboo slats.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Rediff has an article titled "Thanks to India the dream of free Tibet resuscitated" - which is a quote from online questions posed to and answered by Tenzin Tsundue - the Tibetan activist. Curiously, the Economist carries an article with the headline "Hu's afraid of the Dalai Lama" which essentially maintains that India has softened it's stance on Tibet in order to ensure better business links with China. The Economist, after praising India's long standing support of Tibet, says "... So it is sad to see India follow the West in helping China by making even the limited political space available to Tibetan exiles even smaller". Needless to say, both articles are illuminating.

ps Happy birthday aporup.