Notes from a recent India trip


1. Arrival

At the Bengaluru International Airport everything seems new and shining. The modern interiors, polished and spacious; the immigration officials, courteous and efficient; the H1N1 desk, sophisticated (with high-tech equipment measuring, from a distance, the average temperature of passengers in a queue) and orderly; the exit gate, sparse (no swarm of taxi-wallahs waiting to assault you) and organized (a handful of drivers carrying placards, Volvo buses to the city). Is all this only a facade? Or has change renewed other dimensions of life in Bangalore? I’m eager to find out.



2. Belonging

I’m visiting India after two years and yet, just a day into the trip, Germany already seems like a distant dream. It’s the density of experience here, the total invasion of your senses. And the instant connectedness you feel to a place you’ve grown up in. I belong here, I tell myself. Is this another fleeting impression?



3. Sickness

The euphoria doesn’t last long. By the evening of day four I’m running a high fever. This – a flu brought on by an infection of either the ear, nose or throat – has happened, without exception, on every India visit. Indian cities may sell themselves on a number of points; health isn’t one of them. (Health-care is a different matter, of course.) But a powerful antidote is near at hand: Mother. In two days I’m back on my feet.



4. Relatives

The trip is too short to make my obligatory visit to the dozen first-circle relatives in the city. (But Mother, despite my protests, makes me phone all of them and promise a visit when I’m here again in December.) This time I only visit an aunt where Grandma is staying. On this day some other distant relatives are also present. I sit with my coffee, silently watching the scene – with children, aunts and grandmas – unfold.

A 5 year old girl hasn’t been well, and the mother remarks that she is on antibiotics. One of the elderly women is shocked.

“Antibiotics! For such a young child!!”

The mother turns defensive: “The cough wouldn’t go down at all, and the fever also remained very high – so we had to accept the doctor’s advice.”

But the elderly woman isn’t convinced: “Have you tried the seeds of [exotic sounding name] plant? It is so effective that you will never think again of going to a doctor. Just dry them in the sun for a few hours, crush them and mix the powder in a glass of milk for the child. And if you are doing this for the first time, better not to start on a Saturday or Tuesday.”

Grandma, silent until now, doesn’t wish to be left out of this debate of homemade cures: “In our days it was sufficient to mix some Tulsi leaves in a spoonful of ghee. That would cure most ailments.”

This interjection from Grandma is a relief to the little girl’s mother: the focus has shifted to the relative merits of Tulsi leaves over the other seed; the child can continue with antibiotics for the time being.



5. Friends

Five meetings with different friends show what I’m missing back in Germany.

At one place we play a stimulating word game that involves making your partner guess the word on your card by giving any verbal clues except those on the must-not-use list. Another friend’s 2-year old daughter dazzles us with her recollections of specific events in The Ramayana. Over dinner with a journalist I hear a fascinating account of life in Bangalore as a freelancer and mother of a 5-year old. Then there is a long evening music session with a colleague who, in his spare time, composes folk songs in Bengali. Finally, the day I’m leaving, I visit a college friend; she’s been taking piano classes and I get to hear some delightful Bach melodies while her 5-year old son dances to the tunes.

It’s the concentration of these social events into a space of a week that paints a picture of life vastly different to what I lead in Germany. But is this an exception? For some of these friends, my visit is a social encounter they seldom have – life in the city leaves them with little time and energy. The irony is that in Germany, in the small-town community life I am a part of, there is a good amount of time and energy to spare, but few friends like these.



6. Society

A friend who moved back to India last year noted that he constantly finds himself being slotted into a social hierarchy. People look for clues – through the dress you wear, the car you drive, your job title, educational background, the address you live in, whom you socialize with, and so on – and place you at a certain level. How they respond to you, the value they give you depends, in the end, on your place in their imagined social tree.

Being an NRI, or having any association with something “foreign”, can propel you higher (or at the least, help you get noticed). I observe this through my parents’ attempts to project my NRI status (Dad promptly introduces me to people in our apartment building as his son “who has just come here from Germany for a week.”) and to project my connections to others with a similar background (Mother, talking to a relative about my planned visit to a friend later in the evening, highlights that this friend is a “U.S return”). I find all this amusing and entertaining (the highlight of the trip is an introduction to someone who calls himself “IIT Srinivasan”, to underscore the institution he graduated from), but the underlying malaise, if one thinks about the consequences, is disturbing. Status anxiety exists today in every society, but it seems to be taking an extreme form in India, guiding more and more decisions people take, from cars to careers, homes to holidays, food to friends.

IMG_0190



Swimming pools in apartments are a good example of a status symbol that has emerged in the last decade. Everyone wants one in their apartment complex, but few use it. At a small block of apartments in a crowded street I find a swimming pool, not much larger than a bathtub, filling up the central courtyard from corner-to-corner. Some years ago this space would have been used as a play area for children. The kids now play on the street, dodging speeding autos and shooing dogs rummaging through the rubbish lying on the sides.



7. Family

At home recovering from my bout of sinus, I dig up some old photographs and spend one evening going through them with parents and sister. Dad reminisces about the “good old days” in Ghana in the Seventies; Mother recollects how naughty I was as a boy; Sister reminds parents how she’ll never forgive them for planning their U.S and Europe trip before she was born. In one album there is a photograph of mine, taken a few years previously: I’m sitting in front of a steaming bowl with a towel over my head, looking utterly miserable, just having inhaled some Vicks vapours.

“Look at this,” I tell them, “This is how I’ve always been, isn’t it? The boy whose nose wouldn’t just stop running.”

The picture and its timing (I’ve just finished inhaling Vicks vapours from a steaming bowl about half an hour ago) is too much for all of us: we cannot stop laughing for the next few minutes.



8. Shopping

The forum mall in Koramangala is bathed in a sea of young shoppers. Inside Landmark, in one corner of a crowded book section, I have a conversation with a young engineer from Intel. It begins in a peculiar fashion – he comments on the “nice pattern” my shoes have, asks what brand they are – and moves on to books, my life in Germany as an expatriate, his alternate life as an entrepreneur. (This is a country with ideas, I think to myself.)

Half an hour later, at the billing counter the queues are spilling over to the main shopping area. The systems are down, someone explains; so they are billing everything manually. When my turn finally arrives the cashier’s eyes widen at the stack of thirty-odd articles – books, CDs, DVDs – I place on the counter. This is going to take a while. People behind me also realize this, so they request their “single item” to be billed first. After three such requests the cashier begins to work on my pile.

IMG_0232



Writing down the description, code and price of each article takes about twenty minutes. He then begins to sum it up using a calculator. Once completed, he starts again (“Just to verify it, sir.”), which brings up a different amount, so he repeats it a third time. When it all seems done, he observes that a good part of the bill is not copied as the carbon paper was in the wrong position. That won’t work; he has to make a copy for the records. At this moment the system comes up, so he decides to do the entire inventory again, through the electronic channel. Five minutes later we are done. In these forty minutes I’ve seen a few minor episodes at other counters and queues: people are growing impatient and the cashiers, for no fault of theirs, are blamed for small mistakes made under duress.

I can recollect only one such episode of automation failure in Germany in the last nine years. Compared to India, automated systems seem to be more reliable there. Without digging into specific numbers or details I can only guess at a possible cause: perhaps it has something to do with the availability of a backup manual system. In Germany, I haven’t seen any manual alternative – if the systems are down, the queues are closed. This places a much higher demand on the degree of reliability an automated system must offer. In India there is, most often, a manual alternative; perhaps it is a cultural trait – we are more flexible, and also more risk averse.



9. Education

A cousin comes over to stay for the weekend while I’m in Bangalore. He’s studying Computer Science at a nearby Engineering college, and has brought some books with him to study. When I peek into his notes, I’m shocked to find that he is expected to write down, as an assignment, the commands of the Unix operating system. Apparently they do not have a Unix system in college; all they do is study theory. It’s a bit like asking a carpentry student to write down the theory of drilling a hole; you may make him memorize the procedure, but there is no substitute for doing the real thing.

IMG_0199



I search for and locate a web-based Unix emulator he could practice those commands with. But it does not take away the uneasy feeling that this reminder – of how divorced from reality many courses in India continue to be – has created.



10. Departure

At the Lufthansa desk the lady finds my luggage four kilos overweight. She suggests that since the systems make allowance for only 2 additional kilos, I could transfer some weight into my hand luggage. It is a helpful attitude: she has a concrete solution to the problem.

Inside, after an uncomplicated security check, I find myself in a passage lined with classy designer stores and trendy snack bars – this could be Frankfurt or Dubai. I pick up some magazines in a shop and line up at the cash counter. When I’m the next one to be serviced, a foreigner sneaks in next to the person in front – also a White man – and begins to talk to him. This is the classic jump-the-queue technique; I wait and watch. After the person in front leaves, the cashier – a smartly-dressed teenage boy – ignores the foreigner on the side and collects my items. I’m pleasantly surprised. (The usual behavior I’ve observed on several occasions is to give preference to the White man; call it the mindset of the colonized.) I pay for my magazines, and when the cashier finds he does not have change he simply offers to charge me five rupees less. This is another surprise. (I can recollect being turned away from shops when I did not have small change.) I ask him to keep the ten rupee note instead, giving him a credit of five rupees. He accepts, and adds immediately that as soon as he gets a five rupee note he’ll deposit it into the charity drop-box in the corner. I smile, nod, and thank him.

If this boy represents the next generation, the country’s future looks bright.

16 Replies to “Notes from a recent India trip”

  1. You really are great with these quiet observations. The social hierarchy bit is really true and a coincidence. Was planning to write something similar to it just now :)Btw loved the description of the powerful antidote.

  2. First time visitor to your blog. I would like to commend you on a very thoughtful and well-written post. The word “serene” comes to mind to describe the tone of this post.

    Regarding your shopping experience and conversation with the young engineer, please google “Amway” and “Multi-level marketing”. It seems like your staying in Germany might have helped you avoid some (minor?) annoyance 🙂

  3. this post felt so upbeat and positive in such a calm way! :o)

    Except for the part where the POS machines at the Landmark stores didn’t work. I sell barcode scanners to those guys! (although this was probably a software issue.. but still!)

  4. This is a very refreshing take on India by a returning Indian. Most of these are normally associated with cribbing about the infrastructure (or lack of) but you choose to concentrate on the people too. I really liked your post.

  5. Thank you, everyone, for your generous compliments and feedback. The remarks on the tone are especially valuable – words like “quiet”, “serene”, “calm”, “beautiful” convey the effect this piece has had on some of you, and they help me understand my writing better.

    As some long-time readers of these pages know, I’ve not always been this balanced about my response to the India-experience. The archives here contain some unpleasant pieces as well, and on one occasion I responded to a query from one regular reader who asked me about my anger and irritation after an India trip: https://parmanu.wordpress.com/2007/02/07/what-are-you-thinking/

    What we often forget is that there isn’t one single story, be it about India or any other place. And, as this fascinating talk reveals, a single-story is always dangerous: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

  6. parmanu:

    unlike the other commentators, i felt an undercurrent of superciliousness. whether it exists or it is just my perception, i do not know. probably the latter, as i have been reading your blog on and off for quite a while now, and have noticed that you try to paint a detached picture of your surroundings (whether in india or europe). that said …

    – you european nris definitely have a very distinct advantage over us us nris. the time difference. each time i land in india, it hits me like a sack of bricks and keeps me groggy until at least day 3 or 4! 😦

    – re: your sickness; this is one point where you were unable to maintain your ‘detachment’ – i don’t know if you are among the majority or minority with respect to falling sick. i am not saying i’ve never gotten sick in india, but i definitely don’t get ‘india sick’ i.e., sick each time i visit india. i wonder where your commentators are on this point – do you guys fall sick _every_ _time_ you visit india?

    – re: the relatives paragraph: i am seriously wondering whether my childhood was completely removed from that of the rest of you all (including my own wife’s!). i do not remember either me or my parents ever knowing the name of any drug that was administered to me for the duration of time that i was in middle-high school (obviously i don’t/wouldn’t know if parents kept tab when i was in primary). my point being, i always – as far as i know – took whatever medication was prescribed. and the doctor’s handwriting used to be 100% illegible to me, so there is no way i knew what medication i was taking. so my question to everyone here – did you always know what medication you were taking at a given point in time, or did your parents know?

    – re: friends, it is the classic conundrum (though i think your friends in india have more time and opportunity than you are giving them credit for), similar to the time-money one.

    – re: society, i think the same applies in the usa too; don’t know about europe, as i have never lived anywhere there. i didn’t realize that swimming pools lie unused, but i can see why! i mean, who would want to swim in a swimming pool if it is 30 feet or so in length? correct me if i am wrong, but the pool in the picture does not appear to be much longer than that – and if 10-15 people show up, it will be standing room only, more or less.

    – “The boy whose nose wouldn’t just stop running.” at least, when the boy is abroad, he can catch up with his nose so, relatively speaking, it stops running 😉

    – re: automation failure; happened to me once recently, at a lunchtime visit to the library, a 15 minute trip ended up becoming more like an hour’s trip when my library card just refused to scan and the librarian had to write out the details of each dvd i was borrowing (in duplicate) – there was a delay of about 15 minutes before they started this process, while they moved heaven and earth trying to get my card to scan!

    – re: departure – that is nice to know. i remember reading recently about how our cricketers, even in the 1970s, used to address the british cricket players as “sir!” my hat’s definitely off to the likes of harbhajan singh, though he should’ve batted better in the last two matches (to back his 5-2 prediction).

    this is my longest comment ever. hope wordpress does not choke!!

    – s.b.

    1. s.b. : WordPress did not choke; I did. Thank you for all the feedback. Unfortunately, on some of the points I found a big disconnect between what was written and how you grasped it. And presently, I do not feel inclined towards bridging that gap.

  7. Certainly left a smile on my face when I read the last part of your article.. The airport shop one.. One of the rare instances I have seen people not cribbing about how far the airport is etc.. Nice work anyways.. Keep it going..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s