Progress

[Part two of the ‘Visiting Home’ series. Can be read as an independent piece too.]

The next morning, after a breakfast of idlis and mint chutney, I set out for a walk in the neighbourhood. Our six storey apartment building was at the end of a small street, facing a cul-de-sac, and it broke the pattern formed by one or two or three storey houses that dominated the three hundred or so yards of this street. Most of these houses were either new or had a new first or second floor extension, often built in a way that showed, through a different shade of paint or a bolder architecture, the contrast between old and new. They were built on small plots, and except for a rectangular space delineating a small car park, only a couple of feet separated these houses from the brick walls that surrounded them. In a small recess within one such wall was a Ganesha idol, a bronze figure smeared generously with kumkum; the Remover of Obstacles sat behind a grilled door secured by a lock. The houses had wrought iron gates, unwieldy constructions that creaked when opened, with a ‘No Parking In Front Of Gate’ sign often accompanied by an advertisement – Rukmini Jewelers: Diamond is a woman’s best friend; IIT coaching: for your son’s bright future – in small letters, as if inviting someone to park and look at the message. There were no trees on either side of the street, a condition some houses had tried to remedy with a sapling, protectively enclosed behind a transparent wire mesh, planted next to their gate.

Soon I heard shouts of a game in progress: five or six boys, dressed in rags, were playing cricket at an intersection. Nearby, at the edge of an empty plot, a thin woman in a faded purple nightie sat scrubbing an aluminum utensil, and the water she used drained into the roadside gutter, making a sound that echoed the piss of a boy, probably her son, relieving himself into a puddle. Close to this puddle were two dogs, foraging a rubbish dump. On the opposite side was a gleaming white car, a model of Honda I did not recognize. Ahead, where the street narrowed before joining the main road, a cluster of shops and signs on either side – a sweets-and-cakes shop, a hardware store, a small ‘standing’ restaurant with a paan-wallah attached to it, an internet center above a stationery store, a signboard with directions to an ‘International Astrologer’ – formed a busy conclusion to this quiet lane.

The paan-wallah was hidden behind a colourful curtain of magazines, hanging on a thin string, which went around his small blue cabin. The magazine-covers, exhibits summarizing the state of this nation, each told a story: a saffron-clad guru surrounded by disciples; a politician in a Nehru cap, thoughtful and defiant; dramatic, foreboding predictions on energy and the environment; a glamorous woman, daring, and almost baring all; an exotic locale, verdant greenery, promising Eden; sportsmen in white, brandishing a trophy. The hawker, barely visible behind this veil of information, was talking into his mobile phone; when he finished I asked him for a newspaper, Mint. It was sold out, he said, but I could try in another shop in the next street.

I joined the main road – full of traffic roaring in both directions, with incessant, piercing honks, and exhaust fumes that irritated my eyes – and continued walking on the footpath, taking care not to trip over slabs of unevenly set stone. Every few yards a large building – a jewelry showroom, a travel agency, a bank, a supermarket, an unoccupied office space – stood out, each with a glum security guard stationed outside. At an intersection, a traffic cop stood insouciantly talking on his mobile phone while chaos reigned in front. Back on the side street, a lane parallel to the one I had previously taken, a curious pattern emerged: garbage scattered outside a few houses, followed by one that was swept clean, spotless until its boundary on either side. I crossed another lane before returning to the apartment, bathed in a mixture of sweat and dust.

This was a routine I followed each visit, looking for signs, comparing and contrasting – a bit unfairly – elements I saw here with life back in Germany, until my eyes, dull with familiarity, stopped noticing. The trend was clear: streets were more crowded now, commerce had invaded every corner, and filth had spread like a malignant tumour. But this was the direction other fast-growing Indian cities had also taken, as though there was a template, culturally determined, that was impossible to escape. Within this frame, people found ways to deal with issues and work around, if not solve, them.

While this congestion and disorder were inevitable side-effects of fast-paced growth, there was nothing inevitable about another feature plainly visible on streets: the condition of the poor. As the city had gone about its business of growing, as upper sections of society had gained more prosperity, these people – hawkers, migrant labourers, slum-dwellers, the ‘bottom of the pyramid segment’ in the jargon of social entrepreneurs – had been left behind, stranded like travelers on a platform unable to catch the train of progress.

I brought this topic up toward the end of my lunch that day with Ashwini. Perhaps, I said to her, I must look beyond the streets for signs of progress. I was referring to the underprivileged and impoverished, but she assumed progress in a general sense. Try the malls, she said. You’ll find plenty of new things there.

Ashwini had been my classmate in college. Then, in my early twenties, I’d had a brief crush on her; she had a steady boyfriend, a six-foot Punjabi who visited the gym four days a week. No match for his brawn, I had tried with different means to get her attention, first through poetry, and when that failed, through a critical analysis of her handwriting. Using techniques I picked up from introductory books on graphology, the science (the authors claimed) of understanding human behaviour through handwriting, I spent a week detecting attributes in the writing – the length of the T crossbar, the angle in the M, the pressure on the page, the space within a word – and mapping each to its behavioural twin. The effort led to a twenty page typed report. In it was one conclusion I was especially proud of: on the merit of the downward loop of her ‘g’s and ‘y’s, deep and wide ovals that indicated an above average inclination toward sensual pleasures, I had concluded – and written, with a courage only someone of that age can summon and with a foolishness I wasn’t remotely aware of – that she “occasionally tended to exhibit nymphomaniac tendencies”. She didn’t speak to me for a few weeks after that event, a time I spent wondering which of the points she had taken offense to. It was only later, as the gloss I associated with graphology began to wear down and theories I had previously held sacrosanct appeared suspect, it was then that I had an insight: the conclusion I had drawn was more a hope in my mind than a trait in the writing I had analysed. That lesson, of the importance of maintaining a distance, of not reading things I want to see, has remained with me.

The malls have been here for ten years, I replied, sipping my lassi. I can’t find my answers there. We were sitting on the terrace of a restaurant in Church Street, near Ashwini’s office. Bougainvillea crept up a nearby wall, and beyond it was a jumble of concrete blocks competing for a spot in the sky. A muezzin’s call echoed in the distance.

What are you looking for anyway? she asked, poking her fork into the fruit-salad bowl. Ashwini hadn’t changed much over the years: short wavy hair, sharp curious eyes, and a childlike mischievous smile that, with age, seemed a touch flirtatious. She looked attractive in her office outfit – a crisp white shirt over a formal black skirt, black leather boots – and this mix of formality and innocence imparted a sense of mystery to her persona.

I’m just trying to figure things out, I replied. Trying basically to understand this place when there’s so much happening. To be sure, I wasn’t too clear about this. Figuring out what I wanted was, as I understood it, part of the puzzle.

Why? she asked. Why don’t you just take it easy and enjoy your stay here? You aren’t going to come back anyway.

What makes you say that? I asked.

We’ve had this conversation before, Ram. Each trip you go through the same loop, trying to figure out where you’d ‘fit in’. This has been going on for years now.

Was there a hint of disappointment in her tone? I couldn’t be sure. Ashwini had been through a string of relationships, never settling into one. It’s an occupational hazard, she’d once said. It had made me wish I too were in the advertising industry.

It’s hard to explain, I said, finishing my lassi. Especially to someone who hasn’t lived abroad.

Try me, she replied. But not today – my lunch hour is almost done.

On my way home, my mind still on the subject of progress and development, I recollected the situation in ancient Rome around the first century B.C. The spoils of war, from Carthage and Corinth, had inundated Rome with unimaginable wealth, most of which was shared amongst the already wealthy aristocratic elite. Landless labourers and small landholders lived in cramped neighbourhoods of Rome far removed from the mansions on Palatine hill, eking out a bare existence. The gap between the rich and the poor, already enormous, continued to grow. Now, in 2011, twenty one centuries after that period of antiquity, the fruits of technology and globalization had transformed some lives; for many others, little had changed.

* * *

To be continued.

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