Memories of India


When I reach Bangalore, at the end of April, the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament is on. One or two matches each day are broadcast live on TV, and my father follows them all. Early on I’m reluctant to join him. Once an avid follower, I lost touch with cricket after moving to Germany in 2000. I know none of the youngsters playing today. And watching the game’s new T20 format — a truncated form of the one-day match, which itself is a shorter version of the gloriously slow-paced five-day match — is like being served a fast-food leftover in place of a five-course meal.

But my father’s enthusiasm draws me in. I sit with him for a few overs every match, and then, as the teams and players grow familiar, I begin to watch matches from start to finish.

After all these years the game looks different. The pace is quicker, new rules have emerged, TV commentators sound more relaxed, miniskirted cheer girls have entered cricket stadiums (but are separated, wisely, from the spectators). Players from different countries now play together, as in professional soccer leagues, and watching an Indian player spur on his Australian teammate makes you wonder why they didn’t think of this before.

I’ve heard of politics entering cricket, but watching both cricket and politics on TV I find that they borrow from each other, and the metaphors sometimes cross over. A cricket commentator speaks of a “Modi Free Hit”, an election analyst announces the “Man of the Match” from BJP.


Early in the visit there is a pooja at home. A fire ceremony to ritually mark my father’s 70th birthday. Five priests arrive at 9 am, carrying several rangoli colours, apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes, coconuts, rice, mats to sit on, a portrait of Adi Shankaracharya, a metal vessel to contain the fire, and other paraphernalia. They look young, all in their forties, and seem modern. When the pooja is on, mantras and shlokas from the main priest holding us in a trance, two of his colleagues sit texting on their smartphones. One also urges me to click photos during the ceremony, and offers to take a few himself.

After pooja the caterers carry in the dishes for lunch. We’ve given cooking instructions appropriate to the religious occasion (no onions, no garlic, and so on), but watching the caterers unpack, three priests decide to skip the meal. The food, they say, has been touched by someone from a lower caste, perhaps a shudra.

My mother springs into action, quickly prepares new dishes to appease these priests. I am angry, ready to burst, but this is not the moment to create a scene.

The incident leaves behind an unpleasant taste; payasa at the end of lunch is bland. Caste, it seems, is still the fault line of society in urban India today. India changes, yet remains the same.

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Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani


I arrived in the US ten days ago. After a trip to LA and San Diego (visiting theme parks with my ten-year-old nephew R.), I’m back in New Jersey, with my in-laws. Yesterday we visited a local cinema for a Hindi movie.

This is not new, and it must be common experience for New Jerseyians, but it never fails to amaze me. The queue behind the ticket counter is packed with only Indians. About thirty of them. Lined up for Hindi and Telugu movies. Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, Ghanchakkar, Raanjhanna, Balupu. Some are in Indian clothes, salwaar-kameez or kurtas. They speak in the vernacular, one or two with an American accent.

The movie we watch, Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani, is a modern love story. Boy meets girl on a trek; they like each other, but the boy has ambitions — plans to see the world, to seek adventure; they move on, but eight years later they meet again; old love surfaces, so does the old conflict; the boy has to choose between his desire for adventure and the rootedness of family-life; he chooses the girl.

What made this story different from a Hindi movie from the eighties or nineties is the absence of family in the narrative. Parents appear at the beginning, before boy and girl leave home, and the boy briefly remembers his father near the film’s end — for the rest boy and girl are independent, making choices and living by them. Compare this to QSQT or DDLJ or Lamhe. Family used to played a large role in love stories — is the new trend a reflection of urban India today?

The other difference is the film’s attitude toward the West. Going abroad still has its charm, and the boy does spend time in Europe (even kissing, in the space of a song, a striking blonde, something I haven’t managed in twelve years there), but in the end he returns. New York and LA and Paris are good, but the future is back home. This is the confidence of a new India.

The weight of inequality

[ Three months after the India trip, my mind is still on what happened there. ]

The morning after I landed in Bangalore, I went for a haircut. Raja Haircutting Saloon is near a junction in Koramangala, where the quiet lane from my apartment meets a busy thoroughfare, surrounded by a cluster of small stores selling vegetables, hardware, newspapers and magazines, Internet services, stationery, South Indian breakfasts and meals. The saloon had three empty chairs facing a wall-to-wall mirror. An unfamiliar Bollywood song was playing on the radio. On the wall opposite the mirror hung a full-size poster of Priyanka Chopra in a blue chiffon sari, hands on her hips. A dark-skinned and well-built young man in a bright yellow T-shirt appeared from behind a curtain and showed me a chair. His oily hair was combed back, he smelled of Brylcreem, and standing beside Priyanka Chopra he looked like a Hindi movie baddie. I placed my camera on the counter and sat on the reclining swivel chair. The barber spoke in Hindi.

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Spring cleaning in Chennai, or: How the World turned Brown

We landed in Chennai on the night of 31st December. The city was a big party. Streets were crammed with revelers, men and women and children even, all in their best clothes. Policemen too were everywhere. A gang of spirited young men on motorbikes followed our taxi for a while, before veering off toward Besant Nagar. We drove on to Thirvanmiyur, to the beachside apartment we planned to stay in for a week. The beach, hundred meters or so from our balcony, was swarming with people, mostly men. They were screaming, in joy presumably, and we barely heard the waves. A minute before midnight the fireworks began, turning the starless sky into a canopy of dancing lights. This lasted a few minutes, an interval when we heard neither waves nor screams. The fireworks stopped as abruptly as they had begun, and the beach party did not last long. From the street we heard sounds of bikes roaring and people chattering. The new year was here. I turned off the lights and listened to the waves.

Earlier, at the airport, there was the Ambassador episode. The woman at the head of the prepaid-taxi queue named her destination and paid the fare. The man behind the counter handed back a receipt.

“Go to the airport-taxi queue outside – our man there will take care of the rest,” he said.

“What car is it?” she asked, in Tamil. This was, the way she asked it, an important question. I looked at her. Late forties; flashy green salwar-kameez; large leather handbag, camel shade; flat sandals with a black ankle strap; an expensive-looking suitcase, also green.

“We only have Ambassadors, madam.”

“Ambassador! You should have told me that in the beginning! Why did you waste my time?”

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A small room, ten feet by twelve. The floor is wooden, parquet. At the centre is a block-patterned rug of bright colours, green, maroon, indigo, yellow, red. Eight grey-framed chairs with wooden backs and leather seats stand against three walls; on the fourth side two tables, each a single piece of sculpted glass, carry a stack of German magazines. Der Spiegel and Focus are on top. Of the six people in the room two are elderly: the white-haired man is lost in a newspaper (he has more in a cloth bag on the floor); the woman, arms folded and legs crossed, is staring ahead through steel-rimmed glasses. A teenage boy in grey jeans and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt is reading a book, “Coach Dich Selbst”. A plump girl, also in her teens, is fiddling with a phone; her hands conceal a pink tissue, into which she blows now and then. Next to her is a coloured woman, reading The Economist. A tall man in a heavy jacket enters. “Guten Morgen.” A murmur of responses follow. Only the teenage girl looks up. The man picks up Der Spiegel, sits beside her.

The walls are white. The only window, which faces the street, is curtained by three off-white sheets with printed human figures, also white. The same figures are in a frame on the adjacent wall. Here on the red background these faceless dancing shapes are more striking. The glass door to this room is on the diagonal. Outside, at the reception, white women in white jeans, white T-shirts, white badges walk up and down silently. One opens the door: Frau Künitz, bitte. The elderly woman follows her into Zimmer 1.

* * *

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The marble quarry worker


At the Trichy central bus stand we boarded No.128 towards Thuvakudi. Wife and I were on our way to the Regional Engineering College, where we had studied together in the 1990s. In a foolhardy attempt to revive the collegiate spirit and relive those days, we decided to do without the comforts of a rental car and chose to travel by public transport. The bus was already full when we boarded – all seats were taken – and soon we were rubbing shoulders (and not only shoulders) with fellow passengers, mostly working class men and women. I sensed some of them staring at me, standing incongruously amidst them in my jeans and kurta, a camera slung over my shoulder.

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After the return

The weather statistics reveal that the four weeks we spent away from Germany were the warmest in this country in a long time. On New Year’s eve, when we were near a beach in Chennai enjoying a warm breeze at 25 degrees Celsius, Munich, at 18 degrees, was not far behind. (It was a good time to buy winter jackets, which the German retailers were selling at a 30% discount.) But the weather charts tell a different story after our return. Mercury dipped as our plane touched down in Frankfurt, and since then the cold has been relentless. Shovelling snow next to my car the other day I noticed my neighbour grinning at me. He was standing by his car, watching me struggle with a large mound of snow. “The weather was waiting for you to return from vacation,” he said. I laughed with him, holding back an urge to hurl a handful of snow at his nose.

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Planning the India trip

On a Sunday morning not long ago, Wife and I sat together facing the computer, peering at the Excel sheet we had created the day before. A four-week trip to India was looming ahead, and our itinerary was still open. At the workplace this activity might be called Collaborative Vacation Planning. But “Collaborative” conveys an egalitarian spirit; it hints at a balanced, amiable, and constructive atmosphere. The situation at home was different. Wife was the project lead, the chief authority, one who took all decisions; I followed orders, compiled notes, drafted the plan. All accountability, though, was mine. If anything were to go wrong, my head would be on the chopping block.

The first column of the Excel sheet enumerated dates from mid-December to mid-January; other columns contained variations of plans (titled Plan-A, Plan-B, and so on, until F) that listed, for each of those dates, the cities we would be in: Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Kochi, Trichy, Tanjavur, Mumbai. Wife and I considered the alternatives, spoke to my sister in Bangalore, and a couple of hours later we settled on Plan-B. (Plan-B: right from the start there was something inferior to it, like a compromise you’d settle on when Plan-A doesn’t work. A bad omen.) My sister consented to book our flight and train tickets across this network of cities, and we began to look for accommodation.

This, we soon learned, was the easy part. Next came the task of choosing what to do on which date: whom to call on, whom to invite, what event to cover, which place to visit. So we created another sheet and wrote down all of it: people, places, events. A ‘Priority’ column was added, some items were tagged “Must Do”, others “Important”, and yet others “Nice to do (else Mom will feel bad)”. This last set consisted mostly of visits to all my uncles and aunts in Bangalore, an agonizingly long list of siblings my mother had inherited long ago.

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Family matters

At my workplace the role of a team secretary is not insignificant. Setting up meetings and workshops, booking rooms and external venues, approving leave requests, handling business-travel queries: these tasks keep the secretaries busy, and the rest of us away from administrative affairs. Their office is a hub of activity, its traffic a barometer of the team’s progression. In August, when most Germans pack their bags and travel South, the room goes quiet; activity rises in September and peaks in early December when everyone is at work, waiting for the Christmas break. The secretaries, well aware how much we depend on them, usually plan ahead and ensure their vacations do not overlap. It is a steady job, a function that sees little attrition: they remain with the same executive for years, even following the boss to other areas of the company. So when I learned, not long ago, that our new team secretary would soon leave, the news took me by surprise. Less than four months had passed since E joined us. She got along well with everyone; her relaxed mien and her readiness to smile gave the impression she was happy with her job. What had happened?

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