Monday, August 16, 2010

Happy Birthday, India

White kurtas.  A little parade.  A play written and directed by Deshpande sir, the local playwright.  Saare jahan se achha.  Two laddus in a small polythene packet.  The rest of the day off.  That is what August 15 always meant to me as a kid.

We lived very close to my school.  And I was a regular in Deshpande sir's productions.  So odds and ends from home would routinely find their way onto our sets during those plays.  One particular year, it was a little agarbatti-stand, shaped like an Om.  It was made of marble or ivory or something equally fancy.  It was on our open-air set and was placed prominently enough that one can clearly make it out in pictures from that day.  I was playing a freedom fighter of some sort.  I get shot towards the end of the play, and fall to the ground.  I lay on my back, legs awkwardly collapsed, hands spread, eyes closed, face open to the skies, trying to breathe as little as possible to keep my stomach from heaving.  In the background, a chorus sang a melancholy refrain - ay mere pyaare watan ... ay mere bichde chaman ...

It was right about then.  It started to pour.  The monsoon had come by to pay Independence Day respects.  The chorus (themselves well protected under a roof), went on ... tujh pe dil kurbaan.  Tu hi meri aarzoo ... tu hi meri aabroo ... tu hi meri jaan.  And I lay there, face up to the sky, drenched.

It was supposed to be the last scene of the play, so as the chorus started to wind down, we all got up, did our curtain calls in double quick time, bundled up whatever we could from the set, and ran indoors.

We never saw the Om shaped agarbatti-stand again.  To this day, mom talks about it.  Every time we talk of my acting, of Deshpande sir, of Independence Day, that is what she comes back to.  Hrumph, she goes.  You lost my agarbatti stand

That is what Independence Day must seem like, to many in generations past.  A symbol of possessions lost, opportunity squandered.  A milestone for another year passing by without much changing.  Everything is the same, and I don't have my agarbatti stand any more.

"The whole New India story ..." a friend still in America asked me the other day, "do you really see it?"

I was in the car, as I seem to be most of the time.  Traffic was a snarling, belching, lugubrious, thousand wheeled beast, enveloping me, crushing me.  Simplex Infrastructure, read the many signs on whatever was being constructed right in the middle of the road.  Metro ban raha hai, the driver told me once.  It is always something that is being built.  Traffic is so bad because they are trying to build something.  They are building that thing because traffic is so bad.  It is all circular.  Always back where you started.

The entire city of Bombay is in logjam because of the Metro and Monorail projects.  Local trains, which used to run every 12-15 min back when I had the courage to ride them, now run every minute.  Each of these is now 12 coaches long, instead of the 9 that used to be the norm before (or was it ten?).  I still have to let five or six of them go by before I can get into one, said the security guard in my office once.  The more extensive networks of the proposed Metro and Monorail might solve part of the problem.  But the path to a less congested city, it appears, goes through five years of a super-conjested one.  Go figure that one out.

Where one highway is clogged, another seems to be buzzing along.  The other day, I had a video chat with someone over Yahoo Messenger ... while I was on the road!  Broadband internet on the go.  It is quite the thing here.  And so much the norm that you are liable to get pittying looks if you sound impressed about it.  The fashionable thing is to complain about how Reliance speeds compare with Tata Photon speeds, and how fast you can stream movies or play games while on the go.  Let me repeat - while on the go!  You see, there is so much of 'go'-ing involved in the India of today, you have got to find ways to make it productive.  Enter Mobile Broadband.  But then you reach home, go up to your apartment on the 13th floor, and try calling the guy living in the next building.  Ting-tong-ting, goes the annoying jingle on your cell phone.  Call failed, says the screen.  You are too high up, someone told me, you can't get reliable cell phone connections there.  Too high up?  Doesn't that take me even closer to the satellite thingies that send the signal down?  Or whatever?  Help me someone, I am technologically challenged.  How come you can talk face-to-face with someone half-way around the world, while you are zipping along the road, but can't talk to the guy in the next building once you are in the immobility of your home?  Explain, gods that govern technology, with additional responsibility for paradoxes of India, explain!

The airports are the most visible signs of the New India.  Airports in India of old were glorified Greyhound bus-stations, only worse.  Now, every large city seems to sport a swanky new airport, each trying to outdo the other in its architecture, its facilities, its cool reflections of places on the other end of long flights.  But even here, the signs of a new emergence are everywhere.  "Airport Modernization Under Progress" declares a little board in Chennai, right where you wait to be picked up by your ride.  "Pardon the Inconvenience."

In fact, that is it.  That might well be the slogan for India of today.  "Modernization Under Progress.  Pardon the Inconvenience."  Do you really see the New India story, you ask me?  Yes sir, I do.  And it is ugly.  The New India is emerging out of the womb of the old.  The labor is painful.  I can hardly bear to be in the same room.  And what is emerging is squiggly, messy, sticky and cranky.  Yes sir, I do see the New India story.  It is a story of birth.  It is chaotic, and slimy, and filthy, and grimy.  But it is being born.  I can see it, right from where I stand.  Squiggling, wriggling its way out of the mother.  It is not much to look at yet, but I am proud.

Tu hi meri aarzoo
Tu hi meri aabroo
Tu hi meri jaan.


  1. I don't know u, but follow chanced upon your blog.
    I have to say that you write wonderfully and this post gave me goose bumps, a true patriot that i am.

    keep it up!


  2. Great post, J.
    Totally agree with you.

  3. Lonesome Tango24 August, 2010 23:31

    Back from a long trip out of the country and this blog hit the nail right on the head for me. The one worry is that the "Modernisation" doesn't forecast for needs far enough ahead in time. The building process takes a long long time, with tons of corruption along the way, resulting in tons of rework - so that by the time the end result (new airport, new flover, whatever) is complete, the needs of the city have already overtaken it......and so it's time to start all over again. Will we be in a constant state of "being born"? Or will the baby start toddling around some day?

    PS Has every school child in India sacrificed some household item to their school sets? I thought it was just me.

  4. Lonesome Tango26 August, 2010 13:14

    Just got back after a long trip out of country and this blog hit the nail on the head and expressed what I was thinking on the way back from the airport. The thing that worries me, though, is that the "modernisation" is not forward looking enough. It takes a hell of a long time to get the projects completed, what with the corruption and the low levels of mechanization for building. Often, by the time they finish, the city's needs have galloped on ahead and it's time to start some new project all over again. The question that I muse on often is "Will we be in a constant state of 'being born'?" Will the baby coming out ever get its walking legs?

  5. Thanks to all readers who have written very kind words about this post - either here, or on FB or by email to me. Smoke+Mirrors, thanks for an especially touching email response.

    @ Lonesome Tango - sorry for not having your comments up on the blog sooner. I made some silly setting changes that I didn't fully understand! I warned you I was technologically challenged, didn't I?

    Great point about not planning far enough ahead. One needs to look far and wide to find some vision around here.

  6. This has turned out to be a strange post. I have received numerous emails from friends and acquaintances saying this is their favorite post on Brick and Rope. However, many fewer have publicly declared their feelings on the blog itself! Is it the fear of looking jingoistic? Awkwardness? What makes an American say 'this is the greatest country in the world' with a straight face, and most of us Indians (certainly myself among them) would die of embarrassment before uttering such a sentiment? Maybe a seed for another post here somewhere...