Friday, February 05, 2010

Not that I wish I could do this or anything

Thursday, February 04, 2010

My Mother is an Ugly Woman - Subroto Bagchi

My sense of shame in being an Indian in front of foreigners has somewhat changed over time.When I was younger, I used to be very bothered whenever I saw people begging, pestering a visitor at the traffic intersection and of course, the sight of people defecating in full public view.These sights do not put me to shame anymore.I have come to terms with the underlying causes that make my countrymen beg, bother foreigners near touristic places or live in squalor next to heritage sites and five star hotels.When people do not have a roof above their heads and everyday is a matter of survival for the majority, what use is my shame?I am deeply aware that every civilization must progress on its own terms, in its own time. There are no short cuts to uplifting more than half of a country with 1.2 billion people into a developed state. I have done my own bit towards that cause, and I will continue to do what I can, but in my lifetime it is very unlikely that there will be no beggars on the street, or that people will stop relieving themselves in public view, or that I will see the vanishing of squalor that co-exists with the sometimes ugly opulence in our cities. So, these days, when I am with a visitor from overseas, I am not ashamed any longer with the sights, smells and sounds of India.
But last week, I held my head in shame–deep shame–and this happened in a small University town in Germany.I had been invited there to speak at a student event. Along with my wife Susmita, I had arrived the day before, and we were touched by the affection and hospitality of the students and the faculty. During the dinner that night, we had told our student hosts Paul and Leo that if ever they came to India, they must stay at our home so that we could return some of their hospitality. Because our two daughters left home a long time back, we live in Bangalore all by ourselves, and love hosting young people from around the world.That was the night before.The next day, when the student event actually began, my talk was preceded by one from an Indian gentleman based in Germany; he runs the German operation of a family-owned Indian conglomerate that is a household name in India. The gentleman has been in Europe for a long time, and has evidently done well for himself.
He started his presentation titled “The Indian Mind”. It was a medley of Internet jokes customized for India, a bunch of PowerPoint slides that frequently spam all of us depicting the greatness of ancient India, and a bunch of cartoons that depicted the so-called “the Indian way”. There was also a short movie that contrasted Germans and Indians based on cultural generalization. Finally, he delivered his own take on what Indians are supposedly like.The presentation opened with the macabre picture of a skull with a dollar sign stuffed inside it.The narrative to match this dramatic, if disturbing, image went something like this:An Indian went to see a banker in Manhattan. He wanted a $100 loan; he was willing to pay any amount of interest, and offered his Porsche as collateral. After taking the loan from the flummoxed banker, he went off to India on a month long vacation. When he came back, he promptly returned the $100 along with the interest of $20 and reclaimed his car. When the banker asked him to explain this puzzling behavior, our man proudly said, “Where else in Manhattan could I park my car for an entire month for all of $20?”WOW!The two hundred or so young German students laughed at the joke. Then came slide after slide on the glory that once was India: Aryabhatta to Charaka, he depicted the story of zero to the fact once upon a time, India had invented chess. He told the audience how we had figured out gravity before Newton did, and the concept of inter-Galactic travel before anyone else.The audience sat in awe.
Then he switched over to a film clip that sought to contrast the past with the present.His film clip showed Indian legislators break chairs, throw footwear at each other, and not stopping there, break their microphones to hurl missiles at each other until blood flowed from the injured, and finally some law makers were seen taking cover under their tables.The German students were now bewildered and I started to feel uncomfortable sitting in their midst. But then I told myself, maybe the truth must be told and this is important knowledge about India that the 200 future leaders must know. And why not? As I gulped down my discomfort, more Internet jokes followed.One was about corruption and inefficiency.A man supposedly went to Hell only to find that there were regional options available down there. There was this American Hell that offered a hundred lashes. Next to it, he found the German Hell that offered a choice between an electric chair and fifty lashes. The man moved on to check out the Indian Hell and finally settled for it. Why?In the Indian Hell, there were power-cuts so the electric chair did not work and the person in charge of lashing sinners simply took his salary and never came to work!The students laughed some. That was indeed funny!Then he went on to tell the next Internet joke.Americans had invited international bids to build a fence around the White House. An American and a German firm that submitted bids had taken careful measurements and then they had quoted $700 and $1200 respectively for the work. Then there was the Indian firm that took no measurements and simply quoted $2700. The bewildered decision-maker called in the Indian bidder and asked him to explain. “How can you quote such a high price when you have not even taken measurements?”, he asked. Our man replied with supreme confidence, “I do not need to take measurements. I will pay you a thousand and take a thousand and we will sub-contract the work to the lowest bidder.”WOW!
Then our presenter showed a short film contrasting how Germans and Indians thought of the idea of forming a queue - the Germans fell into instant orderliness and formed a single file but Indians pushed around, and broke the line as soon as one was formed. Then he showed a German parking a car, and how an Indian does it, and a few other such things including how Indian bureaucracy and politics differ from that of the Germans.Everyone in the audience was getting the message.At this point, he returned from the movie to slides.With dramatic flourish, he showed a picture of a bucket full of crabs.“This picture was taken on an Indian beach while I was with a friend from Germany. He was curious to know why the crabs were not escaping the bucket. I said, ‘Let us call the fisherman and ask him’. The fisherman listened to the question and told us, ‘These are Indian crabs. When one tries to get out, the others simply pull him down’. ”Oh well, never mind if you have heard a dozen variations of the same joke.Now the attention of the students was beginning to wane a little bit. So, he came to the end of his presentation on India.He had a slide that said Indians liked to receive (and, thankfully, also give) presents.And then he went on to hold aloft his magnum opus, a slide that prophetically read:

“Indians do not mean what they say and do not say what they mean”

It required a story to explain.So, he narrated how a group of Germans were once called home for dinner by an Indian. The Germans being Germans took the invitation seriously and actually showed up only to find an unprepared host who opened the door in his pajamas. The message was clear. Do not take Indians at face value.My mind turned to the dinnertime conversation the previous night, and I wondered what Paul and Leo were now thinking about our invitation to come stay with us when they visited Bangalore!Finally, the man gloriously wound up, saying that despite all this, India was one of the fastest growing economies in which if anyone chose to put in his money, it was bound to fetch a great return.The audience clapped and then everyone took a fifteen minute break.

I headed to the toilet.There was a long queue.Suddenly a young German student in the queue, unaware that I was behind him, did a mock drill of breaking the line to form what he called an “Indian Queue”.I was the only Indian there, and I had only my countryman to thank for the ignominy.
I had to wait until that afternoon for my talk, and when done with that, we returned to our hotel.The next day, one of the student organizers came over to drive us to Frankfurt in a rental car so that we could leave for the US from there.While driving on the Autobahn, unfortunately, the car drove over some object and its two left wheels burst. We pulled over, and, after counting our blessings for what did not happen, called for help. After probably an hour, another student organizer reached us and we switched over to his car. The first student had to stay with the damaged car, waiting for a tow-truck to arrive.Soon we were on our way.The entire episode had shaken everybody, but thank God, no one was hurt. Nonetheless, many plans had gone haywire. We were all past our lunch time by the time the second car had arrived. So when we finally reached our hotel in Frankfurt, we invited our young friend to join us for lunch since he too had missed his, and was to now drive all the way back to his University town. When Susmita asked him to park his car and come into the hotel to have lunch with us, he responded spontaneously, and without any malice, “The German way or the Indian?”We tried to laugh off the repartee, but deep inside I felt hurt where once upon a time, I used to feel shame.Poor Susmita started convincing him that we really wanted him to have lunch before he drove back, and of course, he joined us, but I wonder how on earth we were to change the newfound knowledge on India that was now deeply imprinted in 199 other young minds because an Indian in a position of authority had so convincingly delivered the message that we do not mean what we say and don’t say what we mean.
I can deal with my poor, uneducated, disheveled countrymen back home, begging at traffic intersections, troubling foreigners, living in squalor and defecating in public view, and behaving in a thousand other unacceptable ways.But I have difficulty when the educated, the well-to-do, the ones who have everything going for them, mentally defecate, trying to impress the world at the cost of their own country.After lunch, when the young man was finally on his way and Koblenz was behind us, I thought of the idea of motherland.The word “Motherland” evoked the image of my mother.In that moment I wondered if there is anyone in the whole world who thinks that his mother is not beautiful.Worse, is there anyone who actually tells the world that his mother is an ugly woman?

Say cheese !

“This is a nice background, here take my photo. “

“Ooh there’s an old teacher, I want a picture with her. Here take our photo. “

“Wow that setting is beautiful, here take my photo.”

“A group photo ? Waitwaitwaitwait Im coming. (5 second gap as everyone adjusts to accommodate the new person). Ok now click.”

“Isn’t that statue lovely? Here take my photo.”

“Ok now all you guys move, I want a solo picture.”

“Now I want a picture with her. Smile. Thank you. Now with him. Smile. Thank you. Wait. One last picture. With both of them now. Smile. Cheese. Thank you.”

They say a picture is worth a 1000 words. That in a photo, time halts for a brief moment. Well I just made that up so I doubt anyone has said that. But I digress. Every time I head to a tourist spot, I manage to spot one of ‘them’ (not to be confused with the people who said a picture is worth….). The kind who want their picture taken at every possible occasion. With every available camera. With the same background and the same people in them (are they possibly hoping that some radically different picture will emerge if they click the same snap from different cameras time and time again ? Who knows …. ). And they want solo pictures. Lots of them. Make that lots and lots of them. Under the tree. On the left side of the tree. On the right side of the tree. With their best friend. With their best friend’s friend. On the lawn next to the tree. And so on and so forth. Recepients of endless flashbulbs that accompany a snap. I for one, find myself dazed for a couple of seconds if the flash is too bright. Maybe all those bright flashes have affected their brains. Permanently. Sounds distinctly possible. Until recently a nameless (and shameless) breed, who have now been aptly christened by India’s brightest minds – Photo terrorists.

My desk

Found in Robbie Williams' biography : Feel - "My desk is my second favourite place in the world. Right after everything else ...... "

Go .....

Go jump in a well. Get lost. These two statements would form the vast majority of the comments that I (and in all probability you) have been at the receiving end of when the other person has been in an irritable mood. After wondering why most Indians stick to either of these 2 lines and refuse to adopt anything else I realised its probably because noone else has come up with something as simple, effective, inoffensive and yet quirky enough to be useful on a day to day basis. Which got me thinking and at the end of much pondering (a grand total of 2 minutes), I think I have struck gold with my phrase “Go catch a cold” (the rhyming bit was unintentional).

It does sound harmless at first. It might even draw a smile. But if you do pause and reflect, you will notice that behind the seemingly innocuous line lies a wish of misfortune that is far more sinister that the regulars. For one, a cold does ensure that you have to stay away from people lest you pass it on to them (if that was your intention in the 1st place then ….). Two it leaves you feeling miserable to the core. What’s worse than having a head that feels like it weighs a ton and a voice that sounds like youre trying to do your best Deep Throat impersonation and a running nose that never seems to stop (inadvertently funny there) ? Plus you get no sympathy from anyone. In sharp contrast to someone who might be the biggest jerk around but who slips on a banana peel and ends up with a broken arm and complete doting from everyone else. And if you jump in a well there’s always a possibility that someone’s going to rescue you. And if you get lost, someone’s always going to guide you back to the right way. But if you catch a cold, neither prayers nor meds can save you. Think you’ve just wasted 4 minutes of your life reading utter crap ? Go catch a cold …..

To that kid out there

So what makes a journey truly memorable ? Sometimes it’s the people you’re with. It could be the destination. At other times it’s the journey in itself which proves to be an adventure. Nature’s gob smacking beauty often has a decisive role to play. Occasionally it’s something that a person said and did. Often it’s about things someone didn’t say or do. And sometimes, just sometimes, it takes a stranger to make a journey special.

I was on a recent biking trip with Sunny (an army officer whose stories have instilled even more respect in me for our tough armed forces, another post for another time) to a famous waterfall that is over a 100 kays from here. The ride there was fabulous as the roads were empty but we were treated to a waterfall that barely lived up to its billing as a major tourist attraction. Then again, expecting a gushing fall months after the monsoon was probably our fault. We rode to another spot further down the road in the hope of a better view of the other side of the falls but all we got was a sight of even less water trickling down. Resigning ourselves to our fate, we settled for a quick photo session and realised that all we had were solo pictures. Since the crowd there wasn’t the best on that particular day, we asked a kid who had wandered close to us (and our bikes) to take a snap. As I continued my photography experiments, the kid came up to us and said “When I grow up I am going to buy your bike”. It was then that I realised that he had been examining Sunny’s Bullet and my bike with an eager eye and after a considerable point in time he had decided that he liked my bike more than the evergreen Bullet. Heres the rest of our conversation

“Pukka (Are you sure) ?”

“ Definitely !”

“Only if you ride safely and wear a helmet. Which colour?”

“ Same colour”

"Want a photo with the bike ? "

We showed him the picture on the camera moments later which brought a huge smile to his face. He even asked us if he could get a copy of his photo. I told him that the next time I come to the same falls I will bring a printout of the pic. I doubt if I ever will see him again or if he is reading this. But thanks to him, the trip to the waterfall that was bereft of water became rather unforgettable.

Monday, February 01, 2010

#*%~&^ Indians ....

It’s been quite a while since I’ve used the admittedly rather derogatory term “Bloody Indians” for my brethren. The live and let live philosophy is something that I have accepted over time. All this however was rendered invalid by a recent bus trip. The bus I was travelling in had stopped in the night for a combination of a dinner & loo break. Since several other buses had also stopped at the same place & since it was particularly cold & windy that night, there were a rather large number of people who had to relieve themselves at the urinal. While we stood patiently waiting for the others to complete their duties, one gentleman decided that he could wait no longer and turned his back to us and proceeded to go about his business there and then directly onto the floor as we looked on with a mix of amusement and disgust.

Still shaking my head in disbelief I stepped out and was waiting for the bus to leave when I saw a few guys walk towards the nearby trees to relieve themselves. It didn’t even register in my head until I realized that the guys had inadvertently completed their task against the direction of the rather strong wind. Not wanting to ruin their evening, I decided to keep quiet but couldn’t help muttering those 2 words under my breath as they walked by totally unaware of their predicament, “Bloody Indians ……”

Classic !

Its only February but I think we already have a front runner for 2010’s saying of the year. Andy Murray, who broke down while giving a speech on receiving the Australian Open runner’s up trophy after losing in straight sets to Roger Federer, said “I can cry like Roger, it's just a shame I can't play like him"