Monday, June 28, 2010

India: Toll Road Exemptions and Allure of Power

Why does the average Indian love to see leaders abuse power? Abuse of power is a virtue in power drunk India. In fact if an MLA or a SP's car stops for traffic he/she is seen as "effete". This is not only true of semi-literate Indians. Supposedly well educated Indians in USA swear by "Kalaignar" or "Naidu" or "Modi" etc irrespective of their blatant abuses of power. What is worse these NRI's would abhor many such abuses by politicians in their adopted land.

When travelling from Trichy to Madurai on a nicely laid toll road I was surprised to see a huge board listing people who are exempted from paying tolls. The list included President, Prime minister, chief justice, CM etc. Think for a moment, the poor farmer taking his goods from Trichy to Madurai has to pay Rs 50 but the chief Justice need not. In USA probably only the President zips past a toll road, if he ever travels by one, that too only for security reasons. Our NJ governor pays tolls. Can we imagine Jaya or MK paying tolls even when not exempted by law????

Throughout the Indian citizen's life he/she is constantly reminded that the elected representatives are not 'representatives' but 'rulers'. If the common man accepts a bribe he can be investigated but to investigate a CM you need governor's approval. God help you if they both are of same party. Constitutionally and otherwise the Indian citizen is constantly reminded that the "ruling class" , politicians and bureaucrats, is entitled to different set of rules.

America's founding fathers were adamant in treating the would-be elected rulers on par with citizenry in fact the elected representatives are, by custom, held to a higher standard. The average American expects his governor or President to be judged by a higher bar than he applies to himself. The average Indian does the exact opposite. A politicians peccadilloes would disgust an American, for an Indian it is "macho". Bill Clinton paid a very heavy price for his Lewinsky fiasco.

Indians hate abuse of power only when it is not by their beloved leader. For a Dalit Mayawati's abuse of power is just "giving back to the upper caste". Jaya, Indira, Mayawati and Mamata proved that women are equally capable of being unscrupulous, corrupt, mean and venal like any man.

An American understands that a senator being frisked at the airport is no big deal. For an Indian its sacrilege that his matinee idol was questioned (not harassed as its done by Indian officials). Barack Obama and Bill Clinton would pay up from their pocket when they buy a burger or a book. A famous incident was when Bill Clinton was told by a bookshop assistant that Clinton's credit card had expired and Clinton borrowed money to buy the books. How many Indian politicians would buy a book about a country they are about to visit let alone pay for it?

The Tamil conference is the most shameful exhibit of the craven nature of Tamils. This is the state that supposedly was recast in the crucible of "self respect movement". No aspect of a Tamilian's life is devoid of sycophancy. Long back I was watching Tom Hanks receive a "lifetime achievement". Many of his co-stars who spoke poked fun at him and Tom was grinning from ear to ear. American politicians rub shoulders with the citizenry as equals. One of the signal moments after 9/11 was when Bush took the bull horn from a fire fighter and spoke to the world with his hand resting on the fire fighter's shoulder. The fire fighters standing next to the US President stood relaxed, deferential yes but not a bit obsequious. If it had been anybody but the President even that bit of deference would not have been there.

I was traveling by car in a very crowded street. Vehicles could barely move. Horns blared. Suddenly a jeep pulled along side us and the driver, apparently a policeman driving his superior, glared at our driver. He felt his authority was undermined by having had to yield to a citizen's car.

What is tragic is all this show of "power" is enshrined constitutionally and "THEREFORE" otherwise too. Paula Jones was a non-descript woman who sued a US president and caused his downfall. The US President is often rhetorically referred to as 'most powerful man on earth'. I'd say the MLA in any Indian assembly has more power than any US President. Of course that depends on how "power" is defined.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

India: A litany of excuses

We took the Guruvayoor express to Chennai from Trichy. We had booked a/c sleepers. When we stepped into the a/c coach a distinctive stench hit our noses making Hydrogen-sulphide (chemistry textbooks call H2S as rotten egg smell) look like perfume in comparison. Near the toilet a chart duly noted thatPest Control Department last checked for pests on some date. Right next to it a passenger, presumably Indian, wrotetoo many cockroaches. If Indians can feeltoo many cockroaches it REALLY has to be many. I was not disappointed. One look at where they stash the blankets and pillows made me puke. Only when I reflected I realized that I had paid only Rs 318 for the journey. Rs 318 for a 250+ KM train journey, in a/csleeper with blankets provided. That is $7.5 approx. Even by Indian standards that price is ridiculously low. In a country where one liter of petrol is Rs50+ and an auto ride from Adyar to Egmore is Rs100+ this is dirt cheap and so no wonder it was dirty. Its impossible for Railways to maintain the coaches let alone modernize. When Indians work themselves upto a lather because Lalooturned around a loss making Railways not many pause to think what they got. When year after year fares aremaintained and in a/c is made more affordable nobody pauses to think. Yes the fares aremaintained but the coaches are not.

During a couple of drives from Adyar to elsewhere Rowena saw Marina beach and wanted to visit it. I also wanted to take her to Marina just to see the colorful life on a beach. We often go to beaches in New Jersey but no beach in USA would have vendors selling stuff right on the beach its only done away from the beach area, no flying kites, no horse rides etc. Marina is colorful that way. Despite our tight schedule we made time for a beach visit on Friday evening around 7 PM. Contrary to my fears parking was easy. The beach road with its expanse, the sodium vapor lights in the median divider, the statues is quite a sight to behold on a nice evening when the weather is balmy. 

We spotted a horse ride and Rowena got on the horse with immense joy. I brought out my canon SLR to snap pictures. After seeing me take pictures the horse ride guy (jockey ???) told us “Sir  you have to pay me Rs 20 for each snap you take”. Of course we did not pay and we put him in place. What amazed me was how fast the guy cooked up a scheme to get money beyond what was his due. I’ve taken horse carriage rides in NYC, Amsterdam and elsewhere. Nowhere did anybody come up with such an excuse to extort money. In Amsterdam I paid 25 euro for a 30 min ride, our driver was a woman who did not utter a word as I snapped away to glory. I had a similar experience in 1999 when as a newlywed I stepped out in Egmore with three large suitcases. The porter demanded Rs 400 to take the suitcases a few feet to the taxi stand. I asked him why. The reply was simple “sir you are going to America”. How did he know. “who else carries these types of suitcases”. Just because I was going to America he felt “entitled” to get more than his due. The taxiwallah demanded Rs1000 to go from Egmore to Purasawalkam (an auto would charge Rs 30 those days for that trip). Again the reason was “you are going to America”.

That people feel “ENTITLED” to your money just because you earn more, considerably more, is a malaise that can be traced to the roots of our cinema culture where the hero is always “robbing the rich to pay the poor”. In a country like India where, until recent times, the rich were mostly landed gentry, zamindars, it’s not easy to comprehend or pay regard to the fact that people could get rich by hard work, honest work and be honest tax payers. “Poverty” is another excuse that I am tired of hearing. The woman in Amsterdam who drove us was not rich, she knew we were tourists, yet she did not feel ‘entitled’ to our money. A cabbie in NYC is not rich and getting a taxi license in NYC is so expensive (and corrupt too) but he does not feel entitled to my money beyond the meter. 

The favorite excuse of Indians ispopulation.we are a large country, population is a problem. Until recent times population was only aproblem but Indias demography is fast turning into amixed blessing. India reaps by the tons the benefits of its rich demography, an eager and mostly young workforce by the millions is a boon that is transforming the country. In many other spheres the population is a challenge and in certain spheres it is a malaise. BUT Indians use it as a blanket excuse for all and sundry. Coming out of Meenambakkam I thought about the population question. If I told any Indian about the deplorable state of the airport I’d get a shrugpopulation. Little do we realize  that Newark Airport or JFK or Brussels, uncluttered car park, the clean exit ramps I was back to civilization.
Population has got nothing to do with many ills that plague India. What haspopulation orpoverty got to do with a guy urinating near a 400 year old Mahal right under thedo not urinate here sign? First of all why would there be a need for such a sign. Has anybody ever seen ado not urinate here sign in any other part of the world. What makes it ok for literate teenagers to scribble on the walls of a protected monument, again, right next to ado not scribble on the walls?

I went to a bookshop in the new mall “Chennai City Center”. This was a branch of the biggest bookstore in Chennai. The store had a cramped design and in places books were just piled on the floor. The shelves were crammed with titles. The Tamil DVD’s were in flimsy sleeves and stacked like they are done in Burma Bazaar, no sequencing  either. Most of the books were by western authors and local editions of foreign publications. Indian publishing industry is still in its infancy and is mostly just a “printing press”. Though India does have some reputable publishing houses like Penguin, Oxford University Press etc nothing to match the prestige of a Simon and Schuster or Harper Collins etc.  

Buying books is still a luxury in India. Any good book easily crosses Rs 500. For a salaried lecturer in Trichy its a princely sum.  Take Trichy for example. In US it would be typically called a "University Town" to emphasize the preponderance of premium educational institutions. But there is not a SINGLE book store that is good, let alone public libraries. Yes REC has a good library but I can bet the engineering student there does not have access to the latest NY Times bestseller on a number of topics. But then the student first should want to read those, he/she is stifled by a curriculum that thinks a tech student should only learn circuits and bridges. For the common Tamilian reading habit is what he/she most  grazes in the morning and some pot boilers.

Indians repeat ad nauseum about how the British left the country in a hurry and in a mess. As much as that is true little do we pause to think how "BLESSED" India was at its moment of birth. Indians did not have to 'invent' constitution writing like US, the country was linked from end to end physically, very importantly it was linked end-to-end administratively. India had the unique of strength of a wonderful administrative cadre schooled in the best institutions, India's leaders-to-be were also schooled in the best institutions.Above all the emotional unity, not withstanding the communal carnage in the border states, was amazing given India's historical fragmentation. Yet, Indians have unexceptionally squandered each and every advantage and what is worse turned every blessing into a curse.

I am often told, why keep complaining, can you say something as a curative suggestion. I shall address that in my next blog.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NRI's: Betraying with Jingoism.

My earlier blogs on my India visit and my facebook posting drew harsh brickbats from people supposedly in love with India. I was hectored duly with lectures on Indian values, the charm of India, the hoary traditions, the richness of India, the promise of becoming a super power etc etc.

To a friend I summed up USA like this: On 9/11 Americans said "Nobody does this to USA (i.e. Nobody can go scot free after such an attack). On Katrina Americans said: "This is not who we are. This is not us" (i.e. American citizens deserve much better). Thanks to our sense of outrage neither event has been repeated.

A nation that, as recently as 1991, had only one week of foreign exchange reserves and had to pawn its gold, in the space of 20 years is now brimming with confidence, has a $1 trillion economy, is constantly talked about as a land of promise by the external world. The country has indeed been unleashed. The Indian graduate is basking in the limelight of a market where companies dole out increments half yearly.


The fundamentals of a country, its core governance, its body politic is corrupted beyond compare. The fantastic growth is nothing but lipstick on a pig.

As I was drooling and sinking my teeth into an exotic ripe mango I was told that fruit vendors ripen mangoes artificially in harmful ways. Not even Indians trust the tap water anymore. The bottled water we buy eagerly is also no guarantee, it is often tampered with. Tamil Nadu now has a 911 like service for ambulance. Many say it is prompt but often the government hospital van operators in cahoots with poly clinics do not arrive until a private hospital ambulance has ferried the injured to a costly private hospital. Educational courses and colleges are worse than locusts, gullible parents beguiled by fancy subjects put their children into courses about which nobody has a good idea. Name ONE good thing and I can bet you can add a "BUT" to highlight its corrupted side.

What really alarms me is the abject intellectual degradation. On a Sunday morning I channel surfed not a single indigenous channel had anything remotely intellectual. The plethora of Tamil channels are 100% film oriented. Turn on the FM channels and its even more insipid.

I stepped into a computer showroom. The attendant helpfully tells me the price of a compaq is Rs30,000 for a certain config. Finally, as matter of fact, adds 'by the way the OS will be pirated copy'. This for a branded PC. No buyer balks at it, nobody hesitates. Be a Roman I am told.[ A reputed PC reseller once quoted my dad on company letter pad prices with pirated and authorised software].

When Indians sanctimoniously pontificate on Indian values usually it is within the framework of sexual morality, familial attachments, divorce rates, teen pregnancies and the like. With tongues firmly in cheek many an NRI would draw attention to statistics in USA (yes its always that). Not many understand that divorce rates, for example have a socio-economic component and is correlated to the financial independence of women. Also the statistics in the western world is largely accurate unlike India where government statistics is a joke. Pray, tell me in which western country do governing politicians strut about with two wives (its not just Mu,Ka, many in his cabinet, also Mulayam the socialist).

No NRI bothers with the fact that Indians as a country are habitually unethical in public conduct. Loan defaults, eagerness to bribe and be bribed, complete absence of civic conduct (blaring loudspeakers from Christian and MUslim worship places assault my neighborhood EVERYDAY).

Cars are sold with no airbags, no child locks, when roads are closed no detours are marked, children are packed in highly unsafe share autos like sardines, food is unsafe, water is unsafe (many do not even get it), thousands of villages lack basic health care.

Ok. Where do NRI's fit in this? NRI's, the ones who are citizens/permanent residency holders in western countries confuse nostalgia with love. We all share an instinctive love for the places where we spent our carefree childhood. CHildhood and adolescence is, by hindsight, always fun memories especially in relation to our present where we worry about jobs, career, savings, retirement, children's education etc. Also we visit India mostly to spend time with aged parents, to let them spend a few happy moments with their grand children. To top it all our dollars and pounds enable us to travel in air-conditioned comfort, stay at choice hotels, eat at choice places, buy Bisleri by the crates. We NRI's basically cocoon ourselves in replicated environs. Occasionally we peek from our bubbles and interact with the masses.

An American child, gets fluoride from tap water and is protected from tooth decay, travels in school buses for which traffic will come to a stop, the child is safely tucked in baby seats (rated by a trustworthy consumer reports), the child gets sun lotion SP 50 for heat that is far less, in winter the child is treated to Aquaphor, the county school provides a seat with no recommendation and good education, we have 30 day return policy for most, our children play in the safest designed playgrounds complete with soft cork for grounds to protect the soft knees. I can go on.Just yesterday my child went to play in the apartment playground. Somebody had spat his betel nut on the sand.

I love Thomas Friedman for the columns he writes excoriating Americans not to take their status for granted. I love the scare mongering that Americans would lose their place. Indians on the other hand, especially NRI's, who brook no criticism do India a great disservice. For the sake of the impoverished millions I wish India progressed more and faster. A nation of one billion people cannot be ignored. As an American I wish India prospers and engages in more open trade with USA by opening up Indian markets ensuring a symbiotic growth.

Was it Johnson who said "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". (Before anybody misunderstands it let me explain that what he meant was that often 'patriotism' is used as an excuse to cover-up shortcomings).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Great Indian Education Bazaar

Thomas Friedman gushed effusively in his book "The World is Flat" about the millions that graduate from Indian colleges. Given the excitement over outsourcing and getting "Bangalored" (yes thats a verb now) this truism stayed etched in popular imagination. An interviewer once asked Friedman "why do you write about Globalization only from the perspective of the CEO's and you never talk to ordinary people". Friedman smugly replied 'if I have to understand globalization I need to talk to Nandan (Nilekani) not to the guy on the shop floor". Then came an analyst's report on the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India & China) from Goldman Sachs that predicted India would be within striking distance of US GDP in 50 years. Indians went into euphoria. The death of IT in USA was predicted with glee. Its been 8 years since CNN"s Lou Dobb's ran his story "Exporting America" on outsourcing. IT is here to stay. Outsourcing in major financial industries is in shambles, only grunt work is sent to India, only 'productionized processes' are sent (euphemism for tasks for which instruction sheets can be written). Finally a McKinsey study blew a gaping hole that more than 50% of India's graduates cannot pass an interview at an MNC.

This being June its admission season in Tamil Nadu. Every news paper, every magazine is littered with ads in every page for courses, each ad flaunts some accredition or the other, many boast of liasons with universities abroad, flashy photographs depicting luxuriously furnished classrooms/labs/dorms are posted. Every college, including Government colleges now put out a board at the entrance listing courses offered like Udipi hotels displaying their dinner menu. There are even magazines that rank colleges.

I picked a magazine "Careers 360" that had a special issue of college rankings. All the deemed universities in TN were ranked AA. Two of those universities have been marked by Central Govt, in a case before supreme court, to be stripped of their deemed university status. I spoke to a person who claims to run an MBA program in Singapore linked to a UK university. He talked about how he has linked Deemed Universities in TN (all X-ian as he was, not incidentally, a X-ian) with that Singapore based MBA program. The MBA program does not require GMAT. One of the deemed university is in the list to be demoted as I said before. I asked him about that. I was told "oh thats nothing, they will just lose university status and instead go back to being a college as before". I was stumped thinking of the poor parents in that small hamlet in Tanjore who were duped into admitting their children thinking they were attending a "deemed university" which claimed that the autonomy gave academic independence. When that university loses its status and becomes a college it would need to get affiliation from a government run university which then could throw out the MBA program too (new beaurocrats).

When I stayed at the Taj Gateway I had an interesting encounter. We were having lunch and a family sat in the nearby table. Their manner of dress and speech clearly suggested that they were there courtesy of some ill-begotten wealth. The guy started talking animatedly to the waiter about a "hotel management" college he runs. As luck would have it that day's "Indian Express" carried an article on how admissions can be bought for money. A rate table for various colleges and various engineering courses was listed. The wife took a look at it and in Tamil, spoken like slang, chimed "why are these fools wasting their money on Engg courses, that too look at the prices". If this was a conversation held in Renganathan Street, T.Nagar CHennai, about potatoes being sold by a competitor, the tone of the conversation, the accents none of it would be out of place. The guy looked and acted like a vegetable vendor. His young son was exactly in his mould. I could imagine him sitting in an a/c room as "correspondent" hiring teachers with less care than he would give choosing tomatoes between different vendors.

Here are few excerpts from Narayana Murthy's book "A Better India, a Better World", the chapter is "A framework for Reforms in Higher Education".

  1. India's annual output of PhD's in Comp.Science is 25. USA - 800.
  2. Indian ranks 119th (among 149) in citations Index.
    1. A typical IIT gets 2-3 patents a year. Stanford gets 52.
  3. India spends 1.9 % (2006) of its GDP on education. Kothari commission asked for 6%, 38 years ago!!
  4. Beauracracy severely hampers visits by foreign academics, investments by NRI's have to jump through so many hoops that many times they fabulously fail.
  5. World bank researchers made random visits to 200 primary schools and found no teaching activity in half of them.
  6. "we have a tendency to design our standards based on the worst performers, and demotivating outstanding students". A standards based SOLELY on lowest common denominator. Lowering the bar as habit.
For his ideas on reforms I'd refer the reader to the book.

Casteim is rampant in both student enrollment (especially in Arts colleges) and faculty. It is not a surprise that Hindu colleges would refuse admission to Christians (and vice versa as compliment !!!). A Brahmin college (what a categorisation, sad but true) would have 99% Brahmin faculty. Likewise for a Nadar college and so on.

In the wake of Kumbokonam tragedy when 70+ children perished in a fire at an ill-equipped, badly constructed school the government stipulated that all schools must get a clearance from fire department (why should that have to be only after such a tragedy??). Now that is used to fleece money from schools. This is India, I am told. The harassed schools formed a consortium and negotiated "a price" for the certificates!!!!!!!

Yesterday's paper had an ad by a college flaunting its NAAC accredition calling for students to apply. Just beneath that ad it called for applications for "Principal, lecturers, professors". Now one wonders how they got accredition in the first place.

The Chairman of MCI (Medical council of India) was arrested by CBI on charges of corruption running to hundreds of crores. No wonder there are so many 'accredited' medical colleges.

All that I've written is just a tip of  the iceberg.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Saree shopping and the changing face of India.

After I wrote the last blog the heaviness in heart and mind weighed me down. I shall turn to some pleasant aspects now. Much of this will be old hat to those who live in India or visit India more often than me. Nevertheless I hope to add my 2 cents to the narrative.

I just love shopping especially dress shopping. Shopping for women's dresses is the most entertaining one. Back in 1996 one day I felt irritated looking at my wardrobe of pants. The colors were shades of gray, shades of blue, one or two exotic colors thats it. I thought I am probably choosing limited colors. I decided, for a change, to check out what other men wear during traffic stops. This being India in 1996 many were using two wheelers which facilitated me. My dress choices were pretty much in line with the average male. Forget about the range of colors in Churidhars the sheer variety of 'styles' in churidhars is amazing. How many different ways can a man's pant be cut? Maybe 2 variation at the bottom hem, thats it. Having a girl child is a boon too.

I wanted to take my mom to Pothy's at Madurai to get some sarees for her. It was a Sunday evening and I was told that many shops, including Pothys, would be open till 10 PM. Europe shuts down at 7 PM weekday and is completely closed on Sundays. Shops is USA are open only until 6 PM on Sunday. The streets were crowded like a weekday. Pothys was overflowing with people like NY Macy's on Black Friday. It had 4 floors with almost 3 floors for women (Macys too devotes most floor space for women). Around 1300 employees work in that complex alone, with nice photo ID's. The floor is divided into Sarees, CHuridhars etc and subdivided on price/variety. Once you make a purchase (barcoded) you get a barcoded reciept. The merchandise is taken to delivery section. After completion of payment you can collect your stuff. Of course at the delivery section there is no queue, you are better off muscling in. In every saree section its only "salesmen" no girls whereas all errand runners are ONLY girls. The elevators and escalators are swanky enough to match any modern airport amenities. There is a rewards program too complete with a store card. The salesmen, errand girls, cashiers and almost everyone is pretty street smart and sharp. The cashiers especially are savvy to deal aternatively with cash and credit card payments and quickly switch modes of payments when a card fails. Given the thousands of packets being run around the store that they almost never miss is amazing (think dabbawalla's of Mumbai who are a subject of study in IIM's I hear).

The sheer varieties of churidhars and sarees is amazing. I saw a silk saree for Rs 1,06,000 it was sheer gold plated. There was another for Rs1.25 lakhs. Armani suits in Saks Fifth Avenue could be had for less. If only these poor weavers could enter a corporate framework their skills would take them miles beyond proud Italian brands. I wish some Kanchipuram weaver becomes a household name like Armani or Valentino.

The Taj Gateway resort was just fabulous. Set in sylvan surroundings commanding a princely sum it was worth it. The rooms would match the best anywhere in the world. When Ratan Tata bought over the British Luxury car maker Jaguar some in Britain chuckled about loss of "brand value". Tata beat them back highlighting the luxury hotels of Tata group. The staff were polite. I wish they stopped just short of appearing obsequous.

I got up at 4 AM and took a stroll. The resort is located in Pasumalai that overlooks the city. When all was quite around except for the chirping of birds and peacocks at 5 AM suddenly the valley came alive with booming film songs. The sound filled the low lands. If I could hear the song up on a hillock god save the neighbors on the streets. Again a sad reminder of our so called 'values'.

A penchant to spend money of luxury and 'enjoying' life is now reshaping the Indian consumer making MNC's queue up to sell quite a lot that most Indians had no use for until recent times. When a small village like "Kottampatti' boasts of cell phone connection you know that changes have happened.

The service sector is on a jet set. Construction industry is booming with constructions all around the city, need I say anything about IT. Indian students are more confident of better living, better jobs than at any point in India's history. I saw timid girls step into unconventional roles in hotels. Yes change is afoot.

The question though is how deep are the changes? What is the disparity level? Would the changes help India to cure itself corruption that is eating into the bowels of the country? How much of these changes are driven by sensible public policy from corridors of legislature? Are we sowing the seeds for institutionalizing and capitalizing the changes?

Very sadly the answer is NO. A few key incidents I heard and saw would help close the argument. Thats for another day.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Madurai: Meenakshi Amman, caste equations and insulting history.

Almost a year back an internet petition did the rounds amongst Tamilians to gather support asking UN to declare Madurai Meenakshi amman temple as 'world heritage'. The effort fell flat. As a guy from Tanjore I was intrigued and wanted to check out the temple. I planned a trip to see Madurai. On a eleventh hour impulse I booked the Taj Gateway Resort at Pasumalai for a night. Thankfully so. The resort stay was the ONLY beautiful part of the trip.

The highway from Trichy to Madurai was good. 4 lanes, 2 lanes on either way complete with service exits, entry points at every kilometer. Just as we were cruising smoothly I had the shock of my life. A guy on a motorcycle with an infant straddling on the petrol tank nonchalantly was driving against the traffic in our lane. This was not an isolated incident and not just two wheelers. Simple reason, the drivers need to go to a particular spot on the opposite but using the proper entry points might mean an extra kilometer or so. Solution, enter where you need to enter who cares if you are driving like the woman in Matrix. Couple of times we avoided fatal collisions. Welcome to what some NRI's with glassy eyes romantically label as 'mystic touch of India' (of course they are glassy eyed ensconsced abroad where traffic rules are obeyed).

We drove straight into Madurai under benevolent archangel M.K.Azhagiri looking down from a poster at every turn of the road (literally!!). We had to leave our footwear at a building quite away from the temple and walk on tiles (90 deg F). We headed to the sanctum sanctorum straight as they would close in 2 hours (12:30 PM). Two placards told us to buy tickets. We could buy Rs15 ticket (really long queue) or Rs100 (long queue). Thanks to my US dollars without a second thought I bought Rs 100 tickets for the family. Even the lords know the value of money. But what the lords truly respect more than money is political or beauracratic power.

It was a Sunday so the faithful had turned out in droves despite the sweltering heat. Forget about fans to cool, there was no exhaust to take out the heat. The lines snaked mercilessly. Lacking in blind faith I dropped out. That was it for me. But I stayed close as my faithful mom stuck on. I and my dad stood by and watched some interesting sights. Two temple staff who were prodding the queue mericilessly shoved women aside who lingered for more than 10 SECONDS, the shoving would be accompanied by choice curses.

We saw that people were being let in through a side door of and on. A priest, bare chested, was cooling himself off, I asked him why this was done. He answered with a quiver "those people are let in by the Superintendent amma". I asked him whether he can point her to me. He was shaking to his barefeet and said "ayyo I cannot do that". Given her imperious nature that woman was easy to spot out. She was stocky, an air of uncouth authority hung about her, she was screaming at a walkie talkie and gesticulating very dictatorially. For a moment freeze this in your mind. The Brahmin priest was too afraid to even identify this woman, let alone stand up against what was wrong. The woman was unmistakably from a reserved class. Before people yell at me let me just say, nothing against her belonging to any class reserved or not. Also in a country where government jobs are indeed given based on caste I am only pointing out the obvious. But look at this Karunanidhi and his minions made a big deal of breaking down the Brahminical exclusivity of becoming priests, of course in the name of social justice. Who in their right mind would want to replace that measly priest????

The hapless priest helpfully added that politicians, relatives of temple authorities, heavy donors get privileged access. While the Pope preaches the virtues of poverty after flying in chartered flight wearing Prada shoes can Meenakshi Amman be behind? At least gender equality is preserved. We did see a Temple authority (a Brahmin now, identified him by the unique way in which he prostrated headlong) walking around imperiously with two cops in tow. Damn the queue for him. The surging crowd of 'huddled masses' meanwhile could barely get a glimpse of their deity.Oh I saw a notice that said "Non-Hindu's not allowed ; should not wear lungis". The temple beaurocrat wore a Veshti. Lungi's are a favorite wear of Muslims.

The temple itself had pedestrian architecture. The sculptures that adorn the roofs and the towers (gopurams) were of deplorable quality and structure. Wikipedia gives more details than any onsite plaque .

I then visited the adjacent "Thousand Pillar hall". That hall had shelves with some archeological pieces. The shelves laden with dust surely attest to the ancient history of what was displayed. Imagine walking barefeet on stone to reach the hall on a hot summer day. I've nothing against making me remove my slippers in the name of tradition but suitable arrangements should be made. If I say things like I get brickbats about not hearing the "whispers of traditions in my ears". Some deaf ears I have.

The next day we visited Thirumalai Naicker Mahal. Mani Ratnam had used this venue memorably in his "Iruvar". When drove around to the entrance we were greeted by a guy who was happily urinating next to a "do not urinate" sign. The entrance was difficult because a dumpster was overflowing with a month's  worth of variegated stinking dump that would make a skunk run away with disgust. But we persisted on going in. I bought Rs 5 tickets (RS30 for still camera) before I could identify the ticket vendor I wandered into the building if somebody had not yelled "sir come here to get tickets" I'd have thought the building was a movie set to depict war ravaged buildings in Stalingrad. Only after I bought the tickets did I notice that foreigners have to pay twice the amount. I've been a foreigner visiting Europe (as Indian and American) never have I paid any differential pricing. Indians happily visit the Smithsonians in DC without paying a penny.

We stepped into the Mahal. A dishevelled guy, unshaven and unkempt gruntingly asked for the tickets. He tore the tickets into halves. We were handed a torn half as souvenir while he dumped the other half into a bucket that used to have paint and was now a waste basket. The famous light and sound show has now resumed but we are cautioned that "no refunds due to current cuts". Long Live Kalaignar. Its a simple Durbar like construction that Mani Ratnam had skillfully made into character in the movie. One rickety metal board informed us that the Mahal was identified and renovated by governor of Madras John Napier (God bless the British, it was Lord Curzon who formed the 'Archeological Survey of India' to inventory and protect the treasures of India). The dance hall houses some ancient artifacts in the most deplorable and insulting conditions one can imagine.

We stepped out into a courtyard to find a nice collection of statues only when the stench hit us did I realize that the collection was right next to a toilet that a pig would consider too stinking to use (dead rats and lizards and other unmentionables). There was a commemorative plaque informing that a certain MLA was proud to have inaugurated the toilets!!!!!!

Lets take a breather. The temple is managed by the government and is a shining example governmental incompetence exceeded only by the imperiousness of its bloated babus (pun intended). The Archeological Survey of India and the Tourism ministry outdo each other in insulting history. But then the orientals are yet to learn the meaning of "objective history" or "professional historian".

I think back with lots of pain about the immense pleasure I got out of visiting historical landmarks in the west. When Indians react with smugness looking at 'stolen' treasures in British museums I say "at least the treasures are where they are respected".

I shall talk about the wonderful experience of the resort and more importantly the happy saree shopping at Madurai Pothys. Both represent a slice of the nice part of a nation that is learning its table manners before sitting at the table on par with the developed world.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

India: A million mutinies -- Still.

Nothing grates the heart of preening pseudo-patriotic Indians as much as a one-time Indian and now expatriate who holds up a mirror to the seedy underbelly (actualy its more than an underbelly) of a nation that, as a national sport, indulges in breast beating and pats itself lost in imaginary visions of sitting at the table of G8.

When visiting Indians ( or past citizens) voice disappointments we are greeted with "why bother coming here" followed by pious lecturing on "Indian values" (from which most ran away from to USA/Canada/UK), quotes from Friedman's books or the famous Goldman Sachs report that prophesied an India, in 2050, hving GDP close to USA. The ranking of Ambanis on Forbes listing, Azim Premji's net worth, Tatas buying luxury car maker Jaguar, Bollowood churning out 100 times more than Hollywood, the price of square foot at Nariman Point exceeding a sq.ft in Manhattan, brand stores, cars on the roads, oh the number of so-called graduates and so much more would flow from a mouth foaming at its ends and a chest heaving with inhaled hot-air.

Did I expect India to be like USA or France or Germany? Absolutely NOT. I am in touch with day-to-day reality reading news papers in India and through my parents. Just today my dad, a pensioner, recounted the horrors of dealing with clerks to get his pension redirected to his new address.

Has there been progress in the country? Ofcourse yes. Only an ostrich can deny it in totality. Today a good graduate has more options and much better social mobility than ever before in Indian history. The serious disconnect is much progress in the country is taking place OUTSIDE of public policy and sometimes despite the government. The country is admirably taking advantage of loosening controls. But in any country and in any age there is a role for government and in that sphere India is still stuck and very badly stuck.

I took a train from Egmore to Trichy. The station was a microcosm of everything that is still wrong. 50 people queued up to buy water, good distilled water that is, in sweltering heat. No 'decent' public amenities were available. The improvements done in the station are no match for the exponentially increasing needs, many are basic needs not luxury, of a seething population. "Population" is a popular excuse. If China is pointed as alternative we are met with "of they are a dictatorship we are a fractious democracy". This is pathetic we do not need a dictator to provide clean toilets and drinking water.

We were booked into an a/c chair car. I wish I could upload the pictures I took. The cabin was just plain gross. What is the point of having an a/c chair car if vendors with hot dosas, hot samosas keep streaming in and out and practically ensuring that the cabin is hot. The curtains had never seen a washing detergent. The carpet at the vestibule in the airport was too dirty to be even used in a toilet. Remember Indian airports charge heavy taxes on airlines and we consumers pay for it through our tickets.

I took a roundtrip in an auto from Adyar to Egmore. I can swear that nothing has changed. Yes, maybe a mall here and there but it was the same old Madras. Forget the dust, its a tropical country. The traffic mayhem was just ridiculous, signals were for decoration, of course the ubiqiutous corrupt traffic cop (I saw a cop getting bribes) were all just worsened.

A big mall is being constructed near Egmore. When it is complete more Chennai-ites would feel proud about the gleaming shopping mall, "oh did you know they have 1000+ stores, what amount of parking space yaar". Yesterday I saw the construction going on, cables were dug up in mid road, mounds of excavated sand were gathered obstructing traffic, the worker was carrying bricks barehanded, scantily clad, bathed in sweat, a pathetic barely functional slipper (100 deg F), no protection from either sun or a wayward truck or from dangers inherent in what he was doing.

Just today in the flats were my parents live I saw a woman carry ten bricks on her head with a cloth bundle barely cushioning her head, walking barefoot up the flights 4 stories (no workers elevator please, no protection for hands). After sometime I saw the workers gathered around a mug sharing a most unhygienically made coffee, that too just a sip.

Yes, India, especially Chennai, today manufactures BMW's but the roads are an apology for a road. What country can afford to have 3 hours of blackouts EVERYDAY in peak summer? Yes I am typing this on broadband and our car driver has a cell phone. Yes, our car driver is paid Rs 5000 per month+ daily allowance (My starting salary as Engineer was Rs 3000 in 1998). With inflation, a year ago, raging at 12% (officially that is, in truth much more) such salaries are useless. Thanks to burgeoning corporate travel car drivers can earn much more decently  than before, still so much of the country is way beyond their reach.

Is India in a much better place than in 1998 (when I emigrated)? Certainly, yes. But India is still ranked at the bottom of the human development index and for that I do not see an end in sight.

Naysayers like me do India a much greater service than jingoists sitting in a/c rooms and debating about when India's GDP will come close to USA.

I've much more to share on just the people alone ...for another day.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Brussels: Museum for musical instruments, chocolates, paperbacks etc.

We are winding up Brussels tonight. to put that out. When I scoped out the museums to visit one museum caught my eye. This is a museum for musical instruments. The museum was simply breathtaking. 3 floors of just hundreds of musical instruments drawn from every corner of the world. In each popular instrument that we know, like say a violin, there are tens of varieties. Tens of varieties of flutes, of drums, of trmpets, blow horns, pianos by the dozens, mouth harps and so many many more. We were given a headset that will play the particular sound from an instrument where its indicated with a headphone sign. However the radio signal is not of high quality, many times the audio was not great. The total lack of brochures or notes in English is a sure dampener for a really interested enthusiast.But music needs no language, there is always the internet to go back and read. It was an anthropological delight to see many Indian instruments classified as "from Afghanistan" etc. African music is famous the instruments from Africa are truly numerous and what vibrancy. So many forms of music across the ages. Its a humbling experience too. We come to face  the truth that we are but a small speck in the ocean of humanity in a time scale that stretches beyond our ability to comprehend and analyse in one lifetime. Visiting the museum had the desired effect on Rowena who wanted to go back to her piano classes after vacation as soon as possible. She happily lingered at every audio demo. For 5 Euro its well worth it (no charge for child under 6).

Time for wrap up we went shopping for Belgian chocolates. Wittamer chocolates are considered the creme-de-la-creme, better than Godiva or Neuhaus or Leonidas (now why is a Belgian chocolate brand named after a Greek warrior!!!). Wittamer also has restaurants serving tea and snacks at 16 Euro per person for fixed price course menu.

The obsessive shopper in me managed to squeeze in a visit to a mall. The only one (as far I saw) in Brussels. After browsing through clothing I went to FNAC a books and music store. I've found a curiosity about books sold in US vs Europe. In Europe paperback versions come out much earlier than US. I bought paperback version of Malcolm GLadwell's "Outliers" in July in UK but in USA they are still sold only in hardcover (better profits). Today I found the latest Malcolm Gladwell bestseller "What the Dog saw" in paperback, its just out in USA in a much higher priced hardcover version. When it comes to movies whether its France or Amsterdam or Germany or Belgium Hollywood simply rules, period.

I forgot a few observations in my blog yesterday about "atomium" and "mini Europe". The exhibit on immigration underscored that Brussels culture and ethos has its roots in Christian ethos. While this is a widely accepted anthropological truism it takes a certain brazenness to put it out on an exhibition. A widely read book by Max Weber attributes US capitalism to specifically "Protestant" ethos but no US government funded exhibition would dare to put that out.

Cologne: A Cathedral and a Jail.

Long back I read a book by Ved Mehta, an autobio set in the 50's. Ved Mehta is blind and has authored many books on India ( Gandhi and jis apostles). Ved would talk about going from country to country in Europe on a whim, he was an American citizen. I always fancied that. Even watching the Bourne movies I fancy going from country to country with no thought to spare. In Europe, as many know, with a Schengen visa or a EU/US citizenship its possible.

When I planned this trip I planned to make Brussels my anchor city and try to visit neighboring cities in Netherlands and Germany. On Tuesday, June 1st, we went to Cologne, Germany. Thanks to we could figure  out the trains. That site is only for booking trains while you are still in USA. So we had to go the train station (Brussels Midi).

Europeans are a relaxed people. I've never seen them act in a hurry. The ticketing clerks took their own glacial pace in doing their job. I imagined them for a minute at New York Penn station, they would go insane, put them inCentral Station Chennai they will  positively go insane. Europe's fast trains (TGV, Thalys etc) are a boon for travelers. Brussels to Cologne is just a 2 hour ride. Mostly the first class fares are only $20 more and come with lunch/food. Since our return was supposed to be around dinner time I chose first class (when that dinner was just cold cut slice of smoked salmon I truly regretted the choice, this to a guy who traveled by day express from Tanjore to Madras to enjoy Biryani at Vizhuppuram).

Cologne is known ONLY for its famous Cathedral, called 'Cologne Cathedral". Its supposed to house some relics of the "Three Magi" or "three kings" who visited the CHild Jesus in Bethlehem according to biblical mythology. I've seen Cathedrals elsewhere but nothing prepared me for what I saw. The Cathedral is right outside the train station at Cologne (properly spelled Kolne in German). After filling ourselves with Burger King burgers we stepped out of the station and faced one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. The sheer size and intricate Gothic architecure simply overwhelmed me. After seeing that I think only the Vatican Sistine CHapel can impress me more, nothing else can.

I've lived 25 years close to Brahadeeswara temple and marveled at what people can accomplish in the name of faith. My school texts taught me about Angkor Wat, Aztec ruins and Mayan temples. Cologne Cathedral is the closest in near future for me to experience those. Wherever we went inside the cathedral history of more than 4 centuries looked down on us.

Coming out of the cathedral we headed to a tourist office. That is another  thing I love traveling in the west. One stop into the tourist office is always helpful, get a map, inquire about local sights and tours. When I asked what else is there to see in Cologne other than the Cathedral and a Nazi era jail only a smile was the answer. Off we headed to a jail that is two blocks away from the cathedral. This jail was used by Nazi's.

I've read that even in Berlin a tourist has to seek the Nazi related spots. THey are not marked well. The reason is Germany does not want such spots  to become shrines to Neo-Nazis. "Popularising" Nazi related spots is actively discouraged. In Germany its a punishable crime to deny the holocaust or to display the hated 'swastika' (problem for indians who consider it holy and have used it for centuries before Nazis).

The jail is not at all publicised as a tourist spot. Its just mentioned in the brochures only a discerning tourist or one who goes with a professional guide can find it. When our train crossed into Germany at Aachen I felt a thrill. Having read extensively about World War II (thanks to William Shirer etc) I felt a tingle entering Hitler's Germany. Germany, despite its many, many philosophers, musicians, writers, artists etc is instinctively known and felt as Hitler's Germany. Preeth who normally prays in a cathedral said at Cologne she did not feel so thinking that the top Nazis would have sat in the front pews and prayed while killing millions.

The jail is now officially called "El-De Haus" (LD House, LD being the intials of the businessman who built it. Gestapo acquired it from him and converted it to a jail). The jail now houses the "The city of Cologne's Documentation Centre on National Socialism". Throughout the brochures and pamphlets only the words "National Socialism" is used not its more horrifying short form "Nazi".

While inquiring our way I was very skeptical and somewhat scared to ask of it as "the Nazi Jail", I'd just point the place on our tourist map and ask. One white German guy, with a gleam in his eye asked "oh you want to see the Nazi Jail". For a minute I truly felt spine chilling.

We did finally find it, like I said its now non-descript and the building bears a benign sounding name "documentation centre". Documentation. My foot. We were greeted by a German at the reception. Seeing that we were Indians he inquired about "God of small things" and "shiva/vishnu". I told him that it was a German, Max Mueller, who translated the vedas for indians. We had only 30 mins left before closing. So we just went downstairs to the jail. The cells are filled with scribblings and memorial plaques filled with heart rending quotes. Prisoners had been brought from Russia and Poland. Just imagine the logistics and money involved in transporting prisoners across the continent. HItler was not just waging war. When I watched a documentary on Auschwitz I was dumbstruck by the dogged hatred to eliminate a race by going to such great lengths while waging a world war. I thought, if he had just waged war maybe the outcome could have been different. But wait when I say "he" I do not mean to absolve the millions of Germans and Poles etc who took active part in the holocaust and war crimes. In fact thats what puzzles sociologists till today. How could people from supposedly the cradle of civilization act thus.Take Anne Frank in Amsterdam. Jews were persecuted in Amsterdam by neighbors and friends. Anne Frank's hideout was betrayed for 30 marks or something.

To shake ourselves from  the stupor we hurried out and took a bus tour. We did not hop off. When a bus tour keeps looping around shopping malls you can guess there is nothing much in the city to see. One interesting mall was the Burberry shop. Its a glass building designed by an Italian. I mused, here is globalization, a building architected by an Italian to house a British Brand (Burberry) in a german city.

It was a surreal day to visit Cologne, especially the jail. Just the previous evening while sauntering around Brussels we saw a huge protest gathering in front of their Foreign office. All had green flags with crescent moon, so I presumed it must be Muslims protesting. Only when I checked the internet did I find the world enraged at the Israel flotilla incident. Next day in the train station I saw European newspapers all screaming murder. Now slowly considered opinion is emerging and saying "not so fast". But hey when it comes to Israel who cares about facts or waiting to know facts. I shall just leave it at that.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Brussels: Immigration debate and contempt for 'made in China'

Yesterday we took a hop-on hop-off in Brussels. Having read the tour books before I knew that all museums are closed on Monday. We still decided on the tour to get familiar and also to kind of recuperate from a tiring trip to Bruges on Sumday. The weather was cloudy too. The first stop we got off was the "atomium". Just a simple blow up of an atom. It was constructed during the 1958 world expo. The construction is more like a molecule with atoms at vertices. One atom contained extensive history on immigration in Brussels. Given the recent shenanigans in Arizona I was very curious to see that.

One exhibit succinctly declares "Immigration is not an unmitigated good nor is it the root cause of all evils". No such museum in USA would dare to state that. I've been to Ellis Island, New York and its all about how America welcomed the immigrants. The poem by Emma Lazarus at the pedestal of "Statue of liberty" in fact proclaims 'give me your tired and huddled masses'. It is exactly that which is being called into question now as USA struggles with 12million+ illegal immigrants and with no end in sight of new ones crossing over by the day. I appreciate the honesty of Belgians in putting the issue in politically incorrect phrases. Many exhbits drove home the point how immigration is a mixed blessing.

One exhbit stated exactly what Hispanics in USA often tell immigration opponents, "we do the work that no native Belgian is ready to do". Another exhibit framed the  economic concerns plainly "when economy does well businesses need immigrants to supplement local labor, during recession it becomes a flash point".

The pivotal point on immigration is about 'assimilation', one exhibit stares at that issue forthrightly "they are immigrants when they come, they are immigrants when they live amongst us, WHEN will they become US?". I am a big votary of assimilation. We immigrants "CHOOSE" to go to a particular country. Especially a country like USA makes it possible to become citizens and raise families. We owe it to America to be Americans. I find it obnoxious when Indians derisively say "oh this is a country of immigrants". On that score only Africa, anthropologically speaking; is purely native. America, in the course of its history, has gained a certain character, its THAT character that has America what it is today. Whether its Mexicans or Indians I expect them to play by the rules and be good Americans. If Mexicans or Indians want to replicate their homeland in USA they might as well buy a ticket home.

After the 'atomium' visit we just stopped by sundry memorials. Every such building is stamped with Gothic architecture. Ornate, yes, unique, no.

The other  interesting stop was at a shop to buy some lace work. We saw two very exquisite table cloths. One was priced at 90 Euro (including 8 napkins), the other was 140 Euro (no napkins). I asked why the price difference. The store woman answered with derision "oh the cheaper one is 'made in China' ". I pressed further 'well they look alike so what is the difference'. More condescension from the woman "oh they imitate very well but the fabric is cotton whereas Belgian lace is made out of linen'. I wanted to ask her 'well if the CHinese can imitate so well what stops them from doing it on linen too?". As an Ameican I am used to "Made in China", when Apple can brag "Designed in California and made in China", what can anyone say. Its typical Old Europe, snobbish. But I got to give it to her the children's clothing she showed were far superior to some of the best I've seen in USA.

We also visited another sundry sight called "mini Europe". Its a small collection of minature models of chief buildings of EU member countries like British Parliament, Eiffel Tower etc. The park had a brochure with info on EU and each country. The brochure boasted about superior quality of life in EU Vs USA, especially with respect to pension benefits. The newspapers of the day carried news on how across the EU pension benefits are being cut. With the very future of EU in question I found the brochure to be churlish. Also why the comparison with USA. Even in the good old days EU could not stand against USA on economic or military benchmark.

The day ended with a visit to Haagen Daaz resturant. Yes, HD runs restaurants here. The HD outlets we have in USA are pathetic compared to what I saw here. This is gourmet food at its best. Who could have  thought of combining cafe latte and a vanilla scoop...drooling. The ice cream choices and smoothies are a world away from the cheap "Dairy Queen", "Coldstone" variety. One thing which surprised me in Zurich was the Lindt stores. We have Lindt stores in USA too but the selections are a paltry subset of what they sell in Zurich. Likewise we have Godiva chocolate outlets in USA but that is nothing compared to what I see in Belgium. Haagen Daz only sells ice cream scoops in USA (like Baskin robbins in India, 11 years back) not the finer selections. Its been 7 days since we had anything Indian to eat and we dont miss it, yet....

Bottomline when it comes to food and clothing Europe wins hands down. America scores by a mile on affordability and variety of a different scale. Other than Harrod's in UK (where only the rich can shop) there is no rival to the quintessential American mall. I remember an article by Malcolm Gladwell on the science behind mega malls and how its an American phenomenon.