Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Whose Land Is It Anyway?

There's a new scam involving Indians at some duty-free shops abroad. Indians shopping at duty-free shops in Dubai or Bangkok are being targeted for extortion and here is how it works. When you buy stuff and are at the billing counter, the billing assistant will slip in another package that you haven't bought. Once you come out of the shop, the police will accost you and want to see the receipt. When they find the item not paid for, they will arrest you for shoplifting and detain you. In your desperation, you will pay all your cash to get a release. And that cash is enjoyed by the shopowner, billing assistant, and the airport police. There have been quite a number of such cases according to one email floating around. And all these cases are involving Indians.

I know what you are thinking. Maybe the Indian fellow did shoplift after all? I thought so too.

We all think, despite being Indians ourselves, that Indians will haggle, steal, and cheat. That is the general perception of Indians abroad, making unsuspecting and innocent Indians the target of a smooth nexus like this. If the Indian embassy hears that guy's plea, every single Indian working in the embassy will believe the story...he must have done it, man.

The world works on such perceptions, and perceptions are formed from real stories. Maybe there are many such repetitive real incidents that help others form a general perception about a community or set of people. When a Dutch guy in Mahabalipuram is caught for being a pedophile, everybody believes it. From Amsterdam, no? Must be a pedophile. Maybe he is, maybe it is a true story, but then, the general perception about the Dutch or most Europeans is that they are here for the sex industry. There are thousands of Europeans who come as photographers, travelers, seekers of spiritual freedom, but they are mostly branded together in one slot. Because that's how our minds work and we love generalizations. That gives our lazy, unthinking minds something to talk about: Malayalis are always yapping away in Malayalam, all Bengalis wear balaclavas, all Punjabi women have well-endowed derrieres, or all Gujaratis pronounce "hole" for "hall."

We are all afflicted by such single stories of races and cultures, and believing in these generalizations makes us very narrow-thinking individuals. This is not a spiel to say I am above all this, because we grow up on stories and generalizations that are handed down to us by our parents, neighbors, and society and it is very hard to come out of such mindsets. I cannot, but I will try.

Last month I saw novelist Chimamanda Adichie's talk on the dangers of a single story and remembered the movie Crash, about which I had written earlier. It shows the workings of a society that lives just on single stories about other races or cultures. So, all I borrow from Ms Adichie is the phrase "single story," which is a very catchy and apt phrase indeed.

How do we come out of it? Where do we get the proper education to be global citizens or at least Indians instead of being Brahmins, Marwaris, Sindhis, Malayalis, or Marathis? How do we ensure that entire India doesn't start hating Biharis just because MNS in Maharashtra is throwing them out. They are hardworking east Indians who had to leave their state to find livelihood. And they went to other parts of India, their own country. MNS calls them "north Indians" and throws them out of Bombay, because Bombay belongs only to the Marathis. Who said Biharis are all unscrupulous cheats? If you look back into the history of the eastern region through the eyes of popular literature in Bengal, you will find that the delicate babus from Bengal relied on the strong Biharis to protect them from dacoits and thugs. All the watchmen were from the "West" (meaning UP and Bihar). All this talk about Biharis being thrown out shows the MNS and die-hard Marathis in bad light, but it also damages the already damaged reputation of Biharis in the mind of the Indian.

In our cross-cultural workshops where we are taught about respecting other cultures, we leave out one basic thing: respecting ourselves as Indians. We learn about the gun-weilding cowboys (another stereotype), about all Americans going dutch with their restaurant bills, but we are not taught to mingle, mix, and learn to respect other Indians. "The Tamilian Brahmins, no matter how vehemently Swaminathan Aiyar tries to deny it, try to instill Brahminism in their kids and make them stay away from other bad influences like Bengalis and Malayalis, who introduce little Tambrams to the pleasures of beef, fish, and whisky." That is my single story, a story I believe in, although I know many Tam Brams who aren't religious (some are atheists), many bongs who don't have beef, and many mallus who don't drink at all.

I see the solution in marrying people from other castes, religions, and languages. And that can happen when young men and women from one state go to other states for education. I can cite the example of West Bengal, which started experiencing a student exodus since the early nineties. Same from Kerala. (For the uninitiated, these two states were under the communist rule for ages, and have stopped functioning altogether... education sucks, there are no jobs, and in West Bengal the law and order is in the hands of the extreme leftists). These young people, coming out of their states, venture into greener pastures, mix with other people and often marry people from other races, castes, and religions. If you see a tall Punjabi man walking with his short, rotund son, you know he married a short, fat Bengali woman. Like that. Fluids, blood, sweat, everything is getting mixed these days and along with that the accents. Thick regional accents are giving way to a more cosmopolitan lingo. This trend has to be encouraged. Go out, meet others, and multiply so that one day you have Gujjus who aren't selling diamonds, marwaris who aren't staring at the sensex, bengalis who aren't writing poems, and malayalis who aren't forming political parties. You may one day even find a Sindhi in a charitable organization.

I am eternally hopeful.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two Conversations

"Hello? Asif?"
It's been quite a while since we discussed his exploits with the latest girl, but I could hear someone panting on the other side. Did sound like Asif, but couldn't tell for sure.
"Yeah, it's me all right. Why do you call at such odd hours?"
"Nothing unearthly about 3.00 in the afternoon...I thought you would be at work? Are you it? Right now? WITH WHOM, MAN!"
"Don't be crazy, dammit, am on the run, boss, am on the run. And all because of you."
"Yeah, had you not asked me to target Sunaina, I wouldn't be in this position today."

Sunaina is hot. And of course beautiful, intelligent, his colleague, a divorcee, and someone I'd helped him set his eyes on. She had short hair when I saw her last in Bombay, well-endowed, and pink. In this age when all the girls are trying to go zero, Sunaina was proudly extra large and loving it.

"What happened? I thought you enjoyed every moment with her? She was lonely, fantasized about making love to ghosts, and you were a flesh and blood person, her colleague, and handsome too. Single even! What was the problem? Why are you on the run?"

"Oye, you forgot about my girlfriend, did you? She got to know. And am on the run now, will talk later." Asif disconnected the phone.
We have always kept our conversations very focused till now, only both of us had forgotten that he was officially seeing someone else, another friend of ours from the college, Jasmine. How could we forget about her when we targeted Sunaina? I felt responsible for having landed Asif in a mess. It was I who made him notice what Sunaina was made of, how she was all about the sun, scorching our eyes, and waiting for someone to come to her life. Why did I notice her and why didn't I go for her instead? I've always sacrificed the best girls for Asif...always...and ended up playing Cupid for him. And he managed to screw up every bloody relation! Takes some caliber to do it, man!

I thought of Jasmine. Sweet, good-natured, and loves Asif with her life. I accept she is a little pushy at times, but which woman isn't with her boyfriend? Jasmine is the kind of girl you wouldn't want to hit on if you knew she was already seeing someone else. Unlike most of us guys and girls from college, she believed in sticking on, in commitment, and all that old-world romantic stuff that books are filled with. I often want to associate the term morality with her, but can't call her names, can I? After all we shared many coffees together growing up. Calling her a girl with morality might make her look like a geek in the eyes of the others. Even to you guys who are reading this. (Frankly? I changed her name. Her name is not Jasmine.) When I got Asif introduced to Jasmine, I really believed he would change his ways and stick on to this sweetheart of a girl. What business did I have showing him Sunaina's charms three years down the line?

Ashamed at myself, a feeling that usually lasts not more than a few minutes, I hung my head down in shame. My shoes shone brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. Calcutta, in December, is the place to be. I longed for the company of Asif again, at least on Christmas eve, to be on Park Street together. I remembered the time we had seen Victor Banerjee and Lillette Dubey shooting for Bow Barracks. It was Christmas eve too, and we were headed to Someplace Else in The Park.

Right now, I was on Park Street again, walking up from the graveyard toward St Xavier's College. I took care to shine my shoes this morning, but didn't end up at the venue of the interview. I do not want to work in the services sector, no matter how enticing the money sounded. I do not want to ... work. Not that I have to, really. I don't have a dire need to take up a job. I can waste my degree walking on the streets, or perhaps pass on whatever I learned to the kids. I stopped in front of the yellow building of St. Xavier's college. Teaching here won't be a bad idea. But they don't need me. Asif, on the other hand, needed the job. He and Jasmine were planning to get married, and probably have kids too. Shucks! Asif... kids... just the thought made me cringe for him, empathizing with his pain. But Jasmine made him take up the job in Bombay and took him away from me, putting an untimely stop to our numerous escapades with the marwari and bengali girls that we had constant access to. Without Asif, I don't feel complete. When is the bugger coming back?

I sat on the ledge of the wall. It's uncomfortable and not really meant to rest your bum on, but then, I was lonely, hadn't gone for the interview, and could think only of Subhasishda to make a call to. No point going home now, too early to get into Peter Cat for a beer, and what's a beer unless you have friends with you? So it was the uncomfortable ledge of the St. Xavier's College wall for me.

"Hello? Subhoda?"
"Arre, tell me man, nice of you to call. I would have called you anyway tonight."
"So, what's up? How was your day?"
"Oh, very, very fulfilling indeed. I could make Eamon count the beats with me today."

Subhoda has set up his own school for the special children in a village called Adisaptagram, and is the music teacher there. He keeps telling me about Beethoven's 9th, Vivaldi's Summer, and all the other music that he has tried as therapy on his kids. He treats all the kids as his and exults in joy every time there's some significant improvement as the result of his therapy. I sometimes wonder why I can almost feel his joy sitting out here. Maybe because I love him so much.

"Eamon doesn't usually respond to his dad. And today, when I tried the scale of C on the keyboard, he sang along... hummed really."
I keep listening when Subhoda speaks because an inspired dialogue shouldn't ideally be interrupted. And gradually I could see the gleam in his excited eyes as he talked to me over the phone.
"Did I tell you about the guy who plays the chand-sarangi on the Bandel line?"
"No, you didn't."
"That man plays old Bengali songs so soulfully on his sarangi, you would think someone's actually singing them. And he seems oblivious of the surroundings. Who notices him on crowded trains? He goes unnoticed just as Joshua Bell went unnoticed playing his violin on a NY subway. But for Bell it was an experiment on the human psyche. Apparently some children wanted to listen to him play. Whereas, our man here, who is perhaps as talented or as passionate about his music, goes unnoticed every day. How much money does he make by pursuing his creativity? By being a mendicant whom people sympathize with? I mean, couldn't he have ploughed the land or pulled a hand-cart for sustenance? He probably could have. But then that wouldn't have made him happy.
Adi, if I am doing this here today, it is much like that. Pursuing what my heart has sent me for. Every time a child responds to my music, I feel I have earned a few millions."

Maybe I will think like him some day too. Learn to pursue what my heart sends me for.

After we spoke for almost an hour, my battery ran out, and I got up from my uncomfortable seat. Got up and walked back to where I came from, not transformed or enlightened, not a changed man, but toward the graveyard on the other end of Park Street.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Compact Diesel SUVs in India

With the Gypsy gone and the Bolero Crde being priced on the steeper side, the market for sub 7-lakh SUVs is a huge vacant space. Suzuki could have launched the Jimny to fill this void with the same 1.3 liter multijet engine doing duty on the diesel Swift, D-Zire, Indica Vista, Fiat Palio, Linea, Grande Punto, etc, but they haven't.
(Suzuki Jimny)

And suddenly you have Premier Automobiles, a company that is faded from our collective memory, launching just the thing: a sub-7-lakh diesel SUV with the same old Peugeot IDI engine that was used in the 309 GLD. Apparently they were always there and didn't die out. All these days they had a strategic collaboration with Tata Motors to provide specialized engineering services.

Here's an image of the Premier Rio. Cute, small, lovable, and an SUV for the common man. An IDI engine means you have to wait for a glow plug to go off before ignition. The car is a small Daihatsu, made by Zoyte Motors of China, with the legacy French mill that can well be called Indian now. In an age where multijet diesels are ruling the market, launching an IDI engine from the prehistoric era may sound a strategic blunder, but if you look at the price tag, you know who the Rio is targeting. All the auto mags this month are carrying stories about the Rio, so we have to wait and watch where this story heads.

Am sure other auto majors are gonna wait and watch this story like us, and I won't be surprised if this attempt at resurgence by PAL is sabotaged by other companies. What we would want is a healthy competition from Suzuki with the Jimny 4x4, which has a better finish anyday. Maybe Mahindra will launch the Classic in a compact avatar again (think Jeep Wrangler Sahara) and price it at that band? The choice of engine will have to be the 2500 cc, 97 bhp engine from the Bolero Crde.

(Jeep Wrangler Sahara)

And that would give prospective buyers of the Skoda Yeti (to be priced at 12 lakhs on road) a chance to think twice. And the Yeti will die a slow death like the Fabia even before it is born.

Way to go, Premier.

(Skoda Yeti)

Images from:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Rumor of Angels*

I brought you some blue whisky glasses. Really beautiful ones.
I realized it was absolutely out of place to say that at someone's funeral pyre, but that's what I blurted out. And whisky glasses are never blue.

The body was placed on the floor, covered in white cloth. The feet were jutting out, so I sat there and felt them. The same old white feet, only whiter. I ran my forefinger along her cracked heels and smiled. She was still there, and I couldn't tell if she were just sleeping, in coma, or dead. One of her toes had twitched a day before. That wasn't there any more. She was dead after all, then. It is the end. And very soon her ashes will fit into an urn that you could hold in your both hands. The strangeness of death, from so close, was lost on me. There were people all around. "They've all come to see you." And they were all there indeed. Cousins I hadn't met in a long time and probably wouldn't meet again. All of them.

I could overhear someone discussing me. About how cold and unfeeling I had become. But then death was always just another phase to me, like the period at the end of a sentence.

This time when I went to visit my cousin who looked after my comatose mother for over a month, I saw those glasses again. She had stacked them up in a glass cupboard, one after another, like sentinel on duty. There was one missing though.

"You brought me those."
"I know. That was to say thanks. Dunno really how to..."
"I know."

And we were quiet for a while. If she hadn't taken ma to her hospital, we would be bankrupt by now. And ma would still be dead.

I walked back from her Rail Vihar apartment to our house. The otherwise broad road was crowded with shops and people and garbage. There was a bus pushing its way through the crowd, the conductor calling out for passengers to Howrah. All the noise fused together after a while, like a viscous lump one could easily stash into a can and close shut, savor the void for a few seconds, and open it again, slowly allowing the fused lump of various noises to get back to their distinct shapes again. One of the shapes could well be the clink of the missing blue glass.

*A Rumor of Angels is a beautiful American film starring Vanessa Redgrave.