Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Homeward Bound

Every year or every other year I make a trip to Hyderabad, India from Brooklyn, New York in search of my childhood. Born and raised in a middle class home in this city, I left for America in my early twenties. Like many in my generation and my socioeconomic class, the search was for change and an education. The year was 1991 and all that I had conjured up of the outside world was through movies, magazines and music. And the drive to see it for real was strong. So I boarded a plane and put on a seat belt for the first time and was off to an American university.

In all the years away, there was always a strong draw to return to the place where I was born, to stay in touch with all those minuscule things that made me who I am. Now that I have two young children and aging parents, the reasons to return have slightly changed. To expose my offspring to the air, aromas and customs that defined my childhood has become a driving desire. To keep them in touch with their acquired "Indian-ness" by birth, is something my wife and I put considerable effort into. As I drive them around my city, through the congested, hot, filthy, chaotic streets, pointing at vestiges of my past, sometimes I find myself boring them with too much detail. To show them the walls I used to climb over to get to school and point at the roadside stalls where I would devour spicy dangerous delectable Indian fast food preparations and to subject their taste buds to a range of flavors hoping it would be an uplifting experience is always a delight. And to spend hours with my octogenarian father over a plate of the best Biryani money can buy, and hear him describe his childhood and the magical kingdom this ancient city once was under the Nizam (the King) is priceless. As I toured the old palace museum where the Nizam once lived and ruled, I could see my father become nostalgic and emotional as he remembered those irreplaceable days of peace, prosperity, piety and just clean, quiet, cool air. As we drove through the congested “old city” he pointed at ornate dilapidated terraces and narrow alleyways, which defined his childhood view, much like I showed mine to my children.

The places where we are born and raised always shape who we are. Whether the beginnings are pleasant or not is immaterial. The friendships forged in those carefree innocent times last a lifetime. Though the friends I search in my hometown have all moved away, and those who are here are caught in the humdrum of life, a phone conversation with an old friend makes everything fresh all over again. An old friend is a movie star, another a successful film director, a schoolmate is the commissioner of police and others own palatial homes and fancy cars, but the memories of when we all played marbles and cricket in an open field, or drove out of the city on motorcycles to catch a late night roadside meal, is what instantly brings us together. People change, the city changes, the country transforms, but somethings never change.

India is a country that is always changing and not changing at all, at the same time. Being the world’s largest democracy, cobbled together by a complicated and tenuous history, it manages to stay together despite all the regional, political, ethnic, religious and communal conflicts tearing at its heart. As some one once said “India is the best functioning chaotic democracy in the world” and nothing can be closer to the truth. At the heart of it are human bonds and relationships that endure time and act as the glue that keeps it all together.

As I have seen my city grow from a quiet, peaceful, southern sleepy town, to a concrete jungle of a metropolis, trying to compete with the great cities of the world, I always seem to ask myself was this inevitable? How much of a role did the nation where I currently reside had to play in this transformation? When I drive around the narrow congested city streets and see BMW SUVs and Mercedes Benz’s on the narrow roads and see brands such as Microsoft, Intel, Accenture and McDonalds displayed on tall shiny buildings where once stood million year old rock formations, the answer is staring at my face. The economic liberalization that took place in India in the early 90s had opened the floodgates. And what was left in its path was a mammoth structural upheaval that is still ongoing.

America’s economic boom of the mid nineties was fueled by the information technology revolution spawned largely in Silicon Valley. Part of that boom was fueled by cheap labor procured in the Indian sub-continent and China. The two southern cities that swallowed a giant share of that business were Bangalore and Hyderabad and that legacy is still intact. Though the progress has slowed as a result of a global economic slowdown, the IT parks and glass facade buildings that were erected almost overnight to house American companies, still define the modernization of India. The IT revolution transformed the social fabric of urban India at a fundamental level. To attract foreign investment Indian cities dreamt of becoming western style metropolises, with giant malls, slick airports, subway systems, high rise apartment complexes and six lane highways. But what was not engineered in a sound fashion was the infrastructure to support such an undertaking. But the Indian’s were adept at adapting to the quirks of a failed state. Having your own dedicated diesel generator solved power shortages, buying your own water solved lack of clean potable municipal water, lack of public hygiene was solved by living in a gated community and driving in air-conditioned cars with tinted windows, served as blinders to the disparity and dysfunctionality that lay outside.

While urban India thrived by gobbling rural India, the lack of a cohesive, effective, honest and just local and federal government had made sure that something’s could never change. People who had money could buy into this dream that there was actual change taking place and their life would only become more and more like the west. And those who did not have much before, suddenly felt they had a chance to climb the ladder. And those who did not have anything had to contend with inflation that was debilitating and downright destructive of their very livelihood. A vision for the nation was lacking at a fundamental level and that is a problem that plagues India even today. There is no plan for a universal health system that could serve everyone equally, there is no vision for an education system that could offer quality education for all, and there is no effort to improve the hygiene conditions as well. Yes India is a large country with over a billion people and to provide effective services for all is a challenge. But when you see federal and state governments constantly mired in corruption scandals of mammoth proportion, you cannot accept that as an excuse. 

Any urban street in any city or town in India serves as a great metaphor for the nation that is India clamoring to make progress. The road is narrow with potholes. You could hit a speed bump or a deep crevice at a moments notice. The traffic lights may or may not light up. The traffic policeman who wears a surgical mask to save himself from the pollution can barely stay awake and in control in the heat and grime. The air-conditioned  SUV, the Porsche, the auto-rickshaw, the cyclist, the bus, the truck, the motorcyclist and the pedestrian all squeeze for space on the same road barely six inches from each other. A sidewalk is non-existent as it has been encroached. Yet no one crashes into each other and the street manages to move on in a loud din of horns and some road rage. And when the traffic light does work and you come to a dead halt, the beggars in the most destitute condition holding babies under their arms knock on the tinted window of the newest car for a hand out. The window sometimes rolls down and out comes a hand with some money and the traffic sluggishly moves on.

If you were to interpret the scenario above, as a slice of the way the nation functions this is how it would appear. Indians can now buy the best cars, afford Italian marble under their feet and breathe air-conditioned air but then the infrastructure to support that lifestyle is riddled with problems and has not progressed much in terms of reliability and  sustainability. The haves and the have-nots each assert their space on the road to success squeezing through by the skin of their teeth. The corrupt government stalls and proves ineffectual and leaves behind a huge population to beg for their existence literally and figuratively. The rich get richer, the middle class struggle to move up buying apartments in concrete high rises and the poor struggle to contend with inflation that makes their basic necessities of life a luxury.

Cellphones and Cable Television have permeated through the Indian population like water. These two technologies have transformed the social fabric by touching almost every social-strata like never before. Cable television with its multitude channels is a relatively recent phenomenon. In over less than two decades it has turned the Indian psyche inside out. Aspirations for consumer products across the board have sky rocketed as a result of what television projects and the lifestyles it promotes. Again American influence in the television space is quite dominating. From Indian versions of franchise reality and game shows to sitcoms and movies, America continues to define the lifestyle for the urban upwardly mobile population. Television in all the various regional languages continues to promote traditional and religious values through mythological stories and TV god-men/women. Channels owned by political parties keep the volatile nature of Indian politics alive in people’s living rooms. The Bollywood juggernaut dominates the media landscape and unifies the nation in a warped sense by not only selling a form of cinema that is largely escapist, but also every other consumer product sold by its many celebrity stars. As an outsider when I flip through the TV channels I struggle to find an identity that I could call Indian. What appears to me is confusion. A space where there is a struggle going on to ascertain who we are as a people, a culture war, a clash of aesthetics and ideas that do not meld together.

With all its complexities and various disenfranchised groups and separatist movements India manages to move forward as a largely functioning democracy. Freedom of expression is largely held sacrosanct. But recently that has also been grossly and fearfully threatened to the discomfort of many. When Aseem Trivedi was arrested on sedition charges for highlighting the corruption in India’s power elite in a cartoon, the ugly bullying nature of Indian politics was exposed. The recent arrest of two young women for voicing their opinion on Facebook about the city of Bombay being shut down for the funeral procession of a highly divisive political ideologue Bal Thackery, showed the mafia element that threatens India’s fragile democracy.

The India I grew up in and the India I visit have grown much like I have. I have put on some weight and have lost hair on my scalp, so has India. But my heart has not changed and so has India’s. In the urban chaos and rural upheaval you can still find people who live close to the earth and embody a life style that is sustainable. They practice age-old methods of recycling and consume only what is equitable in ingenious and clever ways. They need to be encouraged on a national scale. Families stay close and embody the ancient codes passed on through the primordial texts holding the social fabric together. Even though the high uncertainty of life makes people more and more religious and the thirst for gold increases as it is seen as the only reliable source of security, people to a large extent live a secular life, respecting each other’s diversity of religion and ethnic make up. The economic disparity I grew up with seems to have gotten starker but the genuineness among people rich or poor I would like to believe has remained the same.

So as I wind up my recent trip to India I come to a realization that I will always live in two places at the same time. Remembering my childhood with my children and reminiscing with my father of a time that today sounds like a fairy tale, I always am left with one question to ask myself. Will my children think of my time as a fairy tale, or will they remember it as a time when everything began to fall apart and all that was sacred and pure, began to fade way. Only time will tell. It is what it is.