Monday, June 8, 2009

The immigrant experience

Last week I had driven down to Brockton (a neighbouring town) to check out a 1996 Accord which I was looking to buy. The owner was a second generation Portuguese immigrant and in the course of conversation we got talking about how his parents had moved to the USA from the 'old land' and how tough it was for him growing up in this country trying to live up to the expectations and norms set for Portuguese society. In a way, I told him, I had had that experience too even though I didn't need to change countries.

I was born in Calcutta, West Bengal on the eastern coast of my country before my dad got a job in Gujarat on the western fringe. India being a country where languages change every two hundred miles, it was no surprise that my mother tongue Bengali was totally useless in my new location. Apparently at 3 years old when we moved to Gujarat, I had gone mute for a number of months just at the shock of having to change languages.

My parents, pure blooded Bengalis did their best to teach us the customs and practices of far-off Calcutta which was always a holiday spot for us and nothing more. But neither did I feel Gujarati in any way by virtue of having grown up in Gujarat. Just as I did not sing Rabindra Sangeet with any kind of gusto, I hated the Gujarati traditional dance of Garba not least because I am blessed with 3 left feet. Hindi was my language of choice, using the local language Gujarati only when unavoidable. It was a feeling of rootlessness that plagues every child who is required to conform to the requirements of one culture while actually living in the middle of another. The Durga Pujos and the inevitable attempts by my mom to teach me to read and write Bengali in the summer vacations were integral to my existence as was wishing every relative under the sun on Poilaa Boisaakh (Bengali New Year).

I felt more Bengali than anything else but this was a feeling most joyfully refuted by my Bengali friends brought up in Calcutta. For them, being Bengali required one to be raised in Calcutta or at least West Bengal; everyone else were just wannabes. For a very long time, I laboured under this impression of not having any identity. This lingering doubt however was cleared in one swoop by my college friend Riddhi, a guy from rural Bengal and unlike the urbanites not hell-bent on proving my un-Bengaliness.

He asked me one day "Do you think that you are a Bengali?"

I was a little taken aback but I managed to muster "Umm... I am but then I can't read or write Bengali."

Riddhi replied "Well stupid, there are so many villagers in Bengal who are illiterate and so can't read or write Bengali. Does that mean that they are not Bengalis?"

Since then, I have been pretty comfortable under my tag of an NRB (Non Resident Bengali), confident that I do qualify as a Bengali if I choose to declare my ethnicity irrespective of whatever flimsy proof the Kolkata bhadralok might have against my eligibility.

Mondays in San Francisco

My first visit to the sunshine state of California was almost at an end. I had separated from my hosts to take a ride on the San Francisco light rail down its steep slopes to Fisherman's Wharf. It was a Monday, the 1st of September, and the Labour Day holiday was on. People were out on the streets as was the pleasant California sun. The occasional sea-gull shrieked its protests at the number of people entering its sea front domain while sounds of the sea-lions basking themselves at Pier 39 floated in from the distance. 

Fisherman's Wharf was a charmed place that afternoon, the people in the most sunny of moods strolling around without a care in the world as the street performers did their stuff. I paused at a group of Jamaicans playing their tinny drums and singing Bob Marley numbers. I got completely caught up in the moment, a near out-of-body experience for my nomad soul. With the sounds of the Pacific in the background, a cool salty afternoon breeze and the infectious "No woman, no cry" number being belted out, I sighed and wished with the deepest possible wish for a job which could offer me more blissful Mondays like this one!


12th March, 2006: A Sunday which will live in glory for all time to come for anyone who loves to see Australia beaten in a cricket match. The common room of our hostel had seen many a raucous celebration but none like that day even though India wasn't even one of the combatants.

It was the fifth and final one-dayer, the series decider for the Aussies touring South Africa. The day being a Sunday, the only thing that could be on the TV when a cricket match was on was a cricket match so a few sleepy heads half filled the common room and stared in disbelief as Ricky Ponting took the Proteas to task, the Aussies posting an unprecedented, mammoth, gargantuan, stupendous 434 runs as a target. The bitter memories of the 2004 World Cup final slaughter of India at the hands of the same batsman were awakened and the air was thick with the most vehement curses. How could they do this everytime, the darned Kangaroos, how could they bring their game up to such a level when it came to the big day? Hurt and anger and disappointment hung thick as people resorted to tearing newspapers and slamming the striker on the carrom board to divert their thoughts away from what looked assured to be another Aussie victory.

Who could've thought that a man called Herschelle Gibbs had decided otherwise? He smashed, pulled and cut his way in a dream innings as he came within touching distance of the impossible. Then he fell, and the mournful silence of the common room told the story of whose side we were rooting for. A parade of South African batsmen followed in quick succession, and the Aussies were back from the brink with their confident smirks. But Mark Boucher pulled the Proteas home in the most of nail biting of finishes with one ball to go and one wicket to spare. South Africa: 438/9 in 49.5 overs in what was positively the greatest run chase of all time. What a game!

The common room erupted and we were literally dancing in the aisles. High fives, chest bumps, pumping fists, mindless roars of joy et al were on display as the bitterest cricketing rivals of India were subjected to this incredible defeat. On that night, South Africa was playing for India, wreaking brutal vengeance on the invincible Aussies. The happiness that night defied belief as every cricket lover in our hostel fell asleep with a satisfied smile. It was Monday next day but we couldn't care less. Australia had been beaten and how! This was a story to tell our grandchildren. Even without being at the Wanderers, Jo'burg that night, being in far off Kurukshetra, it was well and truly a "I was there" moment.

The city of joy

Jug Suraiya, the brilliant writer who grew up in Calcutta tries to sum up the city in this beautiful statement:

"In many ways, Calcutta or at least, the Calcutta I knew found an apt metaphor in a derelict, tuneless piano once grand and imposing but now consigned to cobwebs and memories, difficult to accomodate in any practical scheme of things, yet defiantly enduring: pathetic to some, poignant to others, sufficient to itself."

I was born in the city but had then moved out to Gujarat, making only summer vacation visits to my birthplace before finally taking up a job there after graduation. I too have struggled to define what still pulls me to this chaotic city where nothing seems to be going right and have found an apt metaphor in something similar to Mr. Suraiya's train of thought though not exactly the same.

My maternal grandparents lived in the Salt Lake area of Calcutta so far removed from the city that it is its own municipality. But for someone like me coming in on a train from the western fringes of India, this was Calcutta enough for me. The little flat that they lived in ever since I was born was a treasure trove of wonders. They hadn't ever needed a fridge so the butter was kept floating in a bowl of water to preserve it, a unique thing that I had observed and for some trivial reason appreciated during my stays at my grandparents' house. There was a camp bed which was put out in the centre of our drawing room in our honour as we kids loved lying there in the curtain darkened afternoons as mom or grandma spun tales of how we were in the depths of a jungle as a tiger prowled outside our camp.

The wire mesh cabinets in the kitchen held goodies concocted by my grandma especially our all time favourite the sweet and tangy tamarind pickle. The book shelves often coughed up crepe paper covered story books from my mom's childhood which we read with relish and smelt that divine old book smell though sometimes it triggered a sneeze or two. Every year when we came there, the immediate neighbours who were a brother-sister pair slightly older than my sister and me were a big draw too. They used to mark our heights on the wall of their drawing room causing the incomparable thrill of finding out how much taller we had grown over the past year. Their pet pomeranian was as good as ours for the period of time that we lived there.

Then there were the sweet shops of the Labony Colony market in which I'd love to gaze lovingly on the offerings, and the 'mooriwalaa' (Puffed rice seller) who'd come to the flat with his huge basket and I'd be amazed everytime by his physical capabilities only to be reminded by grandma that his 'bostaa' (sack) really weighed nothing at all. The "Chuttii Chuttii" vacation programs on DD Bangla where we'd wait with bated breath for the next installment of the Feluda adventures by Satyajit Ray carried a special thrill when watched in the drawing room of the G-5/6 flat while we munched on 'moori' and 'beguni' (A flour caked fried goody with eggplant inside). The Tortoise slides at the other end of the colony where we'd beg our parents to take us were nothing more than two stone tortoises for kids to clamber over with a big slide on the same ground yet it meant the world to us. The Mother Dairy milk machine, the 'Jahaaj Baari' (Ship House) and a million other oft seen wonders would await us every time we stayed over at our grandparents and would thrill us just the same everytime.

Now that my grandparents have long passed away, a visit to my grandma's flat is not the same but the memories still come flooding back. The dust is wiped off them and they are burnished to a new shine everytime I quietly pass any landmark near my grandma's house that had excited me no end in the past. The coolness of a place lies in the intimacy someone shares with the place, with the stories that pop out of every corner of the streets. It's quite difficult for someone to appreciate who didn't have a part to play in those stories.

Similar to my relationship with my grandparents' house is the bond I share with the city of Calcutta as a whole. The trams clattering their idiosyncratic way through the hellish jams, the chime of the rickshaw puller's bell as he runs through the alleys getting little children to school or fat ladies to the New Market (which actually is at least 120 years old), the welcome relief of Red Road after the choking traffic of Esplanade, the traffic rumbling through the old skeleton of the Howrah Bridge, the crumbling buildings of North Calcutta, the short walk to the Oxford Book Store from my house - a journey which I undertook with joy for the rewards that lay at its end and the sudden rain showers that I love to get caught in - all this and more define my Calcutta. How do I explain this to a person who lands in from the vibrancy and swankiness of Delhi or Bombay (Both cities which I love and appreciate)? How do I get inside their head and ask them that when they are all done with the shopping malls and the late-night partying, whether there is some place they are familiar with from their days of innocence, a fortress of calm and comfort that they'd always turn to? Because that place for me with all its lovable and not-so-lovable flaws is Calcutta.

Lessons learnt

Some memories just cotton onto the brain for some inexplicable reason and no matter what new information replaces old information from then on, they just cling on. Old as they are, they must have found some corner of the brain where there is no substitution of cells, call it a kind of old age home for memory cells if you will. Right there is a little event that seems to have guided my life from then on.

This happened way back in time, back when we had only Doordarshan, the state run TV channel on air. News was something which my parents watched without fail and we kids would sit along hardly making able to make anything of the weighty issues and incidents being discussed on screen. The main news would be followed by the Parliament News which was an even dryer and less interesting news segment to us kids but I'd stick around just until the initial video montage of pictures taken outside the Parliament House was over. I liked to see the pictures of the Parliament house and the statues of the famous leaders that flashed through with the Parliament News music piece playing in the background. The news reader favourite lines seemed to be something about a zero hour (an interesting name for an hour to my curious young mind) and about how the House had to be adjourned by the Honourable Speaker after opposition parties stormed the well of the House (again I innocently wondered what a well was doing in the middle of the house, didn't they have taps or something). 

Anyway, getting back to the news snippet that I set out to discuss in the first place which came up in the main news. The news reader told me in his deep baritone that Kumar Sanu, the famous playback singer from Bollywood had donated some crores to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. This after a long time was a piece of news that was digestible to my infantile intelligence (at least back then, I was actually an infant). So I piped up "Out of so many crores of rupees, I wish he had given us just one crore!"

My parents seldom in agreement about any single thing on earth looked at me and went ahead in unison "Why? Why would we need one crore?" I didn't speak further during the news program but pondered over the question put to me by my parents. Sure, we could use one crore. There were all these video-games and comic books that were waiting to be bought, and then there were the radio-controlled cars from America that I so coveted. A bigger house wouldn't hurt and nor would a full cricket kit to last through the long summer evenings. At least we wouldn't have to pretend that the guy who brought the stumps was not out when he had clearly nicked the ball. I could very well take his pampered place in the playground hierarchy. Our refrigerator could be packed with rows of chocolates and ice-creams instead of the occasional treat.

Then again, I thought to myself, "Come on. Really?" 3 of my closest friends had video game systems but they were my best friends long before video games were an attraction for me to go to their house. Our flat was big enough for all of us to live in comfort, had enough walls to scribble on and was just the right size for me to bawl out mom's or dad's name when I took a tumble from the bed & they'd come rushing in. The real fun of comic books was to wait for a chance to come across a new one at a friend's place and then fight over who would get a chance to take it home. Owning them all would take the fizz out of that. The guy who packed up his stumps and went home at his slightest whim was definitely not the most popular guy on field, pampered though he may be and I wasn't actually eager to take his place. Once I had eaten a stomachful of chocolate and ice cream at a friend's birthday party and my stomach had hurt like never before.

My needs and wants have changed a lot since that day long ago in the past, but the lessons I took away haven't. Sure, everybody could use a little more of the money thing, but at what cost. Is it worth stressing yourself out or deviating from what is right for something that you thought was really needed to ensure a comfortable existence and then find that it was not worth the stretch. Yes, there are many things in life worth the stretch but not one of them can be bought with money.


We were roaming the Wall Street area of Manhattan during Thanksgiving Weekend 2008 when one of us had the wish to see the site where the WTC towers once stood. We had already been told that there was nothing much to see, but we went anyway. Only a minute's walk from the Trinity Church on Wall Street and we had reached the giant hole in the ground where two 110 storey buildings had once stood. More than 3000 Americans died that fateful morning of September 11th, followed by hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan in the ensuing wars. Hatred and intolerance dug their claws deeper into the flesh of mankind by that single incident, bleeding away the last drops of goodwill that there existed between two different ways of life, all due to the madness of the powers-that-be.

In an open square right next to the boarded and enclosed site where the WTC Memorial is coming up, stood a Peruvian man playing his flute next to his van. He was one of the many street performers that entertain the denizens of Manhattan but he had a performing venue of special importance as people came here to pause and reflect on the pain of the past, instead of just rushing on to the next subway train to Brooklyn or Queens. The sound of the flute surged through the microphone and flowed out of the speakers enveloping the area with a soothing power that only music has. The majesty of the Andes suffused the cramped lanes of Manhattan with an imposing calm totally unbecoming of a city packed with millions of people and the din caused by their daily routines only through the power of his flute.

The real irony however was that this beautiful music was from the land of the Incas, probably the most violent of all ancient civilizations. Human sacrifices, public slaughter of captive enemies and blood thirsty deities were part and parcel of their daily lives. Yet a thousand years since their glory days, the Incas lived on in a crowded square in Manhattan, their music this time a balm to these scarred souls, the latest victims in the never ending story of mindless human violence. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

At journey's end

The city of Detroit itself has nothing much to remind the visitor of its erstwhile status as the car capital of the world. The buildings in downtown Detroit range from really ordinary to shady looking places which are on the verge of collapse, worthy of an industry whose inability to support itself reflects in the upkeep of its buildings. The new GM Renaissance building in its swanky, gaudy glory on the Detroit river waterfront is an even stronger reminder of the days that the manufacturers of Motown wanted to return to but probably never will.

Ford's manufacturing facility at Dearborn, Michigan (known as the Ford Rouge factory) is its oldest functioning plant in operation since 1910 a little south of Detroit. It continues to churn out F-150 trucks, one of the few models whose sales are keeping the company afloat as the other two of the Big Three have already filed for bankruptcy. They have a theatre in there which runs a 15 minute film on the history of the plant. The grainy black and white images in the ultra modern theatre tell the tale of Henry Ford's revolutionary dreams to set up a plant which would churn out that unique contraption called the motorcar at a desirable price and at a speed worthy of keeping up with the soon-to-be insatiable demand for it. The iron ore went into the steel mill and the final car was assembled & ready within 94 minutes on this plant, the first significant use of a moving assembly line. This factory on the banks of the Rouge was where the modern industrial world was born, and given a ride out into the world by the Ford Model T. To this group of sheds in a little town of Michigan, we owe all the technological wonders that inhabit our world today.

I had crossed an important milestone on that day as I sat watching the show in the darkened theatre. When people reach Mecca after an arduous trek through the desert or step into the holy cave of Amarnath after negotiating the deadly mountains on the way, they would've felt a similar kind of awe. For someone who has always harboured a passion for all kinds of motorized transport to the point of obsession and is a fanatic devotee of modern technology, this was the centre of the universe - the magnificent river at its very source.

The forgotten

Being poor, I imagine, is no fun in any country but nothing could be worse than being poor in the USA. In this land of excess, where alongside neat, little houses with perfectly manicured lawns is parked a boat bigger than the house itself not to mention the two motorcycles and 3 cars, being poor must be really hurt like hell. The streets of Manhattan teem with angelic waifs floating away in the trendiest of boutique fashion, but also on the sidewalks sit broken men and women, with tattered clothes and placards begging for food. The same wind which blows astray the strands of hair on the face of the pretty fur-coat clad girls sashaying down New York's shopping districts also seeps its cold fingers past the ineffectual newspaper stuffing that the homeless use in an desperate attempt to sustain their morbid existence. And now and then, when old enough and tired of the pointless exercise, they just lay down and die out on the cold stone pavements or in the meagre shelter of a trash lined alley.  

It's easy to label them as inefficient and lazy in a country where every person had supposedly equal rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happpiness". The homeless, as the desperately poor in the US are euphemistically called, may be all that they are accused of and more, but I find that their condition invokes an unique emotion in me, a mixture of pity and horror. Pity because no human being deserves to be in a condition like this, where they move from shelter to shelter or street to street scrounging for their next meal like street dogs back in India, shivering away the last bits of their miserable lives. Horror because they represent the human spirit in what is its most terrifying broken down manifestation. 

There are a lot of charities though which do the praiseworthy job of finding these people shelters, their children foster homes and give them food so that they don't starve to death. Despite all of that, one thing is chillingly clear. These are people who have dropped completely out of the race to make something of their lives, from whose hearts the last birds of hope have flown away leaving it in a permanently bleak winter. Some of them may have lost out due to their total lack of ability but there are some who are there due to their inability to run fast enough or being unable to muster the will to dust themselves up after one of life's many pushes sent them crashing out of the race. They are the forgotten people, no-hopers who stand aside wheezing and looking on in blank resignation, surviving solely on the wayward scraps that the running hordes toss their way until one day the scraps run out.

CEO insecurities

I have never been much of a brazen careerist. The intricate system of designations, promotions, incentives and performance appraisals designed to reward the best perfomers is of minimal interest to me and bores me to death. Yet when it was announced that my company was planning to change its CEO by the end of this year, it got me thinking.

The post of a CEO is as high as a person starting as a regular employee can get on the basis of merit, right at the top of the corporate ladder. There are MDs and Boards of Directors too, but they are the equivalent of the President in the Indian political system, symbolically important but not directly influential enough as far as executive functions go. The CEO is the most prominently powerful position that anyone could want to be at.

When a person finally gets up there in that rarified air, what would he be thinking? Would he pat himself on the back for making it to the pinnacle of a 4 billion dollar company and feel proud of being master & commander of 1.5 lakh employees or be merely jealous of the CEO of some behemoth like Google which could buy out his company just for the heck of it?  I wonder how important the CEO of a steel rod manufacturer feels when he is face to face with the CEO of a company like Apple whose factor of coolness is at least a million times more than the poor (figuratively speaking not literally) steelman. Or when someone like Richard Branson shows up with the hottest supermodel dangling from his arm on his private jet, while he himself flew in just plain old luxurious but not luxurious enough Business Class on the "Airline of the year" from 2 years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, does Bill Gates wake up everyday wishing that he had less money and fewer anti-trust cases to handle? 

Every CEO must be proud of having made it but surely they must be wondering whether they made it high enough or far enough to be exactly where they want to be. I know this reads like just another vigorously convoluted excuse for not working too hard in office, but it is what it is! 

Adventure comes home

I was in class 11 by the time such an opportunity came about. My dad had been away quite a few times on work-related trips, and my mom too on earlier occasions but they were always scheduled in such a way that one of them was at home. Being the youngest amongst my siblings had this duality of being pampered and overprotected at the same time. My brother was working somewhere in North Gujarat at that point of time and my sister had just joined Architecture school so for the first time I had the TV to myself without having to engage in bitter arguments.

Then my parents had to go away (for reasons I forget) for a couple of days leaving me home alone. You'd think that would have been an easy task but from the thousand and one instructions left behind it looked like they were leaving in the midst of a jungle, not the same set of apartments where we had lived for close to 12 years now. One instruction however was sweet music to my ears. Since I was alone and presumably 'defenseless', I was allowed to have my school friends stay over. So I began to put the phone to good use and began calling up friends by the dozen within minutes of my parents leaving. Their parents however proved harder to convince than I had assumed as far staying over was concerned, probably suspicious of what mayhem putting so many teenagers under one roof would lead to. But for two of my friends, everyone was okayed to spend the day at my place but evening would require them to touch home base. All the same, I still had unlimited TV, cricket and video-gaming privileges and two of my closest friends for company. You can't ask for everything in life!

For the next couple of days, the world was our oyster. We probably ran the TV non-stop for that period of time watching the raunchiest music videos on air without the covertness normally required, hooked up the game console & played until our arms ached, fell back to watching some live sports while flitting in and out of the house for a game of cricket and random scouring of the town streets for eye-candy riding our scooterettes in a manner that assumed that the absence of my parents had rendered us death-proof. Friends dropped by, one after the other cycling through the house as and when they felt the need to escape the stifling nature of their parent afflicted homes. We collectively drooled over the stunning Ashley Judd in "Double Jeopardy" as it played on HBO in the morning and then again on the re-run in the evening. B-4/8 was less of a flat and more of a pleasure palace for that period of time. Sid, Santosh and me were the resident princes while all others were our royal guests. School incidents, juicy rumours of link-ups and graphic descriptions of the attributes of female beauty were the hot topics of the day in this open door discussion forum.

The orderliness and the neatness of the house was the first and expected casualty to this influx of visitors. More disastrously, the hordes of hungry teenage boys had cleaned out the refrigerator disposing of my mom's cooked food which was supposed to see us through 3 days within the first day itself. In Maggi noodles lay our salvation and so it was that we came to live off Maggi and eggs for the remaining days. Food was definitely our secondary concern, a small price to pay for the extraordinary freedom. We did try to fry some bhindi (okra as it also called) for dinner but without an iota of culinary skill in all of our collective bones, we ended up with a gooey mess which we made an unfortunate decision to 'spice' up with red chilli powder. This gustatory disaster was accompanied by a power cut, and I could find only one candle & wished that I had listened more carefully to my mom when she was jabbering away. So it was that on the final night before my parents returned, under the light of a single candle we were crying tears born out of eating what was undoubtedly the greatest torture I have ever subjected my tastebuds to. But we were also full of glee, trying to pin the genius of this experiment on one unfortunate donkey's tail instead of on three.

Every once in a while, I have felt the need to pull away from the regular run-of-the-mill life to feel refreshed. However on the rare occasion having a totally familiar environment all to yourself under unique circumstances has its own very strong merits.