India in 1000 words or less – part 3

26 Oct

Hindu pride: Akshardham “spiritual theme park”

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘check points’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100 acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under in aegis corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack, and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architecture styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

India in 1000 words or less – part 6

6 Oct

Bemoaning Delhi

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place – a lot of them – but it isn’t that the city was created for them. Instead people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one – to live. To talk of architecture is presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is nauseating to see Delhi through the goggle-eyed Western view of third-world – even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi – no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there – people are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms for mid 90s, was defined by two things – entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became more acute, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

India in 1000 words or less – part 1

26 Sep

A marble tomb called ‘Shining India’

The Singapore Airlines flight SQ 408 landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at 8:45pm, a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there was no gate available to greet the early arrival. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a gate was found and the weary passengers started “deplaning” into a stale-aired tunnel devoid of any air conditioning.

Passing through it, we reached a smallish marble-floored concourse also devoid of functioning air-conditioning. India is perhaps one of the few nations in the world where the government spends, what is undoubtedly, an exorbitant amount of money to cover the floor with marble, and then leaves the air-conditioning unplugged. Marble in my memory is inextricably linked to the beautiful elegant toy-like tomb of Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, and the marble floors that line the homes of the nouveau rich in Delhi. The concourse of Indira Gandhi Airport is also one such tomb – a tomb to India’s bureaucracy, the babudom (a pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucracy) whose dried pan spittle adorns the lower extremities of the walls, and higher areas of corners, and one such hanging statement about clueless money.

I was soon making my way through the staircase to a smallish area that had the immigration counters, as passengers from another flight – this time from Malaysia as my surreptitious sideways glances at people’s passports and immigration forms later revealed – poured in. The area became crowded as people flowed over on to the staircase.

I belong to a class of people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, most of the times to be assertive. So the waves of people pushed me back to my due spot- near the end of the line. In the interim melee, a man in his mid 30s behind me called out to his wife, ‘Arrey issey main dekhta hoon tum jaldi say line mein jaa kar lago (I will look out for him – the kid – you go hurry up and stand in the line). The passengers though were generally quiet and undemanding showing a detachment that only comes from having lived in plush comforting environments for some time, or when you are a young ‘foreign tourist’ and all ‘this’ is part of being in a new country. Of course the fact that all of the Indian (expatriates or natives) passengers –a majority of the total passengers – belong to the super elite for whom pretensions of patience in front of fellow elites are important also helps keep the verbalizing of resentment to a minimum.

The other airplane that had come from Malaysia was full of Muslims in full regalia – skull caps, flowing robes, and slippers. The foreign wonders in our line wondered. I wondered too, albeit innocently.

In due time, my number came and I handed over my passport to the clearly overworked and unsmiling man across the counter; the job is perhaps lowly and the government babu (pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucrats) at the counter looked impoverished – he had a noticeably dirty collar, the shirt was yellowing and worn, and his tie was little askew. He stared briefly and stamped.

Then came the robust baggage trolleys – not the dainty ones that I saw in Hong Kong – on which I plunked my suitcases, which came slowly and sullenly over the conveyor belt looking worn and maltreated. And I was off into the dusty crowded outside, and into the hands of my parents.

Sachar report

26 Apr

Report on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India by Justice Rajindar Sachar. The report which runs around 400 pages offers an authoritative account of the wide economic and social disparities that exist between Muslims and other religious communities in India. The report, worked on by famous social scientists from India including T.K. Oomen (pdf), professor at JNU, Dr. Akhtar Majeed etc. suffers from inattention to data collection methods – “These figures are based on what people and organizations told us when we met them in the states,” Sachar notes. [Sulekha]

Selected ethnography of marketing in India

7 Apr

Biscuits (cookies) in India are marketed for their glucose shakti (power), bathing soaps for their ability to get rid of germs, hair oil for its efficaciousness in keeping the lice away, and a “fair and lovely” cream for its eponymous abilities (fair=lovely). We have popular biscuits made by Britannia, a popular red tooth-powder that leaves chalky marks on your teeth and turns your spittle red, neem (mainly known for anti-bacterial properties) soaps and toothpastes, a farmer (kissan) brand ketchup, Brooke Bond tea (after English tea retailer), clinic shampoo, kwality ice-cream, and prickly heat powders. We have multiple competing mosquito repellents including the popular “tortoise” mosquito coil and ‘good knight.’ We have ads showing joint families cheerfully celebrate and lighting fire-crackers and earthen lanterns after getting their houses painted with Asian paints, or buying a Maruti car, or for that matter a Chetak (after the horse of Rana Pratap Singh) or a Hero-Honda. Our movie studios often have introductory banners that are full of religious signage.

India is a poor country. It is a post-colonial country. We are as nostalgic about British era quality as we are about the merits of herbal remedies; though popular herbal concoctions like Chyavanprash contain mainly sugar.

India came of age, the IT age that is, celebrating its kissans (farmers) and jawans (soldiers). India entered the age of economic liberalization with its own baggage of history – colonialism, and its familial structures, religion, and government propaganda. The specificity of ads, the perversities of the pitches, all are merely scavenging over the body of this skewed, troubled body politic.

I grew up in this strange India. I grew up drawing my houses with slanted tiled roofs even though I lived in Delhi which only had flat roofed houses. I drew spare free standing houses, in the middle of nowhere, with a long winding walkway and green brushes even though I had never seen such houses while growing up. I drew colonial beauty — the mimesis of colonial aesthetics in India is deep and resonant. I grew up in a household where both of my parents were government “servants.”

Commercial advertisement traditions in the country are still cognizant of India’s deep poverty – they focus on the practical and not merely the aspirational though that is rapidly changing. I suppose as the economy grows the ratio of practical pitches to aspirational pitches increases. It is an artificial line – the line between practical and aspirational- and a line that blurs often, but a line nonetheless. The fact remains (for now) that most Indians haven’t reached a level of material comfort where each additional major or minor purchase isn’t looked on as something that materially and significantly improves comfort.

India in some sense is a prime market for marketers, except of course for its soul-sapping poverty. Indians, ever aware of the social position and with brains hardwired to equate price with quality, are almost always willing to buy something costlier that shows better taste or portends better quality. Of course, their instincts are roped in by positive social perception about buying something for a “good value”. There is little doubt in my mind that the most successful advertisements will make both pitches. Similarly, the most successful advertisements would also pitch to both its modern commercial aspirational soul, and its traditional religious soul.

What does it mean to be literate in India?

3 Jul

A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000). The reality is actually still worse.

Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

  1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
  2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
    of the next line immediately below.
  3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
  4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.

….

“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people — literate according to the Census — can read the headlines of a newspaper?

If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10-15% would be fully literate.”

Source: Brij Kothari and others

In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving health to access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But how to invest? Brij Kothari believes that the problem can be alleviated by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS) – subtitling the lyrics of song-based television programs (e.g., music videos), in the same language as the audio- with popular regional language programming like Chitramala. Initial tests for SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and like elsewhere, they watch a bunch of it.

Counter Point –
Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto correction make ability to write, and read the written word increasingly inessential. Hence, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.

p.s. An interesting article on inequality in achievement in maths in India –India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.

On Delhi: Vignettes from a short visit

5 Jun

My flight landed on a humid and somewhat benign May morning in Delhi. On entering the Delhi airport, I marveled at how much the airport had improved since my last trip to Delhi two and a half years ago. The airport was still not even close to the standards of an airport in a country like Peru, or Jordan, or Costa Rica, but still the turnaround was there to be admired.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, as the Delhi Airport is named, still operates out of a puny single terminal building – which is odd for a country with so many development pretensions. Condition of India’s infrastructure is best put in perspective through the following – there are a total of 333 airports in India, including small airports handling only private jets, as compared 14,857 airports in the US (CIA Factbook, est. 2004). These facts may raise an eyebrow among the cognoscenti brought up solely on the uniformly gleaming newspaper reports announcing India’s emergence as a new economic superpower.

Of course, not all the excitement about the ‘economic miracle’ is bogus – fortunately.  Outside the airport, the roads leading to the center of the city are broad and well paved, exhibiting none of the shoddy tar-deficient loose gravel construction that has ailed Indian road construction for the past half century. The roads are flanked on either side by stunted trees sitting in oversized steel cages. In a arid climate like Delhi, and under constant threat of being marauded by cows (hence the steel cages), it is hard to expect healthy trees minus enclosures, yet they make for a sad spectacle. Poor impoverished children, so memorably captured by the firangi (Western) tourists, remain in spite of the repeated demolition drives to eliminate jhuggis (poor hutments) (and other such deportation schemes) that have moved the poor to the outskirts of Delhi.

Mall Culture

Ansal Plaza, a prominent mall in Delhi, carries a perfume showroom that seems to have been transplanted from the US. The air conditioned mall also has an escalator, once an unimaginable luxury. I still remember an episode from the time when I was probably about 10 and we had gone to attend a reception at a five-star hotel. We parked our Chetak a couple of kilometers away and took a taxi to go to the hotel. And there in the hotel I first lay my eyes on an escalator, which I rode repeatedly albeit timorously. The point is that escalators were potent symbols of luxury and I don’t remember seeing any escalators while growing up. Anyways, I clambered on to the escalator and entered a department store that had a sort of a haphazard but American department store like decor. One thing that set the mall apart was the sheer number of people in the shop. It is likely that the number seemed greater because the mall was significantly smaller in scale – perhaps not ambition – than typical a American mall. The other significant difference in Indian malls is the legions of well trained and polite sales staff. And thankfully, there were not there right behind you making your life unbearable  – as one may have expected- but close enough around to be easily available if you needed help.

Delhi Metro

Delhi Metro is a landmark achievement for which Delhi Government and others associated with the project deserve unreserved accolades. It is a first world subway system built in record time, even by Western standards. The subway cars appear to be of much higher quality than used on the Boston (and much less the New York) subway. The cars are quieter primarily because – the path is straighter, better carriages lock noise much more efficiently, and use of overhead electrical cables rather than the screechy ‘third-rail’. Traveling on the Delhi Metro brought a sense of déjà vu – It reminded me of a time when I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and I had taken the Calcutta metro when it had just started. There was a police guard checking to see if people didn’t step over the line and the general over staffing that coincided with the inauguration of the system. A similar air of daintiness surrounds the current Delhi Metro. After all this is a first-world shiny subway system in a desperately poor city. People act coy around the gleaming subway but I am sure that five years from now the train system would come to resemble the rat infested dilapidated system that our railways is. It will still work and be on time but the AC would occasionally stop and there would be desperate overcrowding and the seats would be dirty. In all it would be “broken in”. However, it remains an impressive achievement. One last aspect of traveling on the Delhi metro – get ready for passing through a ramshackled metal detector system that probably doesn’t work and a friendly pat down by a policeman.

In Memoriam

Delhi, the city where my parents grew up in and I grew up in, is vanishing behind the mindless facade of humdrum commercialization and sprawl. Delhi was never a beautiful city, at least not in my lifetime. Jamuna was always dirty and houses were built to occupy every square inch of land. It was an impoverished city with a tough detached spirit that came from the number of Punjabi refugees that settled in Delhi after partition.

Narrow streets in a city give it its charm and intimacy but the forever widening sprawl of Delhi roads is destroying the feel of a city. Shabby jhuggis have been replaced by faceless parks that look out of place, and construction workers wear orange jackets like elsewhere in the first world, and rich kids now go to air conditioned schools. All of that has come at a cost. But this is a resurgent city, proud in the money it makes, proud in its metro and its flyovers, and buoyed by the economic and social upturn. To Delhi, my home.

Addendum:

The part of Delhi I thankfully missed! New York Times article on the Disneyesque Akshardham complex.