I have been to Japan several times before, the first time was in 1991. I was a young manager in the steel industry meeting the likes of Sumitomo and Nippon Steel, buying steel for our South East Asian operations. Subsequent visits for KLM Cargo in the early 2000s drove home the fact that Japan was slowing down rapidly, no longer as surefooted as it had seemed in the '90s, when all of South East Asia orbited around it.
This trip with family is different though. A Japanese colleague from KLM urged us to try and 'feel' Japan, and that's what we have been trying to do, steering away from the bling bling of the large cities as much as possible. Our older eyes take in all the little small town politenesses, the punctuality of every single bus, the focus on personal safety, with guards blocking the exits of parking bays so that pedestrians can cross safely and the obsessive focus on the cleanliness of the individual, the streets, the cars, the edges of the elevators, well, of everything.
Kumud is reading Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk. At some point he tries to explain to his lady that in the US buses are sometimes late, and she stares at him in bewilderment, and asks "but why"? How could you not be on time?
Of course I have thought of the differences between India and Japan before, and many hilarious comparisons come to mind. The contained, dry, crumb-less meals served on Japanese trains (if they serve a meal) juxtaposed against the non stop barrage of food and drink being sold on Indian trains, from buckets, thalis and boxes. Daal sloshing over the edges of a thali and Chaai brimming over the rims of the tea glasses.
A little of the Japanese way could have a huge effect on a country such as India, imagine what a lot of Japan infused in our DNA could do. Imagine more punctuality, systems and processes that connect, thought that is given to roads and intersections before they are built, the effect on time tables. Imagine the effect on healthcare if we too went around wearing face masks on days that we were ill, rather than coughing and spitting with abandon. Imagine the impact on personal safety and the reduction in accidents if safety was built into our way of working, and not imposed from above. We would 'rock'.
Japan as an economy has been running on empty for some years now. The same system that could do so much for us and the rest of the world has also stifled growth in its own country, perfected it out of the system. Too much certainty, too much planning, too much insistence on predicting the future leads to a system that is in the words of Nicholas Taleb fragile.
Japan could do with an infusion of Indian entrepreneurship, of not knowing what tomorrow will bring but of being confident that you will be able to handle it. Indian auto manufacturers are today beating their Japanese counterparts in the African market by providing motorcycles that are high quality and very low cost.
India's Prime Minister and his counterpart Mr. Abe are due to meet in Japan in the next several months. We need many parts of them, but I think they could do with a slosh of us in the bargain. That would make for a very interesting cocktail, few parts Japan, one part India, sloshed, not stirred. Chai anyone?
Cubbon Park, Bangalore, a few weeks ago
On a Sunday morning flight to Delhi for some personal work. Clear skies, brand new aircraft, excellent service on Jet: India at its best.
Down below, 30,000 ft lower, things are in turmoil, more than usual.
A young woman photographer was raped in Bombay. Safety of women is a major issue across India.
The Indian Rupee is at an all time low and almost touched Rs. 70 to the US dollar.
Inflation is high, growth is declining rapidly, industrial output growth is close to zero and there is limited fiscal room to maneuver for the Government.
The rains are good, and that means that three months from now at least agricultural output will once again be high, bringing down food prices and boosting exports.
Not everything in daily life is profound, not everything is doom and gloom, not everything is funny. Sometimes you just amble along, enjoying the service oriented culture in a snazzy part of town, interrupted by my daily 8 a.m. outburst because the traffic from the opposite end starts moving when their light turns red.
India is in for a slowdown, red lights or not, so may as well enjoy the ride.
The freshly repainted synagogue at Kala Ghorha.
We did that most quintessential of Indian things yesterday morning as a family, we went for coffee to Starbucks at the Taj Hotel in Colaba. Mira had just finished the bulk of her 10th standard papers a day ago, only two economics papers left, and Tarini's are not due to start for another week.
It's hot in Bombay, 36° on average. The wait is on for the monsoons to start, a season Tarini and I at least are enthusiastic about. We look expectantly at the increasing cloud cover over the city. By the 10th of June, or thereabouts, all hell will break lose. City officials are having drains and rivers cleaned out in preparation.
It seems as if there are more people living on the streets. Maharashtra has been going through a severe drought and people have moving to the cities in search of food, if not shelter. Children carry children, women carry babies and sometimes we give them food instead of money. While driving home from work a few days ago I saw two boys, 8 or 9 years old, sitting on the road divider outside CST, roaring with laughter as they told each other a yarn, on a self imposed break from begging.
We went book shopping after lunch today. Kumud calls my buying books the definition of optimism, as I perennially run behind in terms of getting through the family library. Kitab Khana at Flora Fountain is probably our favourite book store. Yesterday's purchases include Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif, The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides and John Le Carré's latest. Did NOT buy Wendy Doniger's latest On Hinduism. Still struggling with her previous page turner An Alternative History of Hinduism. I saw On Hinduism lying on a pile of books at Kitab Khana, picked it up and showed it to Tarini, who was just walking past, and she rolled her eyes (don't who she gets that from by the way) and said "Dad, don't even start".
Came home and baked a banana bread with Mira. Turning into a very competent but opinionated (don't know who she gets that from by the way) co - cook.
The Mumbai Indians beat the Chennai Super Kings in the 2013 final last night. Photo courtesy of PTI
In India each week's scandal outdoes the previous week's. This week's though is fairly big, even by Indian standards, a whopper. Three players from the Rajasthan Royals were arrested by Delhi Police, in Mumbai, accused of throwing games. The interrogations by Delhi Police, safely back in Delhi, led to the arrest of bookies with links to Bollywood and Dubai based gangsters.
Mumbai Police, feeling emasculated by the arrest of the cricket players on their turf, began their investigation and raised suspicions about the son - in law of the owner of the Chennai Super Kings, who is also the owner of India Cement and, in a slight conflict of interest, the chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with 'control' being the operative word. The police summoned the son in law to Mumbai for queries and after three hours promptly remanded him in custody for four days. He is now accused of betting on the outcome of games and of passing information about the team to bookies.
The son - in law has been disowned by the father - in law and his name removed overnight from all social networking sites and websites linked to the team.
One of the umpires, a Mr. Rauf from Pakistan, hastily fled back to Pakistan after he was named as having been involved with the bookies, in return for introductions to Bollywood starlets.
"Save cricket! It is our religion!" shout people with placards in hand. "It is no such thing", retort wise columnists. "It has become an idiot game in a format designed to attract money, bookies and bimbos."
In a super charged week Boston went from being the scene of a cowardly attack on its marathon to a 24 type manhunt and resolution, with the killing of one and capture of another of the attackers. What drives young people in cities such as Boston, New York, Mumbai or Bangalore to launch such attacks remains a mystery. My brother-in law just wrote from downtown Boston "Rough days for all. Outpouring of emotion everywhere. We have just stepped out towards the site and there are hordes of people milling around."
An acquaintance of mine here in Bombay told me that two days into the Boston saga a fellow runner friend of his sent out a BBM message to all in the group saying "Pray for Boston", to which my acquaintance dryly replied "I presume you prayed for Mumbra as well?" Mumbra? Who or what is Mumbra?
Mumbra is a township on the outskirts of Bombay consisting of rapidly constructed ramshackle buildings on marsh land, thanks to the connivance of corrupt city officials and builders. Though only 40 km outside of Bombay, mentally Mumbra may as well belong to another universe, and for South Bombay-based runner types the goings on in Boston hold much more importance than a township filled with creatures of a lesser God. Seventy three (73) people died two weeks ago in a collapsed building that had arisen after only three months of construction.
Though physically here such people as our runner friend are mentally more often than not there, in Boston or New York or London. "Oooooooooooh!!!", an Indian woman squealed in delight in December of our first year in Bombay. "I just loooooove the sight of Christmas trees, it reminds me of home!" 'Home' in her case was London, SW1, or at least used to be.
Two days after the attack in Boston there was a bomb attack in Bangalore in which 16 people were injured. Our runner friend is not known to have sent out a BBM message saying "pray for Bangalore". Indians come cheap, not just in life.
In fairness, it's Indians themselves who attach the least value to the life of fellow Indians. When Mumbai was hit by bomb attacks at Opera House and Dadar in July of 2011, a year after we moved here from Chicago, it was our friends in the U.S. from my days at the International School of Amsterdam and our days with KLM Cargo in Chicago, who within minutes mailed to ask if we were o.k. The global interconnectivity sometimes has a faux air to it, when it is touted as a way of demonstrating that you have been, or would rather be there, but thankfully there are plenty of examples of genuine cross border care and concern.
There are those rare moments in life that you actually pray for memory loss, for some type of amnesia, for an Orwellian 1984-ish, for a Men In Black type 'stare into Will Smith's pen and forget what just happened' blank out moment, for an ability to forget what just transpired, or what you just made happen.
For me that moment occurs about once a year when I set out to transform fresh figs into that for which God originally intended them: crostata di fichi, fig tart. As the transformer, the baker, the primus interparis between mounds of butter, sugar, eggs, freshly ground almonds and yes, a few figs, all held together by a nominal amount of flour, you pray for the ability to forget. Thankfully, no such Men In Black moment is really required because when with the first bite of the hard and flaky short bread crust, followed by the warm and moist taste of the marzipan - like filing of almonds and sugar and the caramelised pieces of fig blends together, all is forgotten and forgiven.
It now appears that most peoples and nations were not born into perfection but had to spend several thousands of years getting there. This unlike the French nation of course, which was sent down by God, accompanied by the Academie Francaise, speaking a perfect language, cooking perfect food and drinking perfect wine.
The rest of us, it once again appears, had to work our way up to our current levels of near perfection, and, what's more, appear to have been influenced by other peoples, themselves equally imperfect.
This insight was brought to me by a spate of articles in Indian newspapers on cross cultural influences. The English for example, only drank large quantities of beer until Queen Catherine of Portugal, the wife of Charles II, introduced the English Court to the art of drinking Chinese tea. The East India Company then went about monopolising the trade in tea from China to England and when that monopoly ended, began planting tea in India. Tea caught on in the Americas and the English attempt to tax tea consumption eventually led to the Boston Tea Party. Read the full and very interesting story of Catherine and her ties to Bombay and New York in the Times of India's Crest Edition.
Babur, the first Mogul invader of India, came down from Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan. In spite of spending a large portion of his life trying to conquer parts of North India and establishing a Mughal dynasty that was to rule India for another three hundred years, Babur did not like India and its people.
"Hindustan is a country of few charms. Its people have no good looks; of social intercourse, paying and receiving visits there is none; of genius and capacity none; of manners none; in handicraft and work, there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, nor bread or cooked food in bazaars; no hamams, no colleges, no torches or candlesticks," he wrote in the Tuzuk-i-Baburi."
Babur's myopic view of India and his ignorance of a few thousand years of development that preceded his invasions notwithstanding, his observations highlight that a lot of what we today consider Indian, in terms of language and cuisine, is infused with Turkic, Persian and Central Asian influences.
It's funny in a way that two hundred years of English rule in India didn't succeed in altering the consumption habits of Indians much. The English may have gotten us to cultivate poppy instead of wheat, to send men to fight their wars across the globe, to speak their language and to sit for their civil service exams, but food habits essentially remained unchanged. The gravy train of rassam and dal continued unabated, disregarding the few gymkhanas around the country with their menus of English breakfasts etc.
Twenty years of exposure to American culture however, post liberalisation, post the Government saying that it was ok to watch colour TV, ok to drive cars other than the Ambassador, ok to have a phone connection, ok to travel overseas with more than $100 at a time, and we can't imagine life without elements of American food. True, it's been Indianized, 'paneerized' but corporate lunches now involve cardboard Dominoes Pizza in cardboard boxes, Diet Cokes and Indian men standing around the table saying "Hey Bro, Dude! Pass me the cheese sticks!" New York's Mayor Bloomberg may ban 7 oz. slurpees in his city, but I think I know where they'll be selling next.
Our descents into Delhi winters from our various overseas locations are filled with memories of the warmth of family, of excursions to Khan Market in sunny wintery mornings and of languid lunches in the lawns of the Delhi Gymkhana. Delhi is Royal, Viceregal, stately and entitled, with broad avenues lined by villas designed by Luytens that lay claim to the land in all directions. Delhi stopped resting on its colonial laurels years ago; it has exploded at the seams and is now a 25 million people strong agglomeration of the main city and satellite townships with industrial output to match that of small nations. There is a 260 km metro system, there are huge cavernous high rises coming up in Gurgaon, the satellite town that houses many of the corporate headquarters of multinationals and Indian firms.
We flew in to Delhi from Bombay yesterday, and in terms of chilly weather and familial warmth it is offering us the respite that we came in search of. There will be a grand celebration in the lawns of the Gymkhana of Kumud's parents' 50th wedding anniversary and reunions with relatives.
But this outwardly patrician Delhi has been under siege by its own inhabitants. Triggered by the particularly brutal rape of a girl now fighting for her life (predominantly) young and educated people have been protesting the almost daily molestations and rapes of women in this city, and the apathy of the police. The police, untrained to handle civilised civic protests, have responded ham handedly and even violently, cracking down on girls and women with their lathis. The politicians, never short of words in the best of times, maintained a stony silence for the first days of the protests, adding to the students' frustration. When they did finally speak they revealed their disconnect with the cause of the ire. The Home Minister today urged people "not to protest, so as not to give a wrong impression to visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin". You wouldn't want to give Vladimir Putin the wrong impression about your country would you? They don't call him Russia's Gandhi, its Mandela, its guardian of democracy for nothing.
The fact is that this city of 25 million, like most Indian cities, has not only become an economic boom town for some, it has become an anonymous melting pot for many. Young upwardly mobile skilled workers, many of them women from rural backgrounds, brush past men in semi - skilled jobs unable or unwilling to make sense of what is going on around them. In the Big CIty, there is no one on hand to reassure them that a demure, obedient and faithful girl will be on hand to marry them.
I went to buy a bottle of wine today. You don't browse for wine in India, and certainly not in Delhi. While you scan the shelves at the dimly lit "English Wine Shop" for an acceptable label (we don't do vintages here), day labourers jostle for space with you at the counter, smack down their earnings and take with them what looks like a rarified form of brown vinegar. The hooch used to come in glass bottles the last time I was here, now they've even done away with that pretence, selling it in plastic bottles with a screw cap.
I walk back to the house through the fog. This must be what Dickens' London must have been like, albeit on a smaller scale. New wealth from an expanding empire, grand avenues and palaces, an industrial revolution in the making and a bewildered, sweating and unsettled underclass trying to figure out its role in the Big Game.
The man in the middle seat next to me on the flight from Calcutta is chewing tobacco and using the 'sick bag' to squirt out streams of browned mucus every few minutes. Delightful. Only 2 hours and 40 minutes to go.
Two days in Calcutta, Kolkota, one of the world's foremost 'love it or leave it' cities. Millions have left it over the years, out of necessity, but continue to love it from afar. Millions continue to come, finding a semblance of life on its streets, less out of love than out of necessity.
The city has literally sandwiched poverty between the modern high rises of "IT India" and the quaint remnants of British India.
The drive from the airport takes you through Salt Lake City, steel and glass towers housing the likes of IBM and planned residential projects with colourful and even tasteful buildings.
Every large Indian city appears to have its IT sector appendage; Delhi has Gurgaon, Bangalore has Whitefield, Hyderabad has Cybercity and Calcutta has Salt Lake City.
What follows is a few miles of non descript and largely decrepit housing, for those that have it. For those that don't the above ground sewage pipes provide a 'wall' for the rest of their tent.
I love the entry into old Calcutta, irrespective of the time of year, but especially now in the monsoon with its rainswept streets. The streets narrow, traffic slows, the scene dominated by big yellow Ambassador taxis. Retail is surprisingly glitzy and low rise and therefore more personable than noisy malls that characterize many other cities. "Chun King Laundry", a holdover from Calcutta's Chinese community, sits side by side with a Rolex store.
One of the chapters in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is called Hit the Spittoon. It's set against the backdrop of a group of old men who ponder the day's events while chewing paan and tobacco and trying to hit the spittoon across the street with their squirts of spit. I doubt whether my co passenger has any such dexterity.
The days' events that Rushdie writes of in 1940's India are of increasing Hindu Muslim violence, rising intolerance and the retreating British.
In Calcutta everyone at our customer visits wanted to know what Raj Thakeray would think of colleagues from Calcutta moving to Bombay. "Would they be accepted, would Raj Thakeray approve?" Raj Thakeray is a politician attempting to drive a chauvinistic Maharashtrian agenda at the expense of migrants from the rest of the country. To people in Calcutta, a city where for centuries people from other parts and communities had come to make their fortunes, it seemed incomprehensible that you would want to drive people out.
The film version of Midnight's Children is currently being premiered at the Toronto Film Festival but has no takers yet for its screening in Bombay. A book that is in large parts about Bombay and unabashedly showcases Rushdie's love for the city, may not get shown here for fear of offending one camp or the other.
While some people may like for Bombay to lose its tolerance, you realize when you are in the middle of the annual convergence of Ganpathi, Eid ul-fitr, Navroze (the Zoroastrian new year), and even the Ros Hosanna (the Jewish New Year, celebrated by a 5,000 strong community) that it's going to take more than a few incendiary remarks for that to happen.
Two weeks ago we were celebrating Mira's birthday at Cafe Zoe, a trendy cafe set amidst chaotic former mill compounds in Lower Parel, an upcoming part of Bombay. New Yorkers would call it Mid Town. The day before on Saturday there had been riots, close to home, South Bombay, in and around the main railway station and Azad Maidan. As it happens, these riots look like they were instigated and not as spontaneous as they were made to appear. Riots by disaffected Muslims protesting the mistreatment of Muslims in India's North East, the Muslims there being primarily of Bangladeshi descent. Still there?
47 buses burnt, two people dead, women constables molested, the head of police caught on video giving a subordinate a piece of his mind.
A week later, an offshoot of the Shiv Sena, Mumbai's right wing Hindu party, organized its demonstration at Azad Maidan, as a show of force. 'We too can get people on the street'. They got more than 50,000 people mobilized and a friend and I saw them descending on Bombay as we were heading out to Pune.
The head of this party bayed for the head of the Head of Police, calling his handling of the riots gross mismanagement. During the riots the police actually acted with huge restraint, but it could be argued that they could and should have intercepted the rioters as they headed into South Bombay by train.
Three days later the Head of Police was gone, promoted to a position he had no desire for. In India incompetence at the highest levels is rewarded by promotions. Our President is the former Finance Minister, a position he was not suited for but held for three expensive years.
Fearful that they would be targeted in cities across India, Muslims from the North East have been heading back to their homes by train loads. "5 Lakh", or 500,000, as the article clipping shows, headed across India from cities such as Bangalore, Bombay and Pune.
Two weeks later, and they are slowly returning, with assurances in place from local ministers and mayors that they will be safe.
All this is taking place against the background of 'Coalgate', a report by the Auditor General that the government caused the country billions of dollars in losses by auctioning off coal fields against ridiculously low prices. And so Parliament is in mayhem, the opposition is asking for the Prime Minister to resign. If only he could be promoted, to the post of President...
Let's end on a positive note. Residents of Wodehouse Road, Colaba, are taking things into their own hands, aided by a commissioner, to redevelop Wodehouse Road into a pedestrian and shopper friendly street. Less bus stops, better parking, better footpaths, improved drainage for the monsoon rains. Mumbai Boss has a great article on it.
As a predominantly agricultural country the obsession over the amount and quality of rains reaches fever pitch. States such as Gujarat, Rajasthan and U.P. are already thinking of drought status. If India has a drought then exports of rice, sugar, soya and cotton come down, heavily impacting global prices. You heard it here first.
Pranab Mukerjee, India's outgoing Finance Minister, tours the country drumming up support from political stakeholders for his Presidential bid. The 'campaign' basically consists drumming up the support of regional party bosses from all corners of India, his own Congress Party of course, as well as the Yadav family of U.P., the N.C.P. in Maharashtra and even Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.
We spent much of the second half of July looking for new accommodation, given that our landlord seemed hell bent on pushing through a 30% rent increase. It seemed to fly in the face of economic reality, but what would we know? On the day that we were ready to sign the lease with our new find, a 2,500 sq ft apartment in a heritage building, the landlord announced that he was going to keep the rent as is.
So it's another year in now familiar surroundings: a post well finished apartment (it used to be well finished) with Monsoon exacerbated leaks in the bathrooms, overweight security guards and an unfinished apartment built in the same compound, blocking our view of the street.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.