A deer darted across the front of our car when we drove out yesterday. Today I started my day by walking out barefoot, biting into a fresh plum and photographing the Tuscan countryside. We are surrounded by silence, save for the chirping of birds and the clanging of sheep's bells. The Tiwari's annual summer run from Bombay has begun.
I've been wondering why I write less and less in Bombay and I think that it's a combination of not being able to step back enough from daily events and not being surprised enough by them, after precisely five years in the city. When I see a cow being chased down the sidewalk by its owner I wonder about the spot that it's going to occupy (is this the 'in front of the kids' school cow' or the 'outside Mantralaya, the seat of Government cow'?) and not why there is a cow being chased down a sidewalk.
My bride, given to profound questions, asked me why it is that we lead a "non stop full on life" (there's Bombay English for you) for fifty weeks in the year and then go to the other extreme of a nature filled TV - less life for two weeks, and why there can't be more of a balance. It was the first full day of the vacation, we were lying by the pool and so, stumped by the question, I fell asleep.
Stepping back requires time for reflection, not running around in a non stop full on city from Colaba to Parel to Powai to Juhu and back to Nariman Point, all in one day.
You can of course 'write' in the moment itself, and Twitter is the ultimate 'writing in the moment' tool, for twits and tweets alike. The Dutch use it to complain that a bus is five minutes late, Americans and Australians use it to post photographs of themselves running onwards to greater health and Indians use it to fire public salvos against enemies which can only be answered by equally public salvos in return. One of the top trending Twitter hashtags in India right now is #MainBanaUllu (I've been duped), a way for Indians to post their frustration at having voted for a particular political candidate.
The cacophony of Indian news, political protests, the scandal of the month and the release of the latest blockbuster (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Salman Khan's saccharin dipped movie) continues unabated. The combined marketing apparatus of Indian polity, big business, news channels and Bollywood is so very effective at getting its message out to every nook and cranny of India that there isn't a forgotten part of the country. Forgotten from a development point of view perhaps, but no relief from non stop full on messaging.
The crickets here in Val d'Orcia really need to stop making so much noise, I can't think.
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?
As we were bidding farewell to our landlady at our first holiday destination in Provence, her French - Belgian friend Monique pointed at our youngest daughter's T - shirt that had about sixteen faces and accompanying emotions / states of being drawn on it. She pointed at the word "hungry" and said that she had seen a British man walking about town with a similar phrase written on it, what could it be? When I, after a short bit of soul searching, suggested the word "grumpy", she exclaimed "Oui! C'est ca!" It said 'I am a grumpy old man'.
Buried deep within the weekend's Times, amidst all the articles on the sheer glory of the Olympics' opening ceremony, is an article by a kindred spirit, someone called Giles Coren, if not a grumpy old man then at least one with similarly acute powers of observation. Start following him dear readers, on the social medium of your choice, Twitter or Google +, for there is at least one other person out there sane enough to observe "…when Ban Ki Moon appeared on massive screens it all started to feel like a vision of Britain in 2012 conceived by George Orwell on his deathbed as a place ruled by a softly spoken Korean dictator whose program me of de-urbanization has forced us back into the Middle Ages".
Speaking of the Middle Ages, we are now in the South Western part of France, bang against the Spanish border in fact, in a town called Sorede, in an otherwise lovely holiday home that has just one small itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini of a problem: it has no functioning television, i.e., should I wish to see re-runs of Paul McCartney singing "Hey Jude" (I have already suggested in a mood of grumpiness to the family that I think Paul McCartney should sing "Hey Jude" every day, to all of us; that should be the prelude to the 9 'o clock news), I can't. The witless woman who works for the agency that got us this house said by phone, "most people come to France to enjoy France", i.e., not to watch television. If you can't watch the Olympics once every four years, then what can you watch, I ask you? India may be winning a gold medal as we speak, and I would not know of it, not be part of the experience.
As a result of this non availability of television or wifi (did I mention that we don't have wifi?) I am expecting Jeffersonian productivity from yours truly. I always wondered how America's Founding Fathers managed to achieve so much in so short a lifetime, unsupported as they were by the NHS or Obamacare, but now I know. They didn't have France 2 to distract them with images of prancing Olympians, just the odd letter from Descartes. "Ben, I've been thinking, it's all about Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, you follow?" And then complete silence for the next three months.
Mira had decided within the first hour of arriving in France that it is to be the country where she wishes to settle, and that Marseille is to be the city where she wishes to live, and has no desire therefore to rush back to Mumbai. There's no love lost between Kumud and Mumbai, and once the initial logistics of getting here have been surmounted she's happy to be in France (or Goa a year ago). I like being here but will as always enjoy being back in the thick of things. Tarini, our youngest, has been peppering her conversation with memories of Mumbai for the past several days now. Today, after reading the Time of London and struggling to gets its pages back in place, she sighed wistfully, "I miss the organization of the Mumbai Mirror. To each their own. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
We're vacationing like Europeans, an ability that took years to acquire. The first time we vacationed in Europe as a couple with child (she who is known as Mira) we careened from Amsterdam to Euro Disney to Dijon to Torino (via Geneva and the Saint Bernard Pass) to Lago Majore and back to Amsterdam in ten days. The next day I rushed into the office, convinced that the corporate world would have collapsed without me. Getting in was a bit of an issue, as my arms were extended in front of me, as if still stuck to the steering wheel of my Alfa Romeo.
We are now on a "Gites", a French vacation address, in the heart of the Ventoux region, on a farm run by a very elderly but still sprightly French lady. She brought us fresh tomatoes and freshly made apricot preserve today. We have tea followed by coffee and breakfast in the morning, go out, visit nearby towns and eat lunch out, or as was the case today, on a magnificent picnic spread that Kumud and Tarini had laid out in the middle of a field while Mira and I wound up a four hour bike ride around the country side. Dinners have been self made affairs with local produce or meals out.
All very European and very far removed from the "Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!" of Mumbai.
What's also very European in terms of vacationing, and something I'd abhor, is to drive with your caravan, a pull along box on wheels, to a camping site and put up shop three meters away from the same neighbours, or kind of neighbours, you were ostensibly trying to get away from, and cook and brush your teeth in the company of the same group of twenty - thirty families for the duration of your three - week stay.
It's what perplexes be about life on the streets of Mumbai. People give up what must be fairly miserable lives in villages to move bag and baggage to Mumbai. The truly destitute sleep with their heads resting on their bundles of clothes, while they wait for their chance to claim an as yet unclaimed patch of real estate.
People much better off have ramshackle huts pieced together from pieces of wood and covered in plastic, with satellite dish receivers perched on top. All effective life takes place outside that hut, on the street, as cars like mine race by with people on their way to work. Tea in the morning, washing and drying of hair, talks about the children, arguments, washing of clothes in monsoon rain water as it gushes down a pipe on the side of a building: it all takes place in full public view on the street. Are they happy? They don't look unhappy. They seem to be able to ignore the rush of traffic, and the very communal carrying on of life seems to suit them fine.
As with life on a camping, albeit it for 'only' three weeks, or on a street, the prospect is abhorring. We are off for a wine tasting, biologically cultivated (no chemicals added) wine. La belle vie en Europe, albeit for two weeks.
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.