The sounds outside our bedroom are different today. For the first time in four days it's not raining. Crows are cawing and another bird starts chirping, tentatively at first. One of the first buses of the day drives along General Bhosale Marg, towards Mantralaya. The bell sounds at the fire brigade, round the corner from our house.
Mumbai had endured days of non stop rain, making up for the shortfall of the past months, but then yesterday the levee almost did break, with almost 300 mm of rain falling in twenty four hours, ten times the normal amount.
The TV is showing images of thousands of workers walking along flyovers, trying to get home. Maharashtrian women, their trademark saris tied up like a dhoti, walking with fierce determination, 35 kilometers to go to get home. Thirty men stand in a truck, holding on to ropes to keep standing. The driver picked them up at Marine Lines and is offering them a free ride to Mulund, in the North. Western and Central railway lines halted service. Kumud spent five hours to Worli and back in order to pick Tarini up, normally a thirty minute ride each way.
KEM (King Edward Memorial) Hospital was flooded yesterday. A year ago my father, his short term memory fading fast, recounted how as a young doctor at KEM Hospital in Parel he'd have to walk, shoes in hand, trousers rolled up, to get to work during the monsoon. "The water flows down from Parel to Lower Parel to Worli during the monsoon", he remembered. Sixty years later the water still flows from Parel to Lower Parel and on to Worli, as it should, and KEM Hospital still gets flooded, as it shouldn't.
Everyone remembers July 26 2005, the year when heavy rains combined with clogged drains and high tide immersed the city. Kumud's nephew, now an investment banker in Chicago, was stuck in his schoolbus for twelve hours that day. 1000 people died.
At $3.8 billion the BMC, Mumbai's municipal council, has a budget larger than that of any other city in Asia. 28 of the 58 projects promised after the 2005 deluge, and meant to prevent another such as yesterday, are pending, incomplete.
The sun has just peeped out but the city is virtually empty with everyone at home, drying their feathers.
As I walk back from my half hearted Saturday morning run I see the woman standing at the corner of the Mantralaya intersection, selling thin pieces of steel wire pierced through green chillies and limes. She sells these every Saturday to passing motorists, to ward off the evil eye. It explains why Mumbai has so few accidents.
She just gave birth a few months ago and the baby is fast asleep in the sari which she has strung between two lampposts. When we first came here seven years ago her first born, Rakesh, slept like that in a sari. Now on weekends he darts between cars, buying something for his mother or the baby. Rakesh does go to school, his mother says, but she seems unsure where it is. When holding one of the coloring pencils that we gave him, he seems unsure, or out of practice.
A shop along Marine Drive was advertising apro nachos, 'our' nachos in Gujarati. I think fusion cuisine just went a step too far.
My wife tells me that she couldn't sleep most of the night because of the pounding of concrete pillars into the ground by Mumbai metro, not 100 meters from our house. Strange. I slept the way I always sleep, flat on my back, hands folded across my chest, corpse style.
Mumbai is building a metro from Colaba in the south to SEEPZ in the north, running right across the city, uprooting trees and buildings. Once done it will do good for the environment, right now not so much.
The next song starts on my iPhone, I'm trying to remember who the artist is, but I recognize the production. I remember just in time, before his raspiness starts singing. It's Dylan, from the 3rd generation iPod ads, 'if it keep on raining the levee gonna break'.
I had been rehearsing my father's eulogy in my head for the past several days, and soon I will get to utter those words, but not until we have cremated him tomorrow, not until we have immersed his ashes at the confluence of three rivers in Prayag, not until my head has been shaved as a final sign of mourning, and not until the last of the prayers has been performed eleven days later.
Rest in well deserved peace Dada.
At one of our first parent - teacher meetings here in Bombay, almost seven years ago (!) the young Hindi teacher said to Kumud and I "as Uncle was just saying", and I actually turned around to see who she was referring to, until I realized that in fact I was the 'Man from Uncle'. The twenty - something physiotherapist who's been treating me for a shoulder injury asked me yesterday, in trying to figure out which pricing I could avail of, "are you like 60+?". "I can be if you'd like me to be", I replied drily.
Indians have an odd relationship with age and antiquity. There's a phase in life when people almost seem in a race to be declared old and infirm, as if it's a badge to be worn with honor. International flights departing from and arriving in India have the maximum number of wheel chair requests, with otherwise healthy people in their sixties and seventies slumping into a wheel chair in their best Stephen Hawking impersonation, minus the great man's intelligence.
In politics on the other hand there is a fierce clinging to power by senior leaders. When the current BJP - led government came to power in 2014 it caused great unhappiness among some of its octogenarian stalwarts by announcing that henceforth seventy five would be the cut-off age for anyone wishing to hold public office.
Thousands of buildings that in their hey - day must have been a sight to behold are left to fall into disrepair, trampled upon daily by the armies of working people moving into and out of them. When I told an Indian friend years ago that my parents lived in a house in Holland that was more than a hundred years old, he asked "why?", perplexed why someone would choose the old over the new.
Kumud and I both lost an aunt, a bua, father's sister, in the past month. Both ninety, both teachers, both working women in an era when it was not fashionable for women to work.
In with the new
We no longer need alarm clocks. From 5.30 onwards, seven days a week, construction machines drive concrete columns into the yard behind our apartment. Bulldozers move back and forth gathering up the debris of what used to be political party offices. They've all been torn down now to make way for Mumbai Metro III, a line that will run from Cuffe Parade up to the airport in the north of the city.
Trees will be felled and buildings torn down to make way for this metro which will hopefully replace many car journeys that would otherwise have taken place. India is on a rampage, desperately trying to play catch up with the world, after having under invested in roads and infrastructure for sixty years.
At Kumud's aunt's memorial service the best tribute to her was paid by her octogenarian younger brother, who spoke with grace and energy about the adherence to values of that generation, and how she and her sisters' teamwork had held the family together during the throws of Partition. My bua was widowed at a young age and chose to work and raise her two children on her own, rather than sit hidden from public view, dressed in the white sari of a widow.
These intangible, non white-washable learnings from the past are what we need to cherish as we race forward.
Having done our bit to reinvigorate the cash-strapped and circulation starved Indian economy through a bit of profligate Christmas shopping, we now stare at the spoils arrayed under the tree. As a family we like to do our bit for local economies, swooping down from the skies to lend a helping hand, spreading a bit of benefaction. In December 2008 we went to Rome and Perugia and pulled Italy back from the brink. We couldn't make it to Greece the following year, and you all know what happened as a consequence.
I'm a bit Andrea Bocceli'd out at the end of his Christmas CD, so that's been put away for another year. What we have been listening and re - listening and re - listening to is the soundtrack of La La Land - movie and music making at its best. By the way, who'd have thought that Ryan Gosling could sing and dance, isn't that a good way to make up for an otherwise floundering cinematic career?
Half of Mumbai has decamped for the holidays, out to Alibaug, Lonavala and Pune. The other half seems to have headed for our neck of the woods: Marine Drive, Nariman Point and Colaba. Crowds four lines thick are gathered outside Mondegar's, trying to get in for Christmas. Hundreds of cars and thousands of people on the streets, weary street vendors weaving in and out of the crowds wearing and selling bright red Santa hats and reindeer antlers, a site that never quite becomes normal, and nor should it. I know we live in the Indian version of La La Land, Bollywood, our own tinseltown, but there are limits.
Here's wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and safe 2017.
"Per caste 200 each for converting", the text message from an unknown number reads and I am momentarily non - plussed. I then realize that this must be from the photography store guy where I had enquired earlier in the day about copying mini DV cassettes onto a hard disk. 'Per cassette Rs. 200 each for converting'.
In upwardly mobile India, where everyone is keen on communicating in English in addition to their mother tongue(s) you can't predict what the written or spoken message will be, but chances are high that it will bring a smile to your face. Unpredictable, but 'fun types', as they say in Mumbai.
Unpredictability unfortunately extends to too many other less 'fun types' aspects of life in India. Will the car coming from the other direction stop at the red light, or keep going? Will the policeman provide help to the citizen asking for it, fine him or thrash him? Will the motorcyclist who was stopped for driving without a helmet apologize to the policeman, pay his fine or thrash him? Will the passenger show up for the flight or stay home? Will the cargo booked for a vessel or a flight out of the country actually show up, be a few days late, or get cancelled altogether? Will the friend who says he's coming over today actually come over, or was it a 'we'll play it by ear'? Will the family of the bride or bridegroom actually see the wedding through, or will they bail? Will the businessman pay his taxes or not?
You never know, not until the last minute, and it puts Indians' ability to cope with uncertainty to the test. It also causes stress across the system because not knowing, not being sure of such crucial things means that individuals and businesses and yes, Government bodies, have to constantly make contingencies, keep buffers, make allowances, and plan for surpluses, redundancies or massive shortfalls.
The Government of Prime Minister Modi has just made the most unpredictable announcement in modern times for a large complex economy. All Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 bank notes were declared illegal tender on the night of November 8th, the day that the people of the United States were planning a little unpredicted result of their own.
86% of legal tender is being sucked out of the system and replaced with new bank notes. The trade in grains and rice and fish and meat has ground to a halt. The sale of white goods and cars and motorcycles is down by 25%. Day laborers can't be paid. Trucks couldn't move because truck drivers need thousands of rupees in cash to navigate police checks across the land, never knowing when they'll have to pay someone.
Lines of citizens are snaking in front of banks, trying to offload old money and get their hands on new notes. There's an air of resignation in the air, there's anger but also a feeling, as one columnist wrote, that this is the role they have to play in cleaning up the system, in making it less unpredictable for and biased against the common man.
What if we as a nation were a little bit more predictable? We have no hope of ever being Japanese or Swiss or Singaporean or German in terms of predictability, but wouldn't a little predictability, a little boredom be a boon for the country? Wouldn't fewer accidents and deaths on the road come as a relief? Wouldn't normal citizen to policeman or tax man or Customs Officer conversations be a welcome change? Wouldn't knowing that the 96% of the population that currently doesn't pay taxes, will pay some tax make a difference in the Government's ability to allocate resources? Wouldn't my wife like to know that I'm going to be home when I say I'm going to be home??
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
Oh, to be predictable and boring, if only for one day.
A wave of democracy is sweeping through our otherwise unkempt housing society. A letter states that "We have received requests from several members to permit Joint Members to be present in the Annual General Body Meeting...". The request is being considered in the "best interest of transparency and openness and to uphold the spirit of Democracy" (democracy with a capital 'D'). That said, "non - members will have to sit in a separate designated area and will not be permitted to participate in the meeting". Listening breathlessly to the inner workings of Democracy in the General Body Meeting is presumably reward enough.
What must life life be like for maids and drivers through much of India and Asia? Good enough to carry the precocious infants of their employers to and from tony clubs but asked to sit in separate designated areas? Clubs and restaurants in South and South East Asia brazenly ask employers to help ensure that their maids do not venture outside of designated areas so as not to cause 'inconvenience' to other guests.
Violence against people from lower castes in India is on the rise. Two months ago four members of a community that traditionally skins dead cows were beaten up in the State of Gujarat by members of an upper caste community on suspicion that they had in fact killed the cow. In protest the community as a whole decided to stop skinning and removing the carcasses of dead cows altogether. The Times of India today carried a report that a man and his pregnant wife of the same community were beaten up for refusing to skin the carcass of a dead cow. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Maybe years from now India might get round to its version of Twelve Years a Slave, but what until then? What do the cavorting and consuming rest of us do to prevent such violence? The villages of Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh or Bihar are farther removed from the streets of South Bombay than are the streets of Amsterdam, New York or Chicago, at least mentally.
A affluent Dutch friend of mine, borrowing a phrase that his Protestant father used to use, speaks of his wish to now work on "leaving behind a scratch on the surface of this planet". What measurable and impactful scratch will we leave behind?
It's morning, time for me to go to whichever office I am working out of today. Post run or gym, post shower, I am standing in the kitchen, suited and booted, buttering a slice of toast and making a mug of cappuccino on the trusted ten year old Rancillio espresso maker. In between toast and cappuccino I make a few light taps on the iPhone to order my cab for the day, having chucked up on driving a few months ago. Kumud and the young ladies are at the dining table, Tarini getting ready for school and Mira getting ready to read in the way of university students.
Within seconds of me ordering the cab the phone rings, it's the driver asking where he has to come for the pick up. The map on his smartphone serves no purpose whatsoever. I answer the phone with a just-about-patient "aap kahan se aa rahen hain?", and the family members exchange looks among themselves. 'Dad's ordered a cab, let's see how it goes today', i.e. 'what level of volatility will we reach before he boards the cab and leaves?'
My "where are you coming from?" question is not for my benefit but for his. I can see where he is but those first seconds are key to figuring out if the driver knows where he is, how he got there and most importantly, how he will get to me.
Most conversations involve some arm waiving at my end, telling the man which landmark to come to etc. If I think he is well on his way and has a fighting chance of getting to me I put the phone down, finish my toast and wait for the app to ping and tell me that Azim, or Shaikh or Rajkumar Dubey has indeed arrived for the pickup.
If however the first reaction is "Uhhhh, sar, uhhhh, yahaan ek building hai (there is a building here) then this man was really plucked from his bed in Bhandup and dropped from the sky into Nariman Point, and then we have a major problem. In these mission critical cases I watch for a few minutes to see in which direction he starts to drive, to see if he starts driving away from me, towards the sea for example, or if the two minute wait time changes to a seven minute wait time. In those cases my frantic arm waiving (of no use until Uber installs an Augmented Reality app on their driver phones) is accompanied by very loud "AAP KAHAN JAA RAHEN HAIN??" (WHERE ARE YOU GOING??). At these times the family keeps its head down, exchanging looks and smiles.
I've gotten better at dealing with these ET Phone Home types and pressing the cancel button sooner, within the five minute window. The other day I did actually, against better judgement, board one of these cabs and the first few minutes were frustration filled as he was indeed intent on driving us into the sea. 'How did you get here??' I asked, 'do you not know anything about this city?' 'No sir', came the reply, 'this is a Vashi car', as if the City of Vashi had programmed the car to drive and he was but a helpless onlooker. Google Drive, here we come baby.
Every once in a while though, there is a Ramandeep. I tap the screen and order my cab and within seconds there is a call from a soft spoken young man asking what the name of our building is. I tell him and he says thank you and hangs up, leaving me staring at the phone for a bit. Two minutes later the phone rings again, and the driver, Ramandeep, says "sir, I have reached your building and am waiting a little away from the entry gate". Excuse me?? You know where I live, you know what an entry gate is? How much weirder is this going to get?
I get into the car with both my bags, juggling my cappuccino mug, without any fear of messing up the seats as Ramandeep has, in good Punjabi style, kept the original plastic covers on. "Good morning sir, where will we be going to today?" I lean back into the seats, a sense of relaxation taking over. Hundred meters into the drive and Ramandeep taps something on his dashboard and some Sonu Nigam type vague instrumental music starts to play, and I put up with it till my first call, ten minutes later. By the time I am dropped off at my destination, an hour's drive away in Powai, Ramandeep turns around and asks me to give him five stars. This man has my vote.
So is Uber uber alles? Not yet, the old black and yellow cabs are a relief at times with their ability to actually find streets, but these young Indian entrepreneurs, which is what each and every one of these cab drivers is, are changing the game. Be patient ET, we'll get you home.
We've been wandering the streets of Kala Ghorha, enjoying the weather and the open air art of this annual festival. The entire area was named Kala Ghorha (black horse) after a statue commissioned by Albert Sassoon, the son of David Sassoon, himself a Sephardic Jew from Baghdad who made his fortune in international trade, with Bombay as his base. The statue below of David Sassoon stands in the library that bears his name.
Rhythm House, the center of music sales in Bombay for decades, is closing down. Repainting the building in bright blue and yellow didn't help, and neither did the shift back to vinyl. We bought our share of records out of loyalty.
Kala Ghorha keeps springing other surprises though. There's La Folie for fantastic French pastries, The Kala Ghoda Cafe itself, The Pantry , San-Cha tea, where yours truly buys his fix of Darjeeling Tea, and Filter (which gives its address as "behind Rhythm House"), where Dad does his Christmas shopping. It wasn't quite last minute this year, I actually had a few days in hand, but what a treasure trove of cool gifts it is.
Lunch was at a new place called Farmer & Sons. We're doing a bit of a plug for it here because it needs to last. It's at the outer reach of Kala Ghorha on the way to the Bombay Stock Exchange and Horniman Circle. Great oven fired pizzas washed down by sinful midday Margaritas.
I'm on the 11007 Down (Deccan Express) from Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus Mumbai to Pune Junction, a four hour train ride in the place of the three hour car drive through the twists and turns of the Western Ghats. The tinted and dirty window of the AC Chair Car provides a darkened view of garbage strewn railway tracks, of soot covered 1970s era public housing that needs to be put out of its misery and torn down, and of random clusters of railway employees gathered around a train.
India's railway minister, Suresh Prabhu, is making a name for himself by trying to restructure the railway board, monetising railway land and with the help of Japan announcing India's first bullet train, to be built between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Mr. Prabhu has his own Twitter handle and staff monitoring it, and a day doesn't go by without a newspaper article about somebody having Tweeted Mr. Prabhu from a train while in dire need and having received resolution by the time the train pulled into the next station. He's looking at private sector companies to commercialise railway platforms and offer food services.
Mr. Prabhu's efforts are part of this Government's attempt to jolt the system from a number of angles, to get the country to clean up after itself (Svachh Bharat), to start manufacturing goods (Make in India), to boost entrepreneurship (StartUp India) and to provide skill sets for the future (Skills India). It stems from a realisation that things are not well as they are, that you cannot lurch and lumber forward in Soviet era trains that are as likely to kill you as get you to your destination, through a combination of equipment and human failure.
We're crossing Thane, girls stand in the skeleton of a Mumbai local train as it rides across the mangroves into the City, busy on their cell phones. More garbage, humans and animals compete for a spot to start the day.
The resistance to change in India is huge, andI think there are two large battles going on, between groups of people but also within of people themselves..
A large swath of the population thrives on a general anarchy, on not being restricted in any way from littering where they wish to, from not stopping at red lights, from not obeying tenancy agreements, from elbowing their way to the front of the queue. The Government needs to get out of their way, until of course they need the Government in which case aggression instantly turns to apathy, jutting elbows converted to an outstretched hand. The Government has to provide me with reservations for my sub community, with handouts, with subsidized train and bus fairs.
The other battle centers around the broader role of the Government itself. For more than sixty years the Government has proposed and disposed without ever having been held truly accountable in terms of its achievements. Something about India's $2 trillion economy doesn't quite add up. The amount of money ostensibly spent on roads, rail, schooling and public health doesn't quite tally with what the consumer gets in return.
There is a conspiracy of the incompetent that has done very well for itself in the past 65 years. A bit of garbage and 2,000 deaths in rail travel a year is a small price to pay for being able to do what you want, when you want, on Government money. Competence brings with it a stress that many people can do without. Ask train operators in Japan or employees of private airlines in India whether their life is stress fee and they will tell you that being on time, every time is hard but gratifying work.
At the launch of Startup India the Finance Minister announced that the Government of India needed to get out of the way of entrepreneurs and let them get on with building world class companies. The Government announcing that it did not know what's good for you was unique.
After a business meeting in Sanpada in Navi Mumbai, less than a week after the Pune trip,_ I have the less than smart idea to take a local train to Mumbai, a "50 minute ride" according to a colleague. I am shoved and pulled in a first class compartment all the way to Andheri, at which point I discover that the train is heading back up North to Panvel. I jump out, finally catch an auto ricksha to Sea Link and a black and yellow cab to Nariman Point from there, 2 1/2 hours door to door. There are those rare days when I think that wearing a tailored Prince of Wales suit in Bombay may not be the smartest idea. This was one such day. Check out this link of what the train ride looks like at daytime.
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.