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Saturday, January 31, 2009

What it meant to me to be back in India

1st February, 2009

Like everyone else, I also returned back to India with great enthusiasm after spending nearly four months in America in the company of our children. The stay in America was as memorable as it every used to be, not only for the reason that it was spent with children, but also for a variety of other extraneous reasons about which I need to write later.

Our flight via Zurich landed at Delhi airport at midnight. It was pleasantly surprising that the passport control, customs procedure, and baggage clearance at the Delhi airport went very smoothly and efficiently. We were safely housed in a hotel at Karolbagh after we made arrangement with Delhi Tourism Corporation counter at the airport. We could even recharge our credit to our cell phone right at the airport and use it to communicate with our children at USA about our safe arrival. The airport presented a clean look. Several amenities had been added. The whole picture before me was tantalizingly different from what I had remembered about Delhi airport from my decade old memory. Our taxi ride to Karolbagh from the airport did not take much time as there was very little traffic on the roads. We saw considerable expansion going on near the airport and Delhi had changed vastly in the last ten years since we last visited in detail. We went over newly constructed over-bridges that allowed streaming traffic smoothly. Buddha Jayanthi park, Daula Kuan and the ridge road on the way to Karol Bagh all looked deserted and ghostly. We saw several constructions coming up for the Delhi Metro. The imposing over-bridge at Pusa Road looked majestic and gigantic. Ajmal Khan Road at Karol Bagh remained the same except that it was much more crowded. But the areas surrounding Ajmal Khan Road had completely changed. Most independent houses had been converted into a four or five storied hotel or some office. We could hardly see any residential houses. Ironically on Ajmal Khan Road, there was an old house still majestically sitting there where I had once, some thirty three years back when I was working in Delhi, fondly hoped to stay but didn’t succeed due to failed negotiations with the landlord, kindling nostalgia in me. The Punjab Sweets, Kailash Sweets, Lovely Sweets were all still there roaring with business. The restaurants had become dirtier and no one seemed to bother. Virtually one sat over heaps of dirt to devour lovely chole-bhature. A visit and walk around Ajmal Khan Road never satiated me. The suit-case wallah, the belt wallah, the kerchief wallah, the photo album wallah, the table cloth walah, the paani puri wallah were all still there flourishing. Cycle rickshaws had been introduced – a very sensible move helping large energy savings - to manoeuvre through the pedestrian traffic in Ajmal Khan Road fighting for the little space with the Suzukis and Bajajs.

With all due respect to Lallu Ji, our honourable minister, our train to Chennai got delayed by nine hours. We were told that there was a derailment of a goods-train near Bhopal on the previous night and all passing trains without exception made a queue from station to station on both ways. Every train got delayed – reason: railways have made phenomenal profits and cash surplus by over-exploiting the only two rail tracks; while the track capacity did not increase over years, the number of trains passing over it had become manifold resulting in accidents and delays. Computers may have replaced the old line man who used to climb up the narrow control rooms to pull levers to change or align track manually each time a train passed through a station, but computers have still not acquired the skills and intelligence to allow one train to pass over another – result: accidents and delayed trains. Tamilnadu Express, a prestigious train once upon a time, used to take off from the first platform, now relegated to seventh platform. I do not know whether the ‘aam aadhmi’ trains have taken control over the first platform. The train that was supposed to reach Chennai in the morning at 6.30 reached at 4.00 in the evening and our whole day was ‘merrily’ spent in the train enjoying the ‘delicious and nutritious’ uppuma and vegetable biriyani supplied by the pantry car. In retrospect, rather I seem to be uncharitable and ungrateful to the ‘railways’ to have provided us with something cleaner to eat rather than leaving us to eat the fly-infested food packets sold in several railway stations. Most North Indian railway stations continue to be ugly and unhygienic – New Delhi station seems to be crowning the place for ugliness; one must only stand outside New Delhi station to witness the extent of spitting of saliva and artistic spitting of red colored ‘meeta paan.’ People seem to have lost all sense of cleanliness at Delhi. We travelled by Air Conditioned Two Tier coach and were given berths just adjacent to the exit door. We could see how dirty a vestibule connecting the coaches could be. The catering employees from the dining car mindlessly threw the food waste down the moving train scattering left-over food on the footboard connecting two coaches. My stomach churned at the ugly sight. I wondered why these employees could not be provided with neat trash bags to collect the left-over food and used disposable plates. One must also give credit where it is due. I salute the porter at the New Delhi station – a young man - who singly managed to carry our large luggage all the way to the 7th platform over the bridge for a very nominal sum in comparison to the merciless loot at Chennai Central Station.

There is nothing much to say about Chennai city excepting that people seemed to have learnt to live in the midst of dirt and garbage joyfully. Wherever one turned, one saw mountains of garbage with their ‘pleasant odour.’ This is the beautiful Chennai that is talked about with great fanfare as being re-created. And there is crowd and human wave everywhere. We believe this is sign of our progress. Who ever told there is inflationary pressure or economy is slack in India? Please go and see Usman Road in T.Nagar. People seem to know only one entertainment that they are obsessed about– shopping, shopping and shopping.

Back at our place at in the rural town, we were back to our routine. Why don’t you ask: “What routine?”

Everyday there is a minimum two hours power cut with nothing happening in many places when power is not there.

The local potable river water supply had improved from daily supply to alternate day.

B.S.N.L slapped a bill for a little over two thousand rupees for broad band internet service they did not make available to me during the four months of our absence from India. People at the counter in B.S.N.L merrily mislead clients into believing service conditions that are not true. I had no choice than to pay the amount as I am addicted to internet services at home. Several people, I am told, were waiting for new broad band connections in this place for months together and this is a monopoly business at our place for B.S.N.L. Thanks to technological advancements we boldly claim and proclaim from all our roof tops that people wait for several months for important communication services.

Our cooking gas agent suddenly discovered that their computer system had locked my gas consumer connection – reason: why do you worry, something can always be invented. ‘.. please bring your ration card and the original gas connection receipt. We want to verify.’ I felt bullied. The same gas agency had earlier stamped my ration card that they supply gas to me and already possess a copy of my ration card on their files. But, can I argue with them? Absolutely no chance! I go back to them next day with the ration card and show them their endorsement. The clerk over there did some manipulation with the computer and said to me ‘everything is ok now, Sir, don’t worry – we shall book your refill request now.’ Why this harassment? ‘How long will it take to receive the refill?’ I asked. The owner promptly dialled a number and handed the telephone receiver to me and I heard a recorded message that the number dialled is not functioning. I was told that this was the IOC number and the gas agency itself was not in a position to ascertain when refill cylinders will arrive at his depot. Hopefully in the next fifteen to eighteen days I should receive my refill, I was told. Why so much delay? Transporters strike, IOC strike and what not. In the office of the gas agency, people had gathered in large numbers fretting out and anxiously waiting for answers about filling up forms, new connection, and so many paraphernalia. This much I could see for myself for the ‘India Shining’ story. I need to find out what polish was used.

Raw rice what was earlier sold for about Rs.22 is now sold for 33 rupees,. No vegetable is available for less than Rs.25 a kilo. Cooking oil, cereals and many daily requirements have become exorbitantly costly. Petrol and diesel prices stand very high though a barrel of oil now costs less than one third from its peak price several months ago. So what! You see more vehicles on the road – India is very rich now and we should thank some of the new private banks who had been mindlessly helping people buy vehicles, homes, TVs, Fridge and what not. People seem to have no regard for how much money they spend – rather money has become valueless.

Away from the local scene: Everyone in Tamilnadu seems to have suddenly discovered a passion to exhibit their love and sympathy for their fellow Tamilian in Sri Lanka. Not a day single passes without someone or other protesting about killing fellow Tamilians in that Island. Everyone wants the war to end and the Sri Lankan army cease fire. What about several people who have died due to escalating terrorism by the banned group? This is not something to be talked about, one could be branded a traitor. Every small and big political party has raised its banner. One gets a doubt – whom are we supporting – the banned outfit or the innocent Tamilians in the Island. We have an issue to beat around during the forthcoming elections.

Elections to the Lok Sabha are just around the corner, a couple of months away. Everyone is making intelligent and wild guesses and forecasts about possible electoral alliances. Different political parties are being wooed by different other parties – the smaller the party, the more valuable they are for their local influence. One wonders why not Congress woo B.J.P or vice-versa and it won’t look strange or funny at all considering the present political conglomeration – possibly the only combination not yet tried since our Independence. I am sure that they might make the best ‘made for each other’ pair- after all, what difference it makes when one can gain and share power.

In between one visionary leader had passed away – Shri R.Venkataraman, the former President of India. May his soul rest in peace! Another versatile Tamil actor Nagesh who brought laughter and cheers (sometimes tears too) to many homes also is no more. May his soul too rest in peace!

The other thing I wonder, why senior leaders in politics do not wish to make room for youngsters to move to forefront and try it out. The last time we ever had a refreshing change was when Shri Rajiv Gandhi Ji became Prime Minister. Yes, youngsters could make mistakes due to lack of experience. They could be brutally frank. But won’t they be quick to learning from their mistakes? If an unbelievable history can be created in USA – an African American becoming President and his staunch contender and opponent becoming his Secretary of State, can’t something radically different happen in India too? It appears that time is ripe for radical changes to happen for India to move up. Sooner this happens it is going to be better.