Sunday, April 20, 2014

Perspectives in Unlikely Places

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in a long, long, long time. I saw my city in a new light. Not metaphorically, but literally. I chanced upon an interesting perspective in the most unexpected of places and came away feeling the better for it. 

Where, one might ask? Along a newly constructed freeway, recently opened up for use. 

This freeway connects the commercial south of the city to some of the suburbs in the north. It runs through (or more appropriately, above) a many-kilometer stretch that has been long-forgotten and mostly ignored by the public at large, in all probability because it is home to dock operations, warehouses and dreary manufacturing set-ups that appeal to and attract almost no one other than those who work there - and even they might legitimately question its appeal. 

As I wound my way along the freeway's length at a quick clip, I realized that I was looking with the eyes of a tourist, a first-time visitor. There were new vistas on both sides - housing complexes - well maintained officers' quarters with towels of the same color hanging on clothes-racks in every balcony, as well as run-down slum (re)development projects. Trucking depots. Fields. Massive cranes, shipbuilding yards, a mini-oil refinery, gauzy-looking smokestacks, hills on the periphery and everywhere, everywhere, a delicious profusion of yellow marigolds. My work-life stomping grounds, as they looked from a distance.  

I realized how quick we are, in our fascination with constructs such as 'knowledge work,' 'service economies,' and 'development' to forget about the foundations on which our fashionable enterprises rest. Almost as if the manufacturing of real, three-dimensional things is something so far removed from what we do and enable, that we no longer need to acknowledge or appreciate what it takes to make and move products. These tasks are relegated to the margins of our imaginations and our geographies, and we can spend our lives and conversations pretending that we have transcended 'labouring' and 'doing.'

Capitalism isn't pretty. But that is no reason not to at least witness the engines of our economy and the levers and pistons that power our cities at work. And to feel just a little humbled and awed by the infrastructural muscle on the surface of which lightly perch our 21st century ideas of consumerism.  

Now, in my city, I get to catch a glimpse. And I look forward to it. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Seeking a Social Compass


It's one of those words that is much, much crueler than it looks; that when said out loud manages to sound deceptively decorous, conveying in refined syllables an emotion that could physically, metaphorically, slowly, surely crush a person with its weight; that forms the organizing theme of books, music, art, poetry, wishful thinking and waking nightmares. 

Regret. A little word for a big thing.    

And then there is embarrassment. A long, winding caterpillar of a word that perhaps overstates the impact of a minor moral transgression or social faux pas. Embarrassment is a sharp hurt that soon subsides, regret lingers long and runs deep. 

And I am really, honestly beginning to wonder, in this age of instant messaging, overflowing in-boxes, Whatsapp messages, BBM pings, 140 character tweets, long-length 'posts' and status updates - are we beginning to lose our capacity to distinguish between the two? Are we so quick to think, share, react, respond, so constantly and consistently (and superficially) aware of ourselves as social beings in the act of performing our selves, that we mistake the silliness-es and the solecisms and the stupidities as being something more? As being abiding and un-fixable and inescapable? Or, conversely, are we mistaking the undertow, the undercurrent, the quiet gnaw of regret for something smaller? Something that can be 'managed' or photo-shopped or text-ed and tweet-ed away? 

Maybe it's just a question of how our language is no longer what it used to be. How many emoticons amount to 'My bad'? How many 'Oops, my bad,' add up to the same thing as 'I'm sorry?' Or maybe it's just a pervasive lack of persistent presence. How does one identify and then undo a hurt when there are so many conversations to be managed at one time? How does one withhold explanations and rambling apologies and wait for the right time - and the right words - to say the things that need to be said, when the means to express and share are so plentiful? 
This isn't nostalgia for quieter, simpler times. It's simply honest-to-goodness confusion about what is a violation of the codes of conduct. We are evolving a grammar for our new conversational modes. But what about the manners and mores? To put it even more transparently - When it comes to all exchanges digital, what should I be embarrassed by? And what will I regret?    

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nice to Notice

I enjoy the rains. I love the respite, the weekends spent with good books instead of good friends, the alterations of mood and tempo, the bhuta-pakora-chai rituals being played out dozens of times. I love the illusion of a lull that seems to go hand-in-hand with our monsoons. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and as I write this post at the end of yet another wet week the over-riding sense is not that of delicious delight but of a dampness made almost solid. 

In the absence of any honest-to-goodness desi sunshine, I paid attention to the things that kick-started my mornings this week and kept me ticking till I negotiated my way to the coffee machine at work: Little kids, scrubbed and in uniform + pigtails, being led to school-buses by scruffy dads and yummy mummies; taxi-drivers who inhabited the front seat of their Maruti 800 as if it were a throne and maneuvered it to its destination with a lack of urgency that's entirely alien to their species; the surprisingly cool breeze off the sea-link; a grey van bursting at the seams with houseplants; two skinny young men bent double as they cracked up over a joke; discovering I had an extra hour to myself before it was time to head out Thursday morning.   

In the vein of my previous post, it really is nice to notice. So much better than the alternative.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I'm one of those people who likes going places, but doesn't particularly enjoy getting there. Early morning wake-up calls, cab rides to the airport, queues at check-in, hustling to get a seat you can settle in before boarding announcements are made, the long lines that build up in total defiance of the fact that only select row numbers have been called out for by ground staff - it's all too predictable and monotonous and makes even non sci-fi fans think longingly of Star Trek style evaporation and re-assemblage at destination. 

But there are small joys - the occasional well made cup of coffee, spells of quiet, and airport bookstores that sell Harper's well-designed and entirely-too-appealing Agatha Christie books for only 199 rupees a pop. I buy them even when I've already packed another book for the explicit purpose of  reading en route. Agatha Christie!199 rupees! Cover art! Need I say more? 

And so I recently bought myself a copy of 'Murder on the Orient Express,' featuring Poirot with his little grey cells and Belgian affectations. It's a book that makes for truly enjoyable reading, but what struck me most about it was a particular scene early on in the narrative in which Poirot, eating alone in the Orient Express' first-class dining car, spends his time observing his fellow passengers and 'sizing them up.' He looks at them and makes assumptions about what they might be like, playing a detective's version of 'connect the dots' on his day off. It made me think about the last time I had really looked at a stranger, paid attention to her, tried to learn something about her from the way she dressed, spoke or moved, and I couldn't bring a single instance to mind. 

When did I stop looking at people and noticing their oddities? Did this non-seeing start with digital music players and become cemented by cellphones and smartphones? Are people less striking and interesting today than they were when Christie wrote? Do we get enough and more of each other through relentless newspaper and television coverage and web-based chatter? It isn't cultural conditioning, for sure. Indians can never be accused of being too polite to stare. In fact, we've probably raised the global stakes on creepy once-overs and insistent violations of personal space. And yet - in looking at a person, many of us don't really think about her (or him). We slap on a label - cool/not, hot/not, from boondocks/not - and leave it at that.  

Anonymity is a kind of liberation, of course, but have we lost the twin arts of observation and deduction? Should we be more curious about the people around us, what they might be like, and what they might do? Should we be paying more attention to what's happening around us - literally around us - as opposed to exclusively staying on top of the big news stories of the moment? I know I need to do more on all of these counts.

There is one place where the art of noticing and spotting is thriving - the Internet, with its hundreds (if not thousands) of street-style and urban portraiture blogs.Some of these bloggers are good at what they do. Others are somewhat twee and/or labored. Either way, I wouldn't want them to become my custodians of observation. Observation can so personally rewarding, why delegate it to someone else? Obviously, I'm not advocating for making strangers uncomfortable and being intrusive. But developing a certain quality of attention to them could make spaces and places less anodyne. Even if that space is an airport on Monday morning. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Having My Say. Asking my Questions. Same Difference.

What's that quip about how opinions are like _________, every one's got them? 

Well, it's Narendra Modi, and the Prime Ministerial race, and the political discourse in this country, so I feel entitled. 

In response to all the questions about how I feel about Narendra Modi as a Gujarati, I would have to say......I don't. Really. I believe that reducing Modi to a Gujarat phenomenon is a cop-out. The truth is that Modi could have emerged from a number of states in this country. The question that needs to be asked is what it is about our culture, society and politics that makes him legitimate and likeable. Of course there is something to be said for context, for the fact that Modi's won consecutive elections from Gujarat. But to limit the conversation around Modi to Gujarat, as some commentators and analysts do, is to claim a false distance from the possibility - and truth - that prejudice and discrimination manifest almost everywhere in India, every day. These instances are just not on the radar quite as persistently. 

Modi's success and his growing personality cult parallel the rise of a certain rhetoric of growth and prosperity in India, and the crystallization of the idea that quality of life can be measured in very specific ways - roads, public transport, industrial investment. These things are important - but the reason they dominate our popular notions of development so disproportionately is because there's a large number of Indians who believe that they need to make a choice between populism and effective government. They're interested in the idea of secularism and collective progress only tangentially, because no one - no political party, and almost no mainstream media outlet - is creating dialogue around equitable growth and what it means for us all as a people and a country. Social welfare and justice are not constructs that come fully formed from some mysterious ether. Some one needs to take responsibility to explain why they matter, and to frame the smaller pictures we're so fond of as an electorate in terms of a larger vision or idea. Otherwise, why be surprised if this purported 'big picture' lacks takers? 

In any case, it's hard to dispute that Narendra Modi's been able to use this seeming scarcity of political choice to his advantage. The fact that he is able to set the terms by which other parties and their policies are judged is largely due to a massive failure of imagination on the part of the Congress. India's G.O.P. still has a year to re-present the issues, but will it demonstrate the intent and the initiative? 

One more thing. I read an incredibly silly column in the Mumbai Mirror today about how Indian Americans worry about 'explaining' Modi's rise to power to their friends in the US, given the State Department's refusal to issue him a visa. I'm confounded that this is a talking point that merits actual inches in newsprint. Choices about whether or not Modi should run India should be based on what people think he can or can't do for this country, here. Why do we believe that our leaders need endorsement from institutions abroad? Why this continuing preoccupation with how we 'look' to others, instead of how we see ourselves? 

That being said, I have no idea about which way the winds will blow. I am prepared to be surprised either - and every - way. 
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