Saturday, June 26, 2010

India: A litany of excuses

We took the Guruvayoor express to Chennai from Trichy. We had booked a/c sleepers. When we stepped into the a/c coach a distinctive stench hit our noses making Hydrogen-sulphide (chemistry textbooks call H2S as rotten egg smell) look like perfume in comparison. Near the toilet a chart duly noted thatPest Control Department last checked for pests on some date. Right next to it a passenger, presumably Indian, wrotetoo many cockroaches. If Indians can feeltoo many cockroaches it REALLY has to be many. I was not disappointed. One look at where they stash the blankets and pillows made me puke. Only when I reflected I realized that I had paid only Rs 318 for the journey. Rs 318 for a 250+ KM train journey, in a/csleeper with blankets provided. That is $7.5 approx. Even by Indian standards that price is ridiculously low. In a country where one liter of petrol is Rs50+ and an auto ride from Adyar to Egmore is Rs100+ this is dirt cheap and so no wonder it was dirty. Its impossible for Railways to maintain the coaches let alone modernize. When Indians work themselves upto a lather because Lalooturned around a loss making Railways not many pause to think what they got. When year after year fares aremaintained and in a/c is made more affordable nobody pauses to think. Yes the fares aremaintained but the coaches are not.

During a couple of drives from Adyar to elsewhere Rowena saw Marina beach and wanted to visit it. I also wanted to take her to Marina just to see the colorful life on a beach. We often go to beaches in New Jersey but no beach in USA would have vendors selling stuff right on the beach its only done away from the beach area, no flying kites, no horse rides etc. Marina is colorful that way. Despite our tight schedule we made time for a beach visit on Friday evening around 7 PM. Contrary to my fears parking was easy. The beach road with its expanse, the sodium vapor lights in the median divider, the statues is quite a sight to behold on a nice evening when the weather is balmy. 

We spotted a horse ride and Rowena got on the horse with immense joy. I brought out my canon SLR to snap pictures. After seeing me take pictures the horse ride guy (jockey ???) told us “Sir  you have to pay me Rs 20 for each snap you take”. Of course we did not pay and we put him in place. What amazed me was how fast the guy cooked up a scheme to get money beyond what was his due. I’ve taken horse carriage rides in NYC, Amsterdam and elsewhere. Nowhere did anybody come up with such an excuse to extort money. In Amsterdam I paid 25 euro for a 30 min ride, our driver was a woman who did not utter a word as I snapped away to glory. I had a similar experience in 1999 when as a newlywed I stepped out in Egmore with three large suitcases. The porter demanded Rs 400 to take the suitcases a few feet to the taxi stand. I asked him why. The reply was simple “sir you are going to America”. How did he know. “who else carries these types of suitcases”. Just because I was going to America he felt “entitled” to get more than his due. The taxiwallah demanded Rs1000 to go from Egmore to Purasawalkam (an auto would charge Rs 30 those days for that trip). Again the reason was “you are going to America”.

That people feel “ENTITLED” to your money just because you earn more, considerably more, is a malaise that can be traced to the roots of our cinema culture where the hero is always “robbing the rich to pay the poor”. In a country like India where, until recent times, the rich were mostly landed gentry, zamindars, it’s not easy to comprehend or pay regard to the fact that people could get rich by hard work, honest work and be honest tax payers. “Poverty” is another excuse that I am tired of hearing. The woman in Amsterdam who drove us was not rich, she knew we were tourists, yet she did not feel ‘entitled’ to our money. A cabbie in NYC is not rich and getting a taxi license in NYC is so expensive (and corrupt too) but he does not feel entitled to my money beyond the meter. 

The favorite excuse of Indians ispopulation.we are a large country, population is a problem. Until recent times population was only aproblem but Indias demography is fast turning into amixed blessing. India reaps by the tons the benefits of its rich demography, an eager and mostly young workforce by the millions is a boon that is transforming the country. In many other spheres the population is a challenge and in certain spheres it is a malaise. BUT Indians use it as a blanket excuse for all and sundry. Coming out of Meenambakkam I thought about the population question. If I told any Indian about the deplorable state of the airport I’d get a shrugpopulation. Little do we realize  that Newark Airport or JFK or Brussels, uncluttered car park, the clean exit ramps I was back to civilization.
Population has got nothing to do with many ills that plague India. What haspopulation orpoverty got to do with a guy urinating near a 400 year old Mahal right under thedo not urinate here sign? First of all why would there be a need for such a sign. Has anybody ever seen ado not urinate here sign in any other part of the world. What makes it ok for literate teenagers to scribble on the walls of a protected monument, again, right next to ado not scribble on the walls?

I went to a bookshop in the new mall “Chennai City Center”. This was a branch of the biggest bookstore in Chennai. The store had a cramped design and in places books were just piled on the floor. The shelves were crammed with titles. The Tamil DVD’s were in flimsy sleeves and stacked like they are done in Burma Bazaar, no sequencing  either. Most of the books were by western authors and local editions of foreign publications. Indian publishing industry is still in its infancy and is mostly just a “printing press”. Though India does have some reputable publishing houses like Penguin, Oxford University Press etc nothing to match the prestige of a Simon and Schuster or Harper Collins etc.  

Buying books is still a luxury in India. Any good book easily crosses Rs 500. For a salaried lecturer in Trichy its a princely sum.  Take Trichy for example. In US it would be typically called a "University Town" to emphasize the preponderance of premium educational institutions. But there is not a SINGLE book store that is good, let alone public libraries. Yes REC has a good library but I can bet the engineering student there does not have access to the latest NY Times bestseller on a number of topics. But then the student first should want to read those, he/she is stifled by a curriculum that thinks a tech student should only learn circuits and bridges. For the common Tamilian reading habit is what he/she most  grazes in the morning and some pot boilers.

Indians repeat ad nauseum about how the British left the country in a hurry and in a mess. As much as that is true little do we pause to think how "BLESSED" India was at its moment of birth. Indians did not have to 'invent' constitution writing like US, the country was linked from end to end physically, very importantly it was linked end-to-end administratively. India had the unique of strength of a wonderful administrative cadre schooled in the best institutions, India's leaders-to-be were also schooled in the best institutions.Above all the emotional unity, not withstanding the communal carnage in the border states, was amazing given India's historical fragmentation. Yet, Indians have unexceptionally squandered each and every advantage and what is worse turned every blessing into a curse.

I am often told, why keep complaining, can you say something as a curative suggestion. I shall address that in my next blog.

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