Sunday, March 30, 2008

PVR "Bringing Smiles"

As is inevitable in India, one will encounter a set of arbitrary 'rules' for which no logic is sufficient for understanding. Pretenses are a favorite on the sub-continent, and enforcement and actual sense are less common. For example, each day I walk through a rectangle of two-by-fours which rifles off a loud beep to a man standing nearby who never looks up from his newspaper. Why then have the 'metal detector' if the goal and end of its positioning is not enhanced safety? Employment, I suppose.

The same illogical application of rules worms its way into diurnal activities. Today, as I attempted to enter PVR cinemas, a venue which prides itself on its 'bringing smiles' advertising campaign, I nearly thrust my fist through its colorful facade. After passing through a set of two-by-fours, being frisked by three separate men, and emptying the contents of my small backpack, my chewing gum box was confiscated and I was told I could not enter with my bag. Understanding the stupidity of nearly all Indian rules, and the flexibility with which they are typically enforced, I asked in a number of increasingly simplistic ways if I could both keep my gum and enter with my bag. Now, I understand the logic of no chewing gum in a theater, but why confiscate a stale pack at the bottom of my bag when the teenage girls around me chomp away on Trident? Wouldn't it make more sense to employ a dental agent at the door aside the two-by-fours prying gum from under each person's tongue? Ok, well perhaps it's no better. But to the second point, that bags are not allowed in the theater, my counter-argument was obvious: we're in a shopping mall.

Unyielding to even my most simplistic and sycophantic requests, I erupted into a slur of expletives, and leaned into the man's hollow face, shouting at him and excoriating his lemming-like dearth of purpose. I eventually gained entrance to the theater and watched a dreadfully bad movie that, as its highlight, featured Bipasha Basu dancing. Arbitrary rules, lack of context, and idiocy with which they are invariably enforced is painstaking across India, and affirms my desire to land on Finnish soil in three weeks. I hope that as I board my FinnAir flight, the tranquility promised bears more veracity than PVR's successfully well-orchestrated 'Bringing Smiles' campaign.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Another 'Real India' Poolside

In continuing tradition, Thursday night marked the start of our weekend, aside from early next-day meetings. Endeavoring to alter the standard GK-1 N Block fare, we opted for poolside at the Park Hotel's Aqua lounge. Combining a group from Bain, and celebrating the admission of a few friends' to HBS, our overzealous ordering showed its striking face in the form of Rupees on our bill. Bombay and Delhi host venues that rival the likes of Hong Kong, London, and New York in price. Though India is understood internationally for its population and poverty, it's also host to Asia's largest number of 55 billionaires and over 83,000 millionaires. It's a country of contrasts and challenges and one that is remarkably pluralistic and diverse culturally, geographically, topographically, linguistically, and economically. It's a country in which some things do not move, and others are world class. I realize these differences on a weekly basis as I learn phrases in Guju, Punjabi, and Hindi; I learn this each time I arrive in a new city; I learn this each week as I frequent a chic bar or restaurant with Indian friends from work, and then spend my Saturday traversing the frenetic streets of Old Delhi.

The 'real India' is a country that varies and is personally dependent. Last year I went searching for it on trains and in small villages. This year I find an equally 'real India' that exists in an efficient Kingfisher flight with brand new AirBus 320 aircraft; it exists in as high-heeled women make a morning trip to Barista for lattes; it exists in a villager with a mobile phone, and multi-million dollar Bollywood escapism; it exists with bamboo scaffolding to erect glass wonders; it exists with an S-Class Mercedes and a chauffeur, in a taxi, in an auto-rickshaw, on a cycle-rickshaw, and over bare feet. I can only try to understand that these worlds are not mutually exclusive, but are the various versions of India that those around me all know and love.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holi Weekend

This weekend marked the confluence of three holidays, one Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian. Mawlid, or the birth of the Prophet, coincides with Good Friday. Saturday is the Hindu Holi festival day, or the celebration of colors and of spring, while Sunday is Easter. It's a remarkable conjoining of traditions, and one that is quite apparent in India. On Friday, as I ventured into New Delhi, thousands made their way in traditional dress and skull caps toward the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in Asia. On Saturday, innumerable Hindus "Played Holi" throwing and smearing colored powder onto one another in celebration of Spring. On Sunday, as I walked the streets of Calcutta with a Christian friend, she reminded me of Easter tradition.

In the lingering post-Holi days (holidays), one can clearly identify Hindus from others, as their skin holds the lingering pink hue of indelible Holi inks. While I did not celebrate this year's Holi celebration, as I had enough of the dry powder in my face last Spring, I did celebrate with the small victory of setting my AirTel mobile ring back as the latest Atif Aslam song from the Bollywood film, Race.

Cali(fornia) to Cal(cutta)

As my plane touched down in Calcutta, I harbored innumerable expectations about a city I've wanted to visit for the past year. The capital of West Bengal, Calcutta, or Kolkata as it can now be called, is a sprawling mass of over 13 million people, most of them very poor. It's the home of Bengali sweets, of Tagore and other intellectuals who have defined Indian literature; it is the former British East India Company capital, and the site of Mother Theresa's tomb. It hosts the famous cricket ground Eden Gardens, the beautiful Victoria Memorial, and the posh Park Street.

Today it is a city that lags behind Delhi and Bombay, but also a city that quite resembles its ostensibly more developed counterparts. Upon arrival I expected images of destitution I hadn't yet seen across the sub-continent, as even my Indian friends warned me against going to Calcutta. I was told that traffic signals had only arrived a decade ago, and that infrastructure would be difficult.

In contrast to expectations set by Indian friends, what I found was a city that, to me, was unremarkably Indian. It was certainly no better than other Indian cities I have seen and experienced over the past year, but it was also certainly no worse. And despite its apparent status as a scapegoat city for many Indian natives, the challenges Calcutta has yet to overcome are the same as those extant elsewhere, yet it bears the sour reputation. While traffic signals may have only come in the past decade, Calcutta traffic was markedly better than Gurgaon, Hyderabad, and Bangalore, cities engineered in much more recent years.

Bubbles of developed infrastructure exist across India, but single stretches of highway in Delhi cannot assuage underlying problems in urban planning. In venturing into West Bengal's notorious capital, I was struck not by the penury, but by how remarkably similar it was to other purportedly developed Indian cities.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sufis and Sitars

Due to frequent visits, my driver now asks if I am going to Epicenter before he asks if I am going home. "Haan jee, mai Epicenter ja raha hoon," I replay. This week I attended a fantastic Sufi music performance by Rene Singh with a lecture on Sufism by an erudite Delhi University professor delivered in Hindi and English, all before my 10pm call with CA. Discussing Turkic Sufism from that of the Indus Valley and that of the Gangetic plain, I learned that in Sufi poetry the linguistic genders intimate as much about intention as the word meanings themselves. For example, reflective diction is nearly always in the feminine gender while assertions of power and authority are masculine.

Flanked by two friends on Thursday night, I attended again another Epicenter performance of Sitar and Tabla by a student of Ravi Shankar. In a fantastic display, the artist willed emotion from the strings with each poignant pull and pluck. The resonant timbre of the instrument echoed through the hollow hall with the undulating dip and drive of the tabla to accompany. As he created notes from the Sitar, it was difficult to discern if the physiognomy of his face influenced his fingers, or if the music inspired the physiognomy. Both performances brought to life more of the Indian classical music that I've grown to love.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gone to Goa

After a hectic week of interviews and presentations, I boarded a SpiceJet flight from Delhi to the former Portuguese outpost of Goa. India is full of linguistic pockets, both local and foreign. Pondicherry hosts blue tile street signs listed in French and Tamil; Cochin boasts its Dutch heritage; Goa contains Catholic relics for the Portuguese presence, and it's one of the few places in India where Christiano Ronaldo is more popular than Sachin Tendulkar!

A bumpy hour north of Panjim, the Goan capital, we arrived in Anjuna and checked into our humble hotel which cost 600 Rs per night. For an extra 200 Rs, we reserved motorbikes. A few King's beers into the night, we walked slowly down the country roads under a canopy of stars and silhouetted palm frawns. Whitewashed churches watched dimly from aside the dirt roads.

The weekend commenced eventfully with me crashing my bike on a sandy stretch of road. Having watched a number of Shah Rukh Khan movies (SRK), I launched myself from the bike and managed to escape with but a scrape on my elbow and knee. Perhaps Maverick might be a better comparison. Nursing my wounds with sun, sea, and beach soccer with a dozen British kids and their coach, an expat New Yorker who graced the beach in a Knicks jersey, I recovered by weekend's end, and celebrated with a henna tattoo.

Goa is India in a crucible. It's all and nothing at once. What it retains in the constituent cultural elements of India, it loses in its pandering to tourists. To an undiscerning eye it's all just India. But beneath the puppets is Rajasthan; beneath the Kathikali is Kerala; beneath the laborer's story is Bihar. Judgement aside, it is a beautiful part of the world that is free and wild. It's a barefoot Royal Enfield motorcycle, a canopy of palms, a melange of nations, and a fish dinner. And who complains about that...

GK-1 N-Block Thursday

On Thursday nights, a club in the South Delhi section called GK-1 N-Block comes alive with a remarkable cross-section of new Delhi. It's IT professionals; it's Embassy staff; it's Bain and McKinsey consultants; it's an open world where conversations are international and reflective, and the talk is more than small.

As a Palo Alto kid, what's remarkable to me is that it nearly always ends in Facebook. It was true in Tanzania, it was true in the Maldives, and it's true in India. Punjabi bar talk turned into a discussion of Harvard's Kennedy School and international development, and ended with a Blackberry Facebook exchange and the realization that we had a mutual friend in New York, namely a girl I lived with my freshman year. Facebook is on the global map, and Malcom Gladwell knows what comes next.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Epicentre Gurgaon

On Wednesday night, after having completed twenty-one 30-minute interviews, I made the smart decision of not going home, but instead going to Epicentre Gurgaon for a Carnatic music performance. One of the few reasons to remain in Gurgaon, Epicentre has nightly performances for Sitar, Sarod, Sufi, and Carnatic music, in addition to festivals for Chinese films and international art. Carnatic music is a form of Classical Hindustani, or Indian, music that is musically and rhythmically complex. In an escalating progression, the music follows particular ragas, or modal themes, and builds on itself into complex drumming and vocal patterns. Though I drifted in and out of sleep, the event was fantastic and provided my first good reason not to flee to Delhi after traffic subsides.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Old New Delhi

From Rajiv Chowk, the central green within CP, there now exists a Delhi Metro stop. As we liken Gurgaon to the Gold Rush of 1849, with the daily boom of chaos and productivity creating change that is visibly measured in days and weeks, one can similarly observe the creation of the Delhi Metro. Three years ago it did not exist. Today, though photography is not permitted, it rivals Bangkok or Asia in its efficiency. And at six rupees per ticket, it beats New York in cost. Entering the station at Rajiv Chowk we shuffled over marble floors to an uncrowded ticket window. Handed a magnetic coin imprinted with an image of Qtub Minar, we pressed into the station where smoothly running cars glided in each minute. It was blissful, though Indians cannot handle the give and take necessary to efficiently board a train. Many Indians cram to board the car when others simply wish to exit. I’ve never tried it, but perhaps I should try to put my shoes on before my pants. That would work about as well.

Exiting the metro at Chowri Bazaar in central old Delhi, we emerged into the haze of the city and into a different time. At the top of the polished steps stood an idle cow, and we were immediately propositioned for a dozen cycle rickshaws. Inevitably in the way of someone, we dodged our way down a crumbling sidewalk past thousands of others. Men with twenty-feet of copper pipe would emerge before us as two children would clip at our heels and a moped would blast at us with its horn. Holes in the street would emerge, bricks and piles of dust would stand as obstacles, and men with hot pots of chai would careen past. As Tim paused to smoke his cigarette, a pensive and furrowed brow, the surrounding chaos made his casual stance look Guy Noir.

The walk before Jama Masjid and into Chandi Chowk is a journey that impresses itself into memory in a visceral, tangible, uncomfortabley sad and powerful way. A series of moments can outweigh the gravitas of novels, the words of authors, and the photos of magazines. It’s a sight, a smell, a wave, a smile, a whiff, a scare, and a moment that changes you. It’s a series of moments that comprise a minute of your life, and an eternity of theirs. It’s each passing life. It’s your transience and their permanence. It’s their home and your intrusion. A leper sleeps in the middle of the filthy street, face down on the concrete as rickshaws circle his crumpled mass and black feet; A man sweeps trash and dead dogs into a pile, the stench of death and garbage welling inside your nostrils; a child laughs despite poverty, tossing a rag into the air as a game, and stuffs it into his mouth after it lands on the road; a pool of frothy yellow urine pools around the feet of a man who turns to you and smiles with a head bobble; A beggar grabs your arm beckoning to you with her eyes, and her tout of "baba;" Four men shout "hello sir," and award you a grin worthy of welcome to the neighborhood; A rickshaw squeals its horn, and a woman brushes past you, her face mangled and nose missing, likely her terrible punishment as an unfaithful wife; A heroine addict stumbles into your shoulder as three men gape at you from their road-side mattress, hands clasping glasses of chai; Are you entertainment, or a target? You consider danger; you flex and smile. You engage, you glaze over, you reflect, you try, but you can't fully understand.

And then you enter a rooftop lounge, reflect over a Kingfisher, call an AC car, and return to a marble apartment.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Rooftop Mattresses

At 21:15 on Thursday evening, a unique group assembled in Delhi atop an apartment rooftop. Together with friends from Stanford and San Diego, employees of the World Bank and U.N., Fulbright Scholars and venture capitalists and hippy expats, we dragged pillows and mattresses to the top of the roof. Using a projector, a laptop, and an inventive tangle of extension cords we displayed the recent Oscar-winning film, "No Country for Old Men" on the whitewashed wall of an adjacent building. Flanked by bamboo scaffolding that stood silhouetted against the Delhi-lit sky, and accompanied by the tossing of bricks, occasional car alarm, dog fight, or backfiring truck, we sat atop a pile of mattresses and pillows on a brick rooftop under the stars. Nearly 20 of us gathered in a truly remarkable and memorable night at the movies. Though I did not return to Gurgaon until 2am, the trip into Def Col put a wide angle lens on my perspective for Thursday night potential. As the movie ended, and the lounge continued to the syncopated beat of J-Five under the darkened sky, I could have been anywhere else, but I wouldn't have wanted to.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Japanese in Delhi

Saturday night was one for the ages... It's rare that I do anything illegal, but drinking under the age of 25 has recently been added to this short list. On Saturday I managed my way past the Japanese bouncers at a party focused on the Tokyo expat community. With a friend's blessing, and Irish comrade, and a host of Japanese words like "Ohaiyo, genki deska?" we made an entrance. With each hint of Bollywood, the room of well-coiffed Japanese would erupt into a scene fit for Juhu. As the "Om Shanti Om," began to pulse through the fogged darkness of the hall, "Om Tiger Om," as the party was dubbed, came alive. With posters of Deepika Padukone on the wall (thankfully not Shah Rukh), we found it apt that through a friend, we had forwarded the invite to Deepika herself the day prior.

Arigato gozaimasu... shukria... Hindi and Japanese, Bollywood and Tokyo united with Irish and Californian, Emerald Isle and Honshu meet Golden State in cosmopolitan splendor... in New Delhi. Almost akin to the Swahili / Arabic mix of Zanzibar, recounting Shinjuku tales in Delhi was fantastic, thanks to Tim's MP introductions and our willingness to embrace East Asia in South Asia post-GK1 afternoon.

Sufi Music & Soccer

On the three nights of the week when I am not in the office until 11pm, straining to communicate with my California counterparts in 1440 x 900, I attempt to create a life in between the maddening chaos of construction that is Gurgaon. On Wednesday I watched a fantastic free performance of Sufi musicians in Gurgaon. Sufi music draws you into its dream with the monotonous buzz and undulating dips of the tabla. You slip into a gossamer world of circumspection, and a series of moments veiled in mystery, until the lyrics, strong and poignantly flat, are emotive, and tell a tale that varies depending on your ear. The story is personal, and it relates to me.

On Thursday I ventured into Delhi traffic at the perilous time of 5:30. I made my way toward the US Embassy off Shanti (peace) road. The American Community Service Center boasts a fortified baseball diamond that looks more like a Marine barrack. In fact, you must pass Marines to arrive within its chain-linked walls. Inside, however, to the tune of 100 rupees, you can assemble some mates for a weekly football match. I've managed to find a Euro expat circle that plays each Thursday.

We played for over 2 hours under the lights. Representing Slovakia, Poland, Scotland, Italy, the US, and India, football became a common language across countries and ages. I realized an hour in that the throbbing in my calf after a hard tackle, the sweat down my face, and the bruises I had acquired on my shins made me, again, feel alive. I played one-twos with Martin, a highly-skilled 18 year old from Bratislava. As I received each touch, and sprinted down the flank, I remembered how much I missed one of the fundamental freedoms that India denies, namely, the ability to exercise outdoors. Though I failed to slot a few break-away goals past the Polish keeper, I had a Dennis Bergkamp 1998 moment when, as a long ball dropped in over my shoulder, I took it out of the air and volleyed it into the far post in two fluid touches without letting the ball hit the dusty pitch. We called a break, and an Indian guy bought me a gatorade in congratulations for my goal. The language of football, while spoken less frequently, still apparently works in India.