Yves in India Blog: Day 7

2008-10-17 00:00

The maintenance phone in the passage has been ringing all night. Yesterday the door lock electronics went on the fritz so I couldn't get back into my room. The bags under my eyes tell me it's been a bad night. I check the Witness website and read the lead about Maritzburg's collapsing infrastructure. The picture is of a pothole. One pothole! You guys don't know how lucky you are. Potholes R Us around here.

For some reason yesterday in the late afternoon in the middle of a downpour we went off shopping. East is still not meeting West when it comes to trying to get across what a mall is. They must exist here, but every attempt to be taken to one ends up either in a handicraft Emporium, a street market, and most recently a department store, which was like walking into Edgars. That's globalisation, travel halfway across the world to buy stuff you can get at home.

I buy a copy of The White Tiger by Kann Adiga, who has just won the Man Booker prize. The papers here are very proud of him, and boast that eight winners in the last 40 years have connections to India or are Indian. Adiga's from these parts and the hero too is from a village outside Bangalore. It's not a flattering portrayal either of Indian myths and traditions or the hero's entrepreneurial quest. Colleague Siki Mgabadeli is reading Noam Chomsky, and for dessert she's got John Pilger lined up. I wish I had a Microsoft mind so that I could open up Windows of the half-dozen books on India I'm trying to read at the same time.

The Deccan Times reports that vegetables are high and are not expected to drop until after Diwali: Carrots: 45 rupees/kg, tomatoes Rs29/kg, pomegranates Rs150/kg, and coriander has gone up 300%.

Elsewhere, a 26-year-old dental assistant has committed suicide because she was disgusted by her husband's tobacco-chewing habit.

The opinion page carries an article by Kann Adiga on returning to his home town. He writes:

"After a decade of growth, Mangalore is now a provincial city with a population of more than half a million. Back in 1991, when I left, about 300 000 people lived here. It was a somewhat larger version of any of the towns that dotted the Indian coastline from Goa to Kerala: hot, hilly, carpeted in coconut palms, and not fully comfortable with the late 20th century (movie theatres, for example, were still called 'talkies'). Mangaloreans lived with their extended families in great tiled mansions built by their grandfathers. They went to the schools their fathers had gone to, wearing the uniforms their brothers had worn. It was a modest town. The only immoderate thing about it was monsoon season, which blasted us from June through September each year, flooding roads and closing down schools.

"The population was mostly Hindu, but there were large Christian and Muslim minorities. Young men of all religions were united by shared values of hard work, enterprise, and a desire to get out of Mangalore as quickly as possible. There were no jobs in town - unless you wanted to work in the local tile-making or beedi-rolling factories - and so even the most sluggish youth would eventually crawl over to Bangalore, the state capital; others went to Mombay, Dubai or the US. My brother left when he was 18. I left when I was 16. Many of those who got out never returned. There was no need to go back because the place never seemed to change.

"But the past decade has seen extraordinary change - and extraordinary excess - in Mangalore. Although the city is full of new shopping malls and apartment buildings, the defining excess - and this is quintessentially Indian - has been in education. ... every Mangalorean entreprenuer, it seems, has moved into the education business.

"... A few outsourcing companies have opened shop there, including tech giant Infosys (where we journos are in fact going later today), and more are on their way. A flood of new money has arrived, thanks to the combination of outsourcing jobs, fee paying college students from around India, surging real estate prices, and expatriate remittances.

"As a result, many locals have suddenly become middle-class, upper-middle class, or even rich. Of course, they need ways to announce this good fortuine to others. The new apartment buildings, which are generally ugly and unimaginative, are sold as status symbols and given fanbcy names like Lexington Manor.

"It's easy to laugh at such pretensions, and easy to mourn the disappearance of the graceful houses where most Mangaloreans used to live. But I remember what it was like in those mansions, how your one desire was to get out and live in your own place. Everyone had wanted this independence, but few had achieved it back then: it had taken my family half a decade to build a home of our own, even though my father was a well-paid surgeon. things were different now: everyone seemed to own their own place. And when friends and relatives saw me, the first they did was invite me to see their home."

Predictably, Adiga has been criticised here for dissing India. He defends himself, saying that the challenges holding India back are corruption, lack of health services for the poor and "the presumption that the family is always the repository of good. In India, there has never been strong central political control, which is probably why the family is still so important. If you're rude to your mother, In India it's a crime as bad as stealing would be here (London)." But family ties get broken or at least stretched when anonymous cities like Bangalore draw people from the villages.

"These really are the new tensions of India, but Indians don't think about them. The middle classes think of themselves as still victims of colonial rule. But there is no point in someone like me thinking of myself as a victim of colonial oppression. India and China are too powerful to be controlled by the West anymore. We've got to get beyond thatas indians and take responsibility for what is holding us back."

A South African company is being hailed as the salvation of India's abominable roads. "Heard of a road that comes with a guarantee of five years? Heard of a government giving a certificate that a road has not developed a pothole in ten years? Sounds like a dream?" The news report is gushing about the Soilfix polymer technology of SA company Romix Holdings, which is partnering with Rockwell India Private Limited to open a plant in Bangalore in February next year to sort out the state of the roads. Good luck!


Read the Yves's blog: Day 8 & 9

Read Yves's blog from Day 1.

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