Monday, February 19, 2007

Seeing Stars

I was in Australia last month and kicking myself for not having brought a star chart. Gary Leavens overheard me and pointed me to Stellarium.

It's a very nice little program that shows you the stars, constellations, nebulae and other information in the night sky based on where you are and the date and time. Just dim your laptop screen enough, hold it up, and you can match the program output with what you're seeing. It also has an object search facility, and will track the passage of time. And it's free, and runs on all the standard platforms! They were smart enough to design it to run unplugged, so you really can take it outdoors no matter where you are.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

We Are Not All Jelly Donuts

Berlin! I'm a city person, and I've been in Germany about a dozen times, so how did I miss this place? For some years I kept meaning to visit our friends, Henrik and Géraldine, who lived there; preying on my weaknesses, Géraldine once sent me a bookmark from the Pergamon Museum. But then they suddenly left, and Berlin slipped off my radar. But here I am, part business (to speak at the Technische Universität) but partly also to see a city that, if critics like the Economist are right, is in terminal decline...but then they think that of half the world. Thriving? Declining? Or both, going out in style? I couldn't wait to see.

“If passenger Yule-rich on board, please page a flight attendant. Passenger Yule-rich.” Ah, you know you must be on Continental. Could their American flight crew possibly know or care less about the world? (A moment later, one of the German flight attendants comes on-line and quietly re-pronounces Ullrich.)

Public Transport

Every dying city should wish it had Berlin's public transport. Setting aside an incredibly annoying, and poorly signposted, closure of track around Potsdamer Platz—which is a transportation hub—and the fact that all city transit maps, including the official ones, are out-of-date—the U1 and U2 have been merged into a U12 that does not correspond to either parent lines—the U- and S-bahn trains are superb. Both stations and trains are frequent, and a day's pass ends at 3am, which says something about Berlin life. Most remarkable are the small details that are so easy to get right and yet almost every subway system fails miserably: you always exit from the same side, which makes life easier for people to plan ahead, especially those with luggage; both directions share a common platform, so in a rush you can avoid making a decision until the last moment, and if you do make a mistake, correcting it is straightforward (nowhere is it less so than in Boston where, if you try to reverse directions in some stations, you must actually buy a fresh ticket!); the LED displays in most trains list the next three stops.

Not all signs of quality are so small. Some of the newer trains are entirely articulated, making it much easier to spread out the load; traveling in one of these, which also have LCD displays suspended from the roofs, as they go around or over small kinks in the route, feels a bit like being on the inside of a gigantic (and brightly-lit) snake. The most visible sign of progress must surely be the new Hauptbahnhof, perhaps more a statement of the aspirations of a united city than a reflection of reality; yet there it stands, several levels of gleaming glass and steel, looking like nothing so much as a runaway from the set of Metropolis (a quotation that was no doubt intentional and fittingly ironic). In contrast to the traditional underground bustle of German Hbfs, this one is an airy, spacious experience (rather reminiscent of the main JR station in Kyoto), full of shopping but sensibly equipped with services dominating luxuries; at the top and bottom, sleek IC and ICE trains hum in tune with the electricity. Gliding into it from the east, around a curve in the track that enters a semi-circular canopy enclosed in the square that is the station itself, is an electric experience.


There is a modest Bauhaus museum in Berlin. Berlin's claim on the Bauhaus is minimal: the operation had lost most of its stars by the time it got here, and it was shut down pretty soon thereafter. But it would be out of character for cities to not exploit the very stars they once persecuted and drove out, and Berlin's artsy reputation demands something of this ilk anyway.

There were some nice surprises in its collection. There were several interesting mobile-like balanced sculptures that are not functional but nevertheless good eye-candy. I have long admired the undersung Gertrude Arndt's weaves, and she is well-represented here. There were some letterforms sketched by Albers. In one photograph of a table created for the Törten estate, I was stricken by the dullness and austerity of the black-and-white photograph contrasted against the rich two-toned beach-and-stained black fir chair in front of it: a room full of those chairs looks an awful lot more interesting! Overall, two things stood out from the collection: the sheer lowness of Bauhaus design, something that hadn't struck me until I saw this many objects assembled together (the chairs, for instance, have no wings, barely any backs, and certainly no headrests—this is prairie architecture imported into the living room), and the realization that some of the most beautiful pieces they produced were...ashtrays.

The Jewish Museum

One of the great new sites in Berlin is Daniel Liebskind's Jewish Museum. It's a mixed result. Liebskind was up against an astounding challenge—the museum of Jewish life, in Berlin—and it is a sign of his genius that he managed to deliver. Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, the latter part of the museum simply does not live up to the promise of the beginning, but perhaps it cannot. The beginning is solemn, reflective, startling...while the rest, an account of Jewish life in Europe through the centuries, is predictable and often somewhat pedestrian. I guess I had a sense of what to expect from the latter, and got just that. But do go, just to see the beginning. His Garden of Exile, a group of 49 towers on sloping ground, is claustrophobic and disorienting, the pillar-like towers serving as so many metaphors from smokestacks to the triumphal arcades of Nürnberg...and the Holocaust Tower, which is in fact the negative-space of a tower, again evoking a chimney, broken by a shard of light, transports you into mythological space. There is enough in those two Axes to occupy the mind for a long time, and nothing I had read prepared me for their power. Elsewhere, too, his sense of disruption is strong, as when the main staircase of the Axis of Continuity runs into a wall—anywhere else it would be a playful postmodernist joke, but here it's not funny (nor meant to be). But somehow there is a lingering sense that he invested all his emotion into the beginning. (The rest of the museum is both helped and marred by the large number of docents, who are usually solicitous but sometimes set about enforcing strange rules such as forcing you to either wear your jacket or wrap it around your waist, but not carry it upon your arm; or demanding that your bag must be carried in front of you, not on your back.)

The Holocaust Memorial

If you want real controversy, though, you can't beat the Holocaust Memorial.

First of all: a memorial? Is it possible to even monumentalize such things? Besides, having visited actual concentration camps, I can sincerely say that nothing is as powerful as visiting the sites of these crimes. Lincoln may have been on to something when he said, at Gettysburg, “we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground”. But nothing so simple as a non-monument passes these days, though the history of this Berlin memorial is tortured well beyond the standard as these things go.

But if you must do it, this result is difficult to surpass. It is in ground riddled with symbolism: formerly a no-man's land, a block south of the Brandenberger Tor—too close to be ignored, yet just enough out of sight to allow a modern country a chance of putting its past behind it.

At very first sight it is bland and unremarkable. Then, a moment later, your eyes take in the magnitude of the place—a full city square in a city of generous proportions—with a scale provided by the distant buildings of Potsdamer Platz, which is when you realize its real expanse. The plot is covered in about 2700 stelae of various heights, on a ground that is also uneven. Your first thought is of a dark wave, but if you've ever seen an old Jewish cemetery, such as the one in Prague—with gravestone piled upon gravestone—you realize that Eisenmann is quoting not only funerary caskets but a long history of Jewish oppression even in death. The plot accomplishes the neat trick of being both abstract and concrete at the same time.

As you walk around the site—the stelae are in a regular grid of paths—the structure becomes more and more oppressive as the surrounding buildings sink from sight and the sounds muffle. The references are evident, and effective. Near the middle, though, where the stelae are tallest and ground lowest, something strange happens: you are so surrounded in tall rectangular structures that the (perhaps inadvertent) quotation of Liebskind's Garden of Exile begins to actually feel derivative.

Part of the controversy over the memorial is that it wasn't Jewish enough, and that it didn't sufficiently reflect guilt. Here I think Eisenmann has redeemed himself wonderfully. It was by no means unanimous that the monument should be to Jews alone, and many still feel that leaving out other targeted groups was improper. Without doing so explicitly, Eisenmann includes them all. Yet the characteristic profile of a old European Jewish cemetary is unmistakeable, at once situating the site within a (forced) tradition. What, anyway, must a memorial be? It must be sombre, contemplative, and show remorse, all of which this does...but I think it must also, like this memorial, have in it an element of the universal, to say both “This could happen to you” and “you too are capable of this”: those should be the larger framework of Never Forgetting.

There is an information center under the memorial, which I did not visit, and the site itself was staffed on the cold, rainy evening that I visited by an eager young man handing out information pamphlets. The pamphlet is informative enough, even featuring an FAQ, though it can't but help pump up the center's management, answering a question that I bet nobody asks.

The other thing remarkable about this pamphlet, a trend equally visible at the Jewish Museum (and an increasing number of other sites worldwide), is the extraordinary emphasis on the architect. There he is on page one, in a black-and-white photograph, trying hard to look both pained and thoughtful at the responsibility of capturing the Weltschmertz. It is as inspecting the monument were not enough, that we must indulge this mutual admiration society of architects and commissioners. If Wren had the audacity to create the epitaph he did in his time, imagine what the pamphlet for St. Paul's would look like if he built it today! We'd be lucky to get to God by page 25. On the other hand, it's precisely the Wren spirit that is called for: I speak to you in stone, and the stone suffices: behold, and be awed.


What is more Berlin than film? The city we associate with Lang and Metropolis, Dietrich and Der blaue Engel (and, let's admit, Riefenstahl and Olympia); a city that still trades on photographs of Gary Cooper landing in Tempelhof (an airport that, frankly, I more readily associate with Freud's flight at the last moment...); and—a city that just happens to be running its Film Festival while I'm in town! Not that they couldn't make it slightly easier to find information, tickets or shows, but eventually I was ensconsed in the Zoo Palast for a show at 2pm.

With several dozens of school children, actually, young enough to actually screech (rather than yell). I realized I'd ended up in a showing of short films for kids; but here I was, and perhaps I would understand more of the German anyway. What I saw for the next two hours was a series of films that each included at least one thing that would be considered too offensive for children in America: horror, pornography, infidelity, and in one peculiar instance, an animation featuring a rather violent spoon. Any of the shorts, much less the lot of them, would have readily ignited the entire righteous parenthood of Amerika (though it must be said that the spoon did get its comeuppance). I did find strange the sometimes emotionless voice of the speak-over translator (done on the cheap, perhaps, seeing as they used one woman to translate the voice of three different young boys). Also odd were the things they did and did not translate: the boys' names like Milton and Byron were “translated” (that is, simply repeated), whereas “sexy lady” was not (though none of the adolescents had any trouble with the concept). Given the sometime ponderous nature of European movies for “mature” audiences, and the weighty themes covered honestly and thoughtfully here, it was a far better experience than I could have expected (especially when I first sat down and looked around). Equally noteworthy was the extremely international mix of films, roughly one per continent—and the only German film was actually about the tough lives of illegal immigrants from the Ukraine.

Liquid Lounge

Berlin's Tegel is a modest airport, with about fifteen gates arranged in a ring, each (rather inefficiently) having its own security and departure section. It is, by the way, named in honor of Otto Lilienthal, though that name is printed virtually nowhere: I only found out by walking outside and looking back up at the control tower. But there is a small reward for those who take the exit less frequently used: just outside, besides the row of benches usually populated by smokers, there is a very low-slung sculpture—never more than a foot off the ground—of a man, lying prone, belly-down, wearing an aviator jacket and goggles, wings strapped to his hand, and tethered to the ground with a rope like a goat. An aviation buff would immediately recognize it as a wonderful tribute to Lilienthal himself.

Anyway, back to security and departure. I walk into my section and put my bags through the x-ray. The security guard politely but firmly wants to know what a particular object is in my bag. Expecting she's referring to the snake-like cable that accompanies my OQO laptop, I tell her it's computer wiring. No, she says; she's pointing at a ghostly rectangle. I tell her I have no idea; oh dear, she says. Is it shaving supplies? No, I point to the shaving cream I have in the separate sealed plastic bag, so we open up and start digging. It's my deodorant stick.

Now she's examining the stick, frowning and deep in concentration. I helpfully point out the obvious: it's a solid deodorant. But the x-ray does not lie, while passengers might, and she's not having anything of me. A little annoyed, I explain that I have just flown in from the US with the same stick, and indeed use the same brand all over the US and abroad, and I've never been stopped before, not even after the ban on liquids. Why, I ask, have I never been pulled over in America? She stoutly shakes her head, fixes me with a stare, brandishes my solid-as-a-brick deodorant with a grip so firm it would have sent any fluid squirting and, with no sense of irony any German has ever been accused of, says: “In Zhermany zis is a likvid.”

I am sputtering. She is considering me with the pitiful look one gives a competition contestant who has participated fairly but has no chance of winning. Finally I play my trump card. I have just flown out of Frankfurt last week with the very same deodorant. “How”, I ask, “is it possible for the same substance to be a solid in Frankfurt but a liquid in Berlin?”

An American security guard would make mincemeat of such an argument, usually by tapping on a gun or offering some other symbolic gesture. Here, however, she stops in her tracks as Teutonic rationality kicks into high gear. She calls over her supervisor. There is a small exchange of whispers. The supervisor finally says, “It's fine”.

Of course, we are not done. The guard must save face. “You vill put zhis in your sealed plastic bag?” I look at the bag. It is already packed to the point of bursting with little containers of toiletries. And even if it weren't, even were it empty, the stick would be far too large to fit into it. But I know the rules of the game we are playing. “Of course!”, I say, make a big fussy motion, and when we are both satisfied that Security has been Enforced, I calmly close my bag and walk away.

Squaring a Chalk Circle

The subway signs are telling. Neatly validating a Wall Street Journal article I'd read on the flight into Berlin, Canada—specifically Alberta—boldly advertises a job fair, no different from any other merchant peddling wares. Berlin? Alberta? But unemployment in Germany, though not visible the way it is in America, remains very real and a much more significant phenomenon.

And yet, amidst this sense of decay, there is the sense of being in a happening place. The German automobile club, next to the major Volkswagen dealership at the heart of Under den Linden (the intersection with Friedrichstraße), advertises a collection of nature photography. It looks like an obvious ploy to con people into visiting an automobile showroom. Sceptical but nevertheless curious, I pop in ready to beat a hasty retreat. But I stay for over an hour, admiring the winners and honorable mentions of the 2006 Europe-wide nature photography competition, being particularly impressed by the subjects, technique and patience of Ingo Arndt. The arts are a serious matter here.

Berlin's past will never entirely disappear. On my last evening, I was walking from Mitte to the Museumsinsel. One route goes through the most statesque parts of Unter den Linden and, just before that, passes the imposing Staatsoper. Berlin, opera, culture—these are the thoughts that occupy your mind as you walk past a pleasant but rather barren little green space between the Opera and Unter den Linden. And then you see the square's place written in that stark black-on-white Fraktur that they use all over the city: Bebelplatz. That's right: seventy years ago, they burned books here. In this, and in so many other respects, the dispatches of William Shirer and his ilk never entirely escape the mind.

But when you finally get to the Museumsinsel, and walk up the dramatic entrance of the Pergamonmuseum, enter, turn right, and right again, and are suddenly in the presence of the Ishtar-Tor. You see the remnants of the azure blue tiles from the wall of Babylon itself, and you have just passed through the very gate Nebuchadrezzar II himself. It is imperial theft, to be sure, and of the very highest order. But then you spend a half hour walking and examining the reconstructed ceremonial pathway approaching the gate and the gate takes quite a bit to impress us Indians, because age is in our blood: old things to others are quite new to us. But once in a while the ancient world can throw up something stunning, and at those moments you are transported, in this case, from the problematic space of Berlin into the pure abstraction of time.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Nettige Hogi

Reading List

Ask for directions, the locals often joke, and the response you will get is, “Nettige hogi”: “go straight”. Even a brief glance at the almost medieval street plan of Bangalore makes it immediately clear that these directions are, at best, wishful thinking.

Buried in these directions, and in my title, is a weak pun. Given the steady barter of vocabulary between English and India's many languages, one can just as easily interpret these directions as “Go to the net”: a Horace Greeley-like exhortation for the Age of Communication. It is a diktat whose enthusiastic adoption has transformed the face of this city more than that of any other in the world, and with it the style—and perhaps, someday, even the substance—of the world's commerce.

I have lived half my life in Bangalore and the other half observing it from various points West. It's fifteen years since I was last in Bangalore. It's so long, in fact, that even the city has found the time to change its name. This is my account of returning in December 2006.

Plus ça Change

Every place changes, but few in history have witnessed anything as explosive as this. Fifteen years ago this was a sleepy metropolis with a nascent technology base. Now it is a city transformed, four times as large, with rich-poor gulfs enlarged to a cosmic scale, its roads choking beyond capacity, five times over.

My parents have moved two blocks in fifteen years, but those two blocks sum up a great deal of what has gone and what remains, and demonstrate how a street's best attraction can become its undoing. Our street used to have a generous sidewalk peopled by large, old trees that provided a leafy canopy for a narrow asphalt strip; a block from home was one of the entraces of Bangalore's greatest gem, the large green lung known as Lalbagh. The street was so unknown that offering its name by way of an address was useless; we instead directed visitors in terms of Lalbagh followed by geometry.

Then something funny happened. The commercial heart of the city, in the M.G. Road area, found Lalbagh directly in the way to the residential heart, in Jayanagar. Routing around this traffic obstacle of a park, the city pushed and pushed at every artery that could grow. Suddenly, those wide sidewalks looked awfully attractive to urban planners. Widening a road is an urban planner's white flag, the surest sign of (futile) surrender; that's precisely what happened to our road. So now it's a short but wide swathe on the map, one of the few in the area to be honored with its name on the map. They needn't have bothered; everyone know its name.

Shock and Awe

I am supposed to be shocked, but I'm not. For fifteen years I've been taking in the reports of visitors, speaking of a city I “wouldn't recognize”. What I did recognize was the tone of horrific awe in their reports: it was the tone of rubber-neckers. That Bangalore's urban planners had no idea how to handle its growth is so obvious as to be not be worth dwelling on; the interesting questions—who could have, should they have done differently, and how one halts not the Nudge but the Shove, the Bitch-Slap, of an Invisible Hand—are rarely discussed in the midst of describing the initial carnage.

I am also supposed to be bitter, and I'm not. I have no business judging the choices of those who had stayed behind; I knew, too, that this high-tech vision is precisely one I would have embraced had I stayed. If Bangalore had indeed changed beyond recognition, as literally everyone I talked to claimed, it seemed best to acknowledge the pattern of these reports in the simplest possible way: treat it as if I were visiting a new place.

The tough symoblic mountain I climbed was buying a travel guide that covered my own home town, the same Rough Guide series I buy for any other country I visit for the first time. I learned nothing from the guide, but it served the purpose of catharsis. I mentally decided to treat Bangalore (more so than the rest of India) as a new place where I just happened to know the languages and much of the street-map. You would easily feel violated if “home” has changed in ways you dislike, but you can't feel that way about a country you've never seen before! The attitude worked wonderfully: I constantly experienced the joys of discovery and rediscovery instead of the ennui, cynicism and judgmentalism of the expat returning home.

Oh, it can be taxing, all right. The streets are choked in internal combustion emissions so thick that my throat rasps and eyes tear, an experience I haven't had since Mexico City. Untrafficked streets on which I rode bicycles (helmetless!) or surreptitiously experimented with the motorized bikes of my friends are now so crowded that to cross them is most akin to playing Frogger, so I must switch to a heightened state of urban metal alertness. Also, our house is on the flight path leading to the Bangalore airport, and every night the lumbering jets coming from and then leaving for Europe pass overhead on finals. With a little effort, I'm sure I could identify the flight numbers from the jets' distinctive sounds. One such jet has just woken me up as I write this sentence, at 2:30am.

But those jets are also the sound of progress, the soundtrack for a city that was previously the poor cousin of India's other urban centers. Its name still does not roll comfortably off the tongue of Air France's crew, the `r' near the end terminating it in a phlemy guttural sound. But they'll have to learn it, won't they? Fifteen years ago a very high-level map of India would print only four cities—Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras—with a large terra nullius stretching down the spine of the country. Now that gap is ably filled by Hyderabad and Bangalore (even as three of the other four have changed their name), and newspapers and magazines speak automatically of the six urban centers, as if it were the natural order of things all along. I see my city's name when I walk through FRA or CDG. I've seen it for some years now, and each time I've felt that check-in counter was beckoning me back. Now I'm home.

What surprises me the most is how little looks different. Traveling along JC Road, for instance, not only are many establishments the same as I remember, but even many of the business signboards haven't changed. As a rough estimate, about 70% of the buildings and businesses are exactly the same; the other 30% are often new, sometimes incogruous (and certainly often inelegant) glass-and-steel erections. So it takes me a few days to understand what has happened. All the change has been chaotically swirling around the city, leaving its heart mostly unaffected (but for traffic). The mental model of what Bangalore is has altered radically, with places previously considered entirely outside town—indeed, at best a day-trip—now considered perfectly normal city subdivisions. So Bangalore has been reimagined, but it is still possible to conceive of the city in its old terms. This might explain my lack of surprise.

Even amidst this stability, some parts are more stable than others. Gandhi Bazaar remains an island of tradition, a stronghold of traditions and values that seem unaffected by its environs. It seems untouched by cynicism, commercial as always but not greedy, and it was the nicest introduction to Bangalore that I could offer Kathi.

Other parts, too, remain untainted. Malavika, Kathi and I attended a Odissi dance recital at Ravindra Kalakshetra, one of the main performing arts halls. The guest of honor held things up, Cell phones came on and off, people photographed freely, and a minister prattled on, without any of the slickness and superiority that characterizes cultural events in the West. The yuppies have their work cut out, yet.

The counterpoint was eating at Sunny's, a favored restaurant of the smart set. The menu was Italian/Western at prices I would not find cheap—and that's on translation into dollars. The food was generic to a level I found startling in a country of such culinary magnificence. But what Sunny's was selling was not food but an experience: the white walls, the air-conditioned insularity that blocked out all street noise, the quiet tinkle of silverware, all the way to the USD 3 Evian bottle on the table—advertising its value for “detoxification”—you were paying for an experience, not a meal. But it would be unfair to be too cynical: we did enjoy the salad, which we'd been missing from our diet, and if I lived in Begalooru, I too might, every so often, need to duck into that therapeutic cocoon. (And indeed, we went there because a friend who'd just suffered a great personal loss needed some peace, for which it was perfect.)

Sizes and Shapes

To everyone who complains about how boundlessly Bangalore has grown, I have a small observation: I swear it's shrunk.

The drive home from the airport was over much sooner than I expected. At first I attributed this to the streets at 2:30am; I'd never done that drive in completely deserted streets. But even while walking around in the daytime, the streets feel much shorter, and intersections much closer, than I ever recall. My mental videos of these streets, I realize, were populated in terms of buildings and other landmarks, not mileage. The older parts of town are much more dense than I ever noticed (being built largely before the advent of wide ownership of automobiles). With half my time away having been spent in Texas, none of this should be surprising, but I'm still startled.

Feelings like this make an extended absence interesting. When someone insists that “After just one year you can see the difference”, as numerous have reported, they mean it—but they can't. The differences my fellow expats refer to are the superficial ones, those you could glean from a statistical gazette. Beyond that, and beyond even the look, it's the feel I want to experience. I am shocked, for instance, at what seemed a long distance to walk when I grew up. I recall once walking home the few miles from school with a friend, and a right-royal event it was; but a few weeks ago, Kathi and I walked over twelve miles in Edinburgh and thought little of it (and, as Mitchell would point out, that's nothing, even for a weighed-down army).

I have a little insight now about transport in Bangalore. The crawl of traffic has, I believe, greatly exaggerated distance in this city: somewhere along the way, I think people fell for the faulty logic, “If it takes an hour just by bus, how much longer would it take on foot?” The superficial solution is to focus on better public transit, higher occupancy, and so on, but I think those issues merely hide a more profound disconnect with distance itself.

Since I love to walk cities, walking Bangalore may be the best way of recapturing it from the automobiles. There is a peculiar horror here about walking, though. Some of it is understandable when you consider the air, but it's not clear sitting in a car is that much better (it's much the same air, innit?), and anyway the tragedy of the commons argument is writ large here. As a friend has pointed out, there appears to even be a revulsion associated with public transport: “If you'd told us you were going to take an auto[rickshaw], we'd have sent over the car!” I know, I know, these are the first flushes of an automotive society, and wisdom can come only with time, not from scolding. But as someone who cares about urban landscapes and mindscapes, it's one of the few issues on which I find it hard to not be judgmental.

Honk if you Love...Noise

India has never been a quiet place, but the cacaphony was so natural growing up, and I have since so entirely forgotten it in the silent West, that it's a renewed phenomenon I am sampling with (for now) joy. The mania for jingles when vehicles back up has not abated here, and part of the fun (which will soon wear thin) is determining whether the three-note muzak rendering is of Jingle Bells. We sleep with our windows open, and the plethora of sounds is simultaneously enchanting and startling. Besides those jets, dogs have been barking away, cars have repeatedly honked down the road to get someone's attention (they got mine, even though they didn't need it), and one neighbor's cell phone rang repeatedly (to the ring-tune of Saare Jahaan se Achcha). Now, at 3:30am, a neighbor's alarm has gone off, and it's taken him a lot longer to wake up than it would have me (but, ah, he's in the shower now...even as another alarm has just sprung to action).

I had also entirely forgotten quite how much Indians use the horn while driving. It's as if an entire sense organ were going to waste, and a technique of traffic navigation arose to exploit this weakness. It's coming back, quickly, the many different meanings of a honk: from “I'm coming faster than you think!” to “Out of my way!” to “I am scooter, hear me roar!” to “I'm just so darn happy to be alive; these notes are my contribution to the cosmic song!”

Amidst the modern sounds are ancient ones. Just as the last flights have gotten out of Bangalore airspace and you've gotten back to sleep, at 5am the muzzein calls begin from across town. It's a complex polyphony, this call to prayer, broadcast from mosques in almost every direction from where we sleep (an increasingly figurative term). Of course they wake you up; that's what they're meant to do! And even as I remind myself to never adopt an organized religion with pre-modern calendrical traditions, I joyously embrace what these sounds spell for the Indian secular experiment. I reason that people who live in fear of their lives for their faith do not take to waking people up by broadcasting it over microphones at 5am, and I am delighted. These are the signs that Amartya Sen should have been looking for. (Or perhaps he should have been listening, not looking.)

It is not the only joyful sign. Several times already I have seen a sight I would not have countenanced fifteen years ago: women driving a two-wheeler with a man riding pillion. It feels to me a remarkable enough sight to be worth the attention. For all the evils of modern society that some Indian commentators focus on, little signs like this paint a much more complete picture. If you want to complain about Indian progress, you'll have to account for this side of it, too.

Courting Disaster

The water here is, of course, undrinkable. I don't know the scientific difference between water in Bangalore and in Mexico City, but (assuming it's small) the cultural difference is enormous. In Mexico, we were told even to brush our teeth with bottled water, and I was consciously aware of that entreaty. Here, I blithely forgot all about it—indeed, never even considered the matter—until Kathi raised the question. That's what happens when you feel like you're back home, I noted mentally. So is Mexico City's water really that much worse, or is this business about brushing with bottled water just American queasiness? Anyone know?

I am, meanwhile, eagerly trying to get ill in other ways too. Well, not exactly, but I am recklessly engaging in unprotected behavior known to be dangerous: I'm eating food from the roadside. I have no doubt that my immune system has lost most or all of its resistance, as I found out when I was diagnosed with a gippy gut in Edinburgh. But then again, I figured, if I could take it on the chin in Scotland, how much more fun it would be over here! So I've blithely been digging into roadside food, much of it not piping-hot (which would render it less prone to bacteria).

The good news is that, at least in my corner of Bangalore, “Indian fast food” is alive and well (well, alive with what—that's the question, innit). Little stalls continue to supply food in volumes, and many more have sprouted, either super-specializing or manufacturing a variety so staggering that the storefronts aren't big enough to feature a board that lists it all. Indeed, the growth of a yuppie middle-class with two-job families has given these a fillip. There is a disturbing side to it, too: when you've just consumed a large volume of fried carbohydrate but used a scooter to get to it and then get away, that's a lot of expanding instead of expending. The health costs of this food revolution are likely to be staggering. That, combined with the state of the air, indicates that Indian healthcare would be a terrific investment sector.

And yet, there is something classically Indian in the survival and growth of these restaurants. Dalrymple reminds us that the Hindu traditions alive in cities like Madurai date back to the same era as ancient Greece or Egypt, even though you will not find much of a worshipper of Zeus or Ra any longer. One could view this as a statement about the conservativeness of India, but really, it's a comment on the malleability of traditions. The most infuriating thing about Indian culture can be its willingness to go with the flow, but equally one of its most admirable traits is its ability to do so. And these restaurants demonstrate that what economists have long labeled the “Indian rate of growth” need not be taken as a natural structural feature: explosive, innovative, self-assertive growth is very much possible, if the regulatory system will permit it and the infrastructure will support it. (“Infrastructure” may be the longest word in common use in India.)


Language is power, language is politics, and language is a dozen other cliches. Language is also confusing.

To take a national pulse, I try to read newspapers of countries I am about to visit. Language is usually a problem (though I did struggle for a month through El Pais), but doubly ought not to be in India. The country features several fine English papers (as well as my beloved Deccan Herald), and of course I ought to be able to read the ones in Indian languages too.

As an aside: Surprisingly, it feels like it's actually become harder to read Indian language papers from the US, owing to font problems. My conjecture is that, seven to eight years ago, font support was so bad that every paper was forced to provide fonts and instructions; now, computer sold in India come cofigured perfectly, but this just makes life harder for those elsewhere.

Back to the point, I've been trying to read Hindi and Kannada documents wherever I can find them. Not surprisingly I'm a much slower reader now. What shocked me, however, was just how slow I seem to have become. I tried to read the Hindi subtitles to the cabin safety announcements on Air France, and couldn't finish the text on most screens before the caption changed.

I figured out what's going wrong. The problem is that so much of this text isn't Hindi (or Kannada) at all: it's English. Especially when it comes to technical material, most of the key terms (“life jacket”) have been transliterated instead of translated. This is just as well (and goes back to the Indian culture of malleability—there are language academies, but a serious attempt to scrub the language would leave the general public laughing all the way to the bank), but it makes for very disruptive reading. You can no longer read a word written in Hindi in Hindi: rather, you have to stop a syllable or two in and ask, “Is this really a Hindi word?” (Because the script is different, you don't immediately recognize the word in the other language, as you would in, say, Spanglish.) Fortunately English sounds different enough that you can soon tell that “something is off”; but then you have to change to a different mode of reading entirely: read each syllable rather than the “whole word”, pronounce the word in your head, then mangle it slightly (since the transliteration is usually of necessity imperfect), repeat until you recognize the English word...then continue. This is taxing business!

I'd love to hook up with a linguist to understand this process better. I'm not up on the theories of phonics, but the time it takes me to read these words tells me that this sounding-out process is not natural to the way we read. I really do feel two entirely different mental processes in action, and it's disruptive to keep switching between them. Presumably, however, content creators wouldn't do this unless they felt their audience was comfortable with their product (at least, one presumes (or hopes!), the flight safety announcements were tested for readability). So why do the natives do much better than I did? What combination of the following is at work: (a) they read all the native script material faster, so they have time to perform this shift; (b) the words in question are routinely written in transliteration, so they may as well be thought of was native language words; (c) they have so much experience performing this shift that they can do it more naturally; (d) again, owing to experience, they're much quicker at recognizing when to shift to reading transliterations; or (e) something entirely different?

One phenomenon that simply made no sense was the transliteration, rather than translation, of names on storefronts and in ads. As for the later, the current cool trend is for using Hindi words spelled out in English, probably causing in the minds of Western visitors the dual of the confusion I describe above (“I know all the letters, but it doesn't spell any English word I know...”). But store signs? And in rural areas??? Sriram Rajamani finally offered a highly credible reason: given the periodic predilection for marauding gangs of language lawyers to deface signboards, this was a kind of insurance. This is only half an explanation, though; it still doesn't explain why they wouldn't just translate them.

One unmistakable linguistic phenomenon is the displacement of Tamil and Telugu by Hindi. It used to be—or so it seems to me—that Tamil and Telugu were much more widely spoken on the streets of Bengalooru. With the infiltration of large numbers of people from the North, however, stores I would never have expected to understand Hindi now do so (at least they understand it; I didn't hear a whole lot of it spoken by the staff).

What is most being lost, sadly, is some of the more absurdly poetic bits of Indian English. The highways have grown up, and in adulthood they seem to have shed their classic exhortations (Speed thrills but kills / Drive slowly live longer) for sensible signs (that are no more obeyed, for that).

Las Vegas, Las Vegas, what has happened? I got respectable and so did you. With pirate battles, jousters and volcanoes, the poor hookers have to dress up like Barney to get any attention.
—Bette Midler, September 5, 1994, returning to play Vegas after 18 years

I am happy to report, though, that the twisted, ritualized, police blotter-like diction of the Deccan Herald remains unchanged, a slightly ridiculous but always comforting buoy on a stormy sea of language.

Prison Cells

I've been reading for years how the developing world successfully leapfrogged the developed world in many respects by simply adopting the latest technologies and avoiding intermediate stages of development. The canonical example of this is the adoption of mobile phones, which avoid the need for cable infrastructure. I am fascinated to see how this will play out in domains like transportation. Bengalooru clearly needs to address its traffic and pollution problem; my guess is that in a short number of years people will simply not tolerate it to the point of voting with feet and wallets, at which point necessity will mother some entirely innovative solution that will also leapfrog the West. (There is a tragicomic intersection between these two realms: parking is so haphazard that a cell-phone is almost a necessity to coordinate such things, or even for an advance party to guide the rest to available spots.)

There is a lesson here. Infrastructure is not only a boon but also a burden, soaking up resources for its maintenance, and those maintainers fighting to preserve their entrenched interests. The lack of infrastructure is painful to live through, but it is equally like a fresh, unmarked lawn inviting people to create their paths through.

In all these ways, it was difficult to not feel a little like being transported back to what the West must have been like in the past. (To have gone to Bengalooru from Edinburgh, in particular, was to be powerfully reminded of Adam Smith.) This is, of course, a fiction: it is a transportation to not one but many pasts, some parts medieval, some parts much like the rise of the Industrial Age (refer to Engels' study of Manchester), some at the rise of the automotive age, and some in a post-wired-communication age. Yet while the overall feel is still somehow in the past, there is also a great sense of compression, as centuries elsewhere have passed in decades or merely years here. (The result can sometimes be comical. How do you respond to this caption: “Gadgets to Suit Your Sunsign”?) So to those who fret about the air and the roads and the water, I counsel patience (and not much of it): stable social change is best achieved bottom-up.

Other kinds of leapfrogging—of marketing—have also occurred here. My AirTel SIM was constantly bombarded with SMS marketing, driving me to anger. I eventually found out that I could text a message to a certain number to stop the spam—only to learn that the stoppage would go into effect just after I left. Sigh.

Speaking of marketing: In the US, soccer has for decades attempted to make inroads, to the extent of paying princely sums to import over-the-hill players, all to little effect. Indeed, each new soccer marketing effort is immediately followed by analysts gleefully predicting just how this one would fail. So India, a country where soccer has never had mindshare (at least outside certain cities like Kolkota), would...avidly follow the European league? Not only is the European soccer news given several inches of newsprint, I even saw ads featuring a fan wearing an England footy scarf—with no explanation, meaning it was a recognized cultural totem. I found the entire phenomenon a bit baffling, and don't know whether this was inspired by the Germany World Cup (or perhaps even just a bubble in the aftermath of that).

A Name by Any Other Name...

So what do I think of this Bangalore/Bengalooru business? My initial reaction was to sigh and experience something closer to annoyance than disgust.

Then, at Tippu's Fort in Srirangapatnam (uh, Seringapatnam), I spent a while studying a Map of Mysore Dominions by one C. Mackenzie, compiled in 1808. I was stunned. It's difficult to imagine a more tin-eared bunch. Barely a single town's name had gone unmolested—and nobody seemed to have realized that the names actually meant something in their native languages, replacing euphonious and even descriptive names with rough approximations of mangled sounds (e.g., the many “durg”s turned into “droog”s). It was when I came across preposterous examples such as “Moolwaggle” and “Sravana Billacull” (locals will—just about—recognize the originals) that I gained a deep sympathy for the cultural cause at play, seeing it for the first time as more than mere jingoism.

(There is something to be said for consistency in these matters. When is the restoration of a name considered reasonable? There seems to be some statute of limitations: if a generation is alive that used the old name, the world sees nothing amiss. Replacing Hungarian names with Soviet ones in Budapest prompted an immediate reaction—and much confusion, not to mention business for cartographers—after the Wall, but this seemed only right: a brutish invader had tried to impose an alien culture and dilute a local one. The British may not have renamed Srirangapatnam after Wellington, but why was the Economist so contemptuous about Bangalore's renaming?)

All that said, there is still something about this renaming that puzzles me. For all the claims that they are recovering the town's historical name (everyone, surely, has now heard the tale of beans), all they've done is substitute the British rendition with the Kannada pronounciation of the town's British name (Kannada doesn't have the `a', so it routinely gets turned into one of two or three close vowel sounds in Kannada; and an old joke goes that you can append `u' to any English word to turn it into Kannada: “banku”, “tanku”, “checku”, “caru”...). So is it chauvinism after all?

A Tale of Two Hotels

There is a new urgecy and optimism, though some cultural commentators also see in it a certain anxiety and nervousness. Some of it may well be that, but there is a new wind of a service economy that is blowing, with communication and tourism, into even the hamlets. The contrast couldn't have been starker between two places we stayed: the Lalitha Mahal Vilas Palace Hotel in Mysore and the Hoysala Village Resort outside Hassan. The former, run by ITDC, the government's tourism organization, is the Old India: people presiding over a decaying monolith, a good number standing around without activity but nevertheless filling the salary rolls thanks to some ridiculously fine-grained division of labor induced by a make-work program. The latter was the New: smiling, optimistic, less saluting and more doing, tacitly hoping to be rewarded for their work than expecting baksheesh.

There were other contrasts. As we were leaving the Palace—to some grumbling from our chauffeur at the terrible state of the facilities for them (to which we could only respond that we hadn't done so splendidly ourselves in a decaying white elephant)—the chauffeur of the car next to us suddenly had an outburst. Don't ever come to such a place, he said. They have no respect at all for his ilk. The hotel is a bit away from town, but there's no respectable food or services, nor is anything priced favorably.

I made a note to quiz drivers thereafter. The next hotel, not surprisingly, fared much better in their opinion (as in ours), though since it was located in city center, that wasn't surprising: the drivers weren't wanting for either company or affordable options.

The Hoysala Village, in contrast, would prove astute about this as well. Recognizing that they, too, were a few miles out of town, they not only provided entire facilies for drivers, but I believe they provided them all their food for free. You wouldn't see a happier group, and you could be sure they were going to recommend the place to every guest they had. I have no doubt the actual cost of this largesse was passed on to the guests, but it was a price I was glad to pay. In retrospect, taking care of the chauffeurs seems like an obvious imperative for a hotelier, but Old India seemed to have missed the trick entirely, and indeed swung to the opposite pole.

On the Make

Nor was such enterprise isolated. One day, I ran into a gas station convenience store (glistening with the sparkle of the new) to grab a bottle of water; even as I stepped in I was greeted, pointed to the water, told the price as I picked it up, and forgiven a rupee of change I didn't have so I could hasten along. It was heady to watch.

Another time, Malavika and I were wolfing through some sort of flavored corn (off the cob) near the entrace of the Garuda Mall. We spilt some on the floor, about which I immediately felt guilty given how spotless the place seemed. As I was about to pick up the bits, however, something induced me to just...walk away and observe from a discrete distance. A few minutes later I saw someone notice it, walk purposefully, and in just under seven minutes a dedicated cleaner had arrived, picked up the bits, mopped the floor, and dried it. That's how you have a spotless mall despite food services all around!

(Not everything can be had for any price, however. While in the Garuda Mall, I sought out a new pair of shorts, but not a single store stocked them. One salesman finally told me, in the slightly sad, patient tone that one reserves for a kind but somewhat dull child: “It is not the season, sir.” It was about 25C/77F outside.)

Even my beloved Lalbagh is experiencing the service economy. I was shocked, the first time I visited, to nearly be denied admission—I had simply never considered taking money for a ticket, and nearly didn't have any. I can only imagine the outcry when they first instituted ticketed entry (though, mercifully, with free admission for the morning walker crowd), and something tells me the Re. 7 fee (about 15 cents US) is a bit steep for the poorest people. But the inside is transformed: cleaned, renovated, and continuously maintained, even better than I remember it.

Of course, it's easy to be too optimistic. Many of the things I write about India today I observed about Hungary when I lived there just after the Wall came down and various freedoms were unleashed. It was an era when McDonald's and Burger King's were the exciting places to work, especially the glamorous stores at the Oktogon and Keleti pályaudvar. That romance has long since been killed by a rather harsh reality. Will this be different?

Perhaps. At some point, of course, the novelty will be pushed out of the way by the drudgeries of life. But something about India's new face feels so organic in its emergence—rather than by “tear down this wall!” fiat—that I am hopeful it will sustain and spread. After all, the 1990s in Central Europe were by definition top-down (owing to the replacement of government), an effect that then needed to trickle down. India's silent revolution is in contrast almost entirely bottom-up (government liberalization notwithstanding, it remains one of the greatest threats to continued growth).

We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves afer a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
—Marcel Proust

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Putting the Portal in Portugal

I'm engaged in my annual ritual of applying for a Schengen Visa. Last year or so, the Schengen countries decided that they will not issue a visa for longer than one year (or so I was told), so the comfort of a multi-year visa in which I had basked was rudely taken away.

Anyway, my first call of entry on this new visa will be Portugal. It's almost enough to make me consider throwing in a weekend in Germany beforehand, just to simplify visa processing. In order:

  • There does not appear to be a standard portal for Portuguese visas.
  • I called the consulate in Providence. I was forwarded to their answering machine. The answering machine replied with an error saying it was not accepting messages. The call went into an infinite forwarding loop.
  • I called the embassy in Washington. I was forwarded to their answering machine. The machine gave me an error signal.
  • I called the consulate in New York. The number had been disconnected with no forwarding number.
  • I finally found a page for the Providence consulate. It:
    • is virtually unreadable in Firefox;
    • is even more unreadable in Konqueror;
    • is entirely in Portuguese.

On this site I finally found a visa application form. It is solely in Portuguese.

Driven to despair, I visited my old friends, the Germans. Happily, the German consulate portal has a nice Web interface with the application form available in multiple languages, including English, and the boxes seem to match up (my loose translation of the Portuguese in some of the boxes corresponds to the English versions). For those I cannot translate, I'm making my best guess based on position.

A word of advice to the Schengen countries. You seem to be worried about population levels, brain-drains, competition, etc. You don't make yourself any more attractive by making it singularly hard for people to visit. This goes doubly for Portugal, which offers tons of information on tourism but none on how to get there.