On visiting India after 9 months

Nine months is the longest stretch of time that I’ve spent outside India. When you leave a country, it’s fossilised in your memory as you left it. For example, the Indian cricket team might have had a miserable summer in England last year and an even more disastrous (if such a thing was even possible) tour of Australia, but to me they remain the champions who won the world cup less than a week before our departure.

The flight to Delhi from Schiphol is a direct flight for us but for the majority of people boarding the plane, it’s a connection from Canada or US. The wailing infants, the oversized bags which people possibly cannot fit in the overhead bins, that sense of entitlement to two handbags, those heated arguments about seat selections — in a way you are in India the moment you are onboard the flight. By the time the security queue cleared up and we got to board, the overhead bins above our seats were already overflowing. Indignant, but thankful for living in times where what would’ve been a long, possibly perilous sea voyage is now a mere nine hour journey home, we slid our backpacks under our cramped seats and buried ourselves in the inflight magazine. My enthusiasm for visiting India had already begun to fizzle out.

The announcements at Delhi airport are in Hindi and English. It’s a pretty unremarkable fact except that this was the first airport in many days where I could understand the announcement in as many languages as they’d make them in. I was already suffering from the cognitive overload of being able to understand all that was being spoken around me. I’d love to learn Dutch, but for now I am quite content not being able to understand a single word of the conversation that goes around me inside the trams. The problem with coming home to a language you understand is that little snatches of other people’s conversations, those little details of other peoples’ lives begin to overwhelm you.

In developed west, they try to automate a task to the point where you don’t need people to do it. Whether it’s the numerous ticket vending machines or the automated check-in kiosks at Schiphol, the emphasis is on cutting humans out of the equation. It’s quite the opposite in India. Every little task is an opportunity to generate jobs. In the men’s loo, a uniformed member of the airport staff stood next to the paper towel dispenser handing the paper towels enthusiastically to every person who’d wash hands. On learning of this new development the wife remarked — “be glad you didn’t see people sitting in chairs next to travelators going mind your step’”. I won’t quite put it outside the realm of possibility.

Apparently, well-meaning members of the airport staff randomly take suitcases off the conveyer belt and pile them at a corner somewhere. It was a bit infuriating to find out that our suitcases were the lucky ones to be selected. After over 45 minutes of waiting, you are apparently expected to discover these things on your own by overhearing other people concerned about non-arrival of their suitcases.

As I paid for our taxi home, I realised that I was subconsciously performing the calculations from Euro to Rupees in reverse. Nine months ago everything in Amsterdam seemed exorbitant, the mathematics when done in reverse, makes things at home seem reasonably priced. The wife always thought I was bit of a generous tipper and a positive side effect was that my tipping no longer seem anything out of ordinary this time — I suspect she was doing the reverse math too.

The coinage seems to have become even more confusing. I cannot reliably tell the older 50p coin from the new 1 ₹ coins or the older 1 ₹ coins from the new 2 ₹ one. Some of the newly minted 5 ₹ coin look and feel a bit like the new 1 ₹ coin. There was a new 10 ₹ coin that is visually quite distinct and looked a bit like inverted’ 2 € coin.

The 10 ₹ coin looks a bit like ‘inverted’ 2 €The 10 ₹ coin looks a bit like ‘inverted’ 2 €

I have not exactly been fond of Delhi. It’s a city my parents chose to settle down in and there is nothing I can change about that. So I put up with it like one courteously puts up with a difficult colleague at work.

Somehow the city seems a little more rundown each time I visit it. The traffic seems a little worse (we were stuck in a jam, boxed in by trucks at 1:00 AM owing to a minor roadside dispute that was being settled in typical raucous Delhi style with profanities involving families of the parties concerned). The autos seem even harder to come by. The buses are as erratic as ever. It never registered before, but 9 months of using public transport all over Europe made me realize the bus stops in Delhi never had timetables. If you are lucky they’ll have an up-to-date route numbers printed somewhere. The metro thankfully remains fast and efficient. Though some routes are bursting to seams. You don’t get Mass in the Mass Rapid Transit till you sit in Delhi metro on a route involving Connaught Place.

I took a ride in the metro to Gurgaon this time. I had been recording the metro announcements in Prague and Rome and assigning the voices of announcers a persona. I decided to play this little game in Delhi too. The persona I’ve settled on is newsreader’:

Ghitorni’ is probably the most unusual station name I’ve heard anywhere. It sounds like a word that you’d bludgeon someone with. The announcer in English seems to say it with a disdain one reserves for foul things in life.

I was particularly thrilled at seeing Qutub Minar from the metro stations. It was not entirely dissimilar to thrill of seeing the Eiffel Tower during our metro rides in Paris.

And far in the horizon you can see Qutub MinarAnd far in the horizon you can see Qutub Minar

They never seem to run out of excuses to dig up Connaught Place. It used to be Metro earlier and this time it was the laying of the underground gas pipelines (or is it a new parking?).

Connaught Place - losing its sheen?Connaught Place - losing its sheen?

I am sure the malls were taking the sheen away from Connaught Place even without help from Public Works Department. Back in early 2000, Ansal Plaza was the closest thing Delhi had to a mall. The malls I visited this time in Vasant Kunj, Saket and Gurgaon could’ve been anywhere in the world (that it’s the same handful of brands that we see everywhere add to this illusion). Sure there were occasional fit-and-finish blemishes that gave it away (wires sticking out of the walls in some corner, floor that had marble sanctioned for it but never saw it and so on), but overall they are a glitzy, air-conditioned world cocooned away from the harsher realities outside.

One of the Delhi mega mallsOne of the Delhi mega malls

The food remained a highlight of the visit. Mom still cooks paranthas and gajar halwa to die for. And Delhi is still the best place for chaat. On many occasions though, I found the food a little overwhelming. Much like the city — too much was happening at the same time.

I’ve never been able to explain my fascination for Bangalore. There is a certain calm that descends over me each time I land there. It’s the city where I came of age (though the wife will assure you that no such thing has ever happened) and can truly call my own. What I didn’t know was if I’d be able to call it a home. I rented a flat for the entire stretch of 9 years I spent there and I can’t go back to it. Save for a handful of close friends and wife’s sister, I have no other connection whatsoever to Bangalore.

Traffic in Bangalore was nothing I was unprepared for. Actually, it was already in such a bad shape when we left, that it couldn’t possibly have gotten any worse. It seemed a little warm for this time of the year but the constant, gentle, cool breeze was always at hand.

Some of my regular haunts had closed down - I particularly missed the Crossword at Residency Road. Blossom continues to, well, blossom. Their collection of second-hand books is as dusty, musty and disorganised as ever. They are trying to catalogue the books in the shop but it’s not very reassuring to search with software that is riddled with typos (Author is spelled as Auter, Title as Titel). All the books I tried to locate were for some reason filed under Humor.’ After half an hour of looking around I just stopped looking for books I wanted to read and instead spent time browsing for random books I might like to read. I guess that is the proper thing to do in a second-hand bookshop.

My barber was still around and I couldn’t have come back without a haircut. I was recognised and promptly given my brand of short from sides, but medium in the middle’ cut.

Konark at Residency Road still does idlies from heaven. They were piloting a tablet based ordering system where your orders are directly beamed to the kitchen. It looked cool, but I am not entirely sure if it has changed anything (they continue to have two sets of waiters — one that take the order, and the other that bring it from the kitchen to your table).

The malls that had opened while I was still in Bangalore seemed a little worn already. The multiplexes, on the evidence of the only movie I watched (The Descendants), seemed a little worse-off too. The screen at INOX in Garuda had scratches that were clearly visible. The sound system had a very audible electric hum that stayed with us all through the movie. And we are so used to seeing movies with Dutch sub-titles now, that our experience seemed strangely incomplete without them.

The trip wouldn’t have been complete without a ride in the Bangalore metro. It opened in October last year and as of now just covers 6 stations on a single line. It’s still new and small enough to be more of a tourist attraction. The signage and announcements were in 3 languages (Kannada, Hindi and English). Our ride from MG Road to CMH Road definitely took less time and money than autos would have and on the basis of that one ride alone, I am tempted to declare it a success.

Overall, I had a much better time in Bangalore than I did in Delhi. But I am not sure if I can call it home any longer. In fact, I am not sure what that thing called home is, let alone know where it is.

P.S. The wife has summed up the visit in her own inimitable way.

February 12, 2012