Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Chapter 1 - NEW BOMBAY

To God's Own Country

A Serendipitous Journey to Kerala through South India

Chapter 1

The huge neon signage strung high above the other subaltern glittering vinyl signs screamed “Centre One.” The brand culture had arrived. The equally loved and hated mall ethos had come to India, tip-toeing on tapered heels, and sporting mannequin looks. “Looking good” never had it so good. Dazzling show windows, high watt lights, shining displays, and strobe-light brilliance was slowly pervading the country of a thousand impoverished villages, where electricity was scarce, why, even non-existent. I was on vacation to “God’s Own Country” and was feeling light. The bus to Kerala was due only after three full hours and therefore I decided to check out centre One, the shopping mall that had opened in New Bombay. I would be travelling through a mostly dark and atavistic landscape punctured by a few touches of modernity in an open bus for the next two days.

If there was a cultural definition to these malls it was, “opulent consumerism.” A burger here cost almost twenty times what the Indian equivalent of it cost on the streets. Yet, burger joints were so crowded that one had to stand in a long queue to be served.

The mall culture was an inevitable consequence of modernisation and the fast sprouting “Call Centres” and “Business Process Outsourcing” companies that had sprung up around New Bombay. New Bombay till then was a cluster of villages ignored by the stealthy march of Indian history. My friend Dalvi has told me that the first man to receive a graduate degree from this area in the 1960s was feted like a celebrity. He also told me that the term “educated” to the inhabitants of this area meant having almost “supernatural” powers of doing arithmetic and speaking a few words of English.

Now the story is slightly different. Ever since it was connected to the island metropolis of Bombay by a railway and road bridge things have supposedly improved. There are more industries to offer employment and more cars and trucks on the road. But along with it came another adjunct of industrialization, the itinerant population of casual labourers who doggedly create slums around the industries they serve.

There is a darker side to New Bombay. In the Thane-Belapur industrial belt of New Bombay, disintegrating factory sheds, rusting chemical plants, and forlorn chimneys stand witness to the once-thriving manufacturing industries. No more. Now the unemployed workers from these factories crowd around the Turbhe area looking for work. Their bosses find it easier, and far more profitable, to open an outsourcing unit to contract lowly clerical jobs from western countries.

These companies outsource routine phone call services to young Indians who are trained to speak in the Western accent. They are also given food coupons; pick-up and drop from their homes and a better than average salary in return for working mostly in the night shift. These workers sacrifice sleep to get work ready for American executives when they report for work the next day. The payback is substantial, by their standards, sometimes, even thrice the salary that a company in another sector would pay. However, this didn’t even work out to a quarter of the salaries in the land of Uncle Sam. The concept is called “twenty-four/seven” and means work done twenty-four-hours, all seven days of the week, a backup service, sort of.

The result was that a lot of jobs were generated and the youth were attracted like, forgive the cliché, bees to honey. The pay is more than that for traditional jobs, and there is money to buy that snazzy motorbike, so, what’s wrong with working at night? There were initial murmurs of protest but economic necessity overran these hesitations. I asked this of Prashant who works in such a Call Centre. Prashant, aged twenty-three, is the elder of two children of working parents. “The pay isn’t bad. All my friends are from secure family backgrounds, and we see this as a way of making some pocket money.” I ask him if he wanted to make a career of it. “No, this is just a temporary arrangement.”

In the early seventies seeing the congestion that was going to result from the expansion of the island city of Bombay, the government had taken over cultivable land from farmers in the villages in Thane that is now New Bombay. It then developed housing estates and societies on this land to decongest the burgeoning Bombay metropolis. Well, the metropolis had been rotting for some time due mainly to the sickness of Bombay’s fabled textile mills. According to an article in the news portal one thousand people enter Bombay every day to make it their permanent home. Labour was in abundance.

I am, at this point, travelling to Kerala – God’s Own Country – for my summer vacation. My wife and son have preceded me. My first choice was travelling by train. But getting a train ticket was as difficult as an Indian winning the Olympic gold medal. I am told that people who manage to book a ticket in the summer peak season even go to the temple to break a self-congratulatory coconut. Sorry, joking. Even after booking two months in advance my reservation wasn’t confirmed. Not even a reservation against cancellation, which would have allowed me a seat, not a berth to sleep. I am not particularly fond of the general compartment – a rough way to travel – where there would be people sitting on suitcases in the aisle.


Travelling to Kerala, the southernmost state of India, steeped in its religious practices and customs has always been a matter of great trepidation and tension for me. As if in conformity with the name “God’s Own Country” the state is a grand spectacle of various religious festivals and events. What was it that attracted the religiously inclined to this state ruled by left-leaning atheists? At any time in the year there would be thousands of devotees going to Kerala to attend holy shrines and divine programs. One such is the flow of Ayyappan pilgrims visiting Sabarimala Temple, another is the influx of Christians to the aptly named Divine Nagar to attend the Christian healing and resurgence movement taking place there. Yes, Divine Nagar, or, Divine City, is the name given to the railway station nearest to this facility. Train seats would be fully reserved on the day bookings opened, and people do not mind queuing overnight at stations to be assured of a confirmed ticket.

So, since train tickets weren’t available, I decided to go by bus. I generally like bus travel. By travelling in a bus I would be crossing not only boundaries but epochal cultural zones demarcated by archaic traditions, which have survived thousands of years. The journey would be the telescoping of several eras, in which Kerala would be the ultimate frontier, the land that has only been discovered recently by tourists. In today’s world Kerala would be an anachronism in that it still clung steadfastly to its religious and cultural roots. Karate is said to have originated here, snakes are still worshipped here, and farming is done by man and animal. The charges for the journey would be prohibitive, almost double, as the operators were savvy business people who would hike rates during the rush season. Need a ticket? Yes, of course you can be assured of one, if you are prepared to pay.

I would be travelling on the Bombay to Bangalore stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral – the highway connecting the four metropolises of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and Madras. I had only read about this project and wanted to check it out. Bombay would be linked to Madras via Bangalore, and Madras would be linked to Calcutta in the east. Then the road will loop from the east to Delhi in the north. That would mean all four major cities of India would be covered at the four ends of the Golden Quadrilateral.

The scheme was grand, no doubt. By following the trail described above by bus, I would be able to take in the sights and sounds of India. I wanted to do this for a long time. Besides, that was how the great travel writers of yore – Marco Polo, Fa Hien and Hien Tasang – travelled; on caravans, along silk routes, on camels and ponderously moving mule trains. The romance of travelling on the dusty land route of Central and South India was what I wanted to capture on camera and write about. I have a digital camera that fits snugly into the pocket of my photographers’ jacket, and used it liberally during my perambulation through the south Indian states. I wanted to record the smells, the foods, the dialects, and the culture of the states that I passed through.

Al Barunia – a trader from Arabia – had visited Malabar in circa 1000 AD. He wrote about Buddhist influences in Kerala during that period. In fact, Buddhism is the only religion that didn’t take firms roots in God’s Own Country, despite the state’s warmth and hospitality towards all religions. It was a son of Kerala – Adi Shankaracharya – who had revived Hinduism when it was fighting for survival against the spread of Buddhism. At that time Buddhism was at its peak and this Malayali, Shankaracharya, established his unique Advaita philosophy of Hinduism that held the onslaught of Buddhism in check. But more of that later!

King Solomon is supposed to have traded with a land called Ophir. Now, Ophir is believed by scholars to be a corruption of Poovar in South Kerala or Beypore in North Kerala. Another travel writer Ibn Batuta – from Africa – wrote about the port cities of Kollam and Kozhicode, both busy trading ports on the coast of Kerala facing the Arabian Sea. A Dutch traveller named John Neuhoff also wrote a travelogue on Kerala in 1664. My objective was to script my basic impressions of the journey to Kerala as a son of its soil now residing outside it. This is a general travelogue and is by no means a specialized treatise on India or the state of Kerala.

The time was opportune. The world was beginning to discover Kerala and its immense verdant charm. I read somewhere that Kerala is the world’s fastest growing tourist destination, a virgin territory waiting to be explored. Moreover, in my humble opinion, travel books – the dog-eared thick monsters that backpackers fancy – deprived travelling of its biggest attraction, serendipity.

With time on my hands I gave my bags to the care of the travel agent, Mookambika Travels. I was feeling light as my vacation was just beginning. A sense of adventure and expectation prevailed. I could have waited at the travel agent’s office; instead, I decided to visit Centre One. Well, the adventurer in me was seeking out excitement, things I could record, make note of, for something I had in mind, this account, for instance.


I entered the cool neon-splashed interiors of Centre One a blast of cold air hit me. The mall was humming. Soon I was sucked into the vortex of a supposedly booming consumer economy. A mother was shouting angrily to her daughter, “Venda, venda, venda, no, no, no,” in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. Probably she translated her words for the benefit of curious bystanders like me. She looked sheepish as she did so. Then she said something equally hilarious to the insistent child, “Ninne jyan kandolam, wait till we get home, I will give you a thrashing that you will never forget.” The middle class tendency to flaunt their knowledge of English was painfully obvious, as she warned her daughter of a thrashing in a distinctly Malayali accent.

Did I hear right? The first part of the sentence is Malayalam, and the second part is English. I know. English rules the heart of every Indian. It seems most Indians speak in a local language and immediately translate themselves into English. So, “Udhar jayega tho, you will get it cheaper,” said in a deadpan Bombay accent is the accepted way of speaking here.

When such a diverse country was thrown together after independence from British rule, which language did they seek out to understand what each other said? The language Nehru used to deliver the “Freedom at Midnight” speech – English. However, what the lady speaks is definitely a curious mixture, a concatenation of languages. That too, with a pronounced Malayali accent. As an inevitable corollary of malls, American pop culture - the language of the streets – is also invading the metropolis.

Probably all she wanted was to window shop as I did, wander about, taking in the ambience. After all, this was new to us, the deprived people of this industrial pseudo city – New Bombay. My eyes goggled with the sudden razzle-dazzle of the mall. Outside was dusty, dirty, and unsparingly hot. Inside music was playing, and many shops were selling computers. Raffles and lucky draws were drawing curious onlookers. Money, competition, the need to look good and dress flashily must have been uppermost in the minds of the mostly young crowd that hung around me. There was a bewildering procession of cute-looking Indian girls – their roundedness, pertness, and coquettishness maddening to say the least.

Center One was huge. Three floors of shops with a glass ceiling and escalators and elevators, made it look like a Singaporean shopping mall. I had been to Singapore in the eighties. This looks much like Singapore in the eighties, with the fast food stalls, girls with neatly made-up faces and straight ironed hair looking blankly attractive. Singapore then and now must have changed a little; the malls must have become a bit more glitzy. But this piece of land I am standing on now was, till just a few years ago, exactly as it must have been for several million years.

After all, what was the purpose of this consumerism mantra of buy, buy, buy? Indians were known to be conservative with money, and the thing uppermost in their minds would be to save enough to retire after leading a full life. India once had one of the highest savings rates in the world. Not anymore. I have read about “money velocity” somewhere and – naïve as I am in these matters – I guess it is the speed at which money comes in and goes out without touching ones wallet. I work in a knowledge processing outsourcing unit, a more dignified version of a business process outsourcing unit, and my salary would go into paying various instalments and bills for the loans I have taken.

Needs are infinite and multiplying and in this mall I was witnessing a mad scramble to keep up with a desired lifestyle, the ones touted by the advertisement of a well-dressed dude in a trendy jacket and tie that I saw when I entered the mall. Sadly, given the hot climate, hardly anyone wore such clothes in India except, perhaps, at a wedding.

There were people everywhere, this being a Sunday. People hung from the balconies facing the atrium, just wandered around gawking, talking, with a sheepish smile on their faces. Eyes regarded, met, and gave that awkward smile. Maybe, they wanted me to think that they belonged here.

A father was saying emphatically to his brood of several gawky children in Gujarati, again, almost simultaneously translating every word into English, “Sirf joyiye, only seeing, nathi levano, no buying.”

Why this aversion towards buying? Where was the great myth of the middle classes’ conspicuous consumption sung in the media? Were all those crowing about a market about to explode with consumerism all marketing fluff? There, I confess, I may be exhibiting the cynical side of me – a distinctly Malayali trait.

Why were they here if they weren’t going to buy? Were they like me, a spectator? Or, were they fooling the marketers of designer couture, watches, expensive-looking luggage, diamond jewellery, the designer stuff that the media was splashing across its pages in this burgeoning middle-class enclave where there was a concentration of call Centres and software parks? Was this just the greed of the multinational corporations?

When call Centres are here, were malls and fast food far off? Not that I know of. I watched the unformed girls at the pizza and burger counters doing business with a practiced impatience. I remember that when Macdonald’s opened its first outlet in Bombay my then boss had sent an employee to buy burgers all the way from South Bombay. The employee returned in the night, after waiting several hours in queue.

I wandered around. There was that sleek-looking tummy trimmer, just right for my bulge around the middle. I entered. A salesman popped up from nowhere. He began demonstrating the machine. I wasn’t sure if I should do a couple of extra push ups or buy this expensive toy that would hog space in my modest house.

“Is this the same you advertise on television?”

“Yes, it is.”

“How many have you sold so far? I mean, here in New Bombay?”

“None. Till now.”


“People come, ask the price and go away.”

My jaws fell. I looked awkwardly at the machine and then back at the eager salesman. Then epiphany strikes; I was going to do the same. Now I knew the reason for the sheepish looks. People were here only to look, just as the mother who said, “No, no, no.” I had company.

Non-shoppers were crowding the railing enclosed balcony of the massive atrium just staring down at the people milling below. Throbbing music was playing and a few stalls were loudly announcing some contests.

“I will drop in later. Now I am busy, travelling, you know. I work around here,” I heard myself saying to the salesman. I know how he must feel. I was a salesman once, and had felt the similar tightening of the guts when a sale didn’t happen.

He nodded as if he had second-guessed my intentions. I assume he knew my game. He had seen enough people saying and doing what I had done. I too felt embarrassed. It was a bit like sinning. Buying that tummy trimmer, I mean. You dither a lot and after you buy one, you totally lose interest in it. Then you begin craving after the latest model, say a tummy trimmer and a cycling machine in one. This is exactly what is happening in developed countries. To keep up with the Joneses you succumb to materials, and what sneaks into your conversation is what to buy and where and how much to pay. After you have bought everything there is to buy, you feel empty, because you can’t buy a new you, or, a new life. This is my considered opinion about consumerism.

Then I understood that coy smile I saw on the faces of the people around me. Co-conspirators - they are thinking the same thing. Should I sin? Should I buy that fancy watch? Can I afford it? They weren’t here to buy but to ask the price and go away. Where was all the money they were talking about? Then I understood the Malayali woman’s stern admonition of, “Venda, venda, venda, no, no, no.” She is saying that more to herself than to her daughter.

Indians are very shrewd in matters of money. They know, especially their women, when a product is genuine and have a sixth-sense about being duped. As a joke goes, the old pyjama is turned into a new pillow cover; the old pillow becomes a new cloth bag, and the old cloth bag transforms into a new duster. Wait, it doesn’t end there, the old duster becomes a new kitchen utility, the wiping rag. Such is the Indian ingenuity employed in recycling. There clearly is not the type of impulse buying I saw in developed Asian economies like Singapore.

The top floor, named Food Court, has a children’s amusement rink with, maybe, a million rubber balls into which children are diving and enjoying themselves. An attendant, a girl, stood forlornly watching the kids with a bored look. Clearly, she wasn’t enjoying her job. The children squeal around the girl, who watches impassively, hating every moment of her job.

Ah! Here comes the escalator. The escalator experience is something, really. Women and children are scared to step on this “moving ladder.” They should be. Their saris, salvars, pajamas could get caught and shredded to pieces. So there is a female attendant near every escalator to help women. How very nice and thoughtful.

A few months ago a salesman was caught ogling through a neat hole drilled in the changing room, at a girl who was trying on a dress at of these shops. The hoopla took months to settle! There were television and newspaper coverage. Suddenly, footfalls fell in the mall. The matter was hushed up and the mall was back in business again.


Just a few years ago New Bombay was a hick town when I had moved into it. Now there are big malls, multiplex movie theatres, and a booming call centre crowd wearing low-rise jeans. This attire is that deplorable variation of the American work wear that shows the underwear worn beneath. A friend had seen the same fad in Spain which he had recently visited. It was amazing how trends, pioneered by pop singers and teenage cult icons were transmitted so fast across nations. So low-rise, actually, never rose beyond the crotch area and should have been renamed low-descent jeans, or something more appropriate.

In my college days a display of underwear would have been sacrilegious and the wearer would have been ribbed endlessly. But now, showing underwear is akin to “having attitude” which means getting away with it. Just like saying, “Hey, don’t mess with me, I have an attitude.” But I may be growing old; I am on the wrong side of forty.

I ogled some more at the denizens of the call centre jungle. They all talked in loud voices and put-on accents. After all, with headsets clamped to their ears for hours they lose some of their hearing. I have read somewhere that nearly deaf people talk loudly.

The Food Court has a huge area running around the upper floor of the mall. This area is full of burger and coffee shops, and gaming franchisees, and it seems to be the most popular part of the entire mall. There are couples around and I remember that these fast food joints are actually dating places. Not a seat is vacant and people regard me and the bag around my neck and are thinking. Well, they are actually staring. I stare back.

I have always hated Bombay crowds. They frighten me. The unassuming man standing next to me could be a contract killer for all I know. But I guess that’s a characteristic of cities everywhere. But over there killers come in vehicles, spray bullets and run. Here killers even come in public transport and do their crime and melt into the crowd.

Is Bombay dying from overcrowding, violence and moral corruption? There are people entrenched on both sides of the fence. However, allowance must be made to one thing. Every year a few days of continuous rain completely paralyses the city, rendering life as citizens know it, impossible. The authorities do not know how to deal with the situation. Innovation and modernization are practically unknown.

Cities die and civilization takes its paraphernalia elsewhere. So, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a great city sustaining its greatness over a period of time. Pompeii was destroyed by a volcano; Harappa and Mohenjodaro by the insidious passage of wars and history. If ever Bombay was to be destroyed, most likely, by a flood or a tsunami, New Bombay, or, even Pune would take over, I am sure.

As I came out of Centre One, I saw a restive crowd in front of me. The not unusual standing on toes and asking, “What happened?” This isn’t the normal indolent crowds on the way home from a day in the office. I conjecture, from the expression on their faces that something unusual has happened. This forced communication, the raised decibel levels, the honking of cars, the sea of eyes boldly making contact, this mutiny of noises is what unnerves me about Bombay.

What’s that crowd of people looking at?

“What happened,” I heard myself ask.

Writer VS Naipaul, that sporadic chronicler of India from the eyes of an alien, had written about the “incipient crowd” present on every Indian street. He is right. This was one such, people gawking, interested, involved, a lynching mob waiting to dispense instant justice. I am told that if there is an accident the driver abandons vehicle and flees for life, afraid of this dispensing of instant justice. Law is instantly framed, legislated, and dispensed in the time it takes to say “Your Honour.”

My curiosity was awakened. I have seen such mobs beat up drivers. Truth to say, such mobs exist even in inconspicuous Indian town. Such “mob power” is the only deterrent against crime, in a worsening law and order situation. The law enforcers are mainly deploying their resources to protect those in power. The government statistics on crime is no indication of this decline, as many a time the police refuses to record a crime, for fear of it being a poor reflection on their policing.

A woman shouting at a man in a car, and a crowd of people standing and gawking around them. Then I notice this: It was not a fight between driver and pedestrian but between driver and another driver. A car had grazed another car entering the mall’s parking lot. I could see the dent clearly. The man was at fault as he had cornered more than his share of the narrow passage leading to the parking lot.

As I joined the crowd I saw a woman in a stretched leotard and tee-shirt getting out of her car, her ponytail oscillating like a clock’s pendulum, and walking impudently towards the man in the car. I am still dazed by what happened after that. Frankly, I am amazed even now when I think about it. She caught the man by the collar of his tee-shirt. He sat there in a daze, cowering, and bewildered. His wife sat stoically beside him. As I watched this horror or a horror situation, the pony tailed woman yanked at his tee-shirt, the material rented, and a piece of it hung loosely from his neck. And then she slapped him.

I got closer. I was interested in the proceedings. The ponytail was shouting as I listened hard above the roar of traffic. The crowd was also listening, interested, and inquisitive. Was this woman power at its peak, the unleashing of goddess Durga’s wrath?

I heard her saying something that sounded more than a bit clichéd. “It is because of people as you that this country is like this.” She glared at the man. The crowd gawked some more and shifted restively expecting some free dramatics. I don’t know what exactly she meant but this is what I heard. Maybe, she was holding the distraught man responsible for all that had gone wrong with the country.

The man looked stung, and humiliated beyond words. But his reply confirmed her allegation. He was saying to his wife, “What does she think of herself? I know the deputy commissioner of police,” and turning to the woman said, “Wait I will show you who I am.”

He was admitting guilt.

True, men like him who claimed to know Police Commissioners was the reason the country was inextricably mired in corruption. Graft had become so institutionalised that people like this man took it for granted. A man had bought a legal stamp paper printing machine from the press, printed stamp papers, and sent executives selling these papers, in collusion with unscrupulous law-enforcers. The man is now in jail. But it took jealousy and petty rivalry for personal reasons to expose this graft, not genuine vigilance and policing. Rules and laws were for the deprived. Smart people, such as this clown, for instance, were firmly entrenched in a network of cowardice and graft.

“Hey what you will show, eh? Police commissioner, your police commissioner be damned. Is it your baap ka raaj? Is it your father’s domain?” The woman asked.

“Does it belong to your father, then?” The man retorted.

Such aggression, such naked aggression! I wondered why from Medha Patkar, the political activist, down to Teesta Setalvad, the journalist and activist, women are the public face of protest and the voice of sanity in a society numb to its own malaise. I would witness first hand a disturbing progression of corrupt practices during this journey, which I have tried to catalogue in this account.

The wife of the man with the torn tee shirt became quite upset at this and mumbled something to her man. If I could lip read correctly that transliterated to, “Shut up, it was your mistake.”

The spectacle somehow came to an abrupt end when two policemen appeared from nowhere and began shooing away the reluctant crowd of onlookers. Bombay policemen are know to be “fashionably late” when arriving at the crime scene. I suspect both of them may have been enjoying a round of gossip when they should have actually been on duty directing traffic.

I remember having wondered then about how many such incidents take place on Indian roads. A driving license was easy to obtain and there were traffic illiterate drivers making driving hell on Bombay’s roads. After only around twenty days’ training I was able to obtain my driving license. The issuing officer did not even test my skills properly. Often the only deterrent to rash driving in India was the instant justice meted out by the executive and judiciary of Indian roads – the public.

I guess the man in the tee-shirt got off lightly.


superclosetnerd said...

I have a stone fireplace site and was suprised to find your site and it has given me some good ideas for mine, cool. :)

Shynil Hashim said...

very interesting and insightful John. Keep it going.