Do you speak English?

Q: “Do you speak English?”

Probable Answer : “Yes i do, but I rather not”

How often have you heard or asked this now ubiquitous question? So many times that you do not raise an eyebrow when you are asked this question, you just come out with a pre-programmed, polite ‘Yes, of course’ and shoot away. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 5 years, and during the first couple of years (thanks to my non-existent German knowledge) unabashedly used this question thousands of times. But after two years, the Swiss took out a referendum with the topic ‘Brijesh should learn German’. All the supermarket & railway employees working in my hometown (whom i had tormented with this question) approved it in a blink of an eyelid. Thus I was went down the path of taking a crash course in German, after which my propensity to ask this question has reduced by the same factor that the Indian cricket teams ability to play well in overseas matches has increased (which, given our respective past ineptness in both these situations is quite an achievement)

But today, I was asked this question (almost like a celestial plotted revenge) and it literally stopped me in my tracks. It came from such an unexpected source that irony of the situation was staggering. I had the pleasure of calling up the Indian embassy in Switzerland to clarify some details about a passport renewal question. Now, they have copious amounts of information on their sometimes quite helpful, sometimes infuriating website. So whether i really needed to call them to clarify is opens up a debate about the web designer’s ability to present all the information logically or my inability to comprehend that information. Anyway … so I call them, after navigating through a million options, i manage to convince the recorded voice on the telephone that she cannot answer my queries and I really need to talk to a human being. The phone rings (for what seems like an eternity to me), and a lady picks up the phone with a polite, slightly Indian accented “Good afternoon Indian Embassy”.

On hearing these words, a sudden wave of nationalism floods over me, and i break out in Hindi trying to explain what i want to know. As I finish my sentence, there is silence on the phone. Puzzled, I say “Hello” … the same voice answers back “Hello sir, Do you speak English?” I instinctively start to repeat my question in English, but something tells me to stop. Hang on a minute … I am calling the Indian Embassy here. They represent India in this country. The least that I can expect is to be able to talk in my national language … is that asking for too much? The critics among you will immediately retort back that there are close to 16 officially recognized languages in India. But for crying out loud, you expect to be able to converse in the official language of your country when dealing with your country’s embassy. A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to deal with the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. You will be damned to find any other language spoken or written there except Turkish.

But of course, as I noted in a post a few days back, we Indians are different and (i think) almost take pride in not communicating in Hindi. Ok, maybe I am being too hard here, that lady could have been from anywhere in Eastern or Southern India, where Hindi is not that prevalent. But for god’s sake, as the first contact point for anyone calling the embassy … is this acceptable?

Thanks to experiences like this, i can completely empathize with people in India, who bemoan the passing away of out national image & culture. Do we show our nationalism only by observing the national holidays as a day off, dressing up in an Indian dress for a phot opp on a festival or by getting worked up over the India-Pakistan issue? Isn’t the ability to communicate in a common official language the lowest common denominator of nationalism?

Maybe I am just plain wrong or brewing up a storm in a chai-cup. Though I hope I can make my case again on Saturday after India has won the Cricket world cup. At that time, when a wave of euphoria and nationalism is sweeping over the nation, the time might be right to take up this issue again. But chances are no-one will be listening then, as everyone will be busy celebrating . (…… by drinking Aussie beer???)

The great cultural sponge

This is a definite entry for the next Guinness book of world records. The biggest sponge in the world – India.

No, the reason is not the ubiquitous pot belly or layers of fat a typical Indian middle-aged man or woman proudly sports, the ‘softness’ that Indian government displays in dealing with it’s ‘friendly’ neighbors or the way most Indian sportsmen wilt away when faced with slightest amount of aggression shown by the opposing team. It  is the way we Indians have the ability to absorb any cultural influence thrown our way, and make it our own.

A perfect example of the above was a dinner that we attended yesterday. Here we were, 3 Indian couples sitting around a table in a pretty little town in Switzerland,  and some of us were talking in varying levels of American and British accented English, without a word of Hindi in sight for miles around. While the lack of Hindi is not a commendable characteristic, but it certainly epitomizes the urban India so precisely and spectacularly. But why the hell were we talking in accented English anyway. Since we are in Switzerland, shouldn’t all of us have developed the peculiar guttural throaty way of speaking most Swiss have. Well my kids are getting there, especially when conversing with their local friends, where their vocal chords suddenly turn into massive grinding gears and which utter all kinds of guttural sounds whenever encountered with a word containing ‘k’ , ‘ch’ or ‘kh’. Thankfully they have the ability to switch back to a more ear friendly normal Hindi or English while conversing with us.

So coming back to the American accent – the culprit (if one may make such a strong reference) was the couple we met for the first time, who have spent the best part of their life in good old united states of America. But what led them to develop this accent, they were not raised there, it was only the last 20-25 odd years they spent there. Was it a need to blend in, prove that they belong? No – It was just the natural thing to do, they inadvertently and unconsciously started to adapt their accent to the local scene. What was even more interesting was the other couple who we know very well, have no discernible trace of a foreign accent, would start to roll their R’s a hundred times over while talking to them, and would revert to their ‘normal’ accent when they would turn to us. Now they are very dear friends, but this small change was very interesting to observe. But hang on a minute, I know many Germans, Swiss, French who lived in America and England for many years (as kids as well as adults) and have come back without a trace of an accent.

The question that immediately popped into my mind then was – if they were now to move back to India and live there, will they lose all of that accent? Or will the great Indian cultural sponge play it’s tricks, and some of the people around them will start to adapt themselves and pick up the drawl? And why is it that it is only Indians, who seem to display this characteristic the most? Does it have something to do the ‘Linguistic neutrality’ of the Indian tongue, which lends itself to this behavior? Or are we just super eager to abandon our cultural influences and adopt anything around us that appears or sounds umore posh & upscale?

There are strange rivers

It is truly one of life’s great mysteries how things pop out of the blue and connect with each other. Call it serendipity, randomness, luck, fortune .. whatever, but there are forces that are continuously at work, unknown to you. Joan Baez, the great folk singer of 60’s, put it so well in her song ‘Strange rivers’

“Have You Ever Turned the Corner and wondered Why You Did?
You Haven’t Been That Way Since You Were Just a Kid

Oh, There Are Strange Rivers, Rivers That We Cannot See
There Are Strange Rivers Who Know Our Destiny”

I am sitting here in Switzerland tapping away. 5 yrs ago, it started with one call from a friend on an autumn evening in Budapest – while we were getting ready to move back to India after a brief stint of 1.5 yrs –  mentioning an opening here, another follow-up call, and bang one lands up in Switzerland!

I just finished the mercurial Kafka on the shore by Murakami, and it

Kafka on the shore Haruki Murakami. Image courtesy Amazon.com

captures the essence of how things/people are connected by invisible strings. The central character in that book is a Mr Nakata, a shy old man, short statured, short cropped graying hair, always wears a gray coat and carries a black umbrella in his hand. He avoids talking to people as he finds it too complicated, cannot read and is always lost in his own world. A few days back coming back home on the train at around 9 in the evening, i see this man standing in the middle of the almost empty train compartment and i could have sworn he is Mr Nakata who has materialized out that book. As i got up from my seat and started towards the door, you could see the same  spaced out feeling on his face that Murakami describes, clutching his black umbrella tightly and wrapping his gray overcoat even more snugly around him, he starts to move back, his eyes scanning the scene around him, moving into a corner where he can be alone. He quickly crossed over into the other compartment, but still all the time watching me and the other people with a questioning, shy look on his face through the mirrored partition. Was he really the Mr Nakata (Or the Swiss version of him?), one will never know.

Today afternoon, while stacking that book back on the bookshelf, I remembered that i have a book written by the original Franz Kafka somewhere, but had no recollection of when or where i had bought it. A quick search and the book is unearthed. As i open the first page, a handwritten note stares back at me. It was a gift from 13 yrs back by a friend. Whom I have not been in touch with ever since we parted ways back in Chennai India, where we had spent a fantastic 3 months, getting to terms with a (then) strange city that seemed to fight back resolutely for the first couple of weeks to let us in. It started from the first day where we were mobbed by the taxi driver, the house where we were staying in was almost broken into, struggling to find a decent place to eat where we could get something recognizable and edible …. the list is endless. But suddenly one day it all snapped in together, perhaps thanks to that steward at the restaurant next door, whom we used to tip generously everyday as he served us copious amounts of our favorite curries. The city seemed to have dropped it’s guard, welcomed us in and we got to know it  like the back of our hands. So this friend – we recently got in touch again this year, thanks to a mis-spelt Google search that led me to his blog. And there it was today afternoon again, his writing starting back to me on the inner cover from a book that I haven’t touched in nearly 13 yrs.

Maybe there’s a message in here somewhere that I cannot decipher yet. The inimitable Joan did put it correctly … there are strange rivers.

Harrods and Walmart on a push cart

If you know India a bit or have been there sometime, you probably have seen many sights that you could call ‘unique’. Now having been born and brought up in Delhi and it has to take a lot for me to be surprised by something. But the following did.


Harrods and Walmart on a push cart

The above crossed my path while taking a breather on a mission to do the customary wedding shopping of  jewellery and sweets on my recent trip to India,  as i landed up in a part of Delhi that most of you may not even know exist. Absolutely back of the beyond but arguably some of the best mithai (sweets) that you can get in Delhi. Since i am interested in the consumption and not in the act of preparation or buying, i decided to wait next to my car while the rest of the companions pushed and jostled to reach a small mithai shop , where our order was being freshly prepared and packed (that’s India for you).

While waiting and watching the incredible late afternoon hustle of this trading street, the above caught my eye.  The sheer irony of encountering this, while on the way to one of the most exclusive addresses in Delhi for jewellery shopping, was striking. This 2 square mtr wide push cart that makes its way around this street had a collection that rivals the best that Harrods or Walmart can offer, and some stuff they can’t!  Intrigued by the collection, i inched closer trying my best to stay conspicuous, but without fail, as i attracted almost as much attention from this cart’s customers as it wares.

During a space of 15 minutes, the proud owner sold a Burbirry belt (for 75 cents, to a resolute lady who bargained as if there is no tomorrow), a pair of Doir Sunglasses (Dior or Doir is perhaps better known on that street compared to Burbirry/Burberry, so with the added brand premium the cost was 1.50 dollars) , several notepads whose buyers were probably more interested in the pictures on them than what will be scribbled inside, fixed a new buckle on someone’s belt, sold 2 ear muffs to hapless folks braving the freezing temperatures of 15 degrees, some knick-knacks to kids etc. etc….

What’s astonishing is not the prices, or the amount of imitation and wrongly spelled designer brands on offer but how perfectly the owner has captured the pulse of his market. He knows perfectly what will sell, which ‘brands’ are the most sought after, how much stock to carry, which customers will actually buy and which are just hanging around, who is a hard bargainer and whom he can profit from, optimal shelf space utilization, display design – the list is endless. All this without a million dollar customer research, inventory and supply management, customer service training budget.

I bow to your ingenuity ‘O great retailer with the rickety push cart. Philip Kotler should have taken you as the prime case study while writing his seminal book on marketing. The world acknowledges India as the next economic superpower and wants a slice of the Indian consumer pie. But Harrods & Walmart,  don’t even think of setting up shop in India, because this guy will beat you hands down and twice over on a Sunday.

What to expect when expecting someone at IG airport Delhi Terminal 3

This is essential reading for anyone planning to go the new terminal 3 in Delhi to receive someone. If you go without reading this, you do it at your own peril.

Last evening I played the good son-in-law and went to receive my wife’s mum at the spanking new Indira Gandhi airport terminal 3.  All the men reading this know the situation – such tasks are moments of truth with no room for error, this better go like Swiss clockwork with Six Sigma precision.

Now this is my first time there, I plan for more than enough time and get there at 1915 for a 1935 flight. And I take the brilliant ‘Kafka at the shore’ by murakami with me thinking I can devour some more pages of this quirky and tangential book. The moment I get to the arrival area, I know it’s going to be anything but smooth. Here’s why:

First of all it’s the sheer number of people standing their to receive others. This is Delhi, so the ratio is typically 3:1 (3 receivers, 1 passenger)


Using my Delhi traffic skills, I push, shove and reach the front of the crowd and soon am standing right in front of gate 3. I can’t miss her now, I say to myself. I am proved wrong immediately. From my position I only have a view to gate 3, what’s happening at the other gates is a complete mystery to me – thanks to the huge pillars blocking my view of the other gates which are miles away.

 
   

Trying to find a better vantage point I wriggle my way thru, reach gate 2 only to find the same situation repeated. View only to gate 2, absolutely no sight to gates 1 and 3.

The gravity of the situation dawns upon me, it will be disastrous if I manage to miss her. So I use all my grey cells and my brilliant skills in spatial geometry, and manage to find myself a vantage point from where, thanks to my height advantage compared to the average Indian male, I can more or less monitor gates 2 and 3, but gate 1 is still mystery thanks to the architectural skills of the designer of this airport.Getting to gate 1 doesn’t make it any better

This is turning out to be more difficult than cracking ‘the daVinci code’! I should remember to pack my X-ray glasses next time i come here, i make a mental note. Its 2015 already, I better find my mom-in-law fast! I can see my stock slipping in my lovely wife’s book, who (thanks to female telepathy) can surely sense all this confusion regarding her mom sitting thousands of kms away in Switzerland.

I am not alone though, many people around me are in similar dire straits. Practically everyone is barking into their phones trying to shout over the din,
“… Where are you, I am waiting at gate 1″
” I can’t see you, I am gate 3″
“… turn left and come to gate 1″
” .. Ok right, I coming there”
” …. No, not right – LEFT, LEFT … #*@+&! (choicest punjabi expletives)

I am convinced this receiving area was designed by the Indian consortium of telecom companies rather than an architect, for this must easily be the highest revenue grossing hot spot for them. I fall prey to their plot, try to call her, but mistakenly call my wife’s dad halfway across India, who is probably in bed by now (damn … further downgrade of my stock!).

So eventually after a few more phone calls, I catch her, a few pleasantries and profuse apologies later, we start to make our way to the parking lot. Reaching the elevator bay, both of us stand there perplexed – these must be the most advanced elevators in world – no buttons whatsoever to call them! Till we spot this small little sign next to them …

….. come on guys, give me a break!

Share this with anyone going to to the new terminal 3 at Delhi airport to receive someone, or better still if you know someone who has anything to do with the Delhi airport, pls show this to them … hopefully they might want to do something about it.

airports – grimly efficient and effectively grim

I am sitting here at my gate at the zurich airport, waiting for the wonderfully prim, proper and fresh looking airport staff (even at 2145 in the night) to announce departure of my flight to Delhi. Having finished the intriguing ‘The name of the rose’ by Umberto Eco, and too lazy to make the effort of starting ‘Kafka at the shore’ by Murakami, I start to look around me. Inspite of having frequented this place umpteen times, I cannot help but admire the grim efficiency on display around me – strong bold lines, stark colour schemes, vast empty places, shiny granite, inviting lounges with wafting aromas of freshly brewed coffe, hundreds of comfortable seats set in ramrod straight lines, perfectly arranged alluring mounds of chocolates at the Sprungli shops, and the airport music – which for all the effort that has gone into it selection – is now starting to irritate me.

It all adds up to an image of perfect order, customary of the Swiss. But is it a little too perfect? Being an Indian and having frequented many of the Indian airports, I miss that bit of life, atmosphere and drama that epitomises India – frantic announcements being made for the elusive Mr Gupta who is keeping the whole flight to Jallandar waiting because he decided to cuddle up on a bench and catch forty winks, the rookie counter clerk who has managed to lock himself out of the check-in system and cannot log in because his supervisor has gone for a 5 min break which has now extended to 30 mins, the single coffee machine attendant who is struggling to serve the 100 desparate coffee seekers but can still keep a radiant smile on his face inspite of that damned machine which keeps shutting down on him, kids running amok playing hide and seek, the earnest young airport attendants always eager to help the elderly – the list is endless . And how can one forget the ubiquitous Indian ‘policewallah’, hundreds of them are present everywhere you turn your head, resplendent in their crushed and somewhat soiled uniforms, the glorious pot belly and that constant itch in the unmentionables that he religiously attends to in public view of hundreds of hapless passengers that he is sworn to protect – but from what, even he does not know!

Suddenly I snap back into reality, a crystal clear announcement announces the departure of the flight, all waiting passengers line up in an orderly fashion, a plastic smile and a programmed ‘enjoy your flight’ later, I am on my way to the aircraft. A few hours later I will be in Delhi at the spanking new terminal 3 – which for all it modern design and amenities – will surely greet me with some of the sights mentioned above. I am sure at that point in time I will long for the cold efficiency of it’s Swiss counterpart … Or will I?

Maybe so, may be not – such are the follies of the human heart.

All’s well that ends well

So the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth games finished a few days ago. But chances are that many of you did not care or even know about it. No … you are not living on Mars, many of you could be either European/American, for whom the word ‘Commonwealth’ does not ring a bell or many of you couldn’t be bothered about spending your precious time following a sporting activity that is considered to be among the 10 largest sporting events in the world, but probably has little practical significance in the ‘bigger picture’ (at least that’s what some people think)

But me, the perennial skeptic, does not belong to the above camp. For the following 7 galactically important reasons, the games held a lot value:

1. They created common WEALTH – Yes they did, and loads of it … so what if it was only for the organizers! How can we overlook the fact that anyone at a reasonably important post in the organizing committee/s would have seen their personal networth increase handsomely. Some estimate that spending for the Commonwealth Games overran the original estimate of $500 million nine-fold. Do the math yourself and wonder where a lot of that $4.5 Billion went

2. They increased GDP/standard of living for many Indians – Thanks to all the kickbacks that thousands of people received, many families will have spanking new cars, apartments, LED televisions etc. In the time of the current recession it matters! All that money spent of spiffing up public places that nobody was going to visit, paper projects that never saw the light of day and will eventually get reported as handsome profits for many companies (some non-existent). How can one argue against improving the living conditions of people in a country where many live on $2 a day?

3. They reduced unemployment – Thousands of workers were hired to make and then dig-up the same roads, lay and re-lay pavement stones, paint broken walls. I happened to be in Delhi during July. On visiting Rajiv Chowk (one of the most important locations of Delhi) I witnessed dozens of workers snoozing in the shade of trees waiting for inspiration to repair the roads they dug up last week. Then hundreds must have been hired as a last ditch effort in the last few weeks to help the poor overworked souls. Obama – take note, here’s a tip on how to reduce America’s unemployment

4. New heights of luxury were created – Who in the world can boast of  $80 rolls of toilet paper (Kimberley-Clark: did you miss a massive opportunity here?), $61 soap dispensers and $125 first-aid kits. You cannot even partake of such luxuries at the Ritz Carlton

5. New architectural grounds were broken:

China gave the world this  …. 

India gave us this ……

Now put your hand on your heart and tell me, which one of these will end up heralding the new era in architecture and design?

6: India emerged as a sporting giant – India stood second in the medal tally, beating the mighty sporting nations of Tonga, Bangladesh and Cayman Islands. Come the next summer Olympics – China and America will be trembling in their ranks.

7. It brought mankind closer to nature – .. or was it the other way round? For hundreds of urbanite sportsmen who were not conversant with the glorious Indian fauna, this was their chance to get close and personal with it. Don’t trust me? … read it here

But …. as the saying goes – ‘All’s well that ends well’. These were minor hiccups, compared to what in the end turned out to be hugely successful games . They did have some truly momentous sporting occasions, the spotlight shone on India & performances of Indian athletes in areas like Shooting, Hockey, Women’s 4 x 400m relay will go a long way in reviving interest in sports other than the omnipresent Cricket. It wasn’t really all that bad … was it?

So world … look at the brighter side and bring on the Indian hosted Olympics!