Thursday, 25 August 2011

Badlega Bharat (India Will Change)

Renaissance and Reformation. Glasnost and Perestroika. Someday someone will come up with the pair of words that will best describe the twin revolutions sweeping India today.

The liberalisation story came first. Unshackling India's economy from years of socialist low growth was the start of the first revolution. So much so that "10% growth" has become the dream that inspires politician and public alike. Rival parties, normally quick to undo each other's initiatives on coming to power, now build on each other's work. Tamil Nadu's DMK and AIADMK parties and the unbroken industrialisation of the state (in spite of repeated changes in the ruling party) are a case in point. Somewhere along the way, a miracle has happened. Politicians are beginning to put the interests of their states ahead of petty political point scoring. The dream - that India can and will be an economic power - has ignited the collective imagination. Ten percent growth, year on year, will transform the country in half a generation. The BJP's "India Shining" was not the catchphrase of the revolution after all. "Ten percent growth" is.

Which brings us to the other thing that the term "ten percent" often connotes - corruption. Regardless of the merits and demerits of the rival Lokpal (public ombudsman) Bills, the tactics used by agitators to negotiate with the government, etc., one fact remains. Indians are fed up with corruption and are becoming increasingly vocal about it. Politicians are being put on notice that helping themselves from the public coffers will not be tolerated. Petty bureaucrats are now warned that demands for bribes will not go unpunished. Is this a false dawn? Time will tell. But the catchphrase "Badlega Bharat" (India will Change) is as powerful as the vision of 10% growth. It is a warning to the powerful and the corrupt. You have taken India for granted so far, but India will change, tomorrow's India will be different...

I think it was Gurcharan Das who said that corruption drastically reduces when more than half the population becomes middle class. The poor are corruptible and the rich can corrupt, but the middle class neither needs special favours nor is readily bribed. The anti-corruption agitation is a sign of India's growing middle class. That's why the oft-heard dismissal of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption crusade as "just a middle class phenomenon" misses the point entirely. Of course it's a middle-class phenomenon! Since the middle class will keep growing, the pressure on the corrupt will only increase. Regardless of the fate of the Lokpal Bill, corruption in the polity must decrease. It's a law of nature.

I foresee at least one juicy outcome in the near future. The government of India will be forced by public pressure to officially demand a list of Indian holders of Swiss bank accounts. It will be doubly entertaining to watch the proceedings, because many of these account holders are top functionaries of the Indian government, and they will resort to every legal (and illegal) contortion to avoid making that demand of the Swiss. But the truth will eventually be dragged out, and I suspect Indian politics will never be the same again. Of course, rumours are that Indians are moving their money from Swiss banks to banks in Mauritius, Dubai and Singapore, and the dance will no doubt continue. But at least the crooks are on the run now.

Imagine the elimination of corruption (or at least its drastic reduction) and a growth rate of 10% a year. India will be an unstoppable force. The country appears perpetually unstable and ungovernable (Galbraith's "functioning anarchy"), but as Shashi Tharoor put it so eloquently, Indians have evolved a consensus on how to manage without consensus, and the current social revolution is just the latest manifestation of that. 'Tis a perfect storm that blows a world of good.

[Update 28/08/2011: Anna wins]

Friday, 12 August 2011

A Few More Photos of Colombo

Now this is rush hour in Colombo (Thursday evening, 1730).

And this.

The reach of Bollywood celebrities - Aamir Khan sells mobiles here. (A passerby stared curiously at me, wondering what the heck I saw worth clicking in a roadside poster.)

And Aamir Khan isn't the only one. Priyanka Chopra and Shilpa Shetty stared haughtily down at me from the cosmetics aisle of the Arpico supermarket.

I snagged my bag on a protruding screw inside this autorickshaw. I realised that this sort of workmanship is perfectly acceptable in India and Sri Lanka, but Australians would probably make an OH&S (Occupational Health and Safety) issue out of it.

There's a beautiful Buddha shrine on my street (Park Street), just a couple of minutes' walk from the hotel.

I murmured a 'thank you' to him. This trip has been pure magic.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Reflections on Culture and Tradition

I had a powerful experience yesterday when shopping at the Arpico supermarket in Colombo. The counter clerk was a friendly and smart-looking youth. When I handed him my credit card, he took it with his right hand, and with his left hand holding his right elbow. The gesture brought back memories and feelings in a rush.

In 2000, when I applied for Australian citizenship, I was surprised when the Australian immigration officer (a Caucasian) took my passport with both hands. This is, of course, the (East) Asian way of showing respect. I guess he had been trained to be culturally sensitive because of the large number of East Asians applying for Australian citizenship. Although I immediately recognised the gesture as one of respect, I was not emotionally touched by it. However, when the youth at Arpico took my card in the respectful Tamil style, it touched and moved me, and this is why.

When taken to visit temples as a child, I was taught to throw flowers on the idol in an underarm movement using my right hand, with my left hand holding my right elbow. I don't know if this is prevalent in the rest of India or even in the rest of South India, but it is definitely part of Tamil culture. The left hand is considered unclean and must never be proffered to others, either to give or to receive anything. Only the right hand may be used in any transaction. This much is common to all of India. When great respect is to be shown, as when showering the idol of a deity with flowers, the left hand must support the right at the elbow. I believe this is a uniquely Tamil gesture.

The incident made me think a lot about my life, especially my ideological choices. In my late teens, when reading about communal riots and killings in the papers, I determined that religion was evil and nothing but superstition that led men astray. I was also studying engineering at the time, and I believed that science and reason were the answer. I guess I still do.

That started me on my journey of conscious agnosticism. I never became a communist, like many other idealistic students, but I did try to be a practising agnostic. This meant consciously violating rules that had been taught to me as part of my culture if they made no sense. I would whistle after sunset, I would ask people where they were going as they were leaving, I would openly blaspheme. (In later years, I would mock my wife for murmuring prayers in Sanskrit, "a language neither she nor God understood.") I inured myself to stepping on paper without flinching, and to moving books aside with my feet, conscious acts to defy Goddess Saraswathi's certain wrath. The heavens never opened to strike me dead, and I have remained an agnostic with a healthy aversion to organised religion. I even composed a couplet to summarise my philosophy:

There may or may not be a God
But religion is a fraud

It has been decades since I even thought about the respectful supported-elbow gesture, and the fact that a young man half my age, from my own culture, in another country, was keeping the tradition alive - no, living the tradition - made me think for a long time.

I have forged a powerful identity for myself by defining what I stand for and stand against, and this has made me what I am. Still, I found myself asking, have I gained or have I lost?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Evening Walk in Downtown Colombo

The evening was cooler and a lot less sultry, so it was quite pleasant to walk. By the way, this is the sign at the end of my street. The Sri Lankans seem to have mastered the Three Language Formula :-).

I went to a nearby KFC where I found to my pleasant surprise that veggie burgers were available. KFC in Australia doesn't serve veggie burgers but KFC in Dubai did when I was there in 1995-98. It says something about demographics and consumer demand, but I'm not sure what. The burger cost LKR 255, and the counter guy asked if I wanted cheese. I said yes, and the price then came to LKR 285. The burger was only half the size of the Hungry Jack's veggie burger in Sydney, so the PPP equation really holds. For the price of a single veggie burger in Sydney, you can get two half-size ones in Colombo. Hats off to The Economist!

I've been seeing another amusing sight on the roads - buses with the name "Lanka Ashok Leyland" on them. This is amusing because I grew up seeing "Ashok Leyland" buses in India, and I learnt only much later that this was a joint undertaking between Ashok Motors and British Leyland. Now as the model has travelled further, the name has been further localised by prefixing "Lanka" to it.

Looks like the long arm of the Internet equalises the whole world. Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, they're everywhere!

A petrol bunk. Nothing special about it. It's just slightly different from anything I've seen before.

This sign caught my attention for a reason. Long ago, when on a tourist bus in Singapore with my parents, my father pointed to a sign on a ministry building and remarked about the difference between the Tamil word for "ministry" as used in Singapore and in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was spelt "Amaichchu" (அமைச்சு) in Singaporean Tamil, while in Tamil Nadu, the word is "Amaichchagam" (அமைச்சகம், with the 'g' pronounced almost like 'h'). It was interesting to see from the sign below that Sri Lankan Tamil also has it as "Amaichchu". When it comes to Tamil usage, is the mother country out of step? I wonder how Malaysian Tamils spell the word.

Bollywood-style film posters in Sri Lanka! I love these familiar-yet-different experiences. It turns out this is a hit movie (Mahindagamanaya).

Then I went back to Arpico (the supermarket) for some shopping. I bought some tea for my relatives in India when I go there next week. It was at the shopping centre that I saw my first Buddhist monk in the flesh! He was in brick red robes and was probably doing some shopping himself. I saw another person approach him and bow to him, and I heard the monk say something with the word "Deerghaayu" (Sanskrit for "long life") in it. I love it when I can pierce the veil of another culture, even if only for a moment, and understand what's happening. I'm also grateful that through spending my formative years in India, I've been able to pick up so much linguistic and cultural background without conscious effort. I'm sure if I go to Pakistan, all the conscious and unconscious Hindi/Urdu learning will similarly pay off. I remember reading the phrase "India's cultural penumbra" in some article somewhere that talked about the entire region from Africa to Southeast Asia. It's at moments like this that its meaning comes home to me with full force.

I also bought a T-shirt at Arpico because I found it very interesting. It's part of a series of artifacts labelled "Mother Sri Lanka" (like "Mera Bharat Mahaan", I guess). What I thought was clever was the way they spelt the three words in the three languages of the country - English, Tamil and Sinhalese. In fact, it was the red Tamil "Shree" that first caught my eye.

"Help spread the message of pride and honour of a great nation by purchasing this product."


Lunchtime Walk in Downtown Colombo

I took a walk around noon to see some sights. It was hot and muggy. I think it must have rained recently.

There were soldiers standing outside my hotel and I saw them wave down an autorickshaw and ask the passenger some questions, but they took no notice of me. It was a reminder that this is a nation that has very recently emerged from a civil war and the constant threat of terrorist violence.

My driver of last night had recommended a small restaurant near my hotel, so I walked there.

The Sri Krishna Villas (double L!) is a fairly downmarket Tamil restaurant, but like a western tourist, I was interested in an "authentic cultural experience" complete with cuisine. I ordered a standard meal plate. There was no spoon provided, so I washed my hands and went for it. I don't eat with my fingers even at home, so this would have been amusing to my family :-). Surprisingly, there was no yoghurt or buttermilk to have as the last rice course, but there was a sweet dish. The bill came to LKR 115, perhaps AUD 2.30 in PPP terms. Cheap at the price, but it wasn't a great meal all told, and I probably won't go there again.

It was fairly hot and uncomfortable to walk in the sun, but I wanted to buy a street map of Colombo. Again, surprisingly, this proved very hard to do. I was directed from place to place, but no one seemed to have street maps. The last place I visited was a supermarket (Arpico), which seemed very like a supermarket in India. There were guards milling around the supermarket, so I didn't dare take any pictures.

Some street scenes were amusing, and I snapped them. I find it surreal when things are familiar yet different, like my trip to Mauritius in 1991.

The Sinhalese script looks hauntingly familiar, like I should know it. It looks South Indian (although I'm told Sinhalese is related to Oriya rather than to any of the South Indian languages), but I can't read it for the life of me, though I can read two South Indian scripts (Kannada and Tamil) and sort of decipher a third (Telugu).

There are autorickshaws on the streets, just like in India, and they're made by Bajaj too. People refer to them as tuk-tuks, but then the driver of a passing tuk-tuk called out to me, "Auto?", just like in India.

I thought this poster ad for a DVD was interesting.

This is a nice banyan tree at one end of Park Street, where my hotel is.

This is the entrance to Park Street hotel.

The hotel has a colonial style. I think I can understand why the British colonised our countries in the first place ;-).

And this is my room. Ver-ry nice.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sri Lanka - First Impressions

I'm in Sri Lanka, on a trip combining business with pleasure. Here are some initial impressions.

When departing Sydney for Colombo (via Singapore), I was struck by two curious facts. One, no currency exchange counter had Sri Lankan rupees. Two, neither of the two bookstores I saw in the airport had travel guides on Sri Lanka. Mind you, there are travel guides for virtually every country from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and even for cities (San Francisco, for example), but the omission of an entire country was very strange. I put these down to the fact that Sri Lanka is only just emerging as a travel destination after decades of civil war. Let's see how things look next year.

[I did manage to find a travel guide for Sri Lanka at Singapore airport, but the currency exchange counters there had no Sri Lankan rupees either. I had to wait till I reached Colombo for that.]

Coming to currency exchange, an Australian dollar (AUD) trades for about 110 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR), but that still gave me no indication of what I could consider cheap or expensive by local standards. [1 AUD is currently 46 INR (Indian rupees).] Remembering the informal Purchasing Power Parity calculator of The Economist, I asked the driver of the airport pickup car about the price of a burger at McDonalds. He said it was between LKR 250 and 300. A burger in Sydney costs between AUD 5 and 6, so that's a factor of 50. Taking the official exchange rate into account, it means one can buy two burgers in Colombo for the price of one in Sydney. In other words, I should expect things to be half as expensive in Colombo when I convert their prices to Australian dollars.

Cultural curiosities: As an Indian emigré in Australia, I'm gifted with two lenses with which to see the world. My first impression of the streets of Colombo (at least at midnight, which is when I was driven from the airport to the hotel) was that they were definitely not of First World standards, but seemed far cleaner and in better condition than roads in many Indian cities. (Having said that, the roads in Chennai have been getting better the last few times I was there.)

We were averaging 80 kmph, but my driver Harish (short for Harishchandran), said it was impossible to do more than 25 kmph during rush hour.

Harish, as it turned out, was a Tamil, but after an initial attempt to converse with me in Tamil, he decided it was better to fall back to English! I realised the truth of George Bernard Shaw's comment about England and America. Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils are two people separated by the same language!

Three are huge Buddha statues at prominent roundabouts in the city, which I have never seen anywhere else. The airport also featured sayings and slogans based on Buddhism, and I realised I have never before been to a Buddhist country. [India is culturally diverse but overwhelmingly Hindu, Australia is similarly diverse but predominantly Christian, and even relatively cosmopolitan Dubai is unmistakeably Muslim.]

Talking of Muslim, I saw many groups of young men playing cricket on the main roads at one o'clock in the morning! Harish explained that these were Muslims, and since the month was Ramadan, they were enjoying life at night (when there were no fasting restrictions). The next day was a Sunday as well, so it was Saturday Night Fever for these youths.

The next few posts will have more of my impressions as I see more of Colombo.