“Where are you from?” is a simple question that doesn’t warrant any thinking; it’s akin to asking “What’s your name?” Unless one is an absent-minded professor, the reply should be a reflex reaction. However, of late I find people respond to the place of their origin with a “It’s slightly complicated” or an evasive “Umm..” followed by what they think is appropriate at the moment after due consideration. I’m with the group that chooses a place per convenience. Weird? Well, let’s see as I draw the picture for you.
Born in Southern Tamil Nadu. Studied in places across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Bahrain. Parents living outside India intending to settle in a different town where neither have roots nor were raised. I’ve worked in Bangalore, Pune, and Chicago not necessarily in the same order. Married to a Bengali who was born and raised in Punjab and speaks Punjabi, Hindi at home. I currently live in Bangalore. So when people ask me where I am from, I answer “Bangalore” though I’ve never lived in the city continuously for more than four years. The fact that we own an apartment here brings that affinity for the place. Wonder what people with multiple apartments in different cities would say? After all, real estate is no judging factor to be rooted to a location for an identity.
A few weeks ago, a lady (let’s call her Ms. S) at met had a similar story to narrate. Her father was in the armed forces which in turn implied she had schooling in more number of schools than there were grades to study in (sometimes one grade in more than one school). The “Indian Identity” was not uncommon to folks from the Armed Forces and with parents in transferrable jobs such as those in banks. But to majority civilians when job-hopping was considered a big career mistake, it was a strange feeling until a few years ago to not have a place that you could call home. It’s an increasingly wide-spread phenomenon. Every second person you meet in India’s metros today are like Ms.S and I. Our kids in that sense will have more Indian-ness in them. And for all you know, they might just start calling themselves an Indian instead of a Bangalorean or a Delhite.
Regionalism is still pretty much intact in tier-2 and tier-3 towns of India. The cosmo experience has its own advantages. With the stay in every city, you take away some aspects of it that change your lives permanently. Pune, how-much ever I detested initially, always made me feel good for its community living. I regret spending the festive season in Bangalore. Be it dahi-handi during Krishna Jayanthi or pandals during Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi, the city came alive taking in Puneites and outsiders alike in its festivities with an open embrace. My best Holi moments were in Pune. Bangalore, for all its claim of a blend of traditional outlook and modernity of a cosmopolitan, has that inherent aloofness, a cold feeling that’s difficult to describe.
Living across cities opens a wide array of culinary choices. I find it rather interesting at the ease with which we have sabudana khichdi one day, idli the next, paratha, and pohe the following days. Until a few years ago, we would have been discouraged to welcome Maharashtrian or Bangalorean food home out of a lack of understanding. What was restricted to experimentation in restaurants has entered our kitchens now.
Where you live transforms one in ways that’s difficult to comprehend at times. Sometimes it’s beyond reasoning. It was only natural for V to have immense faith in visiting Harmandir Sahib every time he was in Amritsar because that’s what he believed in during his growing up years. He may not live there anymore but that doesn’t shake the faith you’ve harbored all your life.
So, where are you from? A straightforward answer would indeed arouse my curiosity in you
I’m a die-hard optimist and proponent of living in India. But something tells me if I continue talking to customer care executives of various companies 6-hours-a-day as if it were a part-time job, I would soon end up as a nervous wreck.
Last week Monday through Saturday, I clocked about three hours over 35 calls talking to Su-kam Power systems, Tudor India Limited - marketers of Prestolite Inverter batteries in India, a local real estate agent responsible for getting Khata transfer done, CAT enterprises - a water-proofing solutions company in Bangalore, and finally Domino’s Pizza. The common thread across all these calls - they had offered me a service which was fully paid for; that is still under warranty but the product is now broken and needs to be fixed.
Something seriously ails the customer service industry in India. People in metros such as Bangalore often don’t follow up vigorously to mend broken things because it’s not worth their time and effort. So they are more prone to replace it with a new item. After my repeated calls to Su-Kam and promises of sending an engineer went in vain for over five days, the first reaction from V was to get a new one than go through the inconvenience of a power cut and the torture of waiting endlessly for someone to show up. But I wanted to try so long I could before I gave up because the feeling of trying-hard-and-getting-frustrated is better than the feeling of being cheated. From the dealer who supplied us to the guys who fixed it here to Prestolite, I tried everything under the sun before something positive came out of Tudor India. There was finally a ray of hope on Friday evening to get the faulty inverter battery replaced before the warranty expires in 15 days. But the Tudor gentleman was forthright in saying that uder some premise the warranty will not be granted because there’s just a fortnight left before it expires. So he said he will get it fixed (read: pay me and I will get it done). Knowing how things work around here or having seen it the past few days, I relented to cough up more money and have it replaced than spend another Rs.9,000 for a new battery the right way. Sometimes you can’t be too staright-forward to get work done; you have to work with the system (read: corruption)! Su-Kam gentleman who visited was kind enough to tell me that the Bangalore in-charge is on leave 10 days a month. No wonder I kept calling him and one good thing came of it - LG was entertained to listen to “Jee Karda” song from “Singh is Kinng” movie which was his caller tune so much so that I have the song memorized now from the dozen times I’ve called him with no response.
The bright side of the week is the count stands at one down with inverter hopefully fixed. Now it’s 3 more jobs to get done over the next week; I have my hands full and can’t be more excited to talk to parrots trained to say, “This will be fixed within 2-3 days. Positively!”
It’s 10:00 p.m. right now. And, I’m waiting for my pizza from Domino’s (remember the monthly-once—eating-outside excitement) which was ordered at 7:06 p.m. Oh! they did deliver but the wrong one and I paid for the right one. Hunger pangs killing! The optimist in me tells me to hang on before heating up the leftovers of lunch!
I’m in my early thirties now; going by the increasing life expectancy rates and beating the odds of passing away in an eventuality or sickness, let’s say I (and V) live on for another 30-40 years (too long a time!). It’s too early to comment on when we would retire, which part of the world we would be in and where we would want to settle down. Often, talking about retirement the talk revolves around planning. Planning, primarily financial in nature, starts as early as when you are 28 years old these days though it started a few decades later for our parents’ generation owing to various reasons - parental obligations, supporting a larger family, building a house etc etc. Financial planning is a given in today’s times and most other lifelong dreams are met by the time one is 28 or 29 - a car, a house, foreign vacation - expand the list to your fancy.
The weekend had its moments of highs and lows. First, on the lows as the images from Sunday fail to go away however hard I try. It was Li’l General’s first brush with this country. He was born in India and has lived here ever since for the past 18 months but no experience was good enough to get a feel of this 1.1 + billion strong nation. It’s not without reason that ours is the second most populous nation. And, if one really needs to get a feel of what having so many people means, all that it takes is a trip to some of the most popular religious shrines - Tirupati, Shirdi, Vaishno Devi, Jagannath Temple at Puri and seasonally to the numerous others spread across the country.There are dozens of other occasions to witness an unruly mob such as in a cricket match, release of Rajnikanth’s movie down South, death of a political leader or the day election results are announced to cite a few.
An article in Pune Mirror titled “Net hooks Indians like never before” claimed there were over a 28 million Internet users in India in 2008, a growth of 27 per cent over the previous year. (Pune Mirror has no version of an e-paper, hence I’ve linked to the same article in Mumbai Mirror where it appeared under a different title.)
The only thought that crossed my mind as I read this piece taking in the statistic was how were all these 28 million odd people getting connected to the Internet. As one would expect, there are no details of the study on the percentage share of home and work users, and their mode of getting connected - through an Internet Cafe vs a dial-up/broadband connection at home. It is difficult to draw any conclusions on the broadband penetration in India currently. I found this outdated report on NASSCOM that estimated a total of 1.3 million broadband users in 2006. More recently, India Online 2007 - a study to understand the Internet users in India across 30 cities found that 77% of home users used broadband. Now, I don’t know how many of the 28 million users are home users but 77% of home users is a significant number to choose broadband as the preferred mode.
The scene at the local malls last Sunday was a bit overwhelming, if not surprising! This is neither a sale season (one of those dozen ones they have round the year like dad’s birthday sale to clean-the-stale-products-off-our-shelves sale) nor is it any festival time to attract such large numbers at every mall in the city. Long queues at the checkout counters that I’ve rarely witnessed before and we were indeed lucky to get parking space, I failed to understand what the excitement was about. With the summer vacations over and the school sessions on, only two possible explanations for this sudden splurge occurred at me - either everyone found a treasure / big fat paycheck or there was some hidden clue to shop more/pay less that I failed to discover. The streets which otherwise wear a deserted look on Sunday evenings was exceptionally busy with every restaurant in the area doing great business. I once read somewhere you can judge how a economy is doing by the number of restaurants that open in your neighborhood. The economist who said this might be in for a disappointment.
Six-lane roads, clean streets that are swept with a machine every morning, green trees lining either side of the road, well-maintained children’s park with manicured lawns and flower gardens for every Km, well planned residential and commercial areas, grocery stores at the intersection of every two streets and a walking pavement all around. This where we live. Not abroad; very much in India; Pune to be precise. This neighborhood is not one of the fancy names that Puneites would easily identify to but is one o the most well kept planned residential areas of the city free of pollution, congestion, traffic and well able to handle the increasing population. The thought of moving out of this place to Bangalore sometimes gives me the jitters - to go back to the dust, jostling crowds and lack of walking spaces.
Lil’ General is 17 months old and still feeds on formula occasionally in the nights when he hasn’t had a good dinner. This evening while stocking on the monthly supplies of formula and cereal for LG, we did a quick mental calculation expecting the bill to be Rs. 345. Confidently, V presented Rs.350 on the counter. The chemist looked at the prices on the back of the cartons and pressed the numbers on his calci before announcing it to be Rs.361. When you’ve been buying the same products for over an year month after month, there is little room for mistakes. Surprised, we checked the prices and shot silent glances at each other before we chorused “Up by 10 rupees. It’s the inflation.”
A visit to More earlier during the day left me exhausted. This was my third trip in a week’s time trying to procure the rice - the usual brand at the usual price I’m used to buying. The brand has been out of stock for over a fortnight now and the retailer has been waiting to get it replenished and the ones available at the store are a good Rs.11 more expensive for a Kg. Even the brand I’ve been buying all along is known to be in demand and the prices have shot up by over 15%. And this is not even Basmati which recently made news for crossing the Rs.100 mark. Same is with tur dal and udad dal. Which means now I have to visit over 2-3 stores before ticking off the items in my monthly grocery list. The bills have definitely shot up. I’m not a stickler for minute details and price of every item though I have a fair idea and maybe off a few ruppess. But the shortage over the past 2-3 months has made me aware of almost all the prices and how I really find them increasing month after month. Even the king of fruits, mango has been acting pricey this year. Ofcourse, it has little to do with inflation and more with the untimely monsoon at the end of March this year which spoiled the crop.
The business channels have been non-stop harping about the rise in inflation rates for the past twelve weeks with no respite in sight. Different viewpoints have been presented from the inaccuracy of the wholesale price index (WPI) being measured to the ineffective measures by the government to cut rates across commodities to the rise in global oil prices because of supply-demand mismatch. This is economics! Barring the fundamentals, I can’t make much sense of the nitty-gritties involved. But all I know is this 8% is probably not reflective of the entire picture.
The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the question “was being born in India any longer a disadvantage?” was this incident from early 2007. “Vidhi is traveling to U.S on January 20th with her husband”, my granny announced to no one in particular. Everyone around except me knew what was going on. Vidhi was a second cousin of mine who I hadn’t seen in years but heard was doing well. “But isn’t she pregnant?” I asked quite surprised as if pregnant women were forbidden from air travel. “Yes, she is and well into her 7th month” replied grandma matter of factly. Apparently, Vidhi’s husband got his H1 and was yet to be assigned on a project. They were well settled in Chennai and his parents lived with him. The couple’s move to US saw his parents uprooted from their unsafe independent bungalow to a safe apartment elsewhere in the city. The game plan of the couple was to stay over at Vidhi’s cousin’s place until the nature of his project became clear and so did the location. They spent over 40 days at various cousins’ place across East coast before moving to their designated location - a remote town in Georgia. And, the best bit is this - the couple managed her pregnancy and caring for the new born by themselves with help from a few friends the first week. This is a BIG deal for me. It takes a lot of courage to go through a pregnancy in an unknown land with no support system and family around. I know there are many in India who do it alone and in US too but they’ve either been around for a while or have thought it over.
I refrain from passing opinions on things as personal as this one. If life throws something unexpected at you and you have no choice and you come out brave as this couple, then I have all the praise in the world for them. To uproot your parents, lug around your pregnant wife to an unknown country and have no idea where you are going to be - all so your kid will be a natural U.S citizen - this to me is FOOLISHNESS. Seriously. I don’t come usually come out so strongly on anything. What if she had delivered premature because of the stress, what if there was an emergency - they weren’t even familiar with the medical system of the country? I wouldn’t blame just the husband in this - the wife has an equal part in this. The lure of everything U.S just fails me at times. Just so you now, the couple are back in India -the eight month experience has finally taken the sheen away from U.S. Instead of enjoying the newborn, there they were fighting their everyday out. I’ve said this time and again. Life gives us all choices. It’s the choice we make now that makes the life afterward.
This was just not a one off case. You’ll lose count of the people who wait to start a family until their H1 visa and assignment to the US does not come through. It would be unfair on my part to say that I never wanted to travel. Yes, I loved Chicago. Living downtown on Michigan Avenue. The Freedom. Shopping. Independence. Open air. Less people. Wider roads. Better infrastructure. A good life in all - that all of us dream of. But if you ask me, if I would have been ok to live there forever, I don’t think so. There are moments you just don’t feel at home however long you’ve stayed in a country. Words escape even the most conversant one in English - in moments of pain and anguish, what comes out of you is your mother tongue and the longing of company of one of your own. What good is a citizenship when by heart you are all Indian, hang out with the desis, still do the mental conversion in 1:40, flaunt cotton kurtis, tell every acquaintance that goes back to India to get you Lux soaps, agarbathis and Clinic All Clear shampoos and look for Patel shops to do grocery shopping? If you can’t shell out that extra dollar and consume the local brands what were you aspiring for by becoming a citizen?
For us Indians, Americans will always be one of “those” that we can never be. A by-product of British colonization is this awe for everything white - a prejudice so deep that will take years to go away. We all strive for a good life. I don’t blame the parents for this in entirety. They want a good life for themselves and the future generations. They wouldn’t want their kids to hold the blue passport that we do, not apply to universities the hard way like they did and not lose out on opportunities in the corporate ladder and be a code monkey all your life because you’re an Indian.
I’ve become an optimist - sometimes marriage does that to you. India is not as many of you would think. My parents don’t get me china from abroad anymore. Better brands adorn our crockery shelves purchased from the neighboring hypermarket. Get you size GAP jeans and Louis Vuitton bags at the mall next door. You know what a good life to me is - stay in India, visit your parents when you wish to, let them come over when they want to without being worried about the winter snow and holiday as a family at a place anywhere in the world. These are not just words to make you feel good. This is reality in India today. Public infrastructure is getting better. Give it time. By the time, our kids grow their cousins in U.S will want to app for universities in India. Take this from me.
I know a lot of you out there in the U.S read this blog. I hold nothing against you. It’s a choice you made. So this question is to all of you. What is one thing that makes you not want to come back to India?
I’m getting a new laptop. Or so I thought until last Sunday. The status has changed to undecided now. There was a special offer going on for Gudi Padwa last week at all the electronic shops in the city. We shortlisted a few shops in our vicinity such as the House of Laptops, Laptech to compare the offers. Saturday morning after touring House of Laptop, we decided on buying the Acer 4520- AMD 64 Athlon TK-53/TK-55 -1.701.80 GHz, 2x 256 KB L2 cache, 1GB RAM, 160 GB hard disk drive. It was priced at Rs.26,499 and some other goodies were part of it such as a 4 GB pen drive, optical mouse and headphones. They said it would take 3-4 days to deliver and that paying by debit/credit card would mean 1.5% more. Our request for installing Win XP was also turned down. It came with Linux. I wasn’t impressed with their customer service - we were made to wait a good 15 minutes while the sales person Abhishek went over to his manager to educate himself on the pricing by looking at the ad that had appeared in the newspaper that morning. Didn’t someone tell them to do their homework or the ABCs of customer service? I may not be a high end customer for them who orders a Sony Vaio CR 35 or one of those fancy Rs.99,999 laptops but that doesn’t make me any less as a customer. If you can’t respect what you get, then no amount of aspiring what you want will get you that.
We returned home having made up our mind to buy the Acer 4520. Next day, our call to inquire if they would be able to deliver the same day (Sunday being a weekend) was at first not entertained and later answered rudely. We learned from a friend who was in the shop at the time that there were riots to get in. Anyways, so I later checked out Laptech and their proprietor Parmesh offered the same at Rs.28,000 with a 2GB RAM and some other goodies. I didn’t have to negotiate. My requirements were simple - a place that had good customer service, was near by and a basic configuration such as this one that I can lug around the house to browse and trade. that fit the bill of under Rs.35,000. That’s it - no movies, no games, no heavy duty programming. Another friend who was interested to went to Laptech and booked a Acer 5920 for himself and a Acer 4520 for us. This guy had agreed to installing XP too. So it worked fine and we were asked to pick it up at 7:00 p.m. the same day.
We called up two times - once at 5:00 p.m. and once more before leaving at 6:30 p.m. and both the time we were assured it was ready. The reality was shocking - literally 50 people in a small 20*15 showroom all promised the same and had been waiting for over 2 hours. We left telling him we’ll get it the following day. Monday was even worse. Eventually we canceled the order.
This is characteristic of every customer service and business in India. Time is just a random figure that shoots out of one’s mouth. One cannot hold anyone against it. There is no fear of commitment. 15 minutes can stretch anywhere from 2 hours at the minimum to days and sometimes never. If you want something done, the onus is upon you to keep following up until
you feel you really don’t need the damn thing. In yet another incident that will be familiar to most of you, a gentleman from whom we hire taxi for long distance travels regularly assured me to get back on an inquiry by that evening. It took 3 days. Sometimes I just fail to understand what the problem is in just letting the other person know you don’t have an answer yet and when you do you’ll call them without setting a time that has no value. You don’t always need to have a “yes” or “no” to something. This is one thing that puts off Indians abroad to come back. No wonder IST is often joked to be Indian Stretchable Time.