It is Holi today and I miss being in Delhi around this time. I miss it for a lot of reasons and as I am getting older it is all becoming a distant memory. So before I forget it all, I want to put it down. This is a mixed/confused account from my childhood and adult years. I have conveniently taken stuff that I like and kept out the bits I don’t quite like. I am sort of writing a mixed version of my past.

The most exciting thing about Holi is the buildup. This happens in many different ways. First is the weather, where it is still a bit nippy in the morning but gets warm in the afternoon. It also rains sometimes and everyone worries if it will rain on Holi day. Then the timing of Holi is always super important for school kids because March is the end of their academic calendar. So it is either just before the exam, or during their exams and very rarely after their exams. In the first two instances it usually adds to their misery of not being able to celebrate their Holi well. So every year the Holi dates at the beginning of the year are checked with the exam calendar.

A week leading upto Holi there is this building of tension and the kids in my neighbourhood start to eye me suspiciously. They start to weigh up the risks of what will happen if they throw a coloured balloon and ruin my white shirt, will I really put into action my ferocious looking hand signals or will I just try to evade the balloon and smile at the ‘Holi Hai’ crises and move on. There is evidence on the side streets of balloons being thrown and automatically I look up to see if one is coming my way. Sometimes a balloon on a warm spring afternoon is actually a bit of a relief. Then if I meet someone of my age we usually discuss how kids today are so scared that they throw balloons from their terraces and don’t even show their faces, while when we were young we used to do more of a street warfare and used to make these complex war strategies. We also had a code of honour that we won’t throw more than one balloon at a non Holi playing passerby. We also didn’t use coloured water in our balloons, so they didn’t cause much damage. Oh those were the good old days !

Also in the weeks leading upto Holi, all friends and relatives (from other parts of India and abroad) are told not to travel to other parts of the ‘hindi heartland’ unless they have a strong desire to participate in two weeks of Holi related revelry. Colleagues from work from the ‘hindi heartland’ and the assorted service staff book their leave to go home. Holi related sweets start to appear in sweet shops, my most favourite being the Gujia. I can never have enough of it ! My family gets another excuse for buying sweets and gifts for close family members ! Colour is bought from the markets and grease is frowned upon. No body ever seems to buy those grease based colours but they seem to show up everywhere.

As a kid, the actual Holi day usually started like any other day, with the vegetable seller waking me up earlier than usual. I rush out and its all quiet and none of my friends are out. I go down and my mum, as always, has been preparing a bucket full of water balloons for me. Before I rush out she feeds me and puts as much oil on me as she can manage in 2 minutes. The oil is so the colour doesn’t stick. There is the usual warning of not playing with older kids (because they bully me, beat me or put me in a tank full of water depending on their mood) , not to play with greasy colours and be back by 1pm or I’ll miss my favourite Holi meal – pakwaan and dal !!

And so Holi begins and slowly I see layers and layers of colors of all chemical types being applied to you and you in turn apply to everyone else. I see white cars being coloured, white house walls being spoilt and marble flooring being destroyed. I see scores being settled like never before. We go around the colony, execute our war strategies and pretend we decimated all the other gangs even though we didn’t. We come back, fill some more balloons and go back again. By this time it is almost noon and it starts to get warm and I am starting to get bored and even hungry. But before I go, it is time for the cricket match. So a bunch of kids get together in the park and have the Holi cricket match where any remaining unsettled Holi fights within the neighbourhood are settled on the cricket pitch. Someone plays the Amitabh Bachan song for the millionth time and I know that it is time to go home.

So I go home and I get the untouchable treatment. My mother first brings out a hose pipe which doesn’t make any difference to my layers of colour except it feels a lot cooler and spoils the floor even more. I get screamed at and I as always blame someone else. I am then sent straight to the bathroom with strict instructions not to use any linen until all the color is off me. After an hour , many scrubbings and colourful nails later I get to eat my favourite pakwaan and dal. The pakwaans have gone slightly cold which makes them even more crisper while the dal is delicious as ever and I realise that this is what I really like about Holi rather than the face painting bit. Until of course it is time for Holi next year.

In the evening it is time to go out and inspect the damage we inflicted. Cars are being washed, floors are being cleaned and curses are being inflicted upon whoever cares to hear. We pretend that we don’t know who did it and it was those rowdies from the nearby slum who we fought so bravely with our water guns.

It is, after all, Holi.

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Many nights ago I was jetlagged and I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t seem to go back to sleep. As is the case my mind started to run and the conversations, events and people over the last few days started to run through my mind. This went for some time before I started to berate myself. What is the point of all this I told myself. Why can’t I rise up above this. I told myself where is my book going to come from, where is my first big idea, where is my philosophy to change the world. Like all other thoughts this too got lost in the chain.

My mind then turned to Delhi. I have had a strange relationship with Delhi. I love this city dearly and yet I dont know why I love it so much. This relationship is becoming more strange now that I dont live in Delhi. Everytime I come to Delhi, I dont feel like coming again and the more that I stay away from Delhi I want to go back to it. It is like i am straddling two boats and the boats are drifting apart. Unless I don’t resolve this quickly I am bound to fall in the middle and lose both the boats. My mind then moved onto why is it that I like Delhi so much.

For me Delhi has this energy that I dont feel anywhere else and I think I come back to feel this energy. This is the energy which comes from a city going about its business inspite of all the odds. There are power cuts, water shortages,high levels of pollution, extreme summer and a cold winter, lack of safety for women and children and yet the city shows up to work day after day. After work the city shows up in its now many malls, cinemas, late night marriages, night clubs in the middle of the week.They work hard because there is this immense desire to escape the tyranny of daily infrastructure management of fixing the inverter for backup power or ensuring that the water pump is switched on everyday or they will be no water.  To escape from this they pay astronomical sums for apartments in the middle of nowhere so they can get electricity and water at all times and so their children can be secure inside the ‘compound’. So while the administration falters in providing the basic services and regulating the private builders it overcompensated by allocating land to builders faster than you can say infrastructure.

Inspite of all this the city thrives.  It is probably the fastest going metro in the country and it will soon become the largest city in India if it is not one already. It is the laboratory of urban transport experiments like – more cars than anywhere else, more flyovers than any other city, biggest metro service and a bus corridor. The bus corridor is quite a sight. I used to see it everyday as it was on the main road near to my house. It is a sight I never thought I will see in Delhi. While the cars are stuck behind each other, the bus corridor offer a smooth ride to bus passengers who seem to alight and disembark almost lazily while the car owners look on. It is like as if the caste system has been reversed and even though you have spent more money you don’t get the right of way.

In the time I spent in Delhi I spend as much time reading newspapers trying to understand if they are focusing more on international affairs. I also tried to watch news on television but I always found myself switching to BBC World News ! The feeling I always get is that while most Indians I meet think that India is destined to be a superpower , no one really knows what it means and the knowledge of the world beyond is very limited. The focus is more on the former and no one really talks about developing the latter.

From my limited reading, international news coverage is dominated by 30% Pakistan, 20% US, 20% UK and Australia, 20 % China and 10% the rest of the world (including the subcontinent). Pakistan has gone down over the years and China has come up and continued to stay up. There is still too little focus on China and East Asia and still too much focus on Pakistan. A leading national daily has launched a ‘people to people friendship’ venture along with a newspaper in Pakistan to promote peace in the two countries. I don’t see the point of this venture. Can this not be resolved by simply putting more people in Pakistan and getting more unbiased stories out of that country. Why this charade of this grand friendship venture? and why only with Pakistan ? what about Bangladesh, Nepal , Sri Lanka or even Japan. Japan is the second largest economy in the world, it is a big institutional investor in India, presents a counterweight to China in Asia and how much does the average newspaper reader know about that country. Especially when LDP has been voted out of power for the first time in more than 50 years. What does DPJ rule hold for India ?

But this post is about Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina was in Delhi around the same time. While she was feasting on ‘illish’ I was checking out news coverage of her trip in India and I was very disappointed. India’s relationship with Bangladesh has been a sticky one at best and a bad one at most times. My favourite story is when I was in Dhaka in 2001 on the 30th anniversary of its independence from Pakistan and while the newspapers were full of coverage of how the war was won, there was not one mention of India. If that is not an unqualified foreign policy disaster then I don’t know what is !  It is like  if Iraq celebrates its freedom from Saddam in 30 years time and there is no mention of the US !!

But more importantly – why is the media not going around town talking about this visit. Why is it fixated with Pakistan ? I have always been surprised about the lack of knowledge, in the non Bengali speaking community, about Bangladesh in India.  Exactly what is this country of 160 million people about ? I only hear about it when it is affected by a natural disaster or about illegal immigrants from across the border. India imports natural gas from middle east when Bangladesh sits on huge reserves. Is it really that impossible to get them to trade gas ?

By some stroke of fortune, India has finally got a Prime minister who understands the potential of good relations with Bangladesh and this trip was a successful one.  Bangladesh agreed to do things which I never thought would be possible even a year ago and India promised a 1 billion $ credit which I didn’t know it had lying around. The PM should know better than anyone else, he after all co-wrote a report on reconstruction of Bangladesh in 1972 !

I was an avid autorickshaw user when I used to live in Delhi. As market segmentation goes, autorickshaws sit somewhere between taxis and personal vehicles on one side and buses on the other side.  I couldn’t afford to have my own car and I was too posh to travel in buses.  So either I walked it or took the autorickshaw. I have had some of my  best experiences in autorickshaws and it is a way of discovering a city, and through it a country, like no other. Using an autorickshaw is a complex affair and it starts from the moment you decide that you want to hail one and it only ends when you reach your destination and paid your money. Between these two, anything can happen really.It is also your daily dose of negotiation, emotional blackmailing and threatening.

Autorickshaws in Delhi are notorious for not using fare meters and so for every trip fares are set  arbitrarily. They have a million reasons for not using the meter – it is raining so it is not working, it is too hot or too cold, the meter fare does not pay for my living expenses etc etc. It is not uncommon to get a breakdown of their income vs expenses and an analysis of how by using the meter they are sinking towards the poverty line. Once, the traffic police setup a helpline to report autorickshaw drivers who weren’t using their meter. I remember one day going through two autorickshaw stands and reporting about twenty cases to the helpline. I don’t know if they ever got fined, but I certainly got boycotted by them and they refused to even talk to me for the next two weeks.

Autorickshaws are also a good barometer of the state of urban infrastructure in the city and the differences across different neighbourhoods. Because they run on these tiny wheels and have no suspension to speak of, every little pothole feels like a ditch. So it is easy for me compare the state of the roads across different parts of the city. From what I remember, the state of roads in Lutyens Delhi all the way to Connaught Place were the best. The interior of autorickshaws sometimes makes for interesting reading. Usually the more interesting and done up ones are self-owned and the bare ones are on rent. The interiors usually have pictures of Gods and Goddesses, actors and actresses, family pictures, lots of mirrors and in some cases a full music system.

Autorickshaw drivers are some of the finest conversationalists I have come across. There is a lot of talk in Delhi but very little conversation. Once the rate is set and the journey is decided then it is time for the real conversation.  The drivers usually don’t start a conversation and it is usually me who starts to ask questions. If the auto has interesting pictures I ask them about that and one thing leads to another. Or I ask about where they are from, where do they live, about their family and how much do they manage to save etc. This time when I was in Delhi I used the auto twice and it was more out of the need for the conversation rather than needing a mode of transport.

First time I used the auto was at 3 am in the morning in front of a popular night club on a Monday night/Tuesday morning. It was biting cold and the night club was getting very boring. My most interesting conversations so far had been with the security guards and the bouncers. So when I finally decided to leave the nightclub I had to take an autorickshaw home. We first agreed on a rate and this time I only did some obligatory bargaining so he doesn’t feel that he could have asked for more. Then we talked about the night club scene in Delhi and which ones are the better ones and why. He asked if I drink and then he offered me some foul smelling thing which I declined. He then asked me why was I single and why didn’t I pick someone up from the nightclub, which prompted my question is that what people usually do here ? Then we talked about metro constructions and if that will affect his business.

Second time, was for a short duration and it was to go to a school reunion. This time the conversation was more interesting. The driver was from Purnea, Bihar and he was talking about how he is going to leave Delhi soon and go back to his land and business back there. He talked about how he makes 200Rs a day (after paying for rent and petrol) and from that he feeds his family and over the years has also managed to buy some land in his village. He said that he didn’t like Delhi, what with the pollution and all the hassles. We also spoke about the Purnea literary scene and he told me about a famous detective novels writer whose name I have now forgotten.  We spoke about Nitish and the difference he is making to governance in Bihar.

It was independence day the other day and my head was full of all sorts of thoughts. It is hard for me to make sense of them but in my time honoured tradition, I feel like marking the occasion, making a speech or something. It’s a bit late to do a flag hoisting so this post will have to do.

It is a bit surreal for me to see Manmohan Singh to make the speech from Red Fort. The Red fort has seen so many rulers in its time. Yet I wonder if it knows what to make of this one. He doesn’t sound like a ruler, his demeanour is certainly not of one, he is not a rabble rouser, he doesn’t ‘carry’ the audience with him, he can’t win an election and even his Jai Hinds don’t sound as passionate. He is one of the back room boys who has been pushed into the front room. I vaguely remember his first speech and I remember feeling sorry for him. I felt sorry for him because he would never quite get the credit for being who he is simply because he was a plant and even as plants go he had no front room skills. I also felt sorry for our country which I thought doesn’t quite deserve him and certainly hadn’t voted for him to be the prime minister. When he first made his speech no one would have predicted that he would still be making a speech 5 years, one election and a heart surgery later. I certainly didn’t expect that.

For the first time in the history of India, a non-politician has been at the helm of affairs for so long. While you could argue that some of these years have been spent learning some political skills on the job, some of these have also been spent bringing back room discipline to politics. I see more and more of it in the new government. The new government has set off on a breathtaking pace, by Indian standards, and all the ministries are rushing out with their 3 months, 6 months and annual plans. This is almost like a company announcing its quarterly results (probably another backroom skill being brought to governance). More importantly, the PM is also asserting his newly learnt front room skills. He has got himself an external affairs minister who is not exactly a heavyweight in foreign affairs, the heavyweight (who is also effectively the deputy PM) has been moved to Finance and in finance there is no bigger heavyweight than the PM himself. That is a move that Indira Gandhi would have been proud of. There is also so much politically correct about this prime minister. He is a Sikh and there is no bigger patriot than him as he himself told the Left parties during the nuclear stand off last year.

This brings me nicely onto what I want to talk about next. As a child I have totally bought into India’s moral standing in the world. India since independence has had a lot to say to the world on the right path. Whatever the country did was given this cloak of the morally correct thing to do. That cloak has come off, and in some cases rightly so, since the 90s. India is increasingly part of the world that now fights for scare resources and it now does whatever needs to be done to feed its economic development. This is quite interesting as all the top economies have subtle or big differences in their political outlook but that doesn’t stand in the way of meeting their economic objectives which are quite similar.

I am not sure what is India looking to gain by holding out on climate change talks. Yes our per capita emissions are among the lowest in the world, yes there is an additional cost to be borne for low carbon development and yes the developed world is responsible for most of the environmental mess if not all of it. Yes to all of that. But then what about the moral cloak, what about doing the right thing, or atleast to be seen to be doing the right thing. It makes sense if India is holding out for a better deal from the developed nations, but then what was a good deal 2 years ago is probably now a non-existent deal in a credit crunched world. The Copenhagen summit is 5 months away and India refuses to budge.

Can we not tell the developed world, that even though you have messed up our planet, we will help you clean it? Because we are India and we always do the right thing. Jai Hind.

A friend of mine once gave me a very interesting insight into marriage. She said that people after they get married start to hate those very things that they loved about their spouses before marriage. I have decided to take that argument a step forward and say that people start to love those very things that they hated in their spouses when they were married. I say this out of experience because there is a divorce playing out in my head. This is my divorce with Delhi.

I lived in (with) Delhi for many years and I think we would have continued to live for happily ever after if I had not called it quits and moved away. I was the perfect spouse because I loved Delhi more than Delhites. I thought I needed a break and it will do me good. But Delhi I think lost no time in throwing me out of her life and ofcourse she has no shortage of suitors. I now sit here like a jilted ex-spouse and start to reminisce about the same things that I used to hate about Delhi. I miss the feeling of sweat running down my neck, I miss the chaos in everything, I miss waking up in the middle of the night on a hot summer night because of a power cut, haggling with a rickshawallah to get to work everyday and fighting over parking space ! I feel infinitely jealous if someone is going to Delhi, I want to be on all work and fun related trips that go to Delhi.

So while Delhi is in the middle of a makeover for the commonwealth games, I sit here and go to obscure lectures by people who have written books about her. I sit here biding my time and wondering if we will have a second romance.

As promised in the last post – the mini rant magnified into a major one. The holiday is now over and I am out of a cold , foggy Delhi into a colder , snowy London. Bit like from the freezer to the glacier. On the flight back I was thinking how increasingly I feel estranged from my country. If I can’t connect to a place where I was born and spent most of my life, I don’t know how I can connect anywhere else. The more I see of India, I feel I know less and less and I want to see more. But the more I meet my fellow Indians of various ilks and sizes the more I feel I have seen enough and I don’t want to meet one more.

In this trip, someone told me about the Mahabharata and how it was time for the earth to be rid of millions of warriors and how it is time for a nuclear war to do the same in the subcontinent !  Its a strange spiritual bent to a hideous thought. Travelling in and around the country directly and indirectly I wondered more strongly than ever on how does this country function. I wondered how the focus on the trivial assumes paramount importance over everything else. I saw a movie where one of the characters talked about how a woman’s conduct and bearing is more important to us than her death. I read as many newspapers I could lay my hands on and I wondered if they are really serving the needs of a multicultural , billion plus democracy. Sitting in one of the many coffee places, I observed people and I felt very disconnected. Even though they spoke in a language I call my mother tongue, and they spoke about issues that are not foriegn to me , I felt we were from different planets.

But then there were times when I did feel connected or atleast the need to connect. Driving through the streets of Delhi I felt this urge to sleep under the flyover for one of the cold nights. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful way to connect with the city ? I love it how the street kids sell magazines. Even though they are illiterate they know all the magazines and what they are about. They do a brilliant pitch in 15 seconds. I think management theory should look at co relation of sales with time since last meal. Driving through South India, I felt connected with the roads, the smells and even the honking. The roads felt very Indian, the smell of Indian petrol and the honking was of an India in a hurry to get somewhere. I think honking is one of the good examples of national integration. North, south, east, west we honk and we understand the language of honking.

So what am I saying ? I connect to India but not to Indians. Is that really possible , or am I just manufacturing my version of the reality ? How can I distinguish a country from its people ? I think I can. The country is about ideas, about dreams and aspirations of the independence movement, about the ‘satyameva jayate’ on a rupee note, about its many languages and cultures. While its people are like me, who go once in a while, criticise and come back.