Long Walks On Leafy Streets

1/8/2019 Race Course Rd, Coimbatore, India
I am writing this as we ascend through the clouds above Europe on our way back to Washington, DC, on Sunday January 6. It has been a whirlwind 3 week trip to India and it ended just the way it started, with waves of joy, excitement and satisfaction combined with ripples of anxiety, ambivalence and discomfort. But just as you only have good feelings and memories after a long run and don't remember the hard miles, I only have good feelings and memories of India and will miss it until the next time.

Friday night we checked into a hotel near the Chennai airport around 9pm and soon after we got into our room all three of us went to bed. I had a cold and an upset stomach as did Nicole. Yesterday morning I woke up looking forward to a nice run in the early morning freshness of Chennai but felt too weak to get up from bed. I also had plans to check out the Chennai metro.
I was going to ride it from near our hotel to Annanagar to pick up some things. At first I felt that I was being lazy and wimpy but later realized that the body really needed a rest. I mostly stayed in bed until about 3pm and even then felt very weak. Without much appetite I ate practically nothing until we went for dinner around 6pm. That is probably the most time I have spent in bed, without food, in two years. The last time it happened was in January of 2017 when I caught a stomach bug from Prashant and we both were in bed, at home, while Nicole was away. I wrote about it then in this blog and that time also it stopped me from running. Luckily I didn't have the same bouts of vomiting and diarrhea this time. With a careful diet of mostly iddlies, rice, and bread I have recovered quickly and gotten back to normal this sunday morning. And just like two years ago the enforced rest and fasting had a purifying effect on the mind and hopefully the body.

So what were the sources of joy and what were the sources of anxiety and discomfort? Much of it was probably because of the very short duration. But I must say this trip has brought up a lot of soul-searching and emotions from the depths of my being. Even before we started I was quite ambivalent, anxious and uncomfortable about it, and the reasons were many. To be honest I must say, at this particular time it felt as if I really did not look forward to it, superficially at least. Of course India will always be my home and no matter what I will always be happy to be there and see my people. When one is in any temple in India or talking to the people on the streets immediately he or she feels the deep spiritual consciousness and energy of the country, built up over millennia. Yet this trip and the questions it has raised has also made me face realities that I have avoided or somehow been blind to.

On the flight from Chennai to Frankfurt I saw a very well made and well-written Japanese movie called "Life in Overtime" based on a book by Makiko Uchidate. It is about an ambitious man who retires from a high level position and finds himself facing many questions about his own self and his relationship to his family and life in general. One of the things about the movie that impressed me was the brutal honesty. In one scene the protagonist is talking to a young woman who needs some comfort after facing a big disappointment in her quest to become a children's writer. He tells her "You have been trying for ten years. You simply have no talent. If you keep trying you will waste the rest of your life." I am sure persistence and hope have their place in life but often our ambition can blind us to reality. Sometimes I feel the same way about my own life, that perhaps I should quit and try something else. What keeps me going is the love I feel for and from students as well as the joy I get from research. So I don't feel disappointed although I do feel a constant obligation to do better.

The deepest question to me was my own relationship to India. I am always asking myself what more can I do or what I can do differently, in terms of helping the country of my birth. I live a somewhat comfortable life in the US, for which I owe the people of India. Apart from taking care of my parents and donating to NGOs like AID (Association for India's Development) I have done very little. While booking hotels and flights I felt somewhat uncomfortable. Here I was going to India to live the high life like a western tourist. I would have looked down on a non-resident Indian travelling in India like this had I been living there. But I had to make sure I did everything I could to provide a safe and comfortable trip for Nicole and Prashant because they had not grown up in India. This was also a way for me to give Nicole a treat after a very stressful year at work. Nicole had told me that when she visited India in 2010 the trip was very stressful for her mentally and physically. Often the hotels where we stayed were substandard even though they were advertised as luxury hotels. Some of them didn't have the level of cleanliness that even an affordably priced hotel in the US would have. She was also worn out by the excessive amount of travel in crowded buses and trains, so this time we travelled mostly by flight and private car. Travelling in private car helped her avoid the constant stares to some extent. I was myself visiting after eight years, so I was able to get a very faint taste of how overwhelming India could be for a first time visitor. Just too many people squeezed into too little space. In fact even wondered, although ultimately didn't do it, whether I should get vaccines for myself.

The next most bothersome aspect of the trip was the current socio-political climate in the US and India. Getting the visas to go to India itself was a big process. We were worried about getting stopped at security and immigration etc., given all the crazy things happening on that front in the US. Nicole has been wondering if they would stop her at the airport in the US because she is still sick. In India the Hindu nationalists are in power and there have been many incidents involving violence against women, minorities and tourists. While we were in Kerala traveling from Ernakulam to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) and back there were protests and counter-protests, some involving violence, centered around the recent Supreme Court decision requiring that women of all ages be allowed into the Sabarimala temple. On Thursday there was a statewide strike sponsored by those in support of the temple authorities, including the BJP (the Hindu nationalist party in power in India). We were at my aunt's home and could not go anywhere all morning and only left around 5pm to Ernakulam. Many of my Indian friends and family are big supporters of Prime Minister Modi and I was worried about how they would interact with me. I am happy to write that everyone I met treated me with the same level of affection as ever but just out of precaution I completely avoided any discussion of Modi. In fact I should say I felt even more love this time. I don't know if it is a case of absence making the heart grow fonder but it was very nice and touching, something I am not sure I deserve.

So during the last couple of weeks before the trip when I was trying to finish all the grading and agonizing over requests from students to change their grades for whatever reason and trying to get everything ready for our trip there were moments when I felt a strong undercurrent of anxiety. I am generally an optimistic and cheerful person but during some of those low moments I felt like an aging, stagnant man drifting along in his life with no country and not being useful to anyone. I felt that I was standing around helplessly as the world was burning due to climate change, violence, greed and selfishness, and that I was contributing to the problems instead of the solutions. This feeling persisted throughout our trip to India as we continued along our way using up enormous amounts of plastic and petroleum. I did make enough contributions to the Nature Conservancy to offset our carbon emissions but not enough to offset my own misgivings. I saw my beloved country the home of so many poets and saints and spiritual traditions, the Gandhian country of my youthful dreams being converted to an ad-hoc imitation of the west with glittering shopping malls and airports and highways and marble tiled flats with garages and cars for the middle class. On the one hand it makes my heart beam with pride on seeing the progress and to see many people live a better life but on the other hand I am also worried about inequality and environmental degradation. But India being what it is I don't think we are at a situation where people start worshipping money and material comforts more than they worship God but one can never take anything for granted.

Physically also I never felt completely normal during the trip. I managed to do the things I have been doing, to keep myself in balance, and thus managed to avoid becoming disagreeable. Yet there were times when I felt like I might be catching something. Luckily all three of us managed to avoid getting seriously sick although Nicole took a bit longer to recover from her bout of illness that started on Friday night. I also started running in Coimbatore. We stayed at a hotel on Race Course Road. When I was growing this area was like the Beverly Hills of Coimbatore (except far less glitzy), a place you heard of but didn't spend much time in unless you were part of the elite. I don't know if it still is like that but I got to walk and run around the Race Course Road. I measured it to be about 1.6 miles, which would make it the length of a course for a horse race, something I never learned in the 10 years we lived there. They have made a nice footpath for people to walk and run and it was nice to see so many people out early in the morning and exercising. It was also nice to run 3 miles for the first time in two months, after the marathon. Even in the early morning hours of winter in what is called "The poor man's Ooty" it got warm and humid so I ran slow. Nevertheless it felt good and I am energized about training for this year's marathon. Nicole and Prashant enjoyed walking on it too. Prashant likes to run and he enjoyed running on it. We also visited the temples near the hotel including the famous Saradambal temple and they were a beautiful experience. One of the highlights of the trip was walking in the Millennium Park in Annanagar, Chennai. It is a small park but with a nice walkway along its edge and well vegetated with the local trees familiar from my childhood. As you walk in the early morning you are accompanied by the chorus of tropical birds and the sound of devotional songs from the temple next door. It felt heavenly and it is something that I would cherish for a long time.

I had a few goals that I wanted to accomplish during this trip to India, all relating to Prashant, since it was his first time in India. I wanted to take him on a train and boat trip and I also wanted to show him some animals.

First about the train ride. From Coimbatore we drove to Coonoor and from there we took a train to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) in the Nilgiri Mountains. Amazingly, there was a more than 20-degree difference in temperature between the foothills and the higher elevations. This train ride goes up the mountains (though not as much as the one starting from Mettupalayam) and the tickets are hard to get. Indeed when I tried to book it online one month ago I found that tickets get sold out six months in advance. But it looks like from Coonoor where some passengers get out a limited number of tickets are sold about half an hour before the arrival. There was a line that formed before the counter was open. Some people clustered together near the counter ignoring the line because that is what people do in India. But here in Coonoor it seems they do it differently and once the station manager came he chased off everyone not in the original line including a western woman whose confused and irate husband then proceeded to curse the station manager and stormed out. The crazy way in which people try to get on a bus or even through airplane security in India without forming lines is something Nicole finds infuriating. Even I have to remind myself that this is how things have always been. Like someone said, the more things change the more they remain the same. It is hard for foreigners to understand how a people so kind and friendly to outsiders can also be so unaccommodating to each other, although I must say Nicole almost never gets the same kind of friendly treatment as people of European origin.

Prashant really loves trains and he enjoyed the ride through the beautiful ridges and valleys of the Nilgiris with their tea plantations and eucalyptus and pine groves. From Ooty we drove to Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary where there are elephants, tigers, wild buffaloes and other animals. Unfortunately Prashant fell asleep as we drove in and missed seeing two elephants that had strayed from the herd and were being chased back into the forest. We then got into a safari Jeep and drove around for an hour but we couldn't see an elephant. We did see many peacocks, spotted deer, langur monkeys, wild boar and hen but try as the driver did we couldn't find an elephant. I was sure I could find an elephant in a temple in Kerala but our timing was such that we either went there before or after the festivals. The temple elephants get dressed up for the festivals which are quite popular with big (chenda) drumming bands. In North Parur, Kerala we stopped at a house that my aunt has built not far from where my mother had been born. Our uncle who was visiting from Dubai also joined us there. He took it upon himself to find an elephant, asking people if anyone knew anybody who had an elephant. But it looks like they keep the elephants as busy as possible. If they are not at a temple they are out helping to haul lumber or something like that because it is expensive to own an elephant.

The other highlight of our trip was riding a boat around Kochi harbor. We used to live just a few minutes walk from the boat piers when we lived in Ernakulam during the first eight years of my life but I had never ridden a boat there. As we were turning towards the marina a man on a motor-bike showed our driver where to go. We thought maybe he was a friend of the driver. On the marina there were several boats and I didn't know if they were good boats or if these were scammers and we started walking away. Then Prashant started crying saying he wanted to go on a boat. So we went back and now the motor-bike guy was there and he showed us a small boat which looked nicer. After haggling about the price a little bit we got into it and I was really happy we did because the look of pure joy on Prashant's face during the whole cruise was priceless. We were treated to a pleasant breezy ride on the deck of the comfortable boat, just the three of us, on a sunny afternoon watching flocks of cranes perched on chinese fishing nets and enormous ships being loaded and unloaded at Kochi harbor. After the trip I asked our driver about his 'friend" and he told us he didn't have any idea who that guy was. Apparently he is just one of the guys who looks for tourists to ride the boats and perhaps gets a commission from the boat owners. We probably paid several times what we should have but at that point I had stopped worrying about it.

So here we are, having flown over 17570 miles internationally, 590 miles in India, spending four entire days in car, reading 1 of 3 books packed for the trip (for me it is 0 out of 2), visiting several relatives and friends, managing to smile through sickness and weariness, and enjoying several beautiful moments as well. I hope Prashant remembers it for a long time and that they are good memories for him. He did seem to enjoy playing with all his cousins. I want him to have a good understanding of what India is. Perhaps when he is older we can also take him to some villages and slums so that he can see all kinds of people living in all kinds of conditions.

As for me, like I said, it helped me face many realities with a clear eye. Not only just about myself but also about my approach to life and my view about India and everything else. Could it be that most middle class people in India only cared about living in good homes and driving nice cars? Could it be that the corporate way is the only way to eradicate poverty in the world? Or is it possible that we will see wealth concentrated in a small percentage of the population forever while the poor are confined to ghettos surrounded by walls? Right now, even by the most optimistic estimates, only about a quarter of the Indian population could be considered middle class. How are we to make that bigger without putting more strain on the social, political and the environmental fabric? What can the rest of the world do to make that possible or is the answer in more people moving out of India? (Of course, things aren't looking all that great for the poor and middle class in the US, but that is for another post).

What if I have gotten so used to living in the US that living in India is difficult for me? It is hard to say from such a short visit. I was just starting to feel comfortable, after the jet lag and the minor ailments had faded out, around about the two week mark. Would I be really comfortable living in India now? Am I wasting my time doing what I am doing in the US or are there better ways for me to earn my living at the same time as making a difference to the world?

Are our Indian ways of living based on accommodation and love for each other and only look different to outsiders or are they based on each person grabbing whatever they can? Are non-westerners condemned to live a life of forever playing catch-up and imitation or are they combining the best of the west and the non-west to make a better world? Is India inherently a Hindu nation and if so what does it mean? Since Hinduism is such a universalist religion, why not just accept the fact that the current world with all its religions is a Hindu world just as our ancestors melded ancient India with all its different Gods into one religion?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I hope to find them in the not too far future. Not that it matters too much, but it will be good to understand things. I don't plan to live in anxiety and worry, nor would it serve any purpose.

In the last scene of the movie "Life in Overtime" the lead character played by Hiroshi Tachi is surrounded by his former high school classmates in a sort of reunion, in their hometown. Upon hearing him lament that he thought he would become big and successful but here he was, one of them gets up. "We all thought we would be big and successful. But..." then he grabs the toupee he has been wearing for the entire movie and hurls it into the ground and yells in the raspy guttural Samurai voice, "we are still here, goddammit, and we are alive. We are not finished yet. Let us dance!" With that they all do the happy dance native to their region. I am glad I too have some loving friends and family to dance the happy dance with.

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