Monday, August 27, 2007

Building a house in India: A paradigm shift

All the members of the G-gang used to laugh at Prasad when he used to come up with this statement Shucks man! I should have been born a few years earlier. I would have been a millionaire. But then, over a period of time, we could realize what he said was just true. The IT (Information Technology) scenario around the time of 1998 was one of the best periods for a budding engineer to blossom. People made money like never before, investing in the stock market and reaping the benefits to the last pie. It was the time when the common man turned into a big man.

Let us forget the IT boom and the resulting doom. Let us go back to the early nineties, no, the late nineties. Everyone knew that if you could come to the US for a couple of years, it was well within your reach to build a palatial home in Malleswaram, Bangalore. Make it three years, and you could enhance your home with the best of furnishing. There was a huge difference in the economy of the two countries - USA and India. The dollar rate was at an all time high. The multiplication factor never fell below fifty. People who went to the US had built an aura around themselves. This was actually the time our economy was on the threshold of big time boom. The number of people traveling abroad was beginning to rise, and the purchasing power parity of the public was on the verge of taking off to new heights. People were gradually looking forward to disposing off their old scooters and bullets, rather their old Maruti 800s and taking the plunge with the good cars from the Japanese and Korean markets. The market had opened up to everybody. The consumer was satisfied and the seller had the opportunity to sell a variety of things. This phase of development is crucial to India's development in the early part of the new millennium. This was the time when the market in India was opening up and people who were reaping the benefits had all the advantages to settle down perfectly in India.

This phase, I would call as the important phase of economic boom. This was the period of making good investments and getting into real estate just as the values were beginning to soar. Ten years hence, as we continue to embark to the land of opportunities, the question that begs to be asked is If you work in the US for a couple of years, can you buy a house in Malleswaram like before? The answer from even the most optimistic person in the world would be a strict no no. Why? A single bedroom flat which used to cost about ten lakh rupees ten years ago, now costs about forty lakhs. Prices have shot up in the most unthinkable manner. The difference is, an employee in US gets the same amount as what he was getting ten years back. He is not making any extra bucks that would help him elevate to a higher standard. The quality of life here has not changed a bit. But in India, the glamor factor has wowed the common man in such a way that glossy malls, imported cars and a lavish lifestyle have just got embedded in day to day living. Everything is affordable even though it has become costly. People do not think twice to spend on something totally unnecessary. The purchasing power of the public has become magical. But, the bottomline is, all these things that are affordable do not tell the true story of the Indian economy. There is no concept of savings, as everyone looks to thrive on the present than worry about the future. The market is luring the public with the gettable items leaving them with a mountainous task when it comes to building a house.

Now, it is just too clear to notice that two years of good savings here in the US cannot buy you anything grand in India. You just have to bide your time in the US to create a wealth of fortune before heading back home. Of course, if you want to settle here, there is no point in worrying about what is written here, else, like Prasad says How I wish I could go back in time!!!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The dilemma

Ramu felt the sweltering heat hit him on his back from the solitary ray of the sun. He was lying on the ground in the backyard of his mother's ancestral home in the village, at a spot about three feet away from the well that was the only source of water for the entire household. He was at bliss in this part of the house, which was well populated with all kinds of trees, the vegetables of which found their way to everyday lunch and dinner. In spite of the covering from the trees, he felt a single ray of light peering through the gap formed by the branches of the neem and drumstick tree. He tried to ward off the ray by moving aside slightly, but as he was confronted by one more, its counterpart, he fell back to his original position. His laziness prevented him from making further adjustments and rightly so. The backyard, the well, the trees and the stone used for washing clothes gave a sort of aura to the place elevating him to an unexplainable bliss. He loved drawing water from the well and pouring it on himself, a ritual in this part of the country, and so alien to city life. Whenever he went back to the city, he always carried pleasant memories of the place and wishing for more time to stay back. His stream of thoughts was interrupted as he fell asleep in due course of time, unaware and unmindful of all the activities taking place inside the house.

His sleep was broken by a small twig from atop the tallest branch of the guava tree. In deep slumber, sometimes, even the minutest irritation can wake a person, leaving him restless and irritated. Ramu shifted slightly and once again, closed his eyes. But sleep is such a strange thing that the more you try to get it, the more it escapes from you. He just lay staring blankly at the wide expanse of the sky above. The chirping of the birds and the rustling of the leaves added a new dimension to the already existing harmony of the place. He knew that as the day progressed, the ground would be covered with dry leaves and flowers, not to forget the numerous twigs. He did not know for how long he lay there. He looked at his watch to realize that he had been lying there all morning, and it was already close to noon. Sometimes, time just flies, he thought. He recollected how it would seem like years, when he sat in the classroom, peering out through the window hoping for the slightest distraction that would break the monotony of the drawl. As he, with great effort, rose to get inside the house before people started missing him, his gaze fell upon the small puddle of water near the well. It was the perfect moment to try his boat making skills. He pulled out some leaves from the trees, carefully stitched them together with tiny twigs lying on the ground, and formed a sort of miniature vessel. He placed some dry leaves inside and erected a twig to the base of the vessel, giving it a mast of its own. He balanced the vessel with soft hands on the still water, and left the place once he was really sure that the vessel could manage on its own.

He entered the house, and as expected, was a beehive of activities, with several people voicing out unnecessary opinions (that's what he felt) at the same time. The commotion in the entire household had to be seen to be believed. The ladies were discussing the different recipes for the same item, the logic of which he absolutely could not understand. Ramu's grandma was stirring something in a vessel kept on the stove. Ramu liked his grandmother a lot, and he had not seen any cook surpassing her skills. The men of the house were caught in rapt attention to the cricket world cup being telecast on television. As usual, they discussed about the poor performance of the home team. The toddlers were playing in the hall listening to the men in conversation. Some of them were playing the swing, which was swaying forth in full gaiety. Ramu found a place on the wooden plank, and he was able to swing forward and backward, the cool air generated from the natural movement filled him with tranquil amidst the noise. The aroma from the kitchen wafted to all parts of the house. His cousin went inside quietly, and brought murukkus and mixture away from prying eyes. The swaying motion along with a good munch put him at ease.

His uncle, who was resting his back against one of the supporting pillars, smiled at him and asked him "What next?" Ramu replied "Maybe one more murukku." "No, I am talking serious stuff. I meant What next in life?" Ramu knew not to play with his uncle when he was serious. He always thought it to be trivial to talk about the future. He was not a sort of person who would plan things the way others wanted him to. He was in his final year of college and he had not even decided whether to take up engineering or medicine. He cursed at the structure of the society. Everybody wanted him to do a professional course. He never understood why it was always the same question. He had a vision and he desperately wanted to voice it out. Why can't I take up journalism or law? On a lighter note, he thought Why can't I become an engine driver? He dared not say these things to his uncle. He wondered about all the bottled up dreams and aspirations he had in him. Why was he forced to become materialistic just like everybody else? He always saw himself as a social creature. He could not strike a career by sitting in a corner and dreaming about the yearly expenditure and savings. Ten years back, when he was asked the same question, he had screamed out Truck Driver. The whole family had burst out laughing. He felt he had not changed a bit from what he was ten years ago. But the difference now was that he could not give the same answer. Ramu's mind was filled with a flurry of thoughts. What if I tell him Engineering? After four years, I would be facing a similar question. The quest for the next step, he felt, was endless. He looked at the toddlers and was filled with a sense of jealousy. But he quickly realized that they too had to follow the same path. Ramu was the eldest in the family in the new generation and he was the focus point of everyone's life. Ramu, inwardly laughed at the futility of life - education, job, relationship, marriage, family, responsibility and old age. There is nothing much in life after all this, thought Ramu. He hated these decision making moments. He felt all decisions, ultimately, led to the same path in life. His reverie was broken by his uncle's voice "Ramu, what are you thinking?" Ramu had the good sense not to answer that question. He looked back and forth and he needed no second invitation when he heard a voice from the kitchen calling out his name.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Indian restaurants at Boston, Sigh!

Boston, easily one of the biggest cities in US with considerable Indian population and of course, lot of Indian restaurants by the wayside. The suburbs have a good number of restaurants well balanced with North Indian and South Indian food. The weekends give us good time to explore these restaurants and rate them based on the delicacies served. Being a dosa freak, my eyes involuntarily go to that section of the menu which serve different types of dosas. In Bangalore, whenever I used to venture out to eat outside, even if I made up my mind for dosas, I would not feel complete without eating the Masala Dosa. Here too, it is no different. Though the menu lashes out ten different kinds of dosas, I would simply settle for the Masala Dosa. Habits die hard, and towards masala dosas, it is impossible.

We have easily visited about ten different joints over the last couple of months. One bite of the dosa, and I know that it is nowhere, not even remotely close to what I get in Bangalore. Forget the comparison with the home of masala dosas, CTR, it does not come close to what is served even in a moderate darshini in Bangalore. Maybe after having dosas in CTR, the expectations are too much and I end up cursing over the duration of the meal. Now, I am just resigned to my fate of not having good dosas.

Well, I had an interesting experience yesterday in Cambridge with a group of friends. We were really hungry, and we decided to try out the lunch buffet at Tamarind Bay, located on Winthrop Street. The appetizer (Bhel Puri which we can make out of the ingredients kept on the buffet table) was not bad, and thankfully, the vegetable pakoras were good. As we shifted on to the main course, we realized that vegetarians did not have a great option, just a couple of dishes to complement the Naan. The less I say about the main dishes, the better. It was totally unpalatable. Dal seemed to be a good option, as it is one of the dishes which is really difficult to mess up. My friend was quick to prevent me from taking that option, as he told me that it was not in good taste. So, all of us decided to go back to one more round of self made appetizer. After the meal, I decided to give the hotel a feedback about the kind of food served. I told the waiter The food was not at all good. It really has to improve. He comes back with a reply which is one of the worst I have heard But you finished everything that was on the plate. I just could not understand how they could treat customers in such a derogatory fashion. As a customer, we are providing a feedback which has to be taken in good spirits, instead of coming up with such retorts. Are we having a debate or what? As a customer, having paid for my food dutifully, I have every right to tell him what I feel about the food. But, if he has not got the ear to listen to the feedback, he can as well shut shop immediately.

All of us went back with a sick feeling, and vowed never to return to the place again. The bottomline is simple, when you are hungry, go to a tried and trusted place; Don't ever experiment! It is just not worth the risk!!!

Oh!!! I want to eat in CTR!!!!!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

India - Shining and Rising @ 60

It sometimes requires a lot of effort to come out of your dumps, beat the blues and get into the real world amidst the thick of things. The last two weeks kept me busy with the unfavourable modes of life, and after sighing (a bit actually) and sulking, I came to terms with reality and now have moved on pretty well. A two weeks of hiatus from the world of blogging, I wanted to continue only if I found something stirring and moving to write about, instead of writing about the daily vagaries of life. What better topic can get more evocative than writing about the country! All Indian channels are beaming the news to keep us aware that India is turning 60, but that feeling lay hidden somewhere in the corner of my heart, and I had not truly felt the magnitude of the moment. Of course, the feeling was developing within over the last few days, but not good enough to express it in words. Some things are best left unwritten when the moment does not take you over. One has to wait for the right moment to express certain things, and today, I had a generous influx of unimaginable emotional and patriotic sentiments towards
MY country. There is always a sense of pride(I wish there is a better word in English to express this moment) when I talk about India, but today, the feeling was just overwhelming as I was flooded with a sense of patriotic fervour towards the country.

Lazing around the whole day, spending time on books and movies, the evening plan was made to watch Chak De India, where Shahrukh Khan(was one of my personal favorites in the industry; I used to love his mature thoughts in interviews) dons the role of the Indian women's hockey national team's coach, bringing together a group of girls from different parts of the country, integrating the national team, and driving home the importance of what Indianness is all about. The movie was gripping and showed our national game hockey (what an irony!) in wonderful light. The Indian mantra in the movie, the national anthem, the tricolour and the feeling of INDIA, just left me with a pulsating patriotic feeling running through my veins. I just could not curtail my excitement, as anything that has got to do with the country leaves me transfixed with an absolutely positive attitude and well-being.

So, the bottom line is, Independent India is turning 60. The blogosphere, internet, media, television, newsprint and almost every source is pointing to this fact. In fact, the TIME magazine has come out with a special edition to commemorate the occasion. What do I feel about my country, having lived in a foreign land for two years, first as a student and then, as a working professional. The 90s have truly been a turning point for India, what with the facelift it received from brilliant economic reforms, ease of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), an attempt being made to bridge the gap between the government and the common man, creating innumerable employment opportunities for the educated individual, enabling him to experience a standard of living like never before and more importantly, creating the impetus to achieve a good GDP.

Top Indian technology companies formed a base starting the silicon valley in Bangalore, later spreading the roots to Hyderabad, Madras, Pune, Calcutta, Gurgaon and Noida, and now striking the second tier of cities - Mysore, Coimbatore, Trivandram and Hubli. The average pay package of a graduate has increased from a nominal range of Rs. 50000 - Rs. 80000 per annum to a starting package of Rs. 3,00,000 - Rs. 10,00,000 per annum. The former yearly package is not even sufficient enough to qualify as the present monthly salaray. The times have just changed. Every company abroad wants to set up a base in India, what with a great talent pool, and more importantly, at affordable rates. India is creating the big names - Narayanmurthy of Infosys, Azim Premji of Wipro, Ratan Tata of TATA, Ambanis of Reliance, Birlas, Lakshmi Mittal of Mittal Steel and others have forayed well to create a niche for themseleves in the global arena. It is surely a matter of pride.

We have always prided ourselves on equipping ourselves with value based education. The whole system is designed in such a way, that for a typical Indian middle class family, education tops the priority list. This is a great boon for developing India to create and nurture talent, allowing young minds to think outside the box, and provide a platform that would enable them to excel proficiently in any field of interest. India has in it to provide the right guidance in almost any field of study. That really augurs well for the future.

In terms of agriculture, India is more than self-sufficient. Gone are the times in the early fifties when India had to import tonnes of rice and sugar from Japan and China. The five year plans were established to set up a progressive economy with industrialization and agriculture topping the agenda. India holds geographical patents in terms of Basmati, a type of rice that is consumed throughout the world, famous for its fragrance and delicate flavour. It is also heartening to note the rise of exports as far as the textile industry is concerned. India has emerged as one of the world's largest exporter of cotton and silk garments. Mysore and Kancheepuram along with Benares have emerged as acclaimed territories for high quality silk sarees.

It is just not enough to write about what one feels about India in a blog. The list is obviously endless. But, more importantly, we need to delve on the other side of India. What is it that we are missing or what is it that's going wrong. The infrastructure in US inevitably leads me to compare the facilities we have back home. Water, electricity, roads, natural resources are just aplenty and good in other countries. There is a big chunk of the country living without the basic amenities and that is truly disheartening. The disparity in income is glaring among different sections of the society. The conditions of roads are a big mess in most parts of the country. It is not that roads here do not get damaged, but people are put in place almost immediately to set things right. We need to have a system in place to put things in order. Here, people tend to follow the rules perfectly on road. In India, it is almost taken for granted that the other person is going to break the rules. We somehow have to shed this attitude and imbibe within ourselves a more structured way of public living. Public toilets are a revelation here. How many of them use the public toilets in India? Most of us leave the place unusable within a few days of its inauguration. A glaring thing that is noticed back home is that, anything outside our homes is treated as garbage. We are happy as long as we keep our house clean, but anything beyond the house premises is not our concern. Communal tensions and petty fights and squabbles have to end. We should learn not to burn our surroundings once we lose a popular figure in the country. Our country is not about a few individuals. We should realize that and work with a collective effort for the betterment of the country.

I definitely do not want to harp on our negatives. But the point is I want to see our country grow in the right way. We need to set certain things in order. Every house has some flaws, and in a similar way does every country. There is no denying that we have a great system in place, and if we can rectify the flaws, we will be heading towards a highly progressive India. At the end of the day, that is what each and every Indian wants to see. We definitely can do it, and if we don't do it, who will do it? Each of us have a responsibility to fulfill and it would be great to see things shape up well.

There is no doubt that inspite of the tall order, there is no denying the love and passion each of us have towards our country. As I keep saying (in my earlier blogs),one has to get out of India to experience what India is all about. Emotions fly thick and fast in a foreign land, and the kind of happiness that a fellow Indian brings to your face is one of the most wonderful moments. We try to create a feeling of home away from home, with talks centering on how we can contribute towards the development of the country. The feeling is there uppermost in everybody's minds with each of us wanting to contribute whatever we can over a period of time. All of us are certainly heading towards a vibrant India. At the end of the day, one thing is clear, the kind of happiness that thoughts of India bring you is unmatched by anything else in the world. India is a complete package - family, values, festivals, togetherness, sense of belonging and system, and right now it just suffices to say that I am missing all these things.

Wishing you all a Happy 60th year of Indian Independence!!!