Saturday, October 25, 2008

Notes on America

America- The Great Polluter

Everybody casually says that all Americans drive cars, and statistically, they're almost vindicated. There are more than 270 million cars on the roads, and the population is just 300 million. The only reason the cities are not as polluted as Indian cities is that the former are a lot less dense than the latter. And the US being a huge country, driving distances are large, which means an insane amount of gasoline is burnt every day. To compound the problem, the absence of public transport in most cities means you have twenty cars plying instead of one bus. What is also stunning is the careless use of plastic bags. Unlike in India, where the supermarket wallah will stuff all your saamaan into two or three big plastic bags, the counter waalis here put only 1 or 2 items in a bag, and on average, you come home with 8-10 plastic bags. I've already accumulated more plastic bags in 3 months than mom has in 27 years!

Why do people shop like there's no tomorrow?

For the simple reason that there is no tomorrow. If you finish your gallon of water on Wednesday, it means you have to go to Walmart, park your car, walk all the way to the relevant aisle, and stand in line for anything between 10 minutes and an hour- all for a gallon of water! So people take a deep breath on weekends, and ransack the racks, pick up more than their immediate needs warrant; just to escape the ordeal of shopping on weekdays. I'm not attempting to generalize here- it's just something I've been observing. I'm sorely missing kirana stores.

Why Indians don't have lane discipline

You have to hand it to the Americans. The road network and quality is excellent. You can drive at 120 kmph without being on steroids. The signals on the roads are very helpful, and people new to the city can also navigate fairly easily. The facilities for interstate travel are excellent- there are small exits from the main interstate roads, that have gas stations, supermarkets, and food outlets. But even if India manages to build good quality, wide roads, it's impossible to inculcate lane discipline along the lines of the US or Europe. The only reason is the number of 2-wheelers on Indian roads. Out of a 90-page driving rule book here, there were only 2 pages devoted to motorcycles- and reading it made me realize that if the roads here had half as many motorcycles as India does, all hell would break loose. The lack of lane discipline in India has less to do with Indians' 'driving sense' and more to do with the nature of roads and kind of vehicles driven.

Dignity of labour

One of the favourite tea-time discussions in urban India is how people in the US work as waiters or taxi drivers without any stigma, and how it would be unthinkable to have your son work part time in the neighbourhood dhaba in India (though, thanks to CCD, the idea is catching on). This difference is not because of the famous 'dignity of labour' argument. It's a more blatant and in-your-face reason. The US is a consumption-driven economy and private saving is very less, unlike India which has a much higher savings rate. Parents are understandably keen to see their children fend for themselves when they are old enough. Also, parents can't spend on their kids' indulgences beyond a certain point, which is why you see teenagers working in restaurants. And they are paid well, and tipped very well (15% of the bill). They use the money they earn either to support or to indulge themselves, unlike in India where parents take care of you till you actually start taking care of yourself, and not just till you're physically capable of doing so. Once the trend catches on in India, I'm sure parents won't mind their children earning that extra buck.

Why American parents are reluctant to spend on their kids' college education

Another famous Indians-are-better discussion revolves around American parents not sponsoring their kids' college education. There is a very valid reason for this. College education is offensively expensive here. It generally exceeds the annual income of the family. It's very much like the MBA colleges in India, whose fees too generally exceeds the average middle class annual income. Just like Indian students take loans and pay them off after their MBA, students here do it after high school. It's a combination of unaffordable fees, low savings, and a general encouragement to earn your own living as early as possible.

A word on college education. The fact that many high school students in the US do not go to college might surprise many Indians. In India, the concept of 'at least a degree' is so deeply entrenched that it may seem unthinkable that you can lead a comfortable and fulfilling life without a degree, unless you're the heir to a business or you're Sachin Tendulkar. This notion leads many parents to force a B.Tech down their kids' throats. In the US, vocational courses and diplomas (stuff you find printed on dirty yellow paper and stuck inside RTC buses) are pretty popular, which means you can focus your energies on acquiring a particular skill, and live off that skill for the rest of your life. If you want to build on that skill or move on from it, you can always join college at the age of 30; which brings me to another must-reform area for India. The idea of finishing all your education in one go and then settling down into grihasta, vanaprastha, and sanyasa sounds perfect, but makes our education system extremely inflexible. My mentor in office started his career by building swimming pools, then became a welder, and when he got more curious about welding, joined college at the age of 28 to learn metallurgy. He's now a very successful materials engineer. This is when I resent the decision of the IITs to admit students till only one year after their Class 12. College education is not the norm here, and the citizens are better off for it. By opening up colleges to students of all ages, and encouraging vocational education, we can not only give our adults the opportunity to enhance their learning, but also give a cushion of comfort to 17 year-olds who can't afford / are not interested in college. There are constraints like the limited number of college seats, but it's not a problem that cannot be tackled.

Why don't American households have maid servants?

The biggest dread for any bachelor / single girl moving to the US is the prospect of having to cook, clean, and dispose trash themselves without having recourse to a servant. The main reason for this is, whether a person works as a servant or a CEO, they need a car (how else will your servant commute?) and they have to pay insurance premiums for their car, their home, their health, their life, and everything else imaginable. Can you, or four people together, afford to pay for these 'basic necessities'? The minimum amount you need to earn to live comfortably is so high that it rules out odd jobs like istriwala, naukrani, or kachrawala. The absence of cheap public transport is a handicap the American government must take more seriously than it is. If there was no public transport in India, can you imagine your maid driving a Maruti 800 to your house every day?

Sue, sue, everywhere

I mentioned insurance in the previous paragraph. One reason people are able to save so little here is insurance. Apart from insuring their homes, vehicles, and self, people insure their property like laptops, appliances, etc. People have to get health insurance because healthcare is insanely expensive (a routine consultation can cost more than $100). Healthcare costs are high because doctors have to insure themselves against their patients' wrath. I heard doctors can end up paying $100,000 per year towards malpractice insurance (an insurance that covers the doctor's damages if a patient decides to sue them). Obviously, they have to charge obnoxious consultation fees to recover this. Apart from this, America is, in general, a very sue-happy country- and this is not my observation, it's what almost all my colleagues told me. A woman, who in a moment of extreme negligence spilled coffee on herself thereby burning her skin, sued McDonald's for not informing her that the coffee was hot. In another case, Heinz was sued for $180,000 for not filling a ketchup bottle completely. The long and short of it is, people and corporations spend thousands and millions of dollars respectively in insuring against possible damages. As a result, the real winners in this tamasha are lawyers and insurance companies.

Scarcity of diversity

You can get an idea about how diverse the country is when the people of the North and South differentiate themselves by the way they pronounce the word 'ask'. When everybody in your country speaks the same language, celebrates the same festivals, and eats more or less the same food (though some diversity exists), you are missing the diversity only a country like India has. There's another trivial point I'd nonetheless like to mention. Throughout the country, addresses have the same format: Building no., Street name, Apartment no., City, State- Zip Code. Though there's not much scope for diversity here, addresses in India are a lot more romantic because you'll have a Near Indira Park, or Opposite Gandhi Statue, or Behind Purana Masjid in some addresses. Then you have the Nagars, Baghs, Galis, Vihars, Estates, Bazaars, Puris, and other pointers to the locality you live in. You might live in Sector C, or Pocket A, or Plot no.27, depending on the whims of the developer. When all addresses are in the format 1234, XYZ Street, Apt. 123, New Orleans, LA- 12345, it can get boring.

Being a politician

I might be jumping the gun, sidestepping various issues, and being naive when I say that being a politician in the US is a lot easier than being one in India, but I can't help feeling that way. It's so much easier to reach out to the public here and keep a tab on their pulse. 99% of the American households watch television. Therefore, publicity campaigns, presidential debates, smear campaigns, etc. have such tremendous penetration that you can address the entire electorate in an 8 p.m. show. Also, most of the people here speak the same language, i.e. the President can crack a joke about, say, football, and 300 million people will laugh; he can praise Jesus and not raise eyebrows. This is a huge advantage, because it eliminates the effects of his place of birth and his upbringing. Contrast this to India where you have to travel by foot to address lakhs of people, communicate in a language that a majority can understand but you might not be comfortable with, and know what's music and what's Greek to the public's ears.

The breadth of issues to be tackled by politicians here is minuscule in comparison to what our netas have to handle. Here, there a few very broad issues, and very few local ones, which is the exact opposite of what we see in India. The President here has to mainly tackle public healthcare, defence, external affairs, national debt, education, and the environment- and each citizen understands the implication of each. In contrast, our Prime Minister has to deal with all this, and in addition, tackle coalition politics, communalism, agriculture, casteism, poverty, malnutrition, cross-border tension, infrastructure woes, cottage industries, unemployment, 'inclusive growth', and a lot lot more. If you step back and think about the variety and depth of issues in India, you'll realize how difficult it is to be a good politician. When the economy is doing fine, they have to deal with farmer suicides; when agriculture is doing ok, they have to worry about shortage of power; when industries are flourishing, they have to worry about giving schedule castes their due; when everything is ok, they have NGOs clamouring for the protection of tigers; when they too are quiet, homosexual groups are out on the streets. Hats off to the PM for having the sheer courage to face up to all this! When Manmohan Singh talks about the credit crisis, less than 1/10th of the population knows what he's talking about; when he discusses tax cuts, only half the country understands; when he talks about nuclear power, less than 5% can figure out what he's saying; in other words, the number of issues he has to address in order to ensure there's something for everyone, is much much more than what his American counterpart does.

In Conclusion

I do not intend to compare India and the US per se, but these being the only two countries I've stayed in for reasonable lengths of time, comparisons are inevitable. I've made these observations and assertions from an eye that is only 3 months old in the US, so I may be inaccurate or blatantly wrong in many places. I invite my readers to contest / correct any of my points in the comments' section.

Friday, October 24, 2008

100 days

As I complete 100 days in this country, I sit and reflect on the number of times I've sat and reflected in the last 3-and-a-half months. Most of my sit-and-reflect sessions ended in two-line posts that never saw the light of day. There were so many things I wanted to write about, that I ended up writing nothing. A couple of posts did go beyond two lines -they actually grossed more than 1000 words each- but were directionless and seemed to never end. It's very likely this post will meet the same fate. If we were still in the 70s or the Bollywood of the Barjatyas, I'd have a thousand dustbins filled with crumpled pages. It's in times like these that I stand up and applaud all authors and film-makers; all of them- including Bazmee and TLV Prasad, for their sheer determination and will to take their ideas to completion. Both writing and film-making are notoriously difficult tasks, and successfully completing them are victories in themselves.

There's so much happening in the world these days that it's impossible to not have an opinion about at least some of the issues, and the fact that I seem to have an opinion about all of them is more a pain-in-the-brain than yay-I'm-up-to-date. My day isn't complete without visiting 3 websites-,, and While Cricinfo is a joyous read -some of the best, most unadulterated, most unbiased cricket reports- NDTV and IBN are continuing to paint the world in whichever colour they want to. When I thus lay my brain open to the manipulative forces of NDTV and IBN, they spice, dice, dress, caress, drape, rape, arrest and molest it at will. So while my brain is bursting at its seams (damn! that's a tongue twister) with honest and unwanted opinions on everything from Lehman Brothers to Hindu fundamentalism to Anil Kumble, I'd rather not jump onto the bandwagon of second-hand reporters.

What news channels around the world will not tell you, and what you need to know if you ever plan to dine in my kitchen, is that a middle-aged cockroach was not-so-stealthily climbing up the kitchen cabinet and heading straight for whatever was putrefying on the counter. This is only the 2nd time I've been alone with a cockroach, with no physical support in the form of broom-wielding-grandma, slipper-wielding-mom, or HIT-wielding-dad, or moral support in the form of similarly paranoid hostelmates. The first time was also in this house, where 1 hour into a movie I realised I had company. But the need to exterminate this 2nd crawler was more urgent as failure to do so would lead to contamination of food, leading to the need to visit an American doctor, which implies going in with a bad stomach and coming out with a bad debt. I thought quickly and sentenced the creep to a violent death.

But before this incident, and since it, my kitchen has been a sporting witness to my deeds with the dishes (or kartoots with the kadhaais for the maligned North Indian community). From the highs of semiya payasam to the lows of pulikaachal; from the serendipitous pulao to the wrecked moong daal halwa; from the aroma of simmering spices to the stench of the capsicum that I forgot to put in the fridge; and from the ecstasy of making bhindi raita to the oh-shit of melting a plastic container in the process, my kitchen has experienced a gamut of emotions it could write a novel about if it wasn't just a lifeless kitchen. Technology has infiltrated my kitchen in a big way- apart from the regular stuff like a microwave, and a food processor, it is home to online cooking lessons by Ketaki, the latest being rotis and aloo parathas.

When co-expatriate Rajat told me in no uncertain terms that my passion for cooking would wane with time, I laughed it off like I was a dedicated homemaker for whom cooking was as much a routine as watching Bigg Boss is. But with time, the stock of vegetables in my fridge has reduced, and the stock of ready-to-eat parathas, tamarind rice, roti wraps, pizzas, and curries in the freezer has shot up. While in my first two months I emulated my mother by carefully picking tomatoes and bhindi, I've since been emulating the cult of the lazy bachelor whose world starts at the freezer and ends at the microwave. I still cook, but with less frequency and more passion than before. I can dedicate a whole post to my recipes, but I suggest you read it with a full stomach lest you be tempted to try some of them.

When I'm not busy cooking or eating the outcome of the activity, I play tennis and watch some of my favourite movies and Hindi sitcoms. We stopped playing tennis sometime back with a collective decision to grow fat. Let me preempt amma's enna-da-Akshay by saying that we've decided to take the court again. I spent my first 2 months in realising the American dream of living in a nice house and driving a nice car; it's now time to realise the American nightmare of a continuously bulging waistline- and it's all-round growth, so if you care to overlap snapshots of my waistline over time, you'll actually get concentric ovals. It's not as tough to gain weight here as it is in India; you just need to follow the following strict weekend regimen- sit all day in bed with a laptop on the lap, a bag of chips on the left, and a gallon of orange juice on the right. The size of the packet of chips and the gallon of juice (3.8 litres) will ensure you never need to budge from your place- not even for a refill. And given that there are no mosquitoes around in my house, I'm deprived of even the basic exercise I had in India.

It's not tough to find obese people in this part of the world. In fact you don't have to look very far. You look in any direction around you in your nearest Walmart (that's the only place you realise humans don't end at the chest), and you'll find a gigantic auntie or a humungous uncle moving their overflowing cart with enviable ease. And when I say obese, I don't mean Indian style obese people behind whom you can crouch and win hide-and-seek; I mean OBESE people who can substitute lead in nuclear reactors, who tie their shoe laces by trial-and-error. But the good thing is, they can walk around normally without having people stare at them (apart from the odd shameless ones like me), unlike in India where they would be potential Aaj Tak fodder.

I've come across two kinds of Indian strangers here. One kind consciously ignores you- It's almost like they're scared you're going to ask them for food, lodging, and a mug. The other kind starts chatting up immediately and makes you wonder about your father's trip to Kumbh Mela in 1987. But the most memorable Indian I've met thus far is a Gujju auntie in a subway outlet. While she goes about her business of fixing sandwiches with the enthusiasm of a corpse, she sports a wide grin from "What kind of cheej?" to "Salt and paper?" when she's fixing mine. Right from my first visit there she's been offering me free chips, free cookies, and free drinks, prompting me to rethink the now canonical adage about no free lunches. Just last week, I went in at 2 p.m. and saw nobody else at the counter. She took the opportunity for a casual chat, talking about her apartmaint, her husband's bijnes, her kajin's subway, how she manages to stay vegetarian while handling meat, her children in India, how she's yearning to go back to India, and finally asked if I was interested in a job in subway. Now where did that come from! When I politely turned down the offer, she offered me a job at a liquor store in California.

All said and done, I'm growing to like this place. The people are nice and it's fun to drive fast on good roads. My interactions, strictly non-technical, with my colleagues, and my general bad habit of thinking have given me an insight into the American mind, but I'll stack up my observations in my next post. Just one thing though- while we curse the Americans for writing dates as mm/dd/yyyy, it's not altogether crazy. Like us, they too write the date the way they say it. We use dd/mm/yyyy because we're accustomed to saying 5th October, 2008, where as the Americans say October 5th, 2008. It's as simple as that; nothing non-conformist about it.

I'll sign off now then. This is actually not the end of the post; I've written a lot more, but it makes the post too long for even me to read. I'll post the next instalment soon.