As I shuttled between Bangalore and San Francisco in 2010

I saved this tweet from Nitin Pai (chief honcho and writer at The Indian National Interest) sometime in the first half of 2010. The operative phrase is “ought to”. The sad reality is that for most people (and I include myself in this category), the dominant emotions are sadness, guilt and frustration. Where’s the fury at the indifferent Indian state one might ask? There’s such a massive gap between the expectations of the Indian citizen and the reality of the Indian state that the daily sight of small kids doesn’t register on the fury meter. The guilt and frustration arises from the fact that besides doling small change, one seemingly cannot (or will not) do anything which has the potential to get begging kids off the streets.

Which brings us to the question our 4 year old asked sometime back – “why do we give biscuits/money to some beggars and not to others?”

How could we answer that the reasons were mostly arbitrary — wallet devoid of low denomination currency, mind preoccupied etc. Or that this minuscule dole was so inconsequential that it served more as a balm to our guilty souls than making any meaningful difference to their pathetic lives. We yearned to say that in future years, we were contemplating doing something to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. With a deep sigh, I answered: “You asked a really good question. Let me think about it some more and and get back with a proper answer.” I’m hopeful that the completion of this blog post (after gestating in the Drafts folder for the past 10 months) signals that we are ready to answer his question.

As I shuttled between Bangalore and San Francisco in 2010, it struck me that, besides software, there was at least one other thing common between the two cities – homeless people. There’s no dearth of homeless people in most Indian cities and Bangalore is no exception. What one tends to forget is that San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and many other American cities also suffer from this problem. The magnitude of the problem is different of course. While it needs to be stated that the problem of adult homeless people is very different (and relatively less troublesome if one deigns to compare), the attitude and reactions of the well-to-do-citizenry is pretty similar in both cases.

Still… San Francisco’s homelessness problem has always confounded me — especially during my 10 years living in the Bay Area. The Wikipedia article on San Francisco had the following interesting facts:

San Francisco ranks third of American cities in median household income with a 2007 value of $65,519. Median family income is $81,136, and San Francisco ranks 8th of major cities worldwide in the number of billionaires known to be living within city limits.

The city’s poverty rate is 11.8% and the number of families in poverty stands at 7.4%, both lower than the national average. The unemployment rate stands at 10.1% as of August 2009. Homelessness has been a chronic and controversial problem for San Francisco since the early 1980s. The city is believed to have the highest number of homeless inhabitants per capita of any major U.S. city.

Back in May 2010, I was in San Francisco for a week-long business trip. A lazy Sunday afternoon listening to Moonalice at Union Square seemed to provide a perfect start. I followed this up with a brisk walk, and spotting a Subway, hurried in to grab my usual favorite. As I contemplated the choice of bread, I heard a voice “I know folks don’t usually like to give money but could you buy me a sandwich?” A middle-aged homeless woman peered at me hopefully. After a two second pause, I nodded and indicated to the Subway employee. After I paid for her chicken-teriyaki and my veggie-delite sandwiches, I did what I normally do after these kind of encounters (in India or America) — beat a hasty retreat.

As I did more research on San Francisco’s homeless problem, I came across this rather encouraging article in WalletPop (key excerpts below)

In 2004, San Francisco launched an ambitious ten-year plan aimed at ending homelessness in the city by greatly expanding its social services and creating 3,000 permanent housing units as substitutes for shelters. Now at the six-year mark, San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, is claiming the city is more than halfway toward its goal, having thus far created almost 1,700 housing units. As a result, despite the recession, it’s managed to shrink its homeless population for the first time in 30 years.

Closer to home in Bangalore, here are a few sobering statistics gleaned from this Hindu article and this DNA article:

  • 17,000+ homeless people in Bangalore.
  • Per Supreme Court, there needs to be one homeless shelter for every lakh of people. For Bangalore’s 80 lakh population, this maps to 80 shelters.
  • Homeless women are exposed to regular sexual attacks and homeless men are at the mercy of goon and police atrocities.

Help find 8 year old Tejas from Panipat – kidnapped in December 2008

For any parent who has lost track of their child (be it for a minute or a few hours), you might begin to understand the heart-wrenching plight of a mother (Neena Gaba) whose 8 year old son Tejas was kidnapped 17 months ago in front of her eyes at gunpoint! Please read her personal appeal below and do your utmost in spreading the word. Time is of the essence.


On 12th december 2008, time 7:35 am, I drove to the bus stop to drop my son tejas for school.It was like any other normal day for us.But suddenly something happened.A masked man came from behind ,snatched him from me and pushed him at the backseat of a honda civic/accord in front of my eyes..When i tried to stop him,i was fired at,by him.What followed was a series of ransom calls.But they did not give me proof of my child and he has been MISSING since then.

 

NOW I APPEAL TO MY COMMUNITY AND CALL ON ALL OF YOU TO HELP ME FIND MY CHILD. WHOSOEVER GIVES INFORMATION OR CLUE THAT HELPS US REACH TEJAS WILL BE AWARDED ”50 LAKH”. No questions will be asked to the person who helps in the recovery of my child. It has been 17 months and we do not know what physical or mental trauma my son has been going through.WHAT WAS THE FAULT OF AN INNOCENT 8 YEARS CHILD TO HAVE DESERVED THIS IN HIS FOUNDATION YEARS OF LIFE?

THIS IS VERY MUCH GENUINE, AND TO CONFIRM THE SAME,KINDLY VISIT THE FOLLOWING WEBSITES:

www.tejasgaba.com

www.savetejas.com

Would you go on a boat ride or cruise if there were no life jackets?

I ended  the The Value of Life in India post with the question: “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude before the next major calamity or the minor tragedy?”

My wise biwi thought it wasn’t fair to leave the post hanging like that. Our ensuing conversation (transcribed below) inspired the sequel and yes – I have a good reason to title it the way I did:

Biwi: “What is YOUR answer to the above question? Why aren’t you including THAT in the post?”

Me: “Well! I do have an answer but it’s not quite baked yet..”

Biwi: “Also, instead of framing the question around ‘us Indians’, it might be more fruitful to pose the question to each ‘individual’ Indian.”

Me: “You mean like Gandhi-ji’s Be the Change You Wish to See In the World’?”

Biwi: “Kinda sorta. What are YOU (Indian, American, anyone for that matter) doing that’s potentially endangering your or other people’s lives?”

Biwi: “For example, when you are speeding down scenic Interstate 280 South at 90 mph, whose lives are you endangering?”

Which brings me to MY answer to the original question I posed – “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude?”

My answer is YES. But first… do you recall that scene in Satte Pe Satta where Hema Malini arrives at that pig-sty-of-a-house where Amitabh Bachan lived with his 6 other brothers? She exclaims “What a mess this place is! Where do I start?” The next 2 frames are a fast time-lapse so we don’t really get to see how she pulls off the gargantuan cleanup job. Replace the pig-sty-house with India (with its zillion problems — not just hygiene related) and you still have that question – where to start? I wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that we are at the beginning because there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of civic-oriented initiatives underway which have galvanized citizens. But the reality is that if we are not seeing a difference (no, scratch that), if we are not participating in at least ONE of them, it is simply not enough. After all, we are talking about a billion-plus people here.

My other belief is that the granularity (or specificity) of the cause/initiative is paramount to eventual success — dotted on the way with tangible progress points. For example, “improve the safety standards of tour boat operators in India” is too lofty a cause whereas “ensure the sea-worthiness of tour boats in Kerala” or “mandate that boat operators in Kerala do not exceed the carrying capacity” or “mandate that all boat passengers in Kerala HAVE to wear life jackets while on board” are achievable goals. As I said, not fully baked so would love your feedback here…

Which brings me to the second question — “what am I doing that may be endangering myself and my family?” Before I answer this, let’s go back to the Thekkady disaster. Nearly all (if not all) who drowned that day weren’t swimmers. The survivors were either swimmers or were lucky enough to be close to swimmers who saved them. Turns out there were life jackets on board – nobody knows how many though. I haven’t read reports of passengers using any so clearly they weren’t handing them out at the point of embarkation. Which brings us to the personal responsibility question — Why didn’t anyone ask for life jackets? This, my friends, is the life-or-death question.

I’ll be presumptuous enough to answer the question. Nobody asked for life jackets because nobody was thinking of the probability that the boat could capsize, and if it did, the life jackets would really come in handy. We all go through life constantly making decisions based on risk – some are deliberate while most others are purely automatic. I will not buy a house with a swimming pool because that clever economist in Freakonomics convinced me that swimming pools are more unsafe than keeping a handgun at home. I won’t ride a motorcycle in California where the speed limits are so high and the car-to-motorbike ratio so high that if I get into an accident, it could well be fatal. I might ride a Bullet Classic 500 in Bangalore someday (after my slipped disc fully heals) because I will drive very carefully and don all my protective gear and if I do get into an accident, there’s a good chance it will be minor. And so we go on and on…

Why am I so sure that nobody asked for life jackets? Because I/we have  done the exact same thingjust 2 days before the Thekkady accident – on the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. The only difference is that our boat didn’t meet with an accident. Our family of four, my brother & his younger son boarded the boat with nary a thought about life jackets. Group size = 6. Number of swimmers in group = 0. Need I say more?

Would my wife or I board a boat or cruise ship in future if there were no life jackets? No. At least until the entire family learns swimming. In case you didn’t know, my goal for this summer is to learn swimming — in 7 days or less. A dear friend has promised me that it indeed is possible and he’d be my personal coach. I, on my part, have promised him a suitable guru dakshina. So shall it be written, so shall it be done!

Closing question: What % of Indians do you think know swimming? (knowing defined as “enough to save one’s life) I used to think it’s a lower percentage compared to the Western world primarily because of the low number of urban area swimming pools but.. 70% of India lives in villages where, due to their proximity and close habitation with water body, the swimmer % must be close to 100%. When you come to the cities and towns, again this might differ from state to state. A couple of Keralite colleagues (over lunch) thought the percentage for largely-coastal Kerala is probably 90%.

The Janus Man

Pic: courtesy goodreads.com

This is a sequel to  The Proud Man and is based on a series of events that occurred in March 2009.

Act 1, Scene 1: Raheja apartment living room (Time: 2:00pm)

“Madam! Aap garage mein jaldi aayiye. Aapke gaadi ko kuch ho raha hai.” (Translation for non-Hindi readers: please come to the garage quickly. Something’s happening to your car). This was an anonymous tipster call which came through the intercom one afternoon in early March. Not wanting to take any chances, P went to the lobby and had one of the security guards accompany her to the garage. As she neared our parking spot, her worst fears seemed to come true – the car was gone! A minute later (lo and behold!) she sights Sunil backing our car from one end of the garage (several car lengths away from our parking spot). At the same time, Sunil’s friend (a fellow Raheja driver) rides Sunil’s new Bajaj motorcyle and parks it behind the SX4. Cursing the anonymous tipster, P tapped on the driver’s window to enquire why he moved the car. The shocked look on Sunil’s face would later become the proverbial Exhibit A. He recovered his composure quickly enough to mumble that there wasn’t sufficient room to maneuver his motorcycle and hence he had to move the car. “Odd,” thought P but the explanation satisfied her and she went back upstairs mentally cursing the tipster again for wasting her time.

Act 1, Scene 2: Raheja apartment living room (Time: 2:15pm)

Phone rings again – same anonymous caller. He asks in a smug tone “Madam! aapne dekha?” “Kya dekha” replied an irate P. The disappointed tipster begins his story “Sunil aapke gaadi se petrol chori kara raha tha. Woh to shuru se chori kar raha tha.” P went into fact checking mode and grilled the tipster (what was Sunil doing with the stolen petrol and why was he spilling the beans?) Apparently, in the initial days and months of pilfering, Sunil would sell the petrol to other Raheja drivers. Ever since Sunil got his new motorcycle, he simply took to topping that gas tank at convenient intervals. The tipster was so confident , he urged P to examine Sunil’s motorcycle’s gas tank (predicting that it would be full to the brim). As to the tipster’s motives, he simply could not bear to see us being cheated month after month.

Act 1, Scene 3: Block X lobby

There are eight blocks in Raheja Residency – the anonymous call had come from block X. Just for precaution, I’ve decided to keep the identity of Block X a secret. Determined toe get to the bottom of the evolving events, P proceeded to block X. Even though Sunil was implicated thus, such was the trust level he had established with us that P still considered him “innocent until proven guilty”. She asked Sunil to accompany her to block X without stating the reason. The call was traced to the block X manager’s office (which is on the garage level).  The block X manager deliberately took P aside and repeated what the tipster had already told her – that Sunil was stealing petrol from our car. The manager had allowed the tipster to use his office phone because: a) tipster was one of the drivers in block X, and b) he knew the story to be true and wanted the car owners (us) to be made aware of the happenings. So why did the manager have no reason to doubt the tipster? For the simple reason that petrol pilfering is not uncommon at all in Raheja. (The next day when I went to meet the block X manager to obtain more facts, I learned how rampant the pilfering racket was at Raheja and even other apartment communities in Bangalore but I digress…) P walked back to the apartment – troubled and contemplative. She didn’t share anything with Sunil but he clearly knew that something was amiss.

Act 1, Scene 4: crowded stretch of Koramangala 80-feet road (Time: 3:30pm)

On the way to the Oasis mall, P tells Sunil to pull over on the side of the street. With the engine switched off and both outside the car, she confronted Sunil with the accusations. Sunil had the same guilty look but he kept repeating that he was innocent and uttered the rhetorical “how could he commit this ghastly  deed when we’d been so nice to him?” He made the seemingly absurd statement that he doesn’t even know how to steal petrol from any car (especially the SX4). The other damning thing was that he never offered any character witness to corroborate his innocence. You’d think one among the group of drivers (perhaps his good friend Manju – who was parking his motorcycle) he hobnobbed with would be propped forward to defend him. I guess not if the entire lot was rotten – if the tipster was right, the other drivers were buying stolen petrol from him. P told Sunil that she wasn’t sure whether he was guilty or innocent. If he was guilty, we would find out in due course. If he was innocent, she told him to watch his back since someone was out to get him fired. Later in the evening, Sunil mentioned to P that he had talked to the other drivers and the consensus was that the pall of suspicion would be upon him whether or not he was guilty.

Act 1, Scene 5: “Smoking gun” found inside our apartment (Time: 9pm)

After P briefed me on the day’s events and we played & replayed all the events, it occurred to us that we were monumentally stupid in at least 2 areas:

  • In the 6 months since we bought our car, we never calculated how much mileage each tank of petrol was giving us. Sure we had a lot of things on our minds in the initial months of adjusting to Bangalore life… (that was our lame excuse)
  • During the day, as Sunil waited in the garage for the next driving assignment (picking up the kids, shopping trip, etc.), we let him keep the keys. On most days, this meant that he was undisturbed in the garage for 2-3 hours at a stretch (with the car keys). We learned later that this was simply not a standard practice and was rife with risks.

Anyway, I was VERY organized about my petrol receipts. I kept every single one of them in a safe place, so I pulled them all out for the last 3 months and observed that we were filling up 40 liters of petrol every week (give or take a day). Assuming 9 km per liter for the SX4 (low-end for city driving), this suggested that we were traveling 360 km per week! Gosh! Were we suckers or what? This was way higher than our driving patterns in the past 3 months. Just in the event that our recollection of the past 3 months was sketchy, we focused our attention on the last 6 days of driving (i.e. from the last refueling). The precise driven mileage came to 130km which meant that the fuel guage should display a reading greater than 1/2 tank. Alas! the gauge displayed close to  empty.

Act 2, Scene 1: Confrontation (take #2)

Next morning after Sunil dropped me at the office, without giving him any prior notice, I told him I needed to speak to him. I sat him down at a Coffee Day table and launched into “People versus Sunil”. He predictably professed his innocence. I had him do the math on how much distance he was driving us every day over the 6-day period and he arrived at the figure of 140 (close to my calculation of 130). I then walked him over to the car dashboard and showed him the near empty fuel gauge. I also told him about the last 3 months of petrol bills with weekly refueling of 40 liters, yet driving 130-160km. Sensing the trap closing around him, Sunil comes up with two lines of defence.

Defence #1: Apparently he had ‘heard’ that petrol was being stolen in the garage. He related that petrol from one of the driver’s scooter had been stolen once so it was ‘possible’ that someone was stealing from the SX4. I asked him who it could be since he was the only one with the keys. He insisted that it wasn’t him and also repeated the earlier ridiculous defence that he didn’t know how to remove petrol from cars. This doubly stank because the two times we had to get the car serviced (at the dealer), he keenly drew our attention to the fuel gauge and advised us to refuel the car following the servicing because the service technicians would otherwise steal the petrol. Nice!

Defence #2 (a conspiracy theory with communal overtones): Apparently there are rival factions of Kannada and Tamilian drivers in Rahejs (with the latter being the majority group for our block). The building manager (a Tamilian) was allegedly “in” on a conspiracy to oust Sunil so that one of his henchmen (a fellow Tamilian of course) could be hired in his place. He promised to provide more evidence in due course.

The rest of the days’s interactions with Sunil were conducted in a stony silence and a stiff upper lip.

Act 2, Scene 2: The resignation & Mafia connection (Time: 7:30pm)

I get a call from Sunil and he informs me that due to the pall of suspicion on him and the intrigue between the Tamilian & Kannada drivers and the alleged conspiracy to oust him, he feared for his personal safety & the safety of his new Bajaj motorcycle. He would thus stop coming to work from the next day. He also gave me the names of three Tamilian drivers (who were currently looking for a driver job). His smoking gun was that our block manager would come forward and recommend one of these 3 drivers. I didn’t bother telling him that even if the conspiracy theory were true, it still wouldn’t vindicate him. Weeks after Sunil’s voluntary resignation, the building manager never recommended a single driver to us – so much for that conspiracy theory. The additional irony was that during the 2 days when P was talking to various folks in the block, the block manager gave the benefit of the doubt to Sunil and just warned us to be more careful. Here’s the last thing that Sunil said that evening “Aap mujhe dikhaiye kisne aapko mere bare mein phone kiya, mein use dekh loonga” (Translation: You show me who the tipster is and I’ll take care of him. The tell-tale “use dekh loonga” – doesn’t get more mafiosi).

Title of post was inspired by a Colin Forbes novel by the same name.

(There’s more to this story… so I guess it was a three-part series after all).

The Coconut Seller’s Daughters

A few weeks ago we were parked opposite the Raheja Arcade – li’l A, Sunil and me in the car while P and S had gone to the bank. A was watching the perpetually interesting traffic while my attention was drawn to the various actors on the pavement. By ‘actors’, I mean the usual foot traffic that’s typical of Indian pavements.

A coconut seller (probably in his 40’s) had laid anchor on the stretch of pavement close to our car. He had a standard wooden cart laden with fresh green coconuts. He also had other sackfuls of coconuts – one of which his wife loaded on her head and headed off (presumably to sell at a wholesale rate somewhere). She didn’t return for another 15 minutes – during which time I sat transfixed watching the rest of her family. A drama began to unfold in front of me – not quite the Shakespearean kind but more the slow, poignant and inexorable kind that Satyajit Ray is famous for.

The coconut seller had his two young daughters with him – the older one was probably six and the other close to three. The older girl was dressed in a bright colored South Indian traditional outfit and the younger girl was a bit more shabbily dressed. The girls each had an orange-yellow plastic bus toy tied at one end with a piece of string. The 12′ x 8′ section of the pavement trisected by two trees was their ‘playground’. In between their playing, the kids ‘snacked’ on one of the coconuts which their dad lovingly cut for them – what a doting look he had. The six year old’s facial expression was mostly inscrutable but I could detect a resigned look one usually sees on older countenances. The three year old was more playful but she was clearly missing her mother. The mother’s return was celebrated with glee.

The above sequence I observed would be repeated throughout the day for all 7 days (don’t think the family could afford taking a day off). The girls would probably take a nap (if they did) right next to their father’s cart. For my non-Indian readers, I need to mention that the concept of public toilets hasn’t really taken off in urban India. This was a grim and sobering sight. The depressing part is that there are tens of millions of such families. Want to hear something even more depressing – there are hundreds of millions in India who are worse off than the coconut seller’s family.

A few closing stats:

  • India ranks 66th on the 2008 Global Hunger Index of 88 countries.
  • India has 828 mil (75.6% of pop) below $2 a day. Sub-Saharan Africa is better – 72% of pop (551 mil) are below $2 a day. Source: World Bank.

(Jan 22, 2009 Update)
Hope, optimism and dreams are powerful things. This morning I read this article Born on the road, she aims for Miss India and I was uplifted – ever so slightly.