Slow Speed

Elegies of underdevelopment

Illustration by Jon Santos

In 1973, I was ten years old, my best friend was Ashish Deshpande, and our favorite activity was dreaming. In our favorite dream, we would acquire a large airplane and fly away in it. We researched our dream-scripts in the pages of Hamlyn’s Pocket Guide to Aircraft. For some inexplicable reason, we selected the Fairey Gannet, a spectacularly dowdy machine, as our transport of choice.

It was an odd plane, with two counter-rotating propellers on its nose. And it is odd, now, to remember such nuggets of childhood memory so clearly. But what seems really odd is that we actually used to do this, settle down to spend an afternoon dreaming.

Ashish and I shared another daydream, which later became a wager: that our fathers would become Brain Drains. We wanted them to get jobs in the West and take us away from Delhi, from India, forever. I still have the sketchbook on the back of which we both signed the deal: “If you go first, I pay Rs 100.”

Neither of us had a hundred rupees. But I never stood a chance. Ashish’s father, Sharad Uncle, was an underpaid research scientist who did unspeakable things to cats at the Patel Chest Institute. But he had prospects. Whereas my father had already flown away — to India. He was a peculiar German, who had come to study at the Delhi School of Economics and stayed on to earn a comfortable living in the Press Department of the West German Embassy, fighting Communism (or at least, the Press Department of the East German Embassy). What really killed me was that, before I was born, he had worked for Lufthansa in New York City. So why in the third world were we stuck in Delhi? Sharad Uncle and Baba were like counter-rotating propellers. I still owe Ashish a hundred bucks.

After Sharad Uncle got a job at Johns Hopkins, I didn’t see Ashish again for ten years. Then, in my twenties, on my own way to an American university, I went to spend a weekend in Baltimore with the Deshpandes. Ashish and I chatted away, even after the lights were out and we were in our beds, catching up with the slight reserve that comes from knowing too little and too much about one another — until we started talking about girls. And Ashish shouted, “I love sex!” with such enthusiasm that we both dissolved in laughter. It was good to have something new in common.

Maybe we dreamed so much back then because we didn’t have TVs. When my cable connection died earlier this year, I decided I couldn’t be bothered to replace it. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot more time in my head. Not dreaming so much as remembering. I realize that many of my childhood memories are preserved in the sharp vinegar of embarrassment.

I’m still embarrassed. I’m embarrassed at how viscerally I craved the provisions of the first world. I knew this world existed because in 1969, we had gone to visit my grandparents in Germany and my aunt in America. I can still remember the shock of seeing a car on display in the concourse of Frankfurt airport. A whole car! In a building! It was just a lottery prize.

We came back with fat catalogues from German department stores — Kaufhof, Quelle, and Karstadt — and I spent many hours poring over those encyclopedias of the unattainable. That same year I was sent to the British School in Delhi, where many of my classmates were the children of diplomats. They came and went in a convoy of exotic automobiles: Mercs and Toyotas, Peugeots and Holdens, Fords and Vauxhalls. And they smelled different. They were perfumed with wealth. These kids washed with foreign soaps, used imported detergents on their imported clothes, wiped their bums on Andrex toilet tissue. They ate Danish ham and Tiptree’s jam. They wore braces gummy with Marmite, Nutella, and Kraft cheese.

At home, we had a small larder, kept under lock and key, which contained an assortment of these goods and an indescribably luxurious aroma of its own. But my father was a local employee at the embassy, and our quotidian consumer goods were Indian, the classic products of those days of import substitution industrialization. They had their own hierarchy. Soap, for example, ran from the yellow ochre sticks purchased by the inch for the kitchen sink, to the dull-red Lifebuoy, which smelled of servants, to the indigenous opulence of Moti sandalwood soap. But mostly we used sickly green bricks of Hamam and Cinthol. Even our toothpaste was green — Binaca Green.

In the mid-Seventies, I went to see a film at Archana Cinema and came away feeling utterly repulsed. It was Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, set in a Malthusian post-consumerist dystopia where even jam has become a luxury item. The masses subsist on green biscuits — the Soylent Green of the title — which the Soylent Corporation maintains are made of kelp and plankton. Heston’s character, a detective, finds himself investigating the “euthanasia centers” where the poor and the elderly go to die. At the end of the film, he screams aloud his harrowing discovery: “Soylent Green is people!” What made me sick was that it looked suspiciously like Hamam.

It’s true, we are what we eat. Import substitution is people too. I’m one of them.

I remember things past. Things like biscuits (Britannia Nice and Bourbon), soap and detergent (Tinopal, Tinopal, Tinopal!), and cars (the Standard Gazelle — based on the rakish Triumph Herald but indigenized to the point that it became dowdier than a Fairey Gannet). And telephones (trunk calls and lightning calls, and our first telephone connection — 40537, a number I will never forget). The elastic belts from my sister’s Carefree sanitary napkins, which I used as slingshots. The ersatz colas: Pepino, Double Seven, and Campa. RimZim and Gold Spot (“Jee bharke jiyo, Gold Spot piyo”). Canvas jeans from Jeans Junction. Nativist burgers (spicy patties, fried buns, and thick slices of onion). The buxom, bouffanted plaster mannequins in their silk saris at Handloom House. The comic books: the Phantom.

More than anything else, I remember the ritual of listening to the radio with Baba. The sense of urgency at tuning in to the BBC World Service in the evenings, the trilling pipes of “Lily Bolero” followed by tantalizing time pips — and then the news, which washed in like cargo on the surging crests of short wave, our tenuous link to the distant West.

But the program that really defines this era for me was the weird and poetic News Read at Slow Speed on All India Radio. This was an afternoon service — almost a liturgy — that we would often catch at the table, when Baba came home for lunch and a siesta. The grey Grundig would buzz and hum with importance as it pronounced: “This… is… All… India… Radio Bzzzz The… News Hmmm Read… at… Slow… Speed Bzzzz by… Surojit… Sen.” The portentous pauses were intended to help provincial correspondents take notes. But the news was never news. We would hear instead that the procurement target of twenty million quintals of rice from the kharif crop had been met. Or that the Romanian minister for culture and cooperation had arrived on a state visit. And yet it crackled with significance, like it was intended for news of an assassination. Which did come, eventually.

Usually my father would give me a sideways glance at the end of the news, and a complicit smile would wrinkle the thin crescent etched on his cheek. Jawaharlal Nehru had the same crease. It is a line I hope I’m beginning to acquire, too. It was a smile that said: this is silly, but it’s not so bad, this life lived at slow speed.

Baba was fiercely proud of his degree from the Delhi School of Economics. As a child, I struggled to comprehend how he could be so dismissive of the lecture halls of Hamburg University, which he had abandoned for this new Valhalla, peopled by Indians with names like Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen, and Manmohan Singh. His particular favorite was Professor K. N. Raj. In later years, he made regular pilgrimages to visit his old tutor. This was troubling. Baba was a gentle but committed cold warrior. He was ten when World War II ended in his country’s liberation, and like many of his generation, he was not just pro-America, he was madly in love with it. With jazz and movies and moonrockets and the Kennedys. Yet as far as I could tell, the old professor was a Communist.

It’s still a puzzle. I know now, as my father must have known then, that Surojit Sen was only speaking his lines. It was K. N. Raj who wrote the script of the News Read at Slow Speed. He was the man who first advised Nehru to “hasten slowly.” I know that K. N. Raj was at least half in love with the Soviet Union. And I know he was an honorable man.

I fantasized that my father was a spy for one side or another. When we heard on the news that the minister for railways had been mortally wounded by a mysterious bomb, I knew something was up. That was in January 1975. Five months later, I followed my father, now a foreign correspondent for German newspapers, to attend a rally at the roundabout outside the prime minister’s bungalow. He wanted me to translate. “Conspiracy,” she said. And, “Foreign hand.”

I remember the eighteen months of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency as a time of danger and excitement. There was the cult of personality that surrounded Indira and her thuggish heir apparent, Sanjay, the shuttered newspapers, the locked-up parliamentarians. At last the secret was out: The government was bad, everyone good was underground or in jail, and Baba was a spy, or something similar, smuggling reports out through strangers at the airport and writing under the code name Jens Nielssen.

My daydreams became increasingly complex. Without Ashish, they were more solipsistic, even a little sinister. There were only two of them. In the sweeter one, I found myself alone in the world with Helen, a Dutch classmate I had fancied for years. We traveled around the desolate, abandoned country for a while, taking what we wanted from shops and diplomats’ houses. Then we flew out of Palam Airport in a 707 to live off the supermarkets of the West.

In the other, more disturbing dream, I worked out that everything in the world — or rather worlds, first, second, and third — was a fiction, an elaborate psycho-theatrical experiment with me as its subject. Nothing was as it seemed. It was Surojit Sen who finally broke the news to me. He took his time.

That daymare came back to me years later, watching The Truman Show and The Matrix. But by that time India was a very different country. I had returned from my American college in 1990, a failed Brain Drain, having taken four years to complete a one-year MA. Just before I left New York, I watched the world change on TV, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain parted. At the same time, a friend of mine, a successful Brain Drain who works as an oceanographer in Kiel, was on a polar voyage. He returned with tales of partying with colleagues at Dakshin Gangotri, India’s Antarctic station. Afterward they ferried glum scientists from the East German outpost back to a country that no longer existed.

In India it seemed that our homespun khadi curtains were fluttering. My worried parents pushed me into a job in what was then Bombay — at a venerable magazine that survived, sleepily, on handouts from the equally venerable Tata Corporation. I was hectored by a lovely old Parsi bird called Lulu Mehta who threw the colonial canon of copyediting (“Fowler, Partridge, and Quiller-Couch!”) at me every chance she got. One afternoon the entire office assembled in the garret of the Army and Navy Building to listen dutifully to a tape-recorded address, “On Excellence,” from the chairman himself, JRD Tata. Then we applauded.

But Bombay was too glamorous and energetic for me. There was an unsettling entrepreneurial buzz about it, and a careerist chatter that made me nervous. Longing for the old torpor of Delhi, I quit my job and came home. I struggled as a freelancer quite happily until one day it was 1993, I was married, my father was about to retire, and the quiet D-School professor Manmohan Singh was India’s finance minister. None of this troubled me, actually, but Baba seemed to know something I didn’t. He nagged and nagged and pushed me into another job, a proper job, at a newsmagazine.

At thirty, my long afternoon of underdevelopment was over. I had a career. A terminal condition, it seems. Just before I quit the newsmagazine to move on and double my salary, I had my first presentiment that the country was changing again. I set out to write a satirical essay on the dinosaurs of bureaucracy that had survived Manmohan Singh’s first wave of economic liberalization. I was quite pleased with the title — “Bureaucratic Park” — though it never saw the light of day. But the real thrill was finding myself back on very familiar turf. Grimy corridors, supplicant citizens, and the “concerned officer” enthroned on his swivel chair. I loved the scenery — the towel on the backrest, the psychedelic paperweights… the papers beneath them.

There was the Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology, an Orwellian outfit that produced a Comprehensive Glossary of Administrative Terms in English and the vernacular. “Hindi is very poor in terms,” a commissioner told me. Another office nurtured the remains of Indira Gandhi’s 20-Point Program from the Emergency days. “We look after points 1, 5, 8, 11, 14, 15, and 16,” a man told me. “The other thirteen have been dropped.” My favorite was the Office of Stationery. “Please apply in writing. In triplicate,” they told me. I went to visit them instead, and found the assembled staff standing hushed and yes, stationary, at their desks. It was a moment of silence for a fallen colleague, a bureaucratic wake.

Today Manmohan Singh is our prime minister, and my home is cluttered with pre-liberalization memorabilia. I have two black rotary-dial phones with trilling electromechanical bells and a bakelite radio that buzzes and hums. I have assorted Nehruviana, including a Publications Division comic on Nehru and the new temples of India, and another book called Rhymes on Nehru. I have World’s Wisest Wizard: Sanjay Gandhi. I have a bust and three statues of Ambedkar. (If I could find one of Indiraji, I’d buy it in an instant.) One lucky day, I found a copy of Following Lenin’s Course, The Speeches and Articles of LI Brezhnev. The speeches are peppered with four kinds of applause: “applause,” “prolonged applause,” “stormy applause,” and “stormy prolonged applause.” In his speech to the Eighth Congress of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in June 1971, the floodgates burst: “‘Stormy, prolonged applause.’ All rise. The Congress delegates and guests remain standing till the end of the speech… ‘Friendship!’ ‘Long live the CPSU!’ ‘Hurrah!’”

Outside my house, a consumer revolution is turning my country upside down. The revolution is televised. In fact, to a large extent, it is television. But I don’t watch TV anymore. Sometimes I watch DVDs. Just days ago, I saw Good Bye Lenin!, which belongs to a genre the Germans call “Ostalgie.” (Germans are wittier than you think.) It follows a young East German man who tries to shield his dying mother from the reality of reunification by constructing an elaborate televisual Truman Show around her. But it’s really about respecting the past you share with the ones you love. I never cry at movies, but this one nearly got me. It ends with this monologue from the hero, Daniel Brühl:

Das Land das meine Mutter verließ, war ein Land an das sie geglaubt hatte… Ein Land das es in Wirklichkeit nie so gegeben hat. Ein Land das in meiner Erinnerung immer mit meiner Mutter verbunden sein wird.

The country that my mother left was a land that she believed in… . A country that was never quite what it seemed. A country that in my memory will always be bound to my mother.

My mother, God bless her, is still with me. It’s my father he’s talking about.

I’ve lost some of my childhood enthusiasm for air travel, but these days it seems I go to the airport every other month. To pick up my wife, or a relative, or a friend. And nowadays it’s not the cargo I look forward to so much as the people. Maybe one day I’ll meet Ashish here. Standing in the crowd behind the fence in the international arrivals lounge, we all stare expectantly down the long passage toward the doors of the baggage claim hall. There’s a TV monitor where we can see the apparition of long-lost loved ones materialize for an instant on an escalator. They pass like newly molded foreign goods into the hands of customs and immigration.

But I keep my eyes on the doorway where they emerge, stamped and certified. They walk slowly into focus, looking more and more familiar, until they find the face they’re looking for and we’re strangers once again. More than once I’ve caught my breath at the sight of Baba walking toward me. But he never arrives. It’s just a dream.