I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.
Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.
To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.
So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.
The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.
The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.
For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.
In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.
It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.
The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.
And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.
And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.
I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.
It is not so often that one comes across a book that reinforces the potential of presenting facts and situations to capture the interest of a reader in a way that the book becomes both educative and a page turner. INDIA IN SLOW MOTION by Mark Tully does just that. With his immaculately diverse set of ten typically Indian real life stories, he has successfully brought about the fundamental flaws in the system that is governing this country. I first interacted with Mark Tully at IIT Bombay during their fest and was impressed by his knowledge and observations. And after reading India in Slow Motion, my respect and admiration for him has grown ten fold.
Most of the book is not as much about exposing the familiar problems plaguing India, as it is about revealing the intricacies, significance and true extent of the same. Topics such as the Ayodhya issue, corruption, droughts, farmer suicides, Kashmir, the IT revolution are not unfamiliar. But the treatment that Tully has meted out to these topics inevitably makes us rethink our own estimation of the nature and significance of the problem. Be it the thrilling, detailed first hand account of the entire Tehelka sting operation which got the Defence Minister to resign, the true tale of Kashmir and why it is in its present state or a little known village in Gujarat that has declared independence from the rest of the country, Tully describes an India which exhibits a common foundation running through all of them-the NETA-BABU Raj-which he finds to be the single most important factor why India is still a country in Slow Motion.
The book starts off by describing a small but largely representative incident in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, where a Cyber Cafe built by an NGO is being brought down on the orders issued by a bureaucrat of the region for not possessing a particular “Internet Service Provider License -II”. This incident is small because it never made to the papers and representative because it shows how the Indian bureaucracy is working to defeat it’s own purpose. Other stories in the book deal with many cultural and religious aspects including a first hand account of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent efforts to build a Ram Temple in the same site along with detailed descriptions about the rise and present state of Christianity in Goa and also an informative chapter on Sufism and the stance taken by different Muslim leaders in India.
But the crux of the book lies in the revelation of a large number of small facts that goes a long way in choosing the correct frame of reference to look and judge this country’s state of affairs. A large many assumptions developed over years of exposure to the Indian media is convincingly set right by simply reflecting on these hard facts plaguing the country and of which, the majority of us are blissfully unaware. Sample this: In a chapter dealing solely with the farmer suicides in Karnataka, Tully describes the procedure for a farmer to obtain a low interest loan from a Nationalized Bank as per a Govt scheme. In the words of the Bank Manager:
“Before any farmer can ask for a loan, he has to produce, one-land records, two- records of rights, three-no dues from the government, four-records of all land revenue paid, five-land valuation certificates, six-no dues from agricultural societies, seven-permission from court if applicant is a minor and eighth(and here is the best part!)- NO DUES CERTIFICATES FROM ALL THE OTHER 9 BANKS IN THE AREA!!!!!!”
And to procure the no dues certificate from all the other banks, a farmer has to approach each and every bank individually and get a certificate from each of them!
Another equally glaring fact concerns the structure and the working of the Police force in India. Tully quotes directly from a report submitted by a Senior retired Police Officer who says:
“..the 1861 Act passed by the British Raj still governs the organization, structure, philosophyand working of our police forces at the end of the twentieth century, never mind the phenomenal changes in our social, political, scientific, economic, and cultural spheres over the decades. The pattern adopted by the 1861 Act was based on the Irish Constabulary because Ireland was a colony at that time.”
Another Senior Police Officer says:
“..for the bureaucracy, control over the police has become an intoxicant they are addicted to and are just not willing to give up. And so the act of 1861 continues to be on the statute book even after nearly one hunderd and forty years-a millstone round the police neck”
Here is another concerning the corruption in the Indian Military:
“An Arms dealer has to bribe a Major General around Rs. 10 lakhs just so the dealer can obtain the list of equipment that the Indian Army is looking to test and purchase!”
Simple but revealing facts like these are in abundance in the book largely due to Tully’s first hand investigation into every topic he has written about. One of the best chapters in the book, I found, was the one on corruption which included a detailed first hand account of the entire TEHELKA sting operation by the very man who performed the sting with the hidden camera! The thrilling encounters with the top politicians and military leaders coupled with the glaring and inexcusable stupidity on part of the Generals for believing everything makes the chapter both humorous and thought provoking. The chapter on the Farmer suicides in Karnataka during the drought on the turn of the millenium is also very well documented with facts revealing such a lack of basic common sense among the officials, that one feels there is no hope for the Indian farmer. Like a farmer says,”A farmer in India is born in debt, lives in debt, dies in debt and is reborn in debt!” Another truly memorable quote that perfectly epitomizes the life of a farmer comes from a farmer who is asked why he is not investing in long term gains and stability by sending his children to school. He says: “Sir, we farmers are not concerned about what happens 10-15 years from now. All we care about is being able to live through today…everyday”
The stories in India in Slow Motion do little to portray India the way political campaigns (like India Shining) do. But at the same time, the stories do not aim to bring out the harsh realities prevailing in the country such as poverty. What it does aim, however, is to give first hand information on issues that every Indian is familiar with. Though a few stories form an exception to the familiarity aspect, the underlying objective of giving the readers first hand information on the ground reality successfully weaves through these stories as well. Throughout the book, Tully never makes the slightest effort to force his opinion on the reader. In fact, his completely objective portrayal of ground reality obviates the need for the reader to frame an opinion about India’s prospects. And so, instead, his astute observations compel the reader to develop both the positive and negative outlooks about India.
Tully’s inferences always tend to tell a tale of a car trying to move forward with its brakes on. In spite of describing stories that show the blatant inefficiency and flaws in the governance system, Tully still displays an optimism that stems from recent and not so recent history when India did make the effort to liberate the economy, thereby easing a little off the brakes on its path to development. But the question of how long or what it takes for these changes to come about, though raised, is left deliberately unanswered. This book is a must read before anyone decides to have a say about any aspect of the present state of affairs in India.