India 2016: A Travel Diary – Part 2



Tulsi/Vettiver flavored water at Mahamudra

Part 2 of India 2016: A Travel Diary


India 2016: A Travel Diary : Part 1

Returning after almost 4 years to India, on a partly vacation but mostly work trip for the first time in 26 years, I get a different perspective of this big, complicated, complex, pulsing, alive, in turns frustrating and enchanting, country.

India grabs you by the scruff of your neck and makes you pay attention—there’s no ignoring her nor being indifferent to her—she won’t let you. You are forced to feel—angry, elated, happy, content, frustrated—sometimes all in the span of a day.

In no particular order, here are all the feelings and emotions that run through my mind as I navigate this ancient, modern, fighting, big democracy!

The pain and the pleasure:

The frustrating thing about India”, said the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, “is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”

And it’s this phenomenon, while nothing new for India, and certainly nothing new for me as I lived the first 25 years of my life here, that really hits me this time.

I enjoy a luxurious meal in star hotels, and on my way out, am faced with dire and unspeakable poverty within a hundred feet. I get depressed after every great meal.

I travel in cars and while the cars are stopped in heavy traffic, children as young as 5 or 6 risk their lives, stepping in between the stopped cars, selling flowers, trinkets etc. I hate bargaining with them and end up paying whatever they ask. My justification is at least they’re not begging.

The conundrum is, am I really helping them or hurting them? Who is the money going to? Shouldn’t they be doing homework or be in school? Why do some things never change in this country? I don’t mean to pontificate, or sound like the typical NRI visiting and criticizing the homeland—really, I don’t. It’s just that there’s something about this that just weighs heavily on me this time for some reason.

And the dogs! Now that I’m a dog person thanks to my daughter’s mini dachshund Kashew, my heart breaks at every street dog that’s lying on the street, not quite begging, and not aggressive, but clearly resigned to its fate and lives on the charity of whoever cares to feed them.

(Raj absolutely put his foot down on giving them our leftover breakfast: ‘I don’t want 10 dogs chasing us every time we step on to the street’ and so we worked out a compromise and give the food to the grocery shop guy at the apartment who agreed to feed them.)

The other thing that I struggle with is how easy it is to get cheap manual labor for almost anything. I know that sounds like I have lost my mind, especially when I think of how I complain about how expensive it is to get anything done by a person back in the States.

But hear me out. While I understand that it’s the practical thing to use manpower in a country whose population is second only to China, and this is how economies work, I’m still mildly discomfited and shocked every time I get served—from having a cup of coffee delivered to wherever I’m sitting in the office, to getting almost anything delivered with just a phone call.

Let me explain this with some context. There are two rituals I observe every time I visit. The day after I land, my dad takes me to Adyar Anandha Bhavan, popularly known as A2B, a south Indian fast food place. (This time it got delayed by a day because I went straight to my sister’s place in Bengaluru. My sister mentioned that my dad couldn’t wait to take me there!)

The other one is shopping while jet lagged–everyone should try it. Sometimes I look at stuff I buy after I’m back home in the States and have no memory of buying it! Anyway, after a hearty mini tiffin at A2B loaded with ghee, my youngest sister takes me shopping. These are two rituals I must observe, and observe I do, every time. So off we went, the day after I landed here, having packed off my little niece and nephew to school. (The six year old niece very generously offered to stay home from school to help me shop).

I bought a few saris, and needed the blouses made and had no time to get it done in Bengaluru. Now I’m in Pune, on work. So we went this weekend, to the famous Lakshmi Road in Pune (“you have to experience Lakshmi Road at least once” said a colleague), in search of a tailor.

For Chennaites, imagine Ranganathan Street during festival time—or anytime, really. Lakshmi Road is Ranganathan street on steroids. We went in a car, past many shops, and many, many people. If we didn’t go in a car, all we would have had to do was stand at the starting point, and we would have been pushed by the people. And we found this place called Bizzeeland, suggested by a friend who knew a tailor there. It’s a 5-storey building, all five floors occupied by tailors. Imagine! 5 floors of just little tailor shops. It’s a dream for an Indian woman.

We told the driver (yes, we had a car and a driver provided to us) to come back in an hour or so and walked to the store. By now, I’ve been here for a week, and am not paralyzed when trying to cross the streets and can make it across, albeit with a death grip on Raj’s hand. And to think that just 25 years ago, I used to make fun of the returning desis frozen on the streets with panicked expressions! Karma is a bitch! But then I digress.

My friend had called ahead for her tailor to come down to the ground floor to meet us and take my measurements for the blouse. He delivered it the next morning (which in itself is a tiny miracle by US standards), it needed some alterations, and back we went to Lakshmi Road, braving the crowds. He made the alterations while I waited, and tried on. Raj casually mentioned that it was hard to make the trip to his place, and he immediately offered to bring it to our place the next day, with a catalog for the remaining blouses.

Ladies, haven’t we all seriously dreamed about this exact scenario? And yet, I felt awful that he had to come to our apartment on his holiday (the tailor said: “tomorrow all shops are closed, it’s a holiday for Lakshmi road. I’ll come to your place with the blouse.”)

While it was a dream come true, there were also these tiny pinpricks on my conscience. If I had confessed it to Raj, who’s getting a little tired of my sometimes misdirected conscience rearing its head about every couple of hours, he would have said “you’re helping him by giving him business—don’t be so dramatic!”

He would probably be right.

But the child labor and the dogs! That still hurts.


Lakshmi Road in all its glory!

The ugly:

The thing that infuriates me, and that has not changed one bit is this: everywhere I go, especially in shops, the men seem to think my face is roughly about 6 inches south of where it actually is. Raj tries to tell me not to dress in sleeveless blouses or western attire, even baggy tshirts when I go to places like Lakshmi Road. But me being me, I refuse to alter the way I dress. I think the leery jerks need to change their behavior, and treat women as fellow human beings and not as sexual objects. The tailor, who had every opportunity to be a leery jerk on the other hand, was a gentleman!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying attitude has deep roots–movies that glorify girls falling in love with ‘bad’ boys, age old attitude of ‘boys will be boys’ and countless other forms of cultural cancer, and has manifested itself in many ugly forms–Nirbhaya, Jyoti, and countless others who have given their lives come to mind.

Pure Joy/ Sigh of Relief:

The restaurant scene has pretty much exploded in India. It’s truly a mecca for food lovers. The variety of cuisines, the service, the convenience of not having to ask “does this have any meat stock?” on everything you order! Love you, sweet India!


A resplendent meal at Rajdhani Restaurant – traditional Rajasthani/Gujarati meal of many courses!

Hot punch Guava juice! Guava juice with a kick with chilies and die for!

Hot punch Guava juice! Guava juice with a kick with chilies and spices…to die for!

I’ll stop here for now, look for the next installment of my stream of conscious post soon as I head to my beloved Chennai this weekend!





Guest post: Diary of a returning desi: United we stand

My husband recently went on a 2-week trip to India for his high school (Shrine Velankanni in Chennai) and college (IT – BHU) reunion.  Yes, this year we did the separate India-trip thing – and for both of us, the experience was different, and in some ways richer.  Aside from envy due to all the amazing food he got in Benaras, I was also amazed at his return trip to Chennai thru Delhi.  This post is his story, in his own words!  Mixed emotions! We both saw a very different India this time.  The potential, and the capabilities of Indians are amazing! Here’s the story in his own words.  Enjoy!

Diary of a returning desi: United we stand

I woke up with a start and realized that there was a lot of yelling going on at the back of the airplane. A couple of rows of passengers were yelling at the stewardess and she was yelling back – good customer service – while a steward was standing by as an onlooker, letting the lady take the heat! The passengers were claiming the airline and staff were all cheats – could it have been some problem with some food that was served? Who knows.

I was traveling back from Varanasi to Chennai via New Delhi. Someone had warned me not to travel through Delhi due to fog. But, when I made my reservation, the only options were to fly through Delhi. As we left Varanasi, we were told that all flights out of Delhi had been delayed and ours would leave three hours later. When we landed, it was going to be four and a half hours late!

This was evening time – it was dark when we landed in Delhi. Our flight was going to leave at 11:30pm. It would bring me into Chennai at 2:10am – not exactly what I wanted to do, but, at least I would be reaching home that day and not spend an entire next day traveling. So, I boarded the flight at around 10:45pm and tired as I was, fell asleep promptly.

When I woke up with a start, I checked the time – it was 1:10am. We had been in the air for an hour and forty minutes. We should be landing in Chennai in another hour. I decided that was enough time to take another quick nap and closed my eyes. That was when the cell phone belonging to the lady in the row ahead of me, rang. I was amazed that cell phones worked in India at 35000 feet!

She picked up the phone and started telling the person on the other end, “They are trying to find a vehicle that can come and push our aircraft back to the hangar!”. What the h….! Now, I really woke up. Now, the yelling really made sense – the passengers were upset since our aircraft had been standing on the tarmac for an hour and forty minutes! I did a quick thank you to the Man upstairs to have knocked me out through this initial pandemonium. There was no going back to sleep now – I was in the middle of whatever was happening and the realization that I will not be making it to Chennai was starting to sink in.

I had come from the US on a ten day visit. Five of those days were being spent on the trip to Varanasi. Now, I was on the verge of losing one more day to travel – not good! I heard the lady continue to describe the situation – “We were next to leave, two minutes behind the airplane in front of us when suddenly the fog thickened and visibility was down to ten feet and it has stayed that way!”

So, how did the airlines cheat? They ordered the fog to keep the passengers in the plane? Not letting the passengers enjoy their quarantine on the tarmac? I decided to pay more attention to the yelling. Didn’t have to – one of the passengers stood up and started announcing loudly – “People, we need your help. You should not deplane when they ask you to. Unless the airline can clearly tell us how they are going to get us to Chennai, no one should deplane. If you deplane, they will not do anything for us. A refund will not buy our one-way ticket to Chennai – the price difference is too much. This airline does not take care of their passengers. We need to stand united and refuse to deplane until alternate arrangements are made. We need your cooperation!”

There it was – the airline would cheat us out of our travel, would not help their customers. Didn’t speak well to their customer service, when I heard someone say “I knew I should not fly this airline – they never care about their customers.” to which someone else said “But, their fares are the only ones I could afford. This is what happens when you travel on budget airlines. Everything’s fine until there is a problem. They don’t have extra aircraft.”

The family across the aisle were starting to talk about their problem. “Ma, do you think we will make it in time for the wedding?”

“Of course dear! Don’t worry, our wedding plans will not be impacted.”

“But, Ma, I am scared. What if we are stuck in Delhi? Is this a bad omen?”

“Nonsense! I am telling you, everything will be fine!”

“Somebody please call NDTV. We need to put pressure on this airline, otherwise, they will leave us hanging.” Magically, someone had the phone number for NDTV and I could hear what he was saying. “We passengers are holding the plane hostage until the airline makes alternate arrangements to reach Chennai.” Great! I was now part of a gang that was holding an airplane hostage!

I only had four days left before I left for the US. There was no way I was going to participate in this madness. I needed to deplane as soon as possible and get rebooked on one of the other airlines for the first flight out of Delhi! Also, when has there been a situation where Indians have held together to fight for a cause publicly, like this, for me to even expect a resolution? I decided that I could not afford to take a chance. First opportunity to deplane, I am out of here!

The two vocal gentlemen from the back of the plane walked up and down and canvassed with the other passengers requesting their cooperation for the stand down with the airline. They were definitely not politicians and their anger and frustration was genuine. Could this really be happening? Will this junta actually respond to these requests? Can we stay unified and take on the airline? Naaaa!

I looked at the watch – it was 2:00am! The “follow me” vehicle had come and our aircraft was headed back to the hangar. The stewardess announced our arrival at the gate and requested everyone to get their luggage and deplane. Per plan, I stood up to get my luggage from the overhead compartments. That’s when the two gentlemen took stand at the two exits and requested everyone to sit down. They pleaded everyone to stay put and not deplane. I decided, what the h…, let’s see what happens and sat down.

The lady in the row in front of me said, “The airline is not going to do anything. This is just a waste of time. We should get down and go. Also, I don’t know why they are yelling at the air-hostess – it’s not her fault!” I could hear the murmurs of discontent across the entire airplane. The weak chain was going to break any moment now and the mass exodus from the plane was going to start. One guy in an exit row loudly said “All they have to tell us is our alternate plans. Everyone, please stay seated and don’t leave.” and he repeated this every three minutes like a parrot! He made it sound like a simple problem to solve!

Surprisingly, no one stood up! No one went for their luggage! Everyone remained seated! The two gentlemen got encouraged and they demanded that the manager on the ground come to airplane to negotiate. Fifteen minutes later, a manager came to the front of the airplane. The decibel level sky-rocketed! Someone was video-taping the session for “The art of yelling simultaneously!”

After much yelling and screaming, we were informed that the manager was going back to the counter to figure out what he can do. He came back fifteen minutes later and announced that they were going to cancel the existing 6:45am flight and that they had decided to make our plane the 6:45am flight. We needed to deplane to go get our new boarding passes.

While this new announcement encouraged people, the two gentlemen said that no one was going to deplane and that we would send five people back with the manager. Once they came back with their boarding passes as proof, then the rest of us would deplane. These were new levels of “holding ground” that I was witnessing. My colleague, who was a couple of rows ahead of me, texted his son in Chennai at 2:47am that we were stuck on the airplane and that we should be on NDTV news.

Some more yelling regarding “trust” and “cheating” and “lack of customer interests” etc. went on. Ultimately, it was decided that the request was not practical and all passengers were requested to deplane. We all picked up our bags and went to the area around the counter. Finally, around 4am, the flight was rebooked and we were informed that our boarding passes were getting ready. It was at this time that my colleague’s son woke up in Chennai. We got a text back from him stating that we were “Breaking News” on NDTV!

The saga ended when we all received our new boarding passes at around 4:30am. Boarding was at 5:45am. So, some of us decided to get something to eat and drink. Other than my quick nap, we had been awake through the night!

As we were walking to the restaurant, I heard one person telling someone how they stood for their rights and made the airline bend to their tune on what they wanted them to do. Another person was speaking on the phone and letting his contact, who was waiting at the airport in Chennai know that it was due to their tireless efforts that the airline’s natural tendency was overcome! While there were only two gentlemen who held back everyone, we now had a plane full of heroes who had mutinied! Everyone was singing their tune of victory!

Would this have happened 20 years ago, when I was still living in India? Would there have been a plane full of heroes? Would there have been the unity, even if forced, that was demonstrated that day? Would there have been the willingness on the part of the airline to rise up to the level of customer service being demanded? I felt like I had witnessed history that day – a new India in the making, people standing up for their rights, for what should have been done as normal course. And, of course, I felt ashamed that I was not willing to believe, willing to participate and was part of the problem!

I heard the story being told one last time to the couple sitting in the first two seats. They were booked on the 6:45am flight that got cancelled, but had not received the news regarding the cancellation and hence had come for their flight. Since our flight was not full, ten or so such passengers made it on our flight. Ultimately, there were passengers who got wronged – all the ones who were scheduled to travel on the 6:45am flight that got cancelled – but, as long as it wasn’t us and we knew we were getting to Chennai, it didn’t seem that anyone cared!!

My thoughts:

To my husband’s surprise at this united stand, I want to gently remind him that yes, we have done this before – remember Aug 15, 1947?