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The Monsoon Book Tour, Fall 2019

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It’s monsoon season in South Asia. India’s parliament is in its “monsoon session.” Schools and universities are starting their “monsoon term.” And here in the US, it’s time for the, um, Monsoon Book Tour. Yes, I’ll be on the road over the next three months, presenting mostly at public libraries. The tour (as I grandly call it) kicks off in Wheeling next Tuesday, August 20, and wraps up at Lakewood on November 21. At most venues, I’ve been asked to do a potpourri of travel tales from Madagascar, India, Bangladesh and India. It won’t be the same mix everywhere—so if you come to two presentations, you’re likely to hear different tales!  For a few libraries, I’ll be doing a country-focused presentation. And then there’s a more academic (but still entertaining) presentation in Denison University’s Global Studies Seminar series on October 14.

Thursday, August 20, 12:00 (mid-day), “Lunch with Books,” Ohio County Public Library,  52 16th Street, Wheeling WV  26003,  http://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/

Tuesday, August 27, 6:00 p.m., Cabell County Public Library, Main Branch, 455 Ninth Street, Huntington, WV 25701, https://cabe.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/cabell/?

Thursday, September 12, 7:00 p.m., Orange branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library, 31975 Chagrin Blvd, Pepper Pike, OH 44124, https://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Branches/Orange.aspx

Wednesday, September 25, 7:00 p.m., Bexley Public Library, 2411 E. Main St. Bexley, OH 43209, https://www.bexleylibrary.org/

Thursday, September 26, 6:30 p.m., Dover Public Library, 525 N. Walnut St., Dover, Ohio 44622, http://www.doverlibrary.org/

Saturday, September 28. 2:00 p.m., South Charleston Public Library, 312 Fourth Avenue, South Charleston, WV 25303, https://scplwv.org/

Thursday, October 3, 7:00 p.m., Southeast branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library, 70 Columbus Road, Bedford, Ohio  44146, https://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Branches/Southeast.aspx

Tuesday, October 8, 7:00 p.m., Upper Arlington Public Library, 2800 Tremont Rd., Upper Arlington , OH 43221, https://www.ualibrary.org/

 Monday, October 14, 7:30-9:00 p.m. Denison University, Granville, Ohio, Global Studies Seminar,  https://denison.edu/series/global “International university capacity building—or bullying?”

Tuesday, October 15, 7:00 p.m., Old Worthington Library, 820 High St, Worthington, OH 43085, https://www.worthingtonlibraries.org/visit/locations/old-worthington-library Co-sponsored by Worthington International Friendship Association. “Postcards from Indonesia.”

Monday, October 21, 3:30 p.m., Nelsonville Public Library, 95 W. Washington 
Nelsonville, OH 45764-1177, https://www.myacpl.org/nelsonville/ “Postcards from Indonesia.”

Monday, October 21, 6:00 p.m., Wells (Albany) Public Library, 5200 Washington Road 
Albany, OH 45710, https://www.myacpl.org/wells/

Tuesday, October 22, 11:00 a.m., The Plains Public Library, 14 S. Plains Road 
The Plains, OH 45780, https://www.myacpl.org/theplains/ “Postcards from Madagascar.”

Monday, November 18, 7:00 p.m., Solon branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library, 34125 Portz Pkwy, Solon, OH 44139, https://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Branches/Solon.aspx

Thursday, November 21, 7:00 p.m., “Meet the Author,” Lakewood Public Library, 15425 Detroit Avenue
Lakewood, Ohio 44107 https://www.lakewoodpubliclibrary.org/

 

Smart city

The city of Ahmedabad sprawls across the scrubby coastal plain of the northwestern state of Gujarat for what seems like an eternity. And perhaps it is an eternity, because it is reportedly the fastest-growing city in India. The 2011 census put its population at 5.6 million; it’s now well over seven million, with a million or so more in the metropolitan area, making it either the fifth or sixth largest city in India, and the seventh largest metropolitan area. By the next census in 2021, 60 years after it first passed the million mark, it could have nine million.

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Ahmedabad was not on my radar until June 2015 when I visited with my UNICEF colleague, Mario Mosquera, to check out the Mudra Institute for Communication (MICA), which had bid to host a workshop on communication for development for UNICEF staff. I had no idea the city was as large as it was, nestled in the population table just below Bangalore and Hyderabad. Flying in from Delhi, I assumed the terminal where we arrived was the airport itself and thought it looked rather empty. I soon saw signs pointing to three more terminals. Ahmedabad was building for future growth.

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Ahmedabad was originally a city of textile mills—some called it the “Manchester of India.” It’s in the cotton-growing region of Gujarat, and also imports raw cotton through the ports of Mumbai and Kandla. Climatic conditions are suitable for spinning, and water from the Sabarmati River for dyeing. The city had a large pool of skilled labor, investment capital and good road and rail connections to Mumbai and other cities. The textile industry remains an important part of the economy, but Ahmedabad has diversified. Over the last decade, the main growth has been in sectors such as auto parts and pharmaceuticals, with a business-friendly state government offering cheap land and tax breaks to industry. It was the so-called “Gujarat economic miracle” that helped propel the state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, onto the national stage. He went on to leadership of the Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, and then to become prime minister.

From the airport, Mario and I drove for almost an hour on a freshly tarmacked four-lane ring road across a construction site landscape. Workers were laying water and utility lines on both sides of the highway and planting shrubs on the median. Large areas of former farmland were dotted with signs and surveyors’ stakes announcing future industrial and technology parks. In the sweltering heat of the early afternoon—late June is the start of the monsoon season—workers with scarves tied around their heads clambered between the steel and concrete pillars of half-finished factories and office buildings, hoisted bamboo scaffolding poles into position, mixed cement, and carried bricks, effortlessly balancing them in baskets on their heads. Billboards marked the designation of economic zones, often expressed as acronyms, such as the Gujarat International Finance Tech (GIFT) City, a “smart city” initiative.

Ahmedabad is one of more than 100 urban areas across India designated by the national government to become a “smart city.” It’s a catchy, if vague, slogan. Officially, a smart city is an urban region with top-notch infrastructure, making it attractive to businesses and residents. That means wide roads, commercial and industrial real estate, modern apartments, schools and medical facilities, all wired together with high-speed links. Ahmedabad was one of 20 cities selected in the first round in January 2016 for government funding.

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Knowing the average connection speed of Indian bureaucracy, it may take some time for the money to arrive. The state and city governments were not waiting on Delhi but plowing ahead with infrastructure. Ahmedabad will likely always be a work-in-progress, because there are few geographical limits to expansion although eventually the city planners will run up against the Char Desert, which covers a wide area of the northwest in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In late afternoon, as we drove away from the MICA campus through the borderland between construction sites and cotton fields, we passed camels hauling carts of hay for animal feed. Somehow, it did not seem incongruous to see camels and herders on a modern highway among the yellow Tata trucks and SUVs. The line between the urban and rural in modern India is constantly shifting.

I began to wonder if Ahmedabad was anything more than highways and construction sites. I was happy to discover an older city on a one-hour sortie to have my suitcase repaired. The screws securing the pull-out handle on my suitcase had fallen out. One advantage of working in a developing country is that it’s almost always cheaper to have something fixed than to buy a new one. The hotel gave me the name of a shopping center where luggage was sold. My auto rickshaw driver had a better idea. He pulled up beside other drivers who rooted around under the seats in their vehicles for screws. After 10 minutes, I signaled that I wasn’t prepared to wait and we set off again. The next stop was a hole-in-the-wall hardware shop, but again nothing fit. We set off again through the maze of streets of the old city and eventually reached a roundabout. The luggage repair wallah sat under a canopy on the narrow sidewalk, his sewing machine in the road, piles of used luggage behind him. He inspected the suitcase, dipped into a bag, pulled out two bolts and nuts, screwed the suitcase together and fixed a torn zipper. “How much?” I asked. He shrugged. “Whatever you think is right.” I gave him 150 rupees (about $2.25), got back into the auto rickshaw, thought about it again, and gave him another 100. I fear that his days are numbered. There’s no place in the smart city for people who hang out a shingle at a busy roundabout and fix things. Maybe they’ll give him a cubicle on the ring road and a web site domain. And no one will come.




Soaps and movie palaces

Bollywood—the Mumbai (Bombay)-based film industry—is famous throughout the world, but it’s not India’s only domestic movie producer. Throughout the country, there are regional centers, producing feature-length films, TV dramas and soaps in the country’s major languages. Most Bollywood productions are in Hindi. For Telugu speakers, there’s Tollywood, based at Ramoji Film City near Hyderabad, reportedly the largest film studio complex in the world. Hyderabad’s regional rival is the Bengaluru-based Chandanavana (Sandalwood), producing more than 200 films a year in the Kannada language. The southwest state of Kerala boasts Mollywood, producing in the Malayalam language. Kolkata is home to the Bengali-language film industry.

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The second-largest movie center, in terms of revenue and distribution, is in Chennai (Madras), producing primarily in the Tamil language, but also competing for the market in the other principal South Indian languages--Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. In 2003, while on a round-the-world voyage with the Semester at Sea program, I led a field trip for 30 students to AVM Productions. After two previous ventures, and a couple of box-office flops, pioneer movie producer Avichi Meiyappan launched AVM in 1947, and it soon became one of the country’s leading film studios. Although most famous for its Tamil-language movies (along with a few in Telugu and Hindi), its bread-and-butter productions are TV serials (soaps) and dramas and  commercials.

The tour company evidently hadn’t done much planning, because when we arrived at the studio there was no one to welcome us. The tour agent eventually located the art director, who agreed to take us around but evidently did not relish his new role as tour guide. Instead of addressing the whole group, he insisted on speaking (mostly to me) in hushed tones. I then had to relay what he said to everyone else and ask lots of questions.

We started at a modest sound stage—the interior of an upper middle-class home—where a Telugu-language soap was being shot. A standard set—three living rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen, and a grand staircase for those emotional “I love you, but I must leave you” or “I will never call you my daughter again” scenes. Most soaps run four or five times a week and are on the air for one to two years before they play out all the plot lines, and the characters die or leave. I asked the “guide” about the plot. He shrugged. “It’s about a large family, about love and conflict.” Next door, at a similar-looking sound stage, they were shooting a Tamil-language soap. Again, I asked about the plot. “It’s about a large family, about love and conflict.”  There were two more sound stages, both representing upper middle-class homes, basically the same in layout and design. And, I expect, with the same plot lines.

Southern India is steamy hot for eight or nine months of the year. The studios had no air conditioning, so when the crew switched on the lights and turned off the huge fans, the heat was almost unbearable. This may be one reason why they do only one take on many scenes. We saw the crew shoot a scene for the Tamil-language soap. It consisted of the female lead walking down the staircase to join her family and exchanging sharp words with her husband. The fans went off, the lights went on, the director called “action,” and the single camera on a track tilted down and dollied across to the living room. Lights off, fans on, take complete, tea served. The director told me that he shoots a half-hour serial in a day (including actor and technical rehearsals), takes four hours to edit and airs the program two days later. 

AVM Studios' South Indian Street," ready-made for scenes in any genre. Don't lean on those commercial facades--there's not much behind them!

AVM Studios' South Indian Street," ready-made for scenes in any genre. Don't lean on those commercial facades--there's not much behind them!

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The soaps are not confined to interior sets. There are a couple of South Indian “streets” with storefronts, a market, a bank and a temple. When a family member turns to crime—perhaps toting one of the plastic Kalashnikovs we found on one set—the scenes are shot in the studio’s police station, jail and courtroom. Victims usually end up in the studio hospital. Eagle-eyed viewers may be able to spot that the courtroom in the Tamil soap looks remarkably like the one in the Telugu soap, but there’s not much language crossover so it’s not a problem.

These films are shown not only in India, but in other parts of the world where people have migrated for work—for Tamils, that’s mostly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. At AVM, a palace set for a movie was under construction. Workers were sawing wood strips, nailing them together into frames, and laying sackcloth to be covered with plaster and painted; others were working on the 200-plus ornate columns (thin plywood and plaster) that would adorn the palace. It was going to be a large palace. “How long will it take you to build it?” I asked. “Two days” was the confident reply. Just as the TV soaps operate on a tight budget and production schedule, movies tend to be formulaic, no-frills, low-budget affairs. With a little creative lighting, you can always cover up that large hole in the wall of the palace. In India, movie-going is mass entertainment, and even poor people can sometimes afford a movie ticket. Profit margins are relatively low, so wages and production budgets are modest. If they can build a palace in two days, they’ll probably shoot the movie in two weeks.

Inexplicable India

As a Westerner visiting India for the first time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Of course, you have read guidebooks and watched TV travel shows to prepare for the trip. You know the basic facts—that India is the second most populous country in the world, diverse in topography, ethnicity, language, religion, culture and cuisine. Nevertheless, after you have pushed your way past the hotel and taxi touts at the airport, shooed away the gaggle of barefoot young boys fighting to carry your bags, and settled into the air-conditioned comfort of the official car or the hotel shuttle, India still assails your senses. 

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There’s no travel show that can prepare you for the crush of people, cars, auto-rickshaws, hand carts, bicycles and people on the city streets. Your driver is nonchalant about the traffic snarls. “Much worse in monsoon season,” he says matter-of-factly. Street vendors, hawking snacks, newspapers, cheap toys, sunglasses, pens, pencils, balloons, coconut slices, and mobile phone car chargers, move among the stalled or slow-moving vehicles.

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When I’m stuck in traffic in Delhi or Mumbai, it’s easy to think that the city’s jams are the worst I’ve ever experienced. On reflection I realize that the traffic is just as bad in most other south and southeast Asian cities. The difference is that in India stalled traffic offers a front-seat view of urban poverty. Beggars with long straggly greying hair, sad-eyed children and women with babies bundled on their backs knock on the car windows, holding open their hands. At one intersection, children perform tumbling tricks on the road. “Look away and don’t open the window,” your driver instructs, hitting the automatic door lock.  You feel a little guilty about ignoring suffering, but at the same time you check your billfold or purse to make sure nothing is missing after the jostling at the airport. The guidebook warned you about pickpockets.

Your car passes rows of dilapidated concrete apartment blocks, their courtyards strewn with trash. Along the roadside and the railroad tracks are rough, single-room shanties, bamboo poles framing rusting sheets of metal, cardboard, tarpaulin and plastic; outside, literally on the street, women are cooking on stoves or open fires and bathing children.

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In parks, alleys and under bridges, those who do not have a shanty claim a few feet of grass or dirt for a sleeping space, laying out a blanket and a few possessions. Yet, a few hundred yards further on is a residential compound of smart, high-rent apartments, with an electronic security gate, a guard post and security cameras. Your car passes modern office towers, ornate wedding palaces, brightly colored Hindu temples and plain mosques, and a moving window display of commercial signage, some in comic English. The malls are packed with shoppers; at the food court, they go for traditional north or south Indian fare or sample KFC and Subway, before shopping or heading to the multiplex for the latest Bollywood blockbuster.

You arrive at your hotel, surrounded by high brick walls topped with barbed wire and spikes. At the security checkpoint, one guard opens the trunk to inspect the luggage; another slowly circles the vehicle holding a pole with a mirror, checking the underside for suspicious attachments. At the entrance, one hotel staff member opens the car door and two more carry your bags to the metal detector. The doorman looks as if he just stepped out of the military parade ground or a TV period drama. Six feet tall and well built, with a dark beard, he is resplendent in his yellow turban and tailored white suit with a red sash and ornamental sword. He salutes smartly.

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Standing nearby, two less well tailored security guards armed with semi-automatic rifles and perspiring in their flak jackets acknowledge your arrival, although their salutes are more perfunctory. There’s more saluting and door-opening as you enter the lobby and approach the reception desk, where a waiter offers you a welcome drink of watermelon juice. For an instant, you imagine you’re back in the time of the Raj, that you’re a British colonial officer with a small army of staff at your bidding. Then reality returns. You’re in a modern hotel with air conditioning, wi-fi, and room service. BBC World is on the TV monitor, the sound muted.  The low-level muzak sounds familiar, but somehow out of place.  Then you catch the tune. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …” Surreal.  The dark-suited desk clerk smiles and gives you your key. “Welcome to the Taj, sir. I hope you have a pleasant stay.”

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Statistically, the wealth gap in urban India may be no greater than it is in other countries. To me, the poverty of Delhi or Mumbai seems more apparent, more emotionally draining. The wealth gap in urban India, perhaps more than in any other country I’ve visited, is striking and ever-present, sometimes within the same field of view. In some countries, most poor people are geographically segregated, confined to the outer limits of cities in shanty towns or informal settlements. In urban India, outside the oases of hotels and offices, the poor are with you all the time, often right in your face or following you down the street. Do you hand over that 20 rupee note (about 30 cents) with its image of that champion of the poor, Mahatma Gandhi, to make the woman with her baby go away? How do you know that she’s not part of an organized begging ring?  In India, moral dilemmas await you around almost every corner.

Faced with crowds, poverty, pollution, trash, traffic congestion, and crime, some people find India too much to bear. There’s always a danger of getting sick—from tap water at a budget hotel or restaurant, or from street food. Except in the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s usually hot—in some months, almost unbearably so.  If you’re prepared to take India for what it is—often messy and disorganized, occasionally dangerous and always unpredictable—and put up with unanticipated inconveniences and hardships, you will be well rewarded, and relish its smells, sounds, sights, culture and people.

You may also feel humble, as I do when Indian friends and colleagues start talking about  history, religion and culture. India is an epic of epics, spanning thousands of years—of war and conquest, of the rise and fall of great civilizations, of architecture, literature and art, of migration and settlement, of commerce with Asia, Europe and Africa. I know some of this, but have much more to learn.

Most visitors to India long ago accepted that any generalizations are at best tentative, at worst misleading. There is not one but many Indias. India is not only, as its tourism slogan goes, “incredible.”  It’s inexplicable.