Saturday, 21 January 2017


[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here:]

The three of us walked in together at the car rental to pick up our ride to Chicago. Lan had done a thorough job of comparing costs and “weekend specials” offers across a few different rental agencies and landed us a deal that worked out a bit a cheaper than what it would have cost us collectively if we had taken a Greyhound bus instead. It was a relatively small “compact” car but we found it comfortable enough since it was only the three of us and our backpacks, which was the only luggage we were carrying, fit quite easily in the limited space the boot provided. We signed the rental agreement, said bye to Cathy (the rental agency staff member assisting us), put in a Robert Cray CD, and got ourselves on the road.

West Lafayette to Chicago is an easy trip to make. Within about 20 minutes one gets on to Inter-State 65 North and then its only one turn onto I 94 W which takes you straight into the city. Prosh was driving as Lan leaned back in the front passenger seat while I made myself comfortable with legs folded under me on the rear seat. All three of us were in an easy cheer and were just enjoying the music and the drive with occasional bits of conversation and laughter.

Driving in the US is a pleasure. Going from India the first thing that hits you is the quality of their roads: perfectly levelled with basically no wobbles, lanes marked clearly (with people actually following lane discipline absolutely immaculately!) and repair work zones clearly cordoned off and traffic diverted systematically. They also have well spaced and secure rest areas along their highways where people can take a small break when tired, freshen up and pick up some snacks, fruit juice, etc. The second thing that gets you is the sheer level of discipline on the roads. I’ve already mentioned lane discipline above. Add to that the idea of obeying speed limits (which are very clearly indicated at regular intervals) and other instructions regarding how to change a lane, the signals to be given before executing a turn, etc. and you basically find yourself in a situation where driving / traveling by road is not something stressful but can actually be enjoyed. If anyone does violate traffic rules, the likelihood is very high that they will find a cop car behind them and asking them to pull over. And cops don’t take bribes there. They write you a traffic ticket and charge you a fine. If the violation of rules is serious enough, they make you appear in court. It can go to the extent of your license getting suspended and in situations such as driving under the influence of alcohol, you cooling your heels off in jail for a while. Yes, America proudly declares itself as a country of freedom and liberty. But they also guard the freedom and liberty on offer with a fairly serious implementation of law and order if you don’t respect the privileges granted to you. And that’s how it ought to be. As I’ve said in a previous post, yes, Americans do have their share of problems and confusions (their foreign policy, some acts of war they have indulged in and persisting elements of racism being examples of things I neither like or agree with), but they’ve also got some things really right and I think it would do us a world of good to learn from them on these fronts.

I’ve thought about why some things are so crisply in place in that country. Whether it be traffic discipline, professionalism in post offices and banks, getting electricity or water connections and paying for these utilities, the public library system, offices in the university or public offices in general, or taxi drivers who roll by the meter fair and square, a whole lot of engagement with the services available and the officials in charge of them is by and large smooth, hassle free and works on clearly stated and practiced principles. One reason might certainly be that they have a far lower population level to deal with and that helps in keeping things manageable and orderly. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I also think it has to do with a basic cultural tenet which is quite simply that people take their work and responsibilities seriously. This sounds so straightforward and obvious that one might miss its significance. In my analysis, it is the bedrock of many a thing going right in that country and I observed this cultural tenet expressing itself in practice consistently in all the three universities I was associated with as well as in the society at large in all three cities I lived in during my eleven years in the US. Whether it was the professors who taught us or the technical staff assisting in laboratories and workshops or the secretarial staff in the various department and university offices or the IT staff manning the computing labs or even the janitorial staff responsible for keeping the university sparkling clean, everyone did their job seriously. The same spirit was on display in our fellow students – right from high school students who would come in for short term internships in some of the labs to freshman year students at the undergraduate level to those working on their PhD theses. There was an overall seriousness of academic pursuit. So with officials and service providers I interacted with in society in general. I’m sure the same culture extends to the way people practice their engineering there. Hence the perfectly levelled roads and highways, a space program that has made space travel and living on the international space station seem almost routine and the silicon valley phenomenon that has brought the computer revolution to where it stands today. And this professionalism and work culture went along with a clarity on how much time in a day / week everyone was expected to work as well as everyone getting compensated for their services fair and square. Yes, there is crime in that country as well. But as I have pointed out above, they also have a law and order system that takes itself seriously to counter it as best as possible.

I think it would do us a world of good to adopt these practices from the west (instead of just settling for beer, burgers and big cars in terms of what we are willing to adopt :)!). To become a first world country like them, nay, even better, we’ll have to also work just as hard as them. We'll have to become absolutely self reliant, and more, in every critical sector: Food, Energy, Defence, Healthcare, Education. We will need to develop the knowledge and capability to make things that we need ourselves and make them as well as, if not better than, anyone else. There's only one thing that will get us to this stage: Work.

As of today I think we err on both sides:

On the one hand, while there are certainly those who maintain high ethical standards in their professional and personal lives, I don’t believe there is any shortage of people who are either lazy or insincere or corrupt (or all of these) either, and I think you will find these traits right across the spectrum from public officials and law enforcement personnel who either don’t execute their responsibilities or indulge in corruption to doctors who take money under the table to perform surgeries to auto rickshaw and taxi drivers who fleece customers brazenly. I think a lot of people underestimated the importance as well as the extent of applicability of the anti-corruption movement that was launched by Anna Hazare some years ago.

In contrast, I also believe we exploit some service providers. I am aware, for example, of security guards who are made to put in twelve hour workdays while getting paid only for eight hours on record (talk about exploitation!) to doctors, teachers and faculty members in colleges who get paid as little as ten to fifteen thousand rupees a month which, in today’s time, is plain pathetic (and I remark once again: talk about exploitation!).

We need to fix both sides of the problem and bring in a culture of clean, corruption free, sincere work that gets paid its due. Then we can actually talk about the country moving forward. Till then, I’m afraid it’s going to stay just a pipe dream.

It was just about eight in the evening when we pulled up in front of Ptom and Sonali’s house. Sonali, beaming a smile as usual, answered the bell and called out to Ptom to let him know that we had arrived as she waved us in. Ptom stuck his head out from behind the door of his little reading room in the rear of the house, smiled a hello and asked if we would be up for some lemon tea.

[Lemon tea stays a most preferred drink of mine to this day and I readily recommend a cup of the same, specially if there is a bit of a chill in the air and you want something to make you feel warm, cozy and comfortable: Just heat some tea leaves in water, squeeze a bit of lemon to taste (you can add a dash of honey if you want a tinge of sweetness to go with it) and you would be all set. Lemon tea and a good book. There’s nothing quite like that really.]

Some piping hot lemon tea sounded just great after the drive and we readily accepted the offer.

We were to sleep right there in the living room later at night. So we just put our backpacks in a corner and went in to splash some water on our faces and freshen up a bit. Meanwhile Ptom made the tea and brought it out in nice big cups along with some oranges.

There were tales to be shared and plans to be made for the next two days as we all sat together peeling our oranges and sipping our teas. I reckon that was when it felt like the festival had started. Jaco Pastorius’ bass lines playing softly in the background on Ptom’s LP player certainly seemed to support this sentiment.

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