Take care of infrastructure

As one of the rare few undergraduate students of Indian origin at University of Iowa in late 80s, I was asked a lot of questions about India. For my fellow students, India was this exotic place that they had often heard of but didn't quite know what to make of it (remember this was pre-web). Their impressions ranged from a complete wreck (thanks to fundraising pleas) to a land of palaces and opulence (various movies and stories) to the land from where many of the professors came.  I tended to give them an unvarnished view which made things crazy enough.  The fact that many of these question-answer sessions were conducted during alcohol-fueled late-night bull sessions made for even more craziness.

Anyways, once a friend asked about the fundamental difference between USA and India. And he went further, making sure I did not digress into cultural or historical differences. He wanted to know the difference between the two countries.

Now, remember, this was a long time back and it took me a long while (a few days I think) to come up with the answer - Infrastructure. Oddly enough, I was not so sure about the answer till I said it out loud. Many of my friends were quite disappointed at the boring answer.  A couple even booed me. But every time I reiterated it, I grew convinced that that was it. Yes, there are many other differences between India and USA - culture, language, music, race, history, religion, food... But these differences exist between any pair of countries.

I felt that infrastructure made a huge difference in the way things worked. In USA, there were no shortage of services. If you wanted a telephone (landline), all you had to do was call the phone company and within a few hours things would be working. Back in India, my parents had applied for a phone line in 1981 that had not yet materialized when I left in 1988! In US, the phone bill came in the mail and I would write a check and send it back and there was never a time I didn't receive a bill or the company did not receive their payment.  This was definitely not the case in India.

It was true of many other systems - electricity, water, sewage, gas stations, grocery, credit cards... basically everything. If somehow your car left you stranded on the side of the highway, the highway patrol would help you out by calling a tow-truck or whatever. Things simply worked. And that was exactly what India of the 80s was not. Buying a train ticket was an ordeal. First find the right line (there was a different line for groups of trains) and pray and hope that the train you want to buy the ticket for is not already sold out.  My mom would give me a whole if-then-else scenario before I set off from home.

In Iowa, you could flick on the switch and the lights would come on, turn on the faucet and nice clean drinking water would pour out. I could mail a check for paying my tuition or credit card bill and be very sure that it would be received at the other end. There were toll-free numbers that one could call from any phone (including pay phones) and reach customer service. The highways and other roads were well-marked and kept in pretty good condition. People could afford to wait till the fuel-gauge showed empty before filling up. We could take a lot of things for granted.

Meanwhile, in India, poor infrastructure discouraged people from trusting the system.  No one trusted the mail.  People kept small generators to power the lights, kept water in buckets, hoarded rice, wheat, toilet paper and such things.  And it lead to tribalism.  If you knew the right handshake, the shopkeeper kept a few loaves of bread in the back or the doctor knew someone who miraculously happened to have the right medicine even though none were available in the open market.  And all of this hoarding led to artificial shortages, which led to even more hoarding.

Fast forward a couple of decades and guess what?  Now that India, China and many emerging countries have become more prosperous, they are busy pouring money into building and expanding their infrastructure.  High-speed rail lines, electrification, bridges, roads, hospitals, airports, you name it and it is being built in these two countries at a maddening pace.  Meanwhile, here in US, we are watching the infrastructure built by our ancestors crumble.  There are more than 4000 (no typo) bridges that are in serious need of repair.  We have no high-speed rail worth talking about.  The Congress is busy trying to figure out how to wreck the US Postal Service.  We Americans invented the internet but if you want a speedy net connection at home, US is one of the dead last countries amongst the developed nations!  And the emerging countries are catching up.

So, please, support the maintenance and improvement of our public infrastructure.  Given that our economy has still not fully recovered, this is a good time to get things done for cheap.  Remember, many of the dams and other big things were built during the depression and they have paid for themselves many times over.  If we lose the infrastructure race, we would have an even tougher time competing globally.


Postcard from Europe #5: Love blossoms in unlikely places

This is yet another post from the time when I was living in Germany and traveling around trying to visit every corner of Europe before my return back to US...

This post is not about me or my experiences.  Rather it is the story of the parents of a fellow traveler.  But I was so fascinated by it that it is etched deep in my memory and even today I continue to marvel at it.

I was returning back to Frankfurt on an overnight train from Italy.  A Norwegian girl on the train asked me if the train would stop in Darmstadt (a town south of Frankfurt).  "No", I said, "This is an express train.  But you should have no problem getting a train from Frankfurt.  Why do you want to go there?"  "My grandparents live there".

Now, I was really confused.  Why would a Norwegian girl have grandparents in Germany?  That too so far from Norway?  Something didn't quite add up.  I was definitely not going to dig up a sleeper cell but I didn't stifle my curiosity and asked.  And here is what she said:

My dad was drafted into the German army during World War II when he was a teenager and ended up fighting and getting captured in Norway.  He was in the POW camp when he fell really sick.  Horribly sick.  My mom was a volunteer nurse and it was her job to keep checking on my dad and giving him medicine.  When the war ended, my mom made sure he got sent with a big supply of medicine (he was still not well).  Later, she sent him a care package with more medicine and he wrote to her thanking her.  Later still, he wrote to her that he was now well and hoped to get admission in a university.  Her mom prevailed upon her own father (who happened to be a university professor in Norway) to give this boy admission...
To this day, I cannot explain any of it.  It is such a strange happening - two people on either side of an insanely murderous war find love with each other.  I have wondered what happened to her dad at the university in Norway.  Did he have to hide the fact that he was German?  Did the fellow Norwegian students shun him?  Did his love for this girl/woman keep him going when his spirits were down?  Or was he glad to escape from a ruined country that seemed to have no future?

Either which way, I salute the parents of this girl.  As for the girl, I left her at Frankfurt central train station after making sure she knew which train to take.  I had to get back to the office, it was already 8am!


Seeking Osama bin Laden

In just under 6 months, we are going to mark the 10-year anniversary of a pretty big terrorist attack on USA - known by its numeric moniker - 9/11. Because everyone would be writing about it, this post is trying to beat the crowds.

Back in 2001, most Americans got mad at the terrorists and their brethren. We demanded that their lair be attacked and the terrorists be annihilated. So, we launched a "War on Terror". Our first mission was to find Osama bin Laden, a one-time "friend" of America who had gone renegade and was the mastermind behind 9/11. Somehow this "War on Terror" morphed into "Seek WMD in Iraq" to "Topple Saddam Hussein because he cast an evil eye on W's dad" to "Bring democracy to Iraq by appointing a charlatan as PM" to "We cannot leave now - the helipad on the Embassy's roof is not yet finished".

Meanwhile Osama is busy hiding in some cave. Almost 10 years later we have no clue where he is. Not only he is not in the news, he has been forgotten in the land that he terrorized 10 years back. Today, we are terrorized by bankers and the whole credit crisis (was it brought on by the "Shop till you drop" method of providing support for our troops?).

So, dear readers, if you have a clue where we can find Osama, please send a letter to:

Manager, United States of America
1600 Pennsylvania Ave
Washington DC