Sunday, September 21, 2008


Well Japan left me speechless. I thought it would be so easy to blog about. It is such a singular country, so unique in a million ways - and yet on this short visit - my fifth or sixth - I didn't have anything concrete to say. Some days after getting back home I seem to be finding my voice again.

The thing is, Japan is at the opposite end of the spectrum from India in almost every way. The comparisons favourable to Japan are easy: where India is poor, Japan is rich; where India is dirty, Japan is the cleanest society on earth; where Indians lack discipline, the Japanese are utterly self-disciplined. In fact my biggest fear, as an Indian in Japan, is of coming across as boorish or rude. There is no chance a Japanese will ever jump a queue or push you out of the way. But there is every chance I will fail to return a bow or a smile and thereby upset these gentle, courteous people.

Returning to earth is a shock - reaching a departure gate for a flight bound for India, you get an elbow stuck in your side by someone who wants to get on your flight before you (and would cheerfully take his seat to India faster if he could bribe a cop, leaving your seat to fall into the sea if that were necessary to achieve his goal).

In my case, I returned to earth via Hongkong, an interesting mid-point between Japan and India. The airport is swanky and the shopping spectacular, but the racist staff at the shops make no secret of the fact that in their view the only good Indian is a dead Indian (to quote the charming Theodore Roosevelt, who was speaking about different "Indians"). But one should not get sidetracked here - Hongkong is not important in any sense that I can think of, but Japan and India are, and what I want to know is - where is the cosmic balance? Do we Indians have any redeeming features compared to the Japanese? What is our purpose on this earth?

And for once, at the peak of my middle-aged despair about my own country, I begin to see the point. Precisely the things lacking in Japan are to be found in India. Even when the weather in Tokyo is hot and humid (as it was last week), the environment is chilly - all glass and steel and manicured shrubs. Post-monsoon Bombay may be damp and soggy but it is exuberantly green and - let's face it - shrubs do not wish to be manicured. They want to sprout, to grow, to thrust themselves on your attention and say "here I am - a shrub, maybe, but one with a healthy appetite and sex drive". And perhaps this vulgar phrase says it all. India is where lust (for life and everything that goes with it) is unfettered, where layers of fat are un-restrained, where prejudice and affection are so mixed that we can rarely state our opinions with precision.

Yes we are boorish, but in many ways innocently so. The person who elbows you at the airport will say with a straight face "sorry uncle, I didn't even see you!" and instead of slapping this little upstart you will be lulled into believing him.

Meanwhile back in Japan - one small incident sticks in my mind. By asking successive bus drivers and using "sumimasen" (Japanese for "excuse me") repeatedly, I got closer and closer to my goal of locating the bus for Tokyo University's Kashiwa campus from Kashiwa station. But the last driver frustrated me totally. She just would not gesture. She understood dimly that I was not following her speech, but she would not use any kind of sign language. An hour later (after returning to my hotel in defeat and having the entire staff apologise to me for Japan's failure to help me find my bus) I learned that she had been telling me to take bus number 1, not number 2 which she was driving, from the very same stop. How hard is it to explain that to someone with your hands?

If the fate of the world depended on sign language (and some day it might come to that), Indians and Italians would inherit the earth and the Japanese would perish. And the Hongkongese would, I suppose, be left with only their duty free shops.