On several levels, in just a few days, I have already failed.
Here I am to volunteer in Guwahati for the next few months, embarking on my dream of bringing efficiency, transparency, good work habits. I should have listened to a friend who warned me against trying too hard.
“Ahh, leave them alone. They are in a better world,” said one friend. They, of course, refers to natives (I am beating you to the punch) and their world is one without high-speed Internet and five-star hotels. “How does not knowing things hurt?”
“How about being told that people with below poverty line status only qualify for one doctor’s visit?” I shot back. “Or drafting a CV that is four lines long?”
Another business leader in the North-East echoed the sentiment: “You should try to interact with young people as much as possible, especially in the remote areas. (But) after being in Guwahati for 22 years, I am still not sure what exactly needs to be done for our people and its youth. Definitely, spoon feeding would not take us far.”
I’m learning that the hard way.
She was young and wanted to be a journalist, or so she said. She planned to apply for a mass communications course in Tezpur, 180km from here. She contacted me through a relative.
In her, I sensed drive, eagerness...and my first project.
“Forget Tezpur,” I said. “You should get some practical experience first. Be sure it’s what you want to do, figure out which medium and then apply for the top schools.”
Armed with her CV and through a contact, I helped her land an internship with a news agency in New Delhi.
Then the stalling began.
“I have exams,” she said in one phone call.
“They can wait,” I responded.
“I don’t know where to live,” she said in the next.
“I know a girls’ hostel.”
Finally, the last straw: “Will I have to move around a lot?”
I exploded. “You want to be a journalist or a stenographer? Geez, just go get married or something. I don’t have time for this.”
Yeah, not exactly my most supportive moment.
The whole scenario dovetailed well with another common experience here: The struggle for goods and services. In many ways, this place makes Delhi—and the rest of first-tier city India—seem the most efficient paradise. Want a mobile connection? No problem—except there’s a waiting period explained away as “because we’re in Assam”. And then the next day the excuse will be that it’s Sunday. And then comes a death in the family. And then that the delivery boy couldn’t find the house. Want broadband? Good luck navigating the paper-strewn office at Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, which gives me a window into the past, when securing a phone line took years.
I sound like the president of the Non-Resident Indian Club, I know, (consider reader reaction to my last column: “I think you will be happier in America if you came to India only to assuage your own guilt. Certain choices, like nationality, are either/or”) but this is no city of joy. My confessions will surely draw more contempt, but they are honest. My failures bring instant lessons on why development economists harp on measures being “sustainable”, how those of us who leave our native places and far-off villages also breed dependence; sending fish instead of fishing poles, as the metaphor goes.
What I once naively and self-importantly thought to be true, melts away. Others in queue don’t blow up at the service people when they say one week or longer to get things done. I chalk this up to the Assamese way—mostly agreeable, happy-go-lucky, slightly lazy attitude.
“Geez, if more customers would complain, maybe there’d be some efficiency in this place,” I grumble to my cousins.
“You think you’re the only one who’s been wronged here?” asks one. “We’ve all been where you are at. And then we learn there’s no use. Pay a bribe, get mad, maybe both. Better to keep your cool and cash.”
I pass the new Mainland China and Pantaloon’s near my house, drive on new highways, meet entrepreneurs and see progress. But every day come other reminders of how far Assam still has to go. Is it a journey it even wants to make?
What will be lost in the process? One day, will drivers and service people no longer be served tea while they wait? Will the cable guy no longer ask for my origins and try to devise connections between my grandfather and his?
The stereo blaring from my kitchen reflects the steps forward and back. One minute there’s the soundtrack from Singh is Kinng, the next a Bhupen Hazarika number from the 1970s, then an old Hindi film song from the same era. It feels comfortable and right on the radio. For an economy, I am not so sure.
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