In terms of academic qualifications, he has a Ph.D. in Political Science from a prestigious university in America. But his greatest learning experience came not from academe, he insists. It came from his frequent travels around the world. He shares that experience with the readers through the pages of this book.
He introduces them to the geopolitical, historical and cultural landscapes of various countries stretching from Argentina to China. He narrates in fine English prose the scenic beauty of some of the places he visited and personal stories of people he met.
In the course of interacting with those people, he also projects among them the real image of India - the image of a country which, in spite of being multi-religious, multiethnic and multicultural, has remained intact as one political entity and become the most vibrant democracy in the world. The book is a page-turner.
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CAPITALISM COMES TO MAO'S MAUSOLEUMAn Indian Goes Around the World – I
By M.P. Prabhakaran
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 M.P. Prabhakaran
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy Two Embarrassing Moments in Buenos Aires
San Telmo is to Buenos Aires what Greenwich Village is to New York City. Because of its Sunday flea markets, antiques shops, art galleries, street performances and many other attractions, tourists to Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, always make it a point to visit that part of the city.
For those who are looking for the old-world charm, there are 19th-century colonial mansions, known for their architectural grandeur, on both sides of the streets. Most of the streets are paved with cobblestones. The mansions were, once upon a time, owned and occupied by upper-class Spaniards. Many of them were later remodeled into multifamily apartment complexes to meet the housing needs of new waves of immigrants, mostly Italians. Lately, some of the mansions have also been converted into shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars. Frolicking Argentines and fun-loving tourists bring San Telmo to life, especially on Sunday evenings. Adding to the fun and frolic is that world-famous art form the Argentine culture is inseparable from. The art form—you have guessed it right—is the tango.
Tango dancers from various parts of Buenos Aires and beyond flock to San Telmo and perform at street corners and city squares. They do it partly in keeping up with an age-old tradition, but mostly to make a living by entertaining tourists. Some of them are just as good as famous tango dancers who perform at various Buenos Aires night clubs. Watching the tango at night clubs would cost one anywhere between 20 and 100 U.S. dollars, depending on the popularity of the club and of dancers. At San Telmo street corners, the cost is what one decides and can afford—an important factor that went into my opting for that place, rather than a night club.
I love the tango, especially the Argentine tango. I wanted to learn it ever since I was first exposed to it. But for some flimsy reason or other, I never got down to doing it. Little did I know on the Sunday evening I decided to go to San Telmo that my favorite dance was also going to give me one of my most embarrassing moments in life and one of the two embarrassing moments I had in Buenos Aires.
My First lesson in Tango
Most of the dancers that I saw were in compatible pairs. By which I mean there were no same-sex couples. One could tell from their performance that a lot of planning and practicing had gone into it. There were also dancers who would start the show solo and then persuade one of the spectators to join him or her as partner. "Another cost-cutting device in a country that is financially strapped?" I wondered. I dismissed the thought as fast as it came, reasoning: audience participation had always been an essential feature of street performances in every country and every culture. Some of those who volunteered to participate were excellent dancers themselves. But those who did it only after a good deal of persuasion were pathetic to watch.
I was thoroughly enjoying the evening, taking in the sights and sounds of the cultural corner of Buenos Aires, when a cross-dressed woman performer caught my attention. In a double-breasted coat with a matching tie and a hat, and with a mustache waxed to keep its handlebar shape intact, she could probably be imitating an English country gentleman. (Many Argentines do imitate Europeans, making them the butt of jokes of other South Americans.) I stopped to watch her (him?).
I knew it took two to tango. I was curious to find out who from among the spectators she was going to pick as her partner—the actual opposite sex or the opposite sex which the man she was masquerading as called for? My curiosity turned into shock and fright when her choice fell on me.
My protestations, in English, that I hardly knew any steps were dismissed by her, in Spanish. I thought what she said meant, "It doesn't matter." She dragged me to the center of the dance area, to the delight of the crowd that clapped and whistled.
"Shouldn't the partner be of the opposite sex in appearance, too?" I shouted, to no one in particular.
"Come on, man, be a good sport," one from the crowd shouted back. He had a British accent. The crowd was international in composition.
The first thing the performer did was to press me against her taut breasts. That part, I must say, I really enjoyed. The handlebar mustache that brushed against my cheek did not diminish the enjoyment one bit.
But her next gesture made it clear that I was not to read too much into that physical contact. She pointed two fingers toward her eyes, meaning that I was supposed to look straight into her eyes. Which I did—nervously. Then she began to push me around, telling me—in Spanish, of course—which leg to move where. I nodded yes. Not that I understood anything she said. I was anxious to get it over with fast. The instructions ended with her asking me to fall on her right arm and throw my right leg up pointing to the sky, the usual finale of a tango dance. Only then did I realize that she was expecting me to play the female role.
She turned on the boom box and the music began to blare. Once again, she held me close to her. And once again, I could feel her breasts rubbing against my chest. But this time, I was too nervous to derive any pleasure out of it. She nudged me to take the first step. My first step, in my first tango dance in life, on my first visit to the land of the tango! Never had I imagined that that was also going to be my last step—at least for that evening.
My left heel fell on her right toes and nearly crushed them. She roared in pain. I apologized profusely. My explanation that the step mix-up was caused by the sex mix-up did not have any effect on her. She pushed me toward the spectators. They roared, too, but in exultation—and to my great embarrassment. If they had come out that evening to have a good time, I did not disappoint them.
As soon as she picked another partner from the crowd and I knew that nobody was watching me, I quietly withdrew from the scene. I rushed to a nearby sidewalk café and ordered a cool Argentine beer. The beer was very satisfying.
Visit to a Turkish Bath
My second embarrassing moment in Buenos Aires came at a Turkish bath. When the hotel I was staying in offered a free Turkish bath as part of the deal, I said to myself, "At long last, I am going to have the ecstatic experience of being in a Turkish bath!" Until then, I had only seen it in movies and read about it.
The bath facility took up nearly a quarter of the hotel's basement. The huge hall that led to the actual bath had a bar on one side and a locker room on the other. As I entered the hall, my stare fell on a group of men sitting around a table, drinking beer and playing cards. All of them were tall, old and fat. Those physical features were not what caused my stare, though. It was their nonchalant attitude to what they were exposing to each other. From the wet towels that were lying beside them, I guessed that they had just come out of the bath. When the bartender saw my surprised look, he pointed his thumb toward the locker room. I knew what he meant. He meant not merely that I must be heading in that direction. He was also stressing the point that I was being stupid staring like that at his patrons.
Inside the locker room, there were men, most of them old, walking in and out of small cubicles. Only a few of them had towels wrapped around their waists. Others carried them in their hands. They couldn't care less that an Indian was amused by their dangling private parts. This time, I tried hard not to show any surprise. I didn't want the locker room attendant to repeat to me what the bartender had done only a couple of minutes earlier.
The attendant handed a huge towel for me to change into and showed me the room where I was going to have the actual steam bath.
As I entered the hot, steamy room, I saw several men sitting on benches. Some of them were completely naked and some partially so. They were also unconcerned about what they were displaying. One look at them, and I said to myself: "I am no match for any of these guys. Let me not reveal to them that I come from an underdeveloped country."
I made for the exit fast, making sure that my towel was firmly in place.
Chapter TwoEva Peron's Tomb Is Too Small for Her Ego
It was November, 2001. I had been in Buenos Aires for five days, enjoying everything I saw around. I was surprised to see that the city functioned fairly efficiently and its reputation as "The Paris of South America" remained intact, in spite of the economic woes the country was experiencing.
Even before I arrived in Buenos Aires, the media were full of stories foreboding Argentina's economic doom. At the same time as I was there, the International Monetary Fund was meeting in Ottawa, Canada, to explore ways of saving the country the embarrassment of defaulting on its debt repayment to lending institutions.
As it turned out later, the IMF's efforts were of no avail: Argentina did default, in December 2001, on its public debt of 141 billion in U.S. dollars, thereby besmirching its name in the comity of nations. Sovereign default is something no nation would find easy to live with.
In Buenos Aires and other major cities of the country, people took to streets almost daily—demanding jobs, back wages, the money they had deposited in banks and, sometimes, even food. Riots resulting from the crisis claimed scores of lives.
To get back to the time I was in Buenos Aires, the only visible signs of the economic gloom I noticed were empty tables in restaurants and occasional beggars on streets. Sometimes the beggars, almost all of them kids, approached customers in restaurants, too. I mean those restaurants that were lucky enough to have some customers. I saw a few beggars holding fliers with stories of their privation printed on them. Some customers would give them a coin or two without even looking at the fliers. Some others would shoo the intruders away.
One customer who gave a kid a small-size coin learned to his disappointment later that it was of five-peso denomination. The Argentine peso, at the time, was linked to the American dollar and equal in par value. The customer had stupidly thought that the smallness in size of the coin meant smallness in value.
Street performers on Avenida 9 de Julio
There were also those who, strictly speaking, couldn't be called beggars. Though their nuisance value was the same as that of beggars, they did provide some entertainment in return for what they were asking. They should be called street performers.
Most of them chose the widest avenue in Buenos Aires for their performance. The wider the avenue, the longer would be the traffic halt at pedestrian crossings. The widest avenue in Buenos Aires is Avenida 9 de Julio (July 9 Avenue). With six lanes each going in either direction, it is the widest avenue I have seen in any city anywhere in the world. The avenue is named after the country's Independence Day. Argentina became independent from Spanish colonial rule on July 9, 1816.
The performers would wait at corners where Avenida 9 intersects with streets and other avenues. As soon as the traffic light turned red, they would jump from the sidewalk onto the avenue, in front of the first row of vehicles, and begin their performance—juggling balls or sticks, torch display, dancing or just clowning around. They would have as much time for their performance as it took for pedestrians to cross the 12-lane avenue and its green-patch separation in the middle. A few seconds before the traffic light changed back to green, they would stop their performance and approach the occupants of vehicles, with a hat in hand. I wondered whether those teen artistes and acrobats were able to make a living doing what they were doing. Most motorists ignored them, and some even stared and shouted at them.
After savoring the sights and sounds of Buenos Aires for five days, I felt that I hadn't had enough. I wanted to see more of the city and surrounding areas. I wanted to visit San Telmo and watch the tango a few more times. So the day before I was scheduled to fly out, I went to the Varig Airlines office to enquire whether postponing my departure by a few days would cost me anything extra.
I was sitting at the airlines office, waiting for my turn to be called at the reservation desk. The wait had become too long, and I was getting bored. I turned to a woman sitting next to me and asked whether she spoke English.
"What a relief!" I said when she replied yes. "Those who speak English are very few around here."
She threw a contemptuous look at me. I got the message: While my question was a legitimate one, especially in a country whose native language is Spanish, the remark I made in response to her reply was uncalled-for. How stupid of me to make such a remark! When I made it, I had in my hand a copy of Buenos Aires Herald, an English daily published from the Argentine capital. I should have known that it was published not for occasional visitors like me, but locals like her. I was relieved when she laughed away my faux pas and decided to continue the conversation.
"Are you from India?" she asked me.
'You are No Gandhi'
I have heard that question from foreigners, especially those who are familiar with Indians' features, umpteen times. But this time, it had a different effect on me. It came from a person living in a city where Indians are a rarity. I started liking her.
"Yes, originally from India, but now I live in the United States," I said. That has been my stock reply every time I hear that question. I have lost count of the number of times I might have given that reply.
"I can tell, you are no Gandhi," she said, her eyes narrowing into a squint. She was waiting for my reaction.
"You are absolutely right," I told her. "If I were Gandhi, I would be living in India and doing something for the less fortunate there."
Gandhi was very much on her mind at the time, she said, because she had just finished reading the Spanish version of Freedom at Midnight. She also said that she had been a great admirer of Gandhi since her childhood. "My admiration went up after reading the book," she added.
Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, published in the mid-1970s, is a fascinating portrayal of India's freedom struggle. Gandhi dominates the book from beginning to end. The Argentine admirer of Gandhi also told me what she thought about the other personalities that figure prominently in the book: Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Louis Mountbatten.
She thanked me for correcting her, when she said that Mountbatten was the only one among them who was still alive. "He died in 1979 in a bomb explosion," I told her. "He was sailing on his pleasure boat, off the coast of Ireland, when it happened. It was found out later that the bomb had been planted on the boat by terrorists belonging to the Irish Republican Army."
La Recoleta Cemetery
We talked about many more things. The blunder with which I started the conversation notwithstanding, a rapport began to develop between us. She gave me the addresses of a few must-see places in Buenos Aires and then asked: "Have you visited the cemetery of the rich and famous in Argentina?"
She was referring to La Recoleta Cemetery, a visit to which is invariably included in all conducted tours of Buenos Aires. The cemetery is 13&fra12l acres in area and considered the costliest piece of real estate in all of Argentina. It has rows and rows of mausoleums, built in memory of many famous (and infamous) people in Argentina's history—presidents, politicians, soldiers, authors, etc. The size and showiness of the mausoleums are in proportion to the stations they held in life when alive.
I had already visited the cemetery. She fairly summed up my impression of the place when she said, "Couldn't they have found a better way of spending that money?" Then she added, "What do you think of Eva Peron's tomb?"
"Too small for her ego," I said. "Her ego deserved something as awe-inspiring as the Taj Mahal. And how presumptuous of her to expect us to cry for her!" I was alluding to the "Don't cry for me" epitaph on Eva Peron's tomb.
She burst into a big laugh at my allusion, and said, "I also had similar reaction when I read the epitaph."
By then, my turn came to approach the reservation desk. I was disappointed to learn that for every deviation from the original booking, I would have to pay 100 U.S. dollars extra. I gave up the idea of extending my stay. For a person traveling on a shoe-string budget, 100 dollars is not a negligible amount. My disappointment, however, was more than compensated for by the wonderful conversation I had with the fine Argentine lady.
Excerpted from CAPITALISM COMES TO MAO'S MAUSOLEUM by M.P. Prabhakaran Copyright © 2012 by M.P. Prabhakaran. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. My Two Embarrassing Moments in Buenos Aires....................1
2. Eva Peron's Tomb Is Too Small for Her Ego....................5
3. Brahma and Laxmi Reincarnate in Brazil?....................10
4. How Portugal Failed to Colonize Calicut: Chat with a Brazilian....................16
5. Hunchback and Sugar Loaf: Two Tourist Attractions in Rio de Janeiro....................21
6. Yoga on Copacabana Conducted by a Brazilian Beauty....................24
7. Picture of a Cow on a Beijing Billboard Confuses a Hindu....................30
8. Capitalism Comes to Mao's Mausoleum, but in Its Crude Form....................33
9. Part of China's May Day Celebrations: a Fashion Parade....................38
10. How a Shanghai Neighborhood Got an Indian Name....................42
11. A Jacket and a Bride for the Price of One: Shopping on Nanjing Road....................45
12. A Morning Walk by the Mekong; a Restaurant Named for My Niece....................48
13. A Humbling Experience in a Laotian Town....................51
14. Garbage Dumps and Traffic Jams in the Silicon Valley of India....................55
15. What Makes Islamic Turkey Different from Islamist Saudi Arabia....................60
16. Monuments in Mexico City that Pose Challenge to the U.S....................66
17. A Bridge on Austrian Border, a Memory Lane to the Hungarian Revolution....................71
18. An Austrian-Muslim Woman18 Determined to Remain Modern....................75
19. Manneken Pis and the Fuss over19 Its Portrayal in Air India Ad....................79
20. Norway, Though20 Expensive, Is Humane and Generous....................82
21. A Memorable Train21 Journey Across Mountainous Norway....................88
22. Dachau Concentration Camp22 Memorial: a Chilling Reminder of Nazi Atrocities....................94
23. My Encounter with a Tamil Tiger23 Who Wants to Destroy India....................99
24. What India and Virgin Mary24 Have in Common....................106
25. One of South Africa's Ruling25 Class Then, a Migrant Farm Worker in Texas Now....................111