The Paradox of Missing the Boat

January 1997, LAX. Can I have a doughnut, please? I had asked, hesistantly, pointing to the “treats” behind the now streaked glass case. “Um.. A bagel, you mean?,” the server replied.

I knew right then that, despite my long-term love-hate relationship with America, there was a lot that I didn’t know about America! Carrying a suitcase full of spices, and a couple of hundred dollars, I was “fresh off the boat”.

A decade later, I know the difference between a bagel and a doughnut. I have an Indian-American accent – one that amuses the friend I am calling, in India.

During the early days of India’s relaxed economy, he used to wonder if he had missed the boat to easy comfort and opportunity. Now, not a day goes by when I, in my unemployed state, don’t hear about India Rising! or America Sliding!

I connect with him just as he is headed out to the driving range near his swanky new apartment in Gurgaon – an outsourcing hub outside of New Delhi. His 5-year old is eager to start skating lessons at the rink close-by! No such amenities adjoin my tiny, rental unit in Berkeley, California.

He works in a multi-national architecture firm designing offices and malls, that populate the townships, which his wife, an urban planner, churns out at the frenetic rate of nearly one per week!

These shining towers of India’s new economy are grossly ill-suited to its blasting summers. Air-conditioning them, squeezes India’s already inadequate power resources.

Unlike indigenous Indian architecture that minimizes energy and strengthens local economy by responding to local climate, materials and building techniques – these transplanted resource guzzlers use up gobs of energy to transport materials, equipment, and international sustainable design consultants.

In 2001, the Indian Government started the Bureau of Energy Efficiency to form a Building Energy Code for India. Ironically, the task of drafting that code was “outsourced” to my San Francisco employer.

Why were American energy experts chosen over well-qualified (and cheaper) ones in India? I felt chagrined! Perhaps, American consultants, and an American-style code, were not entirely inappropriate for the cookie-cutter glass boxes that were no different from those crowding the urban downtowns and office parks of America.

However, India didn’t need a mandate or international consultants to learn how to make modern, green buildings. Two years before the draft code was adopted, India gave the world its greenest building at the time. In 2004, the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Green Business Centre became the most sustainable building under LEED, a voluntary US sustainable design rating system and adopted worldwide.

The building energy code was a step in the right direction, but its effectiveness has been hostage to India’s beleaguering bureaucratic system, whose middlemen and bribes make it possible to flout any well-intentioned mandate.

For example, the structural mandate of the National Building Code is intentionally over-designed to accommodate its routine circumvention by greedy contractors. But, buildings continue to collapse and kill people, despite that. A sluggish judicial system has done little to discourage this evil practice. In a ludicrous twist of fate, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has been one of the chief hurdles to the code’s timely adoption.

While the building energy code is a good step towards sustainable growth, an equitable distribution of resources is just as critical.

These outsourcing hubs suck power and water away from India’s villages, resulting in droughts and poor farm yields. Industrial farming and monoculture, another fallout of globalization, exacerbate this problem by  stripping the soil of all its nutrients. The recent spike in farmer suicides can be directly linked to low yields and their inability to pay the debt that comes with buying non-renewable seeds and fertilizers, used to supposedly boost harvest.

Failed farms, and tantalizing Western products have forced greater migration into cities. Once here, a growing economic disparity pushes the urban poor to crime to stay afloat.

In a country, where two-thirds of the population grows food to sustain the beneficiaries of globalization, supporting these farmers is imperative for long-term success. A return to small farms, crop rotation, renewable farm-generated seeds, and a solid infrastructure, is a good start, along with a reliable bureaucracy and judiciary.

Aristotle believed that “the most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control”, while Gandhi believed in building the nation bottom-up.

India’s economic success, global visibility and confidence, have definitely empowered the middle-class to demand an investment in India’s villages, which would secure the comfort and opportunities that, for years, Indians went to find in the West.

For little children, that means skating and swimming. For young architects, that means a car, an uninterrupted supply of hot water, a kitchen without rambunctious rats, and a roof that keeps the rain out!

“Have a nice day!” says my friend, as he heads out to putt. Oceans away from me, he has become more American, too! Just as we have morphed into our semi-American identities, India will need to seize the best of this continental transplant to create a culture that is uniquely Indian – exactly as it has done through its long history of foreign invasions.


  1. Aditi,
    This is very well-written. The previous comment also hits the nail on the head…..

    The last time I visited India (2008), it felt as if the country’s soul was completely lost in the blind need to “keep up with the Joneses in America”. The ‘foreign’ talent over Indian? I think it comes from the urge to ‘get it right this time’. I don’t think it works at all but, there’s another learning curve (just like Chandigarh).

    Your honesty over the IA accent made me laugh! I chose to speak slowly and pronounce (or substitute) the few words differently. Putting on a strange accent makes me feel ridiculous to myself. 🙂

    Must say it’s good to find your blog. Resonance w/ another makes us feel more human, yeah? I’m enjoying going through your posts.
    ~ Radhika


    1. Thanks, Radhika! I find the “progress” beneficial in many ways- I think it has opened up a lot more career options than we had growing up (of course, I don’t know how long and when you grew up in India) – however, what is saddening is, of course, some of what I have already mentioned in this post (aka “Disneyfication” of India) – but, at a deeper level what makes me sadder than growing materialism, is that we have forgotten everything Gandhi gave his life for – i find the divisive right wing rhetoric currently in sway in India more disturbing than anything I have written in this post.


      1. You’re right… is much more than can ever be written even if we feel it, whether in India or abroad.

        Disneyfication (btw, love that term 🙂 started with children’s minds by taking out sound, grounding life lessons of timeless folk tales to turn them into a fantasy. Gosh! Maybe, this is exactly what’s happening in India? I need to mull over this……

        I graduated from Arch. school in ’93 (Bombay) + moved here in ’97…..better opportunity (and rights, I think) are what made me leave. I’m glad for the immigrant experience – it made me more aware of myself.

        Happy weekend, toodles!


        1. ha! – we have SUCH similar backgrounds- i graduated in 94 from SPA, Delhi and also moved to the US in 97 (grad school) – and, yes, I, too came here for potentially better opportunity and rights (and to be able to pursue sports!!) – i love sports – but right now don’t have enough time to do it as much as I wd like – Delhi is a sh*thole when it comes to how it treats women – THE worst – b’bay/Mumbai is great – I visited in 90/91 for a NASA fest held at JJ. Kolkata (where i spent a part of my life) is also better in how it treats its women –

          Disneyfication – the selling of unreal fantasies and materialism as necessary ingredients to secure (a false) happiness – i have a little girl – and have to constantly find ways to ground her – without isolating her from her Disney princess worshipping peers.

          I have been catching up on past seasons of the TV show Madmen – and this really struck a chord w me – when one of the characters (a client talks about how she hasn’t found romance) – and Don draper (the protagonist and advertising guru) says, “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. This world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts.”

          I think that’s v Buddhist … i feel people have forgotten that all the things that we are made to believe we must have to be happy actually causes great unhappiness – I am glad I have my (now deceased) parents to look back to – and remember how love is not about show grand gestures and superficial displays but a quiet faith in each other.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. your article is indeed thought provoking , truly reflecting the paradoxes that we are currently goinf through.
    No doubt , india is shining, but the more it is shining, darker are its shadows, more heart wrenching , the task ahead for all of us to , the planners , lawmakers, citizen forums is to strategize ways for addressing these shadow zones.
    may be in our own ways we are tryingto do our little bit, but…..


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