November 20, 2007

Reflections on India

Intro: Having returned recently from a major journey thru the country of India, I feel motivated to record my impressions before they simply fade into the blur of our headlong rush into tomorrow.

My son-in-law calls India a 'land of contradictions,' and indeed, we saw numerous examples of what he meant. Perhaps his phrase is best illustrated and epitomized by the image in my mind of two men walking along a road, dressed in traditional 'luhngies' ... and talking into mobile phones. Everywhere we went, we saw this evidence of 'old meets new.' The roads in south India (Kerala, Karnataka) were generally terrible, looking like old wagon trails that had (once) been paved. And over them, drive the latest vehicles from Japan, Korea, and India, unable to attain more than perhaps 25 Kph as an average speed between two points. Ancient, monumental buildings exist in the core of old cities, while suburban slums are cleared to make way for modern, new office towers.

More than mere contradictions, tho, were other paradoxes. For example, despite the impressions of us in the 'West,' India is a society of excellent intentions. In Delhi and other big cities, official signs abound, with slogans like 'A Clean Delhi - A Green Delhi.' Yet almost everywhere, the ground is what most 'westerners' would describe as a mess. Garbage seems to be simply left on the ground to find a natural fate. A pedestrian must be vigilant to avoid trash, excrement (presumably of animals) and other hazards while walking anywhere. There is pollution of all kinds, everywhere in the cities. More than just the chemical kind (ie. in the air or water); one's every sense is assaulted by pollution-- a cacophany of sounds can literally hurt the ears of a new visitor; the chaos of electrical wires and advertising billboards and dilapidated structures assaults the eyes; a mix of odors coming from exotic foods, pervasive incense, and open sewers often combine into a truly nasty nasal encounter.

A visitor may wonder if there are any rules in this 'world's biggest democracy.' In fact, there are plenty of rules and regulations, as in any modern society. But their efficacy is best illustrated by the road traffic system. You will find that there are lane markings painted on the major routes, especially in cities. You will also find traffic running in literally every possible space of road width. Lane markings mean nothing when the roads are coping with an incredible onslaught of vehicles of every kind-- from bicycles and the omnipresent auto-rickshaws, to cars and buses-- all pressing forward in a frenzied crush to get somewhere. It looks like sheer chaos, yet amazingly, there are relatively few accidents (but innumerable 'close calls') and the system works because all users know the unwritten code that really governs road travel. (I never fully cracked the 'code,' but I know it has something to do with 'blow the horn at every possible occasion,' and 'the biggest vehicle gets right of way.') So, in every aspect of Indian life, well-meaning rules exist... but in practice, sheer pragmatism rules the day!

Perhaps the dominant impression I had of India, especially in the North, was one of disintegration; I began to think of India as a country in entropy-- collapsing into a natural state of disorder. Everywhere I looked, there were buildings in neglect, in need of, at minimum, cosmetic repairs, and as often, in need of major reconstruction or simply completion. At first, I kept wondering 'Why doesn't someone fix this situation?' But a bit of thought made me realize that the answer lies in the next question: 'Who would pay for it?' That's the nub of the problem-- once things are built, they are rarely maintained... presumably because no-one is prepared to put up the money to do it. Later, I found that there are brand new buildings being constructed, mostly in the suburbs of the megalopolis cities, and they are as impressive in size and architecture as anything in the West. Yet I can't help but wonder what these same structures will look like in, say, ten years from now. Will they too start to have that look of impeding dilapidation that is so characteristic of older buildings almost everywhere in India?

Of course, when one considers the billion-plus population of India, it becomes easier to comprehend why the society operates as it does. Yet, one could find other instances of equally dense societies that manage to function in a more orderly, and cleaner manner. There's more to India's shortcomings than population. One friend has proposed that religion plays a big role in forging India's disorderly mien. And make no mistake, there is plenty of religion in India. Or, one should say, religions, plural. While Hinduism is the biggest faith in terms of numbers of adherents, there are also Muslims (2nd), Christians (mainly Catholic, plus Protestants of various stripes), Sikhs (4th), Buddhists (5th), then Zoroastrians, Jains, and so on. While the government has managed to maintain a secular face, this is a nation of believers of all kinds. Yet the disinterested observer has to wonder whether all this faith has served the nation well.

In particular, the 'caste system' espoused by the Hindus despite official discouragement from the government, appears to engender certain negative outcomes. One of our guides explained that caste is different from economic class. He stated that one might attain a high economic standing, but would still be judged in the social sphere on the basis of his caste. Thus one's marriage partner, friendships, and even career choices depend on his caste, and are quite rigorously enforced by society at large. What this tends to produce is a system wherein those at the top end simply don't (or can't) imagine that they could, for example, pick up offending trash. Those at the low end, who are the ones that are supposed to do the menial jobs, typically don't have the education/knowledge to do the right things. Hence, you end up with the entropy that I noted earlier. Added to that internal problem, you have the inevitable disharmony that erupts among groups of people with differing religious outlooks or social standing. While on the whole the various communities co-exist in apparent harmony, there can be disastrous breaks in that peace, with consequent unwillingness of any group to take responsibility for maintaining shared territory or assets.

In terms of everyday living, the effect of religion seems to fall into the category of 'another contradiction.' People will begin every day with early and earnest prayer to the deity of their choice... and then spend the rest of the day preying on every poor soul who comes within the purview of their occupation. Street hawkers will devote special harassment on foreigners who might happen to pass within hailing distance. A western tourist proceeds, if walking, with a moving chorus of 'Hello, hello; buy this 'x' from me!' If you supply any sign of acknowledging their presence, you will be subject to intense sales pressure tactics that will require a resolve of steel to resist. Should you take refuge in a proper shop (as opposed to an outdoor stall) you will be subject to more sophisticated and covert pressure. Should you decide to actually buy something, and attempt to bargain with an Indian merchant, you will inevitably get the short end of the deal, no matter how hard you bargain. The struggle for survival seems to subsume religious notions of concern for others, and this attitude is so ingrained that individuals just don't see any contradictions in their behavior.

Another curious dichotomy is related to geography-- there is such a difference between North and South India. While the north is largely hot, dry, and desert-like, and the south is hot, humid, and semi-tropical, the differences extend to the citizens and their attitudes. In contrast to the incessant hustling that assails the visitor in the North, people in the South are much more easy-going. If you're not ready to buy something, that's okay with them-- they'll let you browse in relative peace. You can walk down a street or into a shop, without being harassed by hawkers and salesmen until you buy out of sheer exasperation. You can even take a photo of someone-- discretely, of course-- without the subject holding out a hand for the expected payment. After the constant vigilance required in the north, it was a real relief to find this relaxed atmosphere in Kerala and other places south of the line of latitude that runs, approximately, somewhere through Mumbai. One native of Mangalore whom we met on the train explained that the northerners were descended from the Aryan race, while those in the south descended from the Dravidian race... and that, he claimed, makes for the big disparity in attitude. Whatever the reason, it was one more contrast in a journey that exposed us to a daily stream of contrasts.

Let there be no mistake: visiting India is an unforgettable experience. Despite the constant contrasts, the people are, at heart, very helpful and kind, and take delight in extending hospitality towards tourists. In the end, I had to simply accept that this is India-- land of contradictions, land of good intentions, land of incipient disintegration. Namaste!

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