India October 23, 2004
Part I: I’m sitting in a scruffy internet cafe on my last morning in Delhi. I had my chai and puri (lentil stew) accompanied by a book of Pakistani short stories at a stand by the train station while bicycle rickshaws and motor rickshaws and people on foot and the occasional cow slid past stirring dust and scattering yesterday’s garbage. That was at 6:30, with the city just coming to life. Now it’s 9:30, I’ve since had a nap, and it seemed like a good time to reflect on the trip.
India is, as always, intense in every way imaginable. In the ten years since Brian and I were here last, more than 100,000,000 people have joined those already crowding the continent. High tech centers have sprung up on the denuded plains, surrounded by middle class housing blocks-thousands of units, some rising ten or more stories, and glittery malls. Yet still, dark faced children, dark by Indian standards, rattle the car windows begging for rupees, and empty lots are scattered with old plastic bags and human feces. Even the cows seem to prefer the city streets; being wise and holy, they should know.
I woke my first morning in Delhi, and peered out my third story window at the Jama Masjid, a regal red sand-stone mosque built by the mogul conquerors almost a millennium ago. Its open courtyard holds 20,000, and a fluted minaret rises above graceful domes. Down below, the sidewalks were lined by sleepers, each person wrapped tightly in a thin blanket as if shrouded for burial. The sun was a dull red ball, though well above the horizon, all light filtered by dull yellow air. Delhi’s air quality is impressively bad; it burns your eyes, scrapes your throat, and leaves black dirt in the creases of your neck and on your handkerchief. Residents here, however, find it relievingly good since all city buses and motor rickshaws were forcibly switched to compressed natural gas a couple of years ago. As the sleepers woke and bathed (clothed) at public faucets, shopkeepers emerged and then shoppers, and the streets filled with human traffic, shoulder to shoulder, bicycles and rickshaws and motorbikes and push carts squeezing past each other in an intricate shuffle that almost never resulted in collisions or conflict.
The shops of the old city are crammed with everything from electronics to used ball bearings, with battered bumpers and custom party invitations and enormous aluminum water pots and cheap watches and stainless steel dish racks and tiffin tins. Most dramatic, perhaps, were the jewelry stores proudly displaying wedding sets that look like museum pieces made of intricate gold work inlaid with colorful gem stones. Narrow alleyways along Chowdry Chawk (the old bazaar) are lined with fabric stores, each a small padded cubicle stacked floor to ceiling with everything from the cheapest synthetics to beaded and embroidered silks, all in bright colors, with fine wedding saris gleaming red and gold displayed proudly as space allowed. Slip off your shoes and step inside. The proprietors don’t mind unfolding length after length of dazzling fabrics, confident that they have something for everyone, or else that indebted gratitude will eventually require a purchase.
My second morning in the capital, I woke to sheer elegance at the five-star Trident Hilton where Microsoft had graciously decided to house the upper management people sent for a week of Indian immersion. (In fairness, the most important aspects of the immersion were the functionings of the Indian government and global corporations, and this immersion was effective and thorough.) Built on the scale of a mogul palace, the hotel has soaring domes lined with gold leaf, expansive reflecting pools from which leap flames of invisible torches at nightfall, impossibly long halls that seem like mirrored illusions but are not. Line and curve are impeccably scaled, ornamentation is spare, and the whole is stunningly beautiful, evocative, inspiring.
The Spanish have two words for poverty. Pobreza is poverty, pure and simple. It is an economic status. It need not lack dignity. Miseria is wretched, vile poverty, degraded and desperate, the kind that makes you beg or sell your body or that of your child or drink water you know is contaminated with animal filth or live with open sores. India creates two things like no where else I have ever been: elegance and miseria. It has throughout recorded history. Both are overwhelming.
From the confines of my prosperous, American experience, India’s popular culture and politics are as radical as her extremes of elegance and degradation. Headline news this week was the shoot out that killed India’s most wanted bandit, Verapeem?, who was flushed out of his jungle lair in a masterful sting operation by joint police teams from the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Infiltrators arranged a fake ambulance to carry him in secret for diabetes treatment and eye surgery. Alas for him, they were met by a truck full of central police armed with automatic weapons as were he and his cronies.
Newspapers showed his mottled face, the fatal bullet hole a dark dimple above the left eye. Behind him in the morgue could be seen the profiles of three gang members who joined him in death. After almost forty years of terrorizing two states, it is hard to think he deserved better. During that time he is said to have poached 200 elephants and, then, when the international ivory trade was banned, he switch to sandalwood, shipping an estimated 10,000 tons out of India’s patchy jungles. He killed 123 people, mostly law enforcement and forestry officers (forest rangers) who got in his way. He kidnapped an ex-minister of Kerala and executed him when his demands weren’t met. It is said that he kept the head of one forestry officer as a trophy. Thanks to Robin Hood manouvers that kept some villagers on his side, and thanks to infighting among law enforcement agencies, he managed to evade arrest for decades. 20,000 people converged to celebrate his removal.
Had Verapeem only surrendered and served time twenty years ago, he might be a politician by now. Other bandits have made the transition quite successfully. Indians, especially in poor states such as Bijar, have an astounding history of electing thugs to office. There are people in state government with links to fraud, smuggling, even murder, – an unbelievable array of felonies either charged or suspected. Our own history of back room deals, graft and privilege pales by comparison. Ignoring the international behavior of the United States, we are weenies when it comes to racketeering and thuggery. Same with election fraud. A friend who worked for USAID once commented that there is no form of election fraud that wasn’t invented in the United States. But India is, as in all else, dramatically impressive.
The same is true for nepotism. We may think it peculiar that our two presidential candidates are from the same university and the same secret society. We may comment on the fact that a number of political appointees were college buddies and Texas colleagues of the president . We may note that a high percentage of fundraising "pioneers" are now diplomats. But Indian politicians overtly groom their offspring for dynastic succession. People complain, but the populace gives the green light with their votes, and so the practice continues. The current president of congress, Sonja Gandhi, for example, is the Italian born wife of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (assassinated) who was the son of Indira Gandhi (assassinated) who was the daughter of Nehru. Nepotism trumps sexism.
Educated Indians, like people all over the world are watching the upcoming U.S. election closely. Indians typically prefer Democrats in office, seeing themselves more closely aligned with the Democrats than Republicans on issues such as distributive justice, internationalism, the environment, and education. However, in this election, they are one of two recently surveyed countries who are evenly divided. According to local analysis, one factor that has played into the split opinion is that Indians think it may be harder to get the Democrats to sell recent weapons technologies that they want for their arms race with Pakistan. This administration is seen as a strong supporter of the international weapons trade. The other factor is that Kerry has taken a hard line on outsourcing. Outsourcing has been a huge boost for the Indian economy. Not only in high tech and manufacturing, but in customer support and indirect sales, India has become a big player. If I have my numbers correct, India is home to about 50 million English speakers, second only to the U.S. With call centers being located here to take advantage of high levels of education and low wages, training courses have sprung up to help Indians replace their characteristic accent with a southern drawl. Some, with dubious ethics, even help call center staff to develop personas. "Hah, Ahm Susi from Amarilluh, Texas. What can ah do for y’all t’day?"
As in all else, environmentally India is a land of extremes. The vast majority of the continent is stripped, consumed as if by a plague of human locusts and rapidly headed for salinization and sterility. From a population standpoint, India is slated to outstrip China soon, and a Calcutta family that hosted me one night commented that population growth is India’s biggest problem. This perspective is widespread. (Interestingly, I have yet to met an Indian with any amount of prosperity, from motor rickshaw drivers up, who has more than two children. Even within the religions that discourage family planning – Islam and Christianity – educated adherents practice birth control. The growth is all in the lowest socio-economic layer, no small source of social tension.) But here is the contrast: Brian and I spent our week together in the State of Sikkim, in the foothills of the Himalayas, surrounded by natural beauty that rivals anything I have ever seen.
Sikkim is bordered by Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, and culturally reflects this convergence. Buddhism is the majority religion and Nepali is the majority ethnic-linguistic group. Until the ’60’s I believe, Sikkim was an independent monarchy. But in the aftermath of China’s annexation of Tibet and systematic program of cultural displacement, the Sikkimese voted overwhelmingly to join India, which promised them a substantial degree of cultural and political autonomy. The government of Sikkim has strongly socialist (if not Marxist) leanings, with all of the positives and negatives implied. Public works are a priority, as is universal education — and the dream of universal employment means that people are employed in wildly inefficient occupations such as cutting roadside grass with hand-scythes.
Overall, socio-economic status, the status of women, and the quality of the environment are dramatically better than in the surrounding regions. Environmental protection is promoted- plastic bags are banned, ecotourism development subsidized, and cutting of trees without permits forbidden. Pro-social and pro-environmental slogans, some hilariously contorted, line the roads. "You sleep, your family weep" cautioned one roadside sign. "Plant a tree for meditation; plant a tree for future generation," advocated another. "Cut a tree, win a landslide for free," quipped a sign in front of a bookstore.
From Siliguri – a hot dusty town on the plains, we flew to Gangtok (6000 ft?), the capital of Sikkim by helicopter. During the thirty minute ride (a ridiculous, subsidized $30 U.S.) we rose over thickly forested near-vertical "hills," with winding mountain roads emerging below us and disappearing again on the contorted hillsides. The town of Gangtok is perched on a steep slope, crowned by a ridge that is lined with gardens and capped by the (modest) palace of the ex royal family. Streets run in wide switchbacks, layered down the mountainside, and stairs connect one level with another for foot traffic. Gangtok is a mix of ugly cement tenements and quirky local architecture with traditional Tibetan boxiness. But whatever the town lacks in architectural beauty, it makes up in setting. We woke one morning before dawn to watch the sun rise over behind snow capped Kachenjunga and the next did it again.
From Gangtok, we hired a car and spent two days winding through river valleys, over precarious ridge roads, through tea plantations, past monasteries and dramatic waterfalls – to Pellnig and Nemchi, both more modest than Gangtok from the standpoint of human creations and proportionally more dramatic in natural beauty. And always, we were welcomed by fluttering prayer flags, in a flurry of color or in dingy white, on bamboo poles ten feet tall or twenty, or strung between trees and houses and fences. I wondered – is it too trite to ask? – if we had chanced across the most beautiful place on earth.