Despite the rather lofty post title, don’t expect anything radical here, it’s just some random notes from my recent journey to India. I was there for five weeks. Its seems so long, doesn’t it? Well, it had been over two years since I set foot in the country that issued me my passport and I thought I deserved a break after a long eventful year.
Maybe because two years is a long time, but it seems to me that this is the first time I could actually have an outsiders’ perspective on India. I found myself referring to “back home” many a time, and curiously enough, I was referring to my apartment in Amsterdam – strange when I am sitting at a place where I grew up and the place I referred to as home hadn’t even known me for more than a year. I have written many times about the concept of home, so let me leave that contradiction aside for the moment and focus on things that struck me during my trip.
There is optimism everywhere. From the fishmonger whom you can call on his cellphone to check whether he would be by your house in time for you to cook fish for lunch, to the financial advisor who can’t stop ranting about how the 8% GDP growth will make your mutual funds returns soar, everyone seems to be upbeat and ready to go somewhere. There is energy in the air.
Yet, there is also sadness and melancholy and fear everywhere I look. Maybe its just me, and the vulnerability that I feel in a country where I don’t feel like I am in control over my own life, but in the short time I was there, I heard many stories, most of them true ones, of horror and desolation – ranging from the murder of a young boy by his friends, all of them students at the college right behind my house, to the woman who drowned herself and her children after brutally killing her husband, to the never ending tales of corruption, to the soap operas on TV which can’t seem to have an episode devoid to melancholy and yet has everyone glued to them – they never stop coming. As soon as one thinks it can’t get any worse, there’s another one. Its amazing how these are mere snippets in conversation, which weave glibly between the soaring house prices and the execution of Saddam Hussein to the US presidential elections, and everyone just gets along with their life, as if they are everyday occurrences, which they probably are.
Talking about Saddam Hussein, things change so fast here, and if you take a moment to react, you had better have a plan B. No matter that Mr.Hussein was executed in a country far far away and perhaps a vast majority of the local population couldn’t care less, but we had to have what is fashionably called a hartaal – essentially, a shutdown of all shops and traffic. We were out of town, and had planned to head home at around 3pm. At 12:30, we get the news that you can’t be driving on the roads at 3pm. And we had a journey of about 2 hours to make. So what do you do – grab your lunch and run to the car! NOW! Yes, indeed that’s what we did. What follows is hold-on-to-your-dear-life kinda driving that barely manages to get us home in time. And every time we are stopped on the road by goons who had decided to start the hartaal earlier, there is a huge lump of fear in my heart. Whatever for, it makes me wonder. Why, I ask you, do I feel irrational fear in my own country? In a country which proclaims that I am as free as a bird, why would I think twice before walking the streets alone after 9pm? In a country where I blend in with everyone else, where I look like everyone else, where I speak like everyone else, why do I still find myself saying a silent prayer for safe return, every time I or someone dear steps out of the house? Because, for the many things that happen in India, there is no rationality, there is no logic, there is no real reason. And perhaps that’s why there are temples at every street corner and superstitions for pretty much every thing.
The one billion in India can be divided into two – those who help and who are to be helped. If it had been said that no man is an island, in India, it has to be changed to every man is a banyan tree whose roots are entwined with those of the next one and supports a teeming amount of parasitic plants on itself. If someone does well here, he is expected to be there for everyone else. By the same note, you can choose to be a complete loafer and there will be some guardian angel to pick you out of the dirt. The social conscience that makes everyone help each other makes up for the need for any welfare schemes. Yet, I am well aware that my observation doesn’t sit well with the growing distance between the rich and poor. Could it be that sometimes, a conscience just isn’t enough. Or perhaps the above mentioned phenomenon happens only in the communist friendly state of Kerala, where the wealth distribution is not so distorted. Helping thy neighbor is so inbuilt into the lives of everyone, it becomes more of a right of the helped one and less of a favor from the one who is helping.
Money rules here. If you have got enough of it, you get your stuff done. You are more likely to return home safely. You are more likely not to be stopped by cops on the street. You are more likely to jump the queue at your hospital list. Speaking of which, there are just so many hospitals here. A small town with about 300,000 people boasts of five multi-specialty hospitals. Surely, that is excessive. Given that insurance is still such a rarity, why do people run to the doctor for every small little thing? Or are there more sick people here than everywhere else?
Perhaps I went home with lots of expectations – after all, every thing I read about India in popular press seemed to indicate that the country has become radically different. Glowing success stories had been thrown at me from all possible sources. But the truth, at least as I saw it, is that though many things have changed, we are still light years away from becoming what we should be – A nation where I would feel safe. A land where all is fair and just. A country where people are more happy than sad. A place where my whole heart would scream, without a semblance of doubt, I am glad I am home.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
— Rabindranath Tagore