26 October 2010

My India is great

Meraa bhaarat mahaan” is a patriotic phrase that you see painted everywhere, meaning “my India is great.” I don’t know where it comes from but it’s gloriously open ended. You neither have to specify that Delhi has just built itself a gleaming, world-class Metro system nor explain away the beggars and sick dogs on the streets.

As I await the arrival of American friends and family, I’m looking for a strategy to introduce them to India without recourse either to the guidebook clichés of a land of moonlit Mughal tombs or to a raft of health and safety regulations (don’t eat fruit you haven’t peeled yourself, look right then left when crossing the street, etc). Having lived here and studied Indian cultural history for my PhD, I’d like to think that for my own purposes I have a pretty good sense of the place—although admittedly I am always conscious of being an outsider. But how do I share my India with them?

I don’t want them to know only the India where Western celebrities get married (Katy Perry and Russell Brand are tying the knot in Jaipur-converted-into-a-movie-set as I write this), but on the other hand, I think that a great deal of India, even metropolitan India, will be too intense for them to handle. How many stars must a hotel have to insulate them from culture shock without tricking them into thinking that India is all rosewater and massages?

I also worry that my opinions on a lot of topics are fixed and I don’t want to short-circuit my guests’ process of discovery. After all, this is a country where there are seventy kinds of special fare categories on the train. Some of them are hilarious, like “circus performer lower class” or “polo team,” but others are poignant, like “cancer patient” and “cancer patient escort.” This kind of bureaucratic bloat is mesmerizing in a way because India is so complicated that it literally shouldn’t work as a country and yet it’s doing great by most metrics.

However, largely because of this complexity, Indian society continues to organize itself according to a cliché accepted by everyone from racist colonial officials to today’s Indian ex-pats around the world as well as by almost all Western reporting on the Subcontinent: India is a land of contrasts. The rich are very rich, the middle class are doing okay and the hundreds of millions of poor people are subject to the misery not only of their own circumstances but of pervasive official neglect. (One example among many is a recent report in the Telegraph that one of the workers injured in the Commonwealth Games bridge collapse has basically been abandoned by the government because doctors assumed he would die if he is sent from the hospital to his village. Confronted with this, the government now wants to recompense his family by cheque but his relatives can't cash it because they have no bank account.)

From a Western perspective, there are endless inconveniences here, most of which I don’t particularly mind because often they turn into adventures. What I do mind is how a certain sector of well-off Indians have dealt with those inconveniences basically by ring-fencing their humanity. I hate the nouveau riche here in ways that I never could in New York, and their detachment from reality has definitely grown since I last visited India six years ago. I do not like the fact that other people are so used to this attitude from their own countrymen that it causes awe when I stop and have a conversation in Hindi with someone “beneath” me. Unfortunately many of the well-off people that I find so unappealing are exactly the ones who inhabit the sanitized world of Indian coffee shops and other spaces where my guests and I will spend a lot of time.

For my own part, I worry whether my life here consists of too much experiencing and too little doing, too little creating. I was content with the amount of (non-dissertation) writing I was doing before leaving America and during the first month of my Fulbright in London. But here somehow there is more to experience and yet also infinitely more inconvenience. Creative writing time—which I only get when I finish my real work—becomes flagging down an auto-rickshaw time or waiting in an archive for a librarian who never shows up time.

And yet, as I write this I am taking breaks to go out onto our balcony, and I can’t help but think that devoting my time to experiencing is hardly a bad thing. The moon is just starting to rise, and the clouds are glowing in the sky. A muezzin from a mosque I didn’t know existed is calling the faithful for the last prayer of the day. The sweet smell of exhaling trees mixes with the aroma of food, especially, I think, from the wedding party I passed on my way home this afternoon. You can hear muffled horns blaring from the road but also whispers on the street. A hungry bat flits between our house and the one across the street stalking a meal. If anyone asks, these and a hundred other sensory experiences are why my India is great.

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