Mamallapuram and thoughts on India
Trip Start May 05, 2008
97Trip End May 09, 2009
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Since this is our last stop, and we are frankly a bit tired of India, this would be the best time for some general thoughts on India and on our experience
We have found India to be a land of amazing contrasts. Extreme poverty is side by side to great wealth. Walking down the street you can smell flowers or delicious food one moment and human excrement the next. The Taj Mahal, which we have found to be one of the most stunning architectural achievements in the world is smack in the middle of a huge shantytown straight out of a "help eradicate poverty" infomercial. The landscape is stunning, extremely diverse and hauntingly beautiful at times, but one sees garbage littered everywhere. There's just so many contrasts and assaults upon the senses, that one cannot spend the whole day walking through an Indian city: it's just too much. A couple of hours in Delhi can leave you exhausted. Certainly Indians live intensely, and every sense is pushed to its limit: their food is extremely flavourful, their clothes, houses, temples and rickhaws are exceedingly bright and colourful, the smells of all kinds are overpowering, Indian cities are at least 10 times louder than Western ones, and the mass of humanity everywhere makes your rub shoulders with more people in a day than you would in a week back home
The good news about India is that the land was at one point, and certainly has the potential to be again a veritable garden of Eden. The Indian subcontinent has some of the most dramatic scenery on earth and more variety than one can imagine. Ecosystems range from tropical forests and coral reefs in the south, through savannahs, forests and deserts, all the way to arctic alpine wastelands in the Himalayas. Add to this over a billion people, over 400 languages, most of the world's major religions being represented and living side by side, 5000 years of history and India is arguably the most interesting place on Earth. The place is never boring, very intense and by our standards very cheap, so travelling here can be a lot of fun. That is of course seeing the glass half full. When one travels here, one learns to see the empty half as well, and that can be somewhat discouraging.
Indians do indeed seem to be quite religious, but from conversations with locals and our own observations, we found less spirituality than we expected and instead a lot of emphasis instead on social conventions and rituals. In fact we think of Indian society to be even more materialistic than the West. Perhaps this perception is not helped by the fact that we as westerners, are on the fringes on Indian society and treated as such. Since the perception is that we are enormously rich, we are seen as walking dollar signs
These are problems which probably go back into the depths of history and they explain why so many Indian ideologies preach compassion - they must have arisen as a reaction to this marginalization of the untouchables, the poor and the animals. In general, India has developed a system which for the better or the worse worked for much of its history, a system based on the notion that everyone deserves his or her lot in life due to past actions. This system ensured social stability in a society which given the intensity and harshness of life here would have created overwhelming social pressures otherwise. Walking in an Indian crowd, one feels very calm, a sense that despite the chaos, there is an inherent order, and crime is rare. This is the great achievement of the Indian social order: maintaining relative peace and order in the most intense and stressful society on the face of the planet
A good example is the sickening pollution which has rendered Delhi's sky permanently opaque (you can barely see where the sun is because of the smog!), Indian streets, roads and beaches covered with garbage and sacred waterways such as the Ganges so polluted that there is no life in them except for bacteria. In the traditional Indian caste system, dealing with garbage and human waste was the exclusive domain of the untouchables. Most Indians would therefore throw garbage over their shoulder or defecate on the side of the road without a second thought. Most garbage was organic though so what the untouchables or the animals would not clean up, would end up decomposing, so there was a balance. Nowadays though, the population has increased dramatically, there is no more caste system and much of the garbage is non-degradable like plastics
Another example are some of the social conventions present here. It is not polite to say no to someone for fear of dissapointing them. If you ask for directions you will usually get some pretty detailed ones, even when the person has absolutely no idea what you are looking for (and Indians get fooled by this too, not just westerners). If you ask an Indian whether he can get some task done he will usually say no problem, even if he has no idea how to do it. Many western companies investing in India have been promised the delivery of a service only to find out when they needed it that the Indians couldn't deliver it despite their promises. This creates a cycle in the economy where no one can be certain of any deadline if they are dependent upon someone else; everything slows down as a result. Indian organization in general is rather chaotic and things move slow and when one combines it with the vestiges of a massive bureaucratic system modeled in the 1960s upon the old Soviet Union, one gets a country where simple tasks spiral out into huge headaches
The final example involves the social and sexual life of Indians. This is a society which traditionally based itself on arranged marriages at an early age. A brother could not marry until the elder brother did but given the stratified society, arranged marriages were somewhat easy to set up, so this was not much of a problem. With the abolition of the caste system, there is a new social mobility however, a new Indian dream propelling people. Education is becoming more and more important (hence young people stay in school much longer) and the marriage age has been raised. Urbanization and modernization has resulted in less children being born and people prefer boys, as they will take care of the elderly parents. There's a subsequent general lack of girls. This renders arranged marriages much more problematic. People are getting married later and sometimes not at all. An elder brother not getting married is catastrophic for the whole family, as the younger brothers cannot get married either, and sex outside of marriage is seen as deeply immoral. In every city we saw droves of single young men who can't marry, taking comfort in each other's company and holding hands, as they eye western women with a desperation which can only derive from extreme sexual frustration. Young couples have to go to great lengths to hide just to be able to kiss
For a country which sees itself as a leader in technology and a future superpower capable of taking on the United States or China, India has some massive challenges ahead of it. Sure, some places like Bangalore and Mumbai have become major business and research centers, but the people involved are a minuscule proportion of the population and a large chunk of what is the educated elite. Future growth involves raising the education level of a country where a large proportion of the population is iliterate and expanding the middle class which is currently very small. These changes will take generations, a time which India may not have given the growing environmental catastrophe and the possible social upheavals awaiting it in the medium future. Add to this the fact that India has no fossil fuels and an infrastructure which is almost hopelessly behind other countries we've seen like Mexico, Turkey and yes even Egypt. Power failures are frequent, even in major cities like Delhi and Bangalore; the road system is so so bad that reaching 50km/h is a blinding speed, and the rail system hasn't changed much since the British. I have little faith in India's ability to overcome all these problems in the next few generations
At its best, India could be a paradise of lovely landscapes, good life, a rich culture and an example of religious tolerance. At its worst though, India could be an overcrowded, empoverished, polluted seething cauldron of humanity, where every ill coming out of Pandora's box rears its ugly head. May it be that hope, the last thing in the box will manifest itself though and that in the next few generations India will become closer to the best it can be rather than the worst.