People and Places

Final thoughts on India

Posted on June 29, 2013

Home from India, I write this post a couple of days and thousands of miles distant from my short visit there and I struggle to answer the question someone will no doubt ask this week: “What’s India like?” That’s a harder question than it might seem. Which India? For what really sank in for me after this, my third or fourth visit here, is that there are multiple Indias. As a starting point, someone counseled, think of India as Europe and its many states as countries. Each has a distinct culture, language in many cases (and more than one), topography, religious mix, cuisine, political situation, and more. If the US is a country (and an idea) that invited people in from many other worlds they would leave behind, India is a country (and idea) imposed on people largely staying in their many different worlds.

Such a fractured country is a struggle to govern when any party seeking power must cobble together a coalition government of other smaller parties and their particular agendas. Enormous waste and corruption run though the government at every level, made possible by a creaky bureaucratic centralized post-Independence style of governing that feels more like 1950s socialism than the modern, transparent, open-market governing to which we more commonly aspire. It feels like a country not only of disparate cultural and physical places, but a country that inhabits all at once disparate times including ancient, medieval, mid-20th C socialist and modern tech.

It was the regulatory and market reforms of the last twenty years that created space for new entrepreneurial energy and India’s torrid growth rates even during the most recent recession and that too contributes to the two Indias. For example, one can fly Air India, the government owned airline that is poorly managed, suffers bloated staffing, struggles with maintenance, and provides poor service on an aging fleet. Or one can fly private Jet Airways, a modern, well-run airline with great service (certainly better than United’s), clean well maintained planes, attractive terminals, and modern reservation technology.

The “new” India has created smart world class technology companies, the sparkling new airport from which we departed three days ago, and a clean, efficient, modern subway under Delhi. At our hotel, members of New India’s rising middle class drove up in their Toyota SUVs and ushered their well-groomed kids into the hotel for a nice dinner. They also made room for the Porsche or Ferrari pulling up next to them. And just yards away outside the gated entrance to the hotel grounds sat Old India, a family with a tarp lean-to, cooking on a small coal stove, and sitting on blankets. At the airport a landscape project included women in brightly colored saris moving dirt with baskets on their heads, a scene from hundreds of years ago. While Delhi doesn’t have the mega-slums of Mumbai, the smaller settlements are no less shocking at first sight. This is poverty at about its grimmest.

And they are never segregated. Sit at a stoplight in your Porsche or in a taxi on the way to a fabulous restaurant and a beggar will knock on the window of your car, a mother will hold out her infant, a barefoot waif will offer garlands of jasmine for just a few pennies. You’ll see maladies that look medieval, maybe a man with no legs pushing himself along on a small wheeled platform. So that sounds just awful and one might ask, “Why would I go there? The answer is more than simply “Look past the troubling stuff to see the amazing stuff.”

Almost to its credit, the troubling and the amazing sit side by side. India does not hide its poor, nor its problems – with 1.2 billion people, there are too many of both. On previous trips I tried to rationalize all of this. Was this society an oligarchy and the poor the victims of an extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism? Was this a stunning failure of 50’s style centralized planning?

My revelation with this trip was to stop trying to impose my western cohesive interpretative framework onto all that which all I was seeing. I wanted a “theory of India” into which all I experienced could be neatly placed and categorized and India wasn’t playing along. I think the trick to India is to instead accept India’s swirl of contradictions, to stop worrying about the litter, human waste, or disrepair at the jaw droppingly beautiful temple, to let go our western binary way of saying a thing is this or it’s that. I learned about the useful Hindu concept of Maya – the illusory nature of all things including ourselves. To the existential question of “What (who) am I?” the answer would be “Not this. Not that.” What is India? Not this. Not that. If you can get to that mindset, India becomes a post-structuralist invitation to “construct” your own India, but remember it is as illusory as anyone else’s.

My first post from this trip evoked the often used “India is an assault on the senses” comment, but I might reframe to say that “India is a feast for the senses.” It is an incredibly alive place, practically vibrating with energy. Driving is an adventure and not for the weak. When I said to my taxi driver, “A man must be brave to have your job” he just smiled and said they key is to “zig zag constantly” and everyone would stay safe (a very Indian concept that). Dinners are a symphony of flavors, spice combinations, colors, smells, and flavors. Bollywood films are alive with color and dance and energy (I’m sort of hooked on those over the top dance numbers). Even in the drabbest, dirtiest slum you’ll see saris resplendent in color or a dirty barefoot teenager pushing a cart laden with coal pause to pull out a cell phone and take a call. Conversation can be machine gun fire fast. Hinduism has more gods than one can count and seems to accommodate visiting gods or even lend them out. One friend who attended convent school as a child (as many Indian elites did) added Jesus to her family’s Hindu shrine and his picture sat quite comfortably between Ganesh and Shiva. Conversely, a Buddhist friend also prayed to Hinduism’s Ganesh (the pot-bellied elephant god, one of my favorites) because Buddhism encouraged renouncing of earthly things. So when she needed something she’d turn to Ganesh. Think Scandinavian design – all sleek and modern; India is the extreme opposite.

Fundamentally, India demands grit. From everyone. For the poor, it means eating and survival. For the businessman it means competing in an intensely competitive environment where the ability to negotiate and deal seems in the DNA (in every corner of the world you’ll find Indian merchants – -they are masters). For everyday people, it is the struggle to get simple things done. A drive to meet friends can mean an epic traffic jam. There is a Darwinian quality to India that demands every ounce of talent and energy if one is to thrive or even just survive. For example, the entrance exam cut off score for many of the best universities in the country this year? A perfect 100%. A 99% means you didn’t get in. That’s tough. But it also means a culture built with resiliency, drive, entrepreneurial zest, and spirit.

Juxtapose that material day-to-day combat with India’s incredible spiritual core. As my friends explained, everything in India is imbued with the spiritual. Not religion per se (there’s no word for “religion” in Hindi) nor dogma (choose the gods you want to follow and perhaps a yogi whose teachings you want to follow and the scriptures that mean most to you and you have your path). The number of tourists from other countries (about 6.5m a year) is dwarfed by the tens and tens of millions of religious pilgrims within the country. Homes usually have shrines to their gods. The lovely greeting of “Namaste”? It means: “I bow before the divine in you.” Places, things, processes – they all have spiritual import. And this is not the “promise of better things to come” sort of religious reassurance one might reasonably seek of a peasant in 12th C. Christian France or England. It is centered on something more essential.

Yet India is not at all insulated from the most hateful of human traits. Its religious riots, nationalistic flare ups, abuse of workers, and appalling reports of recent gang rapes all prevent any romantic, gauzy New Age depiction of India. Which one is the true India? It is not this. It is not that.

The interesting thing to watch in India now is the new emerging generation of young Indians, online, plugged in, wired, and rebelling against many of the mainstays of their ancient culture. The caste system, the roles of women, dress, finding a mate, decision-making (a consensus process in Indian families) – all of those are being challenged by a new generation of middle class, tech-based Indians. They represent a new caste, according to one Indian friend: the “Cosmopolitans.” Their gods include Indra Nooyi Neel Kashkari at Pimco, CEO of Pepsi, and Vikram Pandit of Citigroup. They look less and less to institutions for answers to their generation’s problems, seeing government as creaky and outdated and corrupt (I sort of think the same of ours), corporations as soulless and voracious (ditto), journalism as increasingly in the pockets of political parties and business (ditto….I’m talking to you Fox News and Rupert Murdoch), and the old ways of arranged marriages and caste as an attack on their….individualism.

This last may be the biggest change underway, the assertion of the ego in a culture grounded in something deeper, and communal, and ordered in ancient ways. On this trip we met inspired social entrepreneurs who are tackling India’s challenges on their own, often using what they learned while expatriates in the US and UK. They are building new schools, making climate change films, creating organizing artist cooperatives, and more. Thought leadership in India is increasingly in their hands and not in the hands of the politicians, universities, or ashrams. When I asked my friends if modern western capitalism might be the thing that dampens or even kills the spiritualism of India, they shrugged and said “It’s just Leela.” The dance of the gods. It will happen and it will pass and something like it will happen again and will pass and the universal wheel turns.

We in the West mostly hold onto some notion of sequence and progress. Our path is forward. Maybe a step backward here and there, but forward. History for us is a snapshot on a yardstick measuring our way forward. As Sunny argued, history for India is in some part a replaying of the same story. India had the Moguls…and remained India. India had the British….and remained India. India will have Google….and will remain India. My newly acquired Indian friends, Sunny and Akanksha (the latter an award winning documentary filmmaker: see have hope that an Indian way to attack the world’s problems may provide new hope, for climate change requires a change in values, a spiritual change that recognizes we are all part of one (maybe the central tenet of Hinduism).

I am in all of this a child in terms of understanding, but I find India bewildering and fascinating and I think I will need many of my lifetimes to ever understand it. But there I go again…understanding might not be the goal. Maya.

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