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Notes From A Nation Of 1.2 Billion

by Josiah Brown | Apr 25, 2014 12:36 pm

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Posted to: Citizen Contributions, International

Josiah H. Brown recently traveled to India, where his wife grew up and remains a citizen, and brought back these reflections on politics and history to food and funny signs.

This month, I was in India for the first time since December 2009, and the third time in the past decade. In this nation of some 1.2 billion people and more than a dozen major languages, any impressions from such rare and limited trips are just that – impressions, especially from someone who knows little Hindi, let alone Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and so on. Further, I have scarcely ventured into agricultural villages where hundreds of millions of Indians live. With those caveats, but with the hope that an outsider can make certain observations – in the context both of his home country and of where he is a foreigner – some reflections follow.

After leaving New Haven at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9, my family arrived at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport the afternoon of Thursday, April 10. That happened to be the regional date of voting for the national elections (which continue through May 12). During our one-hour drive from the airport to the city of Faridabad – just across the border in the state of Haryana – we saw “electability” billboards, encouraging people to “exercise” their right to vote. 

The trip from the airport to the apartment of my parents-in-law reveals the rapid development of the cities of Gurgaon and Faridabad, as well as parts of Delhi. Office complexes, luxury housing, malls, buildings both newly completed and still under construction – change is evident. 

“Live amongst a privileged few,” urges one new housing complex. Other postings proclaim the wide range of consumer offerings and hint at social challenges (“Don’t drink and drive”; “Lane driving is safe driving”; “Clean Delhi green Delhi”; “Green Faridabad, clean Faridabad,” etc.). McDonald’s invites customers to “indulge” in a “feast” – reflecting cultural fusion, this is a “royale feast,” incorporating the “McPaneer royale,” a vegetarian cheese sandwich. There are signs for Cyber City, Cyber Hub, Kidzee preschool, Lancers International School (“an IB world school”), Bfluent language academy for English study, and P-Tech computer classes.

Billboards advertise gleaming apartments, fitness facilities (“fluid—the fitness religion,” with which people are invited to congregate via social media), mobile phones, hospitals. There are Audi, BMW, and Mercedes auto showrooms, not far from roads where few such extravagances are found.

Transportation

Those roads vary widely, some much newer and others more plagued by dirt, dust and potholes. 

Vehicles range from both new and battered cars (mostly compacts and sub-compacts, with some minivans and the rare sedan), trucks, and buses to scooters and motorcycles (often with two, occasionally three or four riders), auto rickshaws, pedal rickshaws, bicycles piled high with rags or other items for salvage. Horns honk incessantly during most hours of the day and night. Sharing the road are cows, sometimes horses, as well as pedestrians of all ages, some pushing carts laden with wood, tools, vegetables. 

Many days, the streets include school children in uniform. Women can be seen carrying bricks or dried dung (for fuel) in baskets on their heads. 

Traffic in many parts of the metropolitan area – with a population of some 22 million, over 16 million in Delhi proper – is awful, eased only moderately by a ban on trucks during rush hour. Similarly, the considerable air pollution is mitigated by the requirement of compressed natural gas (CNG) for many Delhi vehicles, and by emission testing.

Traffic dangers, not only inefficiencies, are significant. Soon, women may no longer be exempted (for religious reasons) from the mandate that all riders on two-wheelers wear helmets; one Times of India article suggests that two people a day are killed in Delhi through motorcycle or scooter accidents, including a woman every week.

The Delhi Metro elevated commuter rail line, which was under construction during our last visit in December 2009, is now substantially complete—with extensions to the line in progress.

Despite some reported problems (e.g., with sparks on trains and interruptions), my family had good experiences with the Metro. We rode from Badarpur on the outskirts of Delhi, into the central city – getting off at stops including Nehru Place. The Metro in some ways resembles Boston’s T, for example – though each Delhi train includes a car designated for “ladies” in an effort to spare them the harassment or even attacks to which women around the world are often subjected. When my wife and I rode a non-segregated train car, she was among the very few women aboard.

Commercial Culture

One night, we ate at an Indian vegetarian restaurant, Suruchi, in the “Crown Interiorz” mall in Faridabad. When we were in the mall in December 2009, it had recently opened. Now, its novelty has diminished, and there is evidence of wear in the garage, along with several vacated stores. But the mall is still an indication of the growing middle- and upper-middle class, and of the globalization of American brands. Restaurants there include Baskin Robbins, McDonald’s, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut (multiple motorcycles had earned a “PHD” – for Pizza Hut Delivery service).

Still, small enterprises – shops, stands, providers of services from cleaning, laundry, repairs and shoe-shining to rickshaws and taxis – are extensive. For instance, just outside my in-laws’ apartment building, fresh fruits and vegetables can be purchased from street-side stands well into the evening.

Occasionally – as in every other country – signs contain amusing errors, as when “chilled beer” is inadvertently touted as “child beer.” 

Most women wear traditional Indian dress (shalwar kameez or sari), while – as has been the case for a generation – most males sport Western attire, including jeans. Not surprisingly, there is an increase in women’s wearing of Western clothes in cosmopolitan venues such as the malls and Metro, and among younger cohorts.

Politics

Newspapers in recent days suggest challenges India is confronting. Editorials warn of sectarian influences in politics and of the hazards of excluding the votes of non-resident Indians (NRIs), such as my wife – who, though a citizen of India, was not eligible to vote. Opinion writers argue for economic development, especially the need for more jobs in a country that demands millions of new ones annually just to keep pace with the population. Corruption is so common that it isn’t necessarily news, though controversial efforts to introduce a corruption-monitoring authority (“lokpal”) have again made the papers. Front pages treat not only the elections but also such issues as the urban environment and the scarcity of nursery school spots in New Delhi.

Economic, Quality-of-Life Indicators

Despite its decelerating economy in recent years – annual nominal growth of 4 or 5 percent versus 7 or 8 percent before the slowdown, and inflation concerns – India is participating vigorously in the global economy. With the U.S. in goods alone, India ran a $20 billion surplus in 2013 (the U.S. purchased about $40 billion while exporting roughly $20 billion to India, supporting numerous jobs on both sides). On our flight to New Delhi, I struck up conversations with two Indian exporters. Pratyush sells handmade carpets from Varanasi (in the vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh) to home furnishers in the U.S.; he had just come from an event in North Carolina. Aziz, from Kanpur (also in U.P.), sells horse-riding equipment in places like Texas, as well as Europe and Australia. 

Once in Delhi, we met brothers who work for multi-national firms: one for IBM in computer network solutions and the other as a civil engineer for URS, a construction and design conglomerate; his role is to help India build new, safer, improved highways across the country. Each brother faces a tough daily commute (in one case, nearly two hours each way), and both labor to save sufficient money to pay tuition for private schools for their children – assuming the kids all can gain admission to nursery and then elementary/secondary school, which can be difficult given the supply versus demand mismatch for high-quality schools. Even then, the kids, too, encounter daily commutes of 45 minutes or more each way, given the traffic a school van must navigate. These brothers had moved with their parents from a village in the state of Bihar to Delhi. Both men, their wives, a total of four children, and the parents/grandparents now share a household in a pleasant but crowded apartment in a Muslim enclave of Delhi. (When we visited this apartment for a tasty home-cooked dinner, my son and another boy played a spirited game of basketball on a makeshift hoop we arranged in a common room off the kitchen.)  Each brother is considering moving his immediate family out to a more modern apartment that would provide additional space. But so far, cost considerations are keeping them frugally all together.

Environmental implications of economic growth include not only air pollution and long-term climate change, but also more immediate energy and water constraints. Gurgaon, for example (which has electricity difficulties as in many other parts of the country), is trying to avert a water shortage that threatens to worsen nationally.

History

Amid the modern global economy, Delhi has a long history of which my wife and I received a glimpse April 14. This was thanks to a family friend, Sohail, who guides professional walking tours of various Delhi historical sites (and who recognized our home state of Connecticut from his reading of Mark Twain). We walked the Qutab Minar area, where the “first Delhi” began nearly a millennium ago. Elaborate mausoleums from the 16th century (one brilliantly designed to promote refreshing air flows as an escape from the heat) – and even the remains of one from the 13th century – and a deep step-well from the 13th century were among the most striking sights. 

We saw how the British in the 19th century anachronistically altered one enormous mausoleum, making it an urban estate with layers of various architectural influences, Roman to Mughal.

April 18 was World Heritage Day, when my wife and I returned with our children (and her parents) to show them the Qutab Minar. In addition to this tower that was first constructed late in the 12th century when the sultanate began, we saw a mosque from the same period – now the oldest surviving mosque in India. There, too, was an ancient iron pillar (some 1600 years old) from a previous era of Hindu dominance.

Last time we were in Delhi, we visited the Gandhi museum at the site where he lived his last days and was assassinated. This time, it was the national holiday in honor of the birthday of Gandhi’s fellow hero – and sometime rival – B.R. Ambedkar (who was born April 14, 1891). Ambedkar, a father of the Indian Constitution as well as an exemplar of upward mobility among Dalits (“untouchables”) as he fought the constraints of caste and achieved distinction as an economist, became a Buddhist and inspired many others to do so. We had hoped to visit the site in Delhi where Ambedkar lived at the time of his death in 1956 – but traffic problems proved a deterrent.

Disparities

Stark disparities are ubiquitous around Delhi, as in many of the world’s other big cities (not to mention elsewhere). There are, for example, lush trees and neat streets in the Lodhi Garden area where conference centers and foundation offices are located. There are upscale stores and cars with drivers. There are gated communities throughout the region, “colonies” with high walls, security staff, and elevators. And there are the large slum and semi-slum areas, with squatting homes and businesses and litter discarded for cattle and dogs to graze upon. Hierarchies are apparent, whether persistently caste-based or simply a fact when masses of servants, small vendors, and rickshaw drivers continue to struggle even as the middle class grows to some 300 million. School quality varies tremendously, with government schools often weak and private alternatives uneven. People of all ages beg for money (though this seems at least superficially less widespread than in earlier visits).

Universities

Our trip concluded with a promising look at two examples of higher education (a promotional article in the Hindustan Times discusses additional institutions). We toured Jamia Millia Islamia (India’s public, National Islamic University founded in 1920) and informally met a few of the faculty members of the new, private Ashoka University – which began its Young India Fellowship in 2011 and is set to welcome its first undergraduate class in 2014 to a new campus that will be part of Haryana’s “education city.” The attractive Jamia campus – with facilities including a Centre for Information Technology and one for nanotechnology – swelled with students (Hindu and Muslim alike, along with those of other faiths) striving for opportunity at remarkably little out-of-pocket expense. Excitedly, the emerging Ashoka faculty spoke of introducing a liberal, interdisciplinary education – at a high nominal price, with financial aid available – in a country more accustomed to early specialization around specific academic subjects or commercial paths.

Separately, in the vicinity of the renowned Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi campus, we discovered an establishment with a familiar name: the New Haven Hotel (presumably no relation to its Connecticut iteration)!

Food

There were many good meals – vegetarian and not, at restaurants and at home – during our days in Delhi. Above, there was mention of Suruchi, a restaurant offering an array of savory vegetarian dishes with regional themes: Gujarati (too sweet for my taste), Punjabi, Rajasthani, etc. Another highlight was the Carnatic Café, a South Indian shop featuring delicious coffee and appealing snacks. One lunch was at the Big Chill, an American-style place with pizza, pasta, and milk shakes, walls of movie posters, and pop music from the U.S. – so loud that we had to ask that the volume be lowered so we could talk! We also sampled the McPaneer and McVeggie (not bad). Our last evening was at the Rampur Kitchen, with both meat and vegetarian kebabs, palak (spinach) paneer, “Afghani-style” seasoned fish (who knew a landlocked country could produce that?), and firni (ground rice with milk, sugar, and saffron) for dessert. At home, we enjoyed fresh aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower), chapatis (whole wheat bread), chaval (rice) and dal (thick lentil soup), among other things. Sharing these meals with friends and family made for some of the most memorable occasions.

As satisfying as these authentic Indian meals were, nothing surpassed the saag paneer and the missi roti at New Haven’s Thali Too – one of several fine Indian restaurants in the Elm City! 

Hospitality, Tolerance

On those occasions and beyond, in the streets and the shops, the general attitude of hospitality and tolerance that characterizes India and Indians remained noteworthy. (This is relative to many other nations. Even in India, sectarian strains are a major factor in politics, and violence can erupt as it did in 2002 in Gujarat, or as recently as 2013 in Uttar Pradesh. Vituperative village attitudes toward non-traditional relationships – outside of one’s caste or religion – can result in the atrocity of so-called “honor killings.” The status and safety of women remain precarious, as appalling events in West Bengal among other places have shown.)

There were times when – as a relatively tall gora (white man) with an Indian wife of Muslim descent and our two children – I sensed many eyes upon us. This was especially true when we walked the Jamia Millia Islamia (National Islamic University) campus, and on the Metro. With the exceptions of a few high-end shopping plazas, obvious tourist attractions like the Qutab Minar, and in informal conversation with university faculty, I was virtually the only adult of apparent Western/European origin anywhere in sight. Our young children, as the products of a mixed marriage wearing combinations of Western and Indian dress, seemed to be curiosities. At the Qutab Minar, several Indian teenage girls approached my wife and asked if they could take pictures of the kids on their own camera phones. (Although the teens seemed charmed rather than in any way menacing, my wife demurred – as this age of social media and facial-recognition software can lead any parent to wonder where such images might go.) Overall, the spirit was one of acceptance. Whether it was a man politely approaching me at a Metro station to offer unsolicited navigational advice, or the warm handshakes or even hugs exchanged with numerous acquaintances, friends, and extended family members, overwhelmingly people were welcoming even if naturally curious. 

Toward the end of our stay, we met a couple that included a woman from a Muslim family who had known my wife when they were young girls together in a small city in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now, this woman – a native Hindi/Urdu speaker – has earned a doctorate and lives and works in Delhi. She has married a man from a city (Pondicherry/Puducherry) in Tamil Nadu where the French were influential; he is a Hindu and a native Tamil speaker but learned Hindi both for his medical career and because of his love for her. 

Despite some skepticism from both of their families, they flouted convention and married, in a civil ceremony. Now they have a baby son. Speaking English with us (a reminder of how provincial many of us Americans can be in comparison in our limited proficiency with other languages) over one of those appetizing meals at home, they spoke approvingly of increasing acceptance in India as in the U.S. toward same-sex relationships and marriage, and of the need for more humane, just treatment of transgender individuals. 

Both members of this couple are wonderful people and representatives of their country – of its pluralism and of the most tolerant threads in the beliefs of heroes such as Gandhi and Ambedkar, who helped lead India and the world forward.

For example, according to Mohandas K. Gandhi, “The golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see Truth in fragment and from different points of vision.”

 

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