My wife and I recently returned from a trip to India where we visited our son. When I arrived back at the office, everyone asked the usual and expected question: “So . . . how was your vacation?” And I found myself not being able to answer immediately or to give the usual glib headlines associated with getting away from it all. We didn’t get away; we joined humanity—1.2 billion people on the Indian sub-continent. In some material way, life changed.
Our journey took us to Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur (the capital of Rajasthan) and Ranthambhur also in Rajasthan, and we travelled by plane (Kingfisher Airways), train (both first and second class) and car. Whatever expectations I had were totally off the mark. India is its own world. We have all read about the economic development of the country, how its growth is going through the roof, and how it is compared to the other emerging giants of China and Brazil. I have visited China on many occasions. There the sidewalks vibrate with the economic engine that has propelled that country in just a few short years, into being the second largest economy in the world. I saw no evidence of a similar economic miracle in India, apart from some developments around Delhi airport. What I did see was poverty, continuous unrelieved poverty everywhere. I was told that the “trickle down” is coming and that there are improvements to standards of living and personal freedom. But the overall impression is of humanity on a massive scale struggling for daily existence.
Our first hotel in Mumbai was case in point. Modern, luxurious, gated and built in the middle of a slum. I don’t mean that the slum was in the distance and you could look at it from the roof. I mean it surrounded the hotel. So within a few feet you could go from 5-star living to young mothers begging with their children. One abiding image near the famous Taj Hotel was of a husband and wife (my assumption), he in a neatly ironed shirt, she in a beautiful sari. They were working together with great dignity, intent upon opening refuse bags to see if there was anything valuable inside. Right next to them, carrion crows were tearing open refuse bags for the exact same reason. To give you some idea of the population density in Mumbai, just consider this: New York City, one of the busiest cities in the world, has 10,600 people per sq. kilometer. Mumbai has 29,650 per sq. kilometer.
In old Delhi (just a few miles from the new city built by the British in the early 1920’s) we tried to walk on streets that were so choked with people that movement was impossible. Yet there was a sense of activity and purpose around the market place that dazzled the senses. In New Delhi, I was pursued for about six blocks by a young mother begging for the 18-month-old she was carrying, (I couldn’t find any cash!) with the baby rehearsed to give me waves and smiles, and then—the pièce de résistance—to show me the cataract on her left eye. (And, yes, I did eventually find some money for them.) Every moment spent on the street was timeless, an adventure, an immersion into a different way of looking at life. And always we were so aware of everything we have – money, privilege, possessions, entitlement, health, education – and our western permanent fixation on our “life style” (cultural solipsism?) contrasted with this mountain of humanity who have so little and about whom we know so little. I have read stories about the slums and their life and about people from the west who have experimented with them as temporary homes to experience the true India. Some have decided never to return. One can understand why. The sense of community and family are overpoweringly strong. The child stars of “Slumdog Millionaire” all returned to their slum homes after their brief fame, if you remember.
So, despite the deprivations, the Indians are a beautiful people, the children are the most gorgeous in the world, their manners are exemplary, their sense of dress and style outstanding, and their use of English refined and creative. One charming example of language proficiency followed hard negotiations with a taxi driver who, when we eventually agreed on a price, smiled at me and said, “Oh, sir, what a very good compromise we have reached.” The ancient cities of Mumbai, Old Delhi, Jaipur, are like ancient European cities from medieval times. There, humanity comes together in noise and congestion, accompanied by cows, pigs, goats, and in some places, large monkeys. The human panorama presents us with an alternative reality, a hitherto unfamiliar view of humanity’s past, present and maybe future. There is much that we can learn from the Indians’ precarious existence, much that could provide a corrective to our fundamentally selfish politics and communal life.
It was enthralling for me as an ex-Brit to see how some of my former country’s social mores and culture have become part of everyday life in India. (I have to say that Indian influence is also omnipresent in the everyday life of the UK today. The Brits really did love their former colony in myriad ways not implicit in the formulaic phrase, “Jewel in the Crown.” Curry, after all, is the national dish – for all Brits.) So here are some impressions: being served tea and biscuits first thing in the morning while traveling in a train from Delhi to Jaipur; having thrust upon you a gin and tonic as the only true way to finish one’s day of sightseeing; traveling the huge, countrywide railway network which works (mostly) quite efficiently, and experiencing the government’s civil service whose bureaucracy and arcane systems are oh-so-White Hall. But best of all, and I mean, really best, is finding cricket on nearly all of the TV channels. It is after all, the second most popular sport in the world, after soccer. What a legacy!