caste system, Chetan Bhagat, clean India, Dailts, democracy, India, J K Galbraith, Jati, Kashmir, Line of Control, LoC, Making India Awesome, Mrutyuanjai Mishra, Namaste, Narendra Modi, Pakistan, smart phone, Swachh Bharat, T.S Eliot, untouchables, Varanassi, Varna, Xi Jinping
I’ve been in India for a month which explains why I’ve been absent from the blogosphere. Yes it is possible to be on holiday and blog too, but with India I would argue you need a certain presence and all cognitive faculties in play devoted to sensing and understanding each hour, each day of the trip. T. S Eliot wrote in The Waste Land ‘On Margate Sands I can connect nothing with nothing.’ That’s the way I feel about India, except in this case it has taught me to connect something with nearly everything. Having been back a week I’m beginning to process the ‘data’ and thought a blog, where I could marshal my thoughts and give voice to some of those connections, might be beneficial. I learnt an awful lot in my month and will try and condense some of these into the top five lessons and observations.
India v China who will prevail?
Population-wise the big two countries to battle it out to be super-powers of the future, would on the face of it be India and China. Xi Jinping has an advantage over Modi in that he can direct economic policy directly given it is a one party State. Modi on the other hand has a much more complex and I have to say convoluted route to take to prosecute his agenda. China is unencumbered by the caste system or religious differences which would appear to be a major stumbling block. India is also bedevilled by major infrastructure challenges with some of the worst roads I have had the pleasure or more accurately displeasure of driving on. On this count it’s China that will prevail. However I would caution being too quick to judgment. There are two real advantages that give India a fighting chance. As Indian writer Chetan Bhagat makes clear while India has some of the world’s dumbest people it also has some of the smartest. It is the latter fact that suggests India will fare well in the future. But for me the greatest point of leverage is the fact that India is a democracy – in fact the world’s largest and has been so since independence in 1947. China isn’t and as the middle class in China become more affluent and assertive so inevitably will they wish to exert more control over their futures. Democracy is the itch that sits uncomfortably underneath the surface. It will set progress back in China many generations and during that time I suspect India may well slip in under the radar. Roads can be built in a 10 year time horizon. Democracy takes decades to install and engrain. Don’t believe me – look at Africa.
Casting off the caste system
I asked our tour guide about the cast system. Sort of wished I hadn’t because his explanation took many days and in fact I think he never quite finished his in-depth discussion at the end of 30 days. Put very simply, because it is much more complicated than the space a blog allows, there is a social stratification in India. There is Varna (class) which deals with the four social classes, then the Jati (caste) that refers to caste and is a birth-based system where you are locked into a caste through the association of your family name. Outside of that are the Dalits (untouchables) for whom existence in India is still pretty bleak. They are the downtrodden whose life is miserable and for whom cleaning toilets or road sweeping appear to be the primary occupations. During the time of the British Raj the cementing of these systems was a useful way to divide and conquer. Once the British left there was so much vested interest in perpetuating the system that it has become a totally ingrained way of social function. But it is unlikely that the caste/class system can survive the game-changing nature of social media as delivered via the net.
The two things that differentiate you from someone else on the net are connectivity and creativity. Neither of these ultimately are determined by class or caste. Mobile connectivity and smart phones are ubiquitous in India. They mightn’t have flushing toilets in all cases but they all have smart phones.
Whereas in the past caste and class were important factors in securing employment, nowadays as Mrutyuanjai Mishra writes, having good English languages skills cuts across any archaic class/caste system. Where access to the net, in English, is in play who cares or knows which caste you are in?
Private Grandeur – Public Squalor
Economist JK Galbraith coined the phrase ‘private grandeur-public squalor’ in the 1950s to describe the situation he saw in the US with respect to public infrastructure. This phrase sprung to mind early in the trip and stayed there until the end. India is one of the filthiest cleanest countries I have visited. More than once I observed someone cleaning their shop or family home only to dump their rubbish and sweepings out onto the street, presumably just beyond the boundary line of their own property.
Consequently India is littered with the two scourges of modern living; empty bottles and plastic bags. They litter the streets, the highways, waterways and even the deserts of Rajasthan. The Government recognises this and has launched Swachh Bharat which translates as ‘clean India’ with the aim of eradicating filth, including public defection, by 2019 which is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Far be it from me to presume I have a ready-made solution, but if Indians could think of the area immediately outside their shop or home as an extension of it, then this would go a long way to achieving their goal. The vast gap between rich and poor I was ready for. The vast difference in cleanliness between the public street and the private shop I was not.
Please sound horn – Tolerance where the rubber hits the road
There used to be an unwritten league table of the craziest places in the world to drive. Those who used to proffer Rome or Paris would get scoffed at by the more intrepid travellers who would inevitably throw in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia or Teheran in Iran as much more life-threatening. On the face of it you could throw in Delhi or any other large Indian city too. But on closer observation the system seems to work. There are two things that make it much safer than it would appear at first glance.
Firstly people honk their horns. Unlike Australia, it is not an aggressive act but rather one of concern for the fellow driver. It lets them know you are there and from that they will make an accommodation for you. Secondly and more significantly I think Indian’s are so tolerant of one another. Travels have taught me that people are, in general, very friendly and welcoming (perhaps excluding the Welsh speaking inhabitants of northern Wales). Indian’s are quite possibly at the top of that list. Always cheerful, always accommodating it would appear that they can get by in their daily lives (often with much less than what we have in the West) with an inner harmony and happiness that we could all learn from.
Hands on the trigger at the LoC
Whilst up in northern India, not far from the border with Pakistan, India launched what became known repeatedly in the days and weeks afterwards as the ‘surgical strikes’ into Pakistan across the Line of Control (LoC). I have been aware of the issues around Kashmir for a number of years and occasionally I would read about a skirmish or two on the border. Not until my visit though did I appreciate just how volatile this region is. Remember this is two nuclear-able states facing off against one another where ‘face’ plays a hugely significant role in how they conduct themselves. The rhetoric between the two was something to behold. Respective medias rather than just report on the situation fanned the flames and I could see a rise of nationalism amongst some locals as India had for the first time undertaken such daring offensive action. The implications of this unravelled in subsequent days with bans by both countries of film and music content from each other. Art and entertainment are the soft diplomacies that can bind communities across borders. When art loses its ambassadorial role things are pretty bad. Watch this space!
It would appear to me that Australia and India are alike in many ways and I might explore this more fully in a future blog. There’s still I lot I am processing after a month and I doubt it will ever leave me. ‘Namaste’, frequently used as a greeting in India is also used in farewell. Loosely translated ‘Namah’ means bow or adoration and ‘te’ means to you. Nothing sums up this wonderful, contradictory and compelling nation more so than this heartfelt salutation.