Calcutta, India — India, I was told, is an assault on one’s senses. In reality, it intensifies them even as it overwhelms, making more distinct that individual scenes one picks out of the kaleidoscope of people, colors, and motion that make up everyday life here. There is no way to prepare for a passage to India, and as I traveled around the country for almost three weeks, there was no choice but to surrender to the chaos and to feel helpless at the poverty and desperation of the vast mass of people here.
As an historian, I orient myself by building up my knowledge of a place’s past, seeing how the present is shaped by what came before. But somehow that’s not possible here. The serenity of the Taj Mahal or the tomb of Akbar the Great doesn’t lead to thoughts of the great Moghul Empire — they are irrelevant to the thrust of life swirling just outside their massive gates. Remnants of the Raj, in Calcutta or among the ruins of the British Residency in Lucknow, appear as brief punctuations, leaving concepts of law and administration, perhaps, but little effect on the struggles of daily life.
Life for many in India seems to be lived outside, on the roadside, whether in a city or out. Under the shade of trees, barbers shave clients while innumerable food and juice carts jostle with old men and ladies sitting on the ground surrounded by mounds of watermelons, mangoes, bananas, and other fruit, much of it rotting in the oppressive heat.
Public wells are surrounded by women washing clothes and men washing their bodies. Open storefronts or shacks selling every conceivable item, from sandals to industrial fans encased in sheet-metal siding, crowd the roads. Children run back and forth among the cars and sidewalk-dwellers, darting in and out of their homes, shanties that sit cheek by jowl just beyond the impromptu markets.
If the roadsides are pulsating, nothing can prepare one for the riot of cars, bicycles, scooters, autorickshaws, ox-drawn carts, pedestrians, and cows in the streets themselves. Traffic rules are a cruel joke: Lanes exist only as abstract lines painted on the road, people turn wherever and whenever they like, tailgating and honking are a part of nature, like the laws of physics. Families of three or four crowd onto motorcycles, babies held in mothers’ arms while toddlers sit in front of their driving fathers. Autorickshaws designed for a few people carry a dozen or more. One time, wanting to avoid a traffic jam on the highway ahead, but having passed the turn off to an alternate route, my driver simple turned the car around into on-coming traffic to go back to the off-ramp. Yet I haven’t seen one accident yet.
Dirt in India is but part of the landscape. As V. S. Naipul noted two decades ago, mounds of dust and garbage have hardened and fused, permanently covering curbs and banking up along broken sidewalks, becoming the ground on which more is built. It is like the desert reclaiming agricultural land, turning urban areas into waste lands. As a child in a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Chicago, I looked at trash as something that would soon be cleaned up, just as overgrown lots would have their grass cut eventually, and houses in disrepair would be fixed; such disorder seemed unnatural and temporary. But in India, the crumbling shacks, concrete-like garbage heaps, mass of carts, and piles of bricks and tires and disused building materials are all permanent. One realizes that they’ll never be cleaned up, the city and town streets never brought into order. And that somehow makes time and history more real — the permanence of the littered landscape.
That is not to say there isn’t change. A cow eats garbage in front a gleaming new Toyota dealership. Luxury apartment buildings rise next to corrugated tin shacks. Yet what is fresh, clean, and modern is but another layer on top of the existing dirt and refuse — it doesn’t rehabilitate an area; it coexists, one new piece scattered among the debris of generations.
After a few days, my desire to write about India wanes. There is simply too much too assimilate, no way to understand how it all holds together, how government can hope to function effectively, how families living in shanty slums along the river continue to survive generation after generation. Maybe my problem is, I haven’t met the Ambanis or Mittals or Bollywood stars yet, haven’t talked with those with the power to shape their surroundings or to rise above tangled chaos of daily life. But of course whether I write or not, meet the powerful or not, is just is as irrelevant to life here as is the Taj Mahal. India will change you, a friend told me before I left. What he didn’t add is that you can’t change India.
— Michael Auslin is the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Harvard, 2011).