Politics & Policy

Notes on India, Part I

Need some relief from American presidential politics, or other things? Well, I do. Travel with me, if you wish, to India: to Bombay, the big city, or one of them; to Gujarat, a state to the north; and to Rajasthan, the state above that. I have a few notes for you — maybe more than a few.

Bombay is swarming with people, which is not the most original statement on earth. But it’s true. By contrast, New York or Chicago is deserted. There are people everywhere here. They’re crammed into every nook and cranny. No spot seems people-less. They hang from buses, from trucks. This is not a city for the people-averse, and not much of a country for that, either.

‐As you know, we are all supposed to say “Mumbai” now, instead of “Bombay.” I ask a local lady — a sophisticated schoolteacher — what she thinks of that. Not much. She prefers “Bombay,” when speaking English. “Mumbai,” she tells me, is insisted on by a certain political crowd, who want to force the name change on everyone. Typical.

‐Here is an indication of the spread of this city: When they meet me at the airport, my friends tell me that this area — the airport and environs — used to be jungle. One of my friends, when young, would picnic here. Now it is Greater Bombay, which grows Greater and Greater.

And material improvements? Tremendous.

‐Before I came to India, people told me a couple of things — I mean, independently. They said, “India is a colorful place, literally — colors everywhere.” So true. And so wonderful, and refreshing. People also said, “You hear that the middle class in India has burgeoned, and that is true. But there are still a lot of poor people, you know. And you may be startled by the poverty.” Also true.

‐A quick word on begging, early in these notes. Mainly, I see children beg — the only adults are young mothers with infants, and old, wretched people. I see no able-bodied men beg. And this is in sharp contrast with the city in which I live, New York.

‐The children, begging, say, “Hello, hello,” and make eating gestures with their hands. Hard as it may make you feel, you get sick of “Hello, hello.”

‐An India-watching friend had a point to make about the “middle class.” Yes, the Indian middle class has grown — exploded — and thank heaven for it. But think about what we mean by “middle class” — it may mean that a fellow has acquired a scooter, or a fridge.

‐The traffic in Bombay, I can barely begin to describe. It’s almost a shame to call it “traffic,” because that word implies movement. I have never seen such traffic — even in Cairo, which, for me, used to define gridlock. In Bombay, there are hardly any lanes, but there are vehicles everywhere. And everyone uses the horn, liberally. That’s the way you communicate with people around you. (That’s the way you communicate with animals, too.)

In fact, many trucks and other vehicles have these words on the back: “O.K. Horn Please.” That means, “Go ahead and honk — it’ll help me.” I’m not sure that people need an invitation.

At times, along certain stretches, you can crawl on your hands and knees faster than you can drive. And, when you’re actually driving, there are many near misses — near collisions. Traffic is a noisy, gnarly, smelly mess. But an Indian-American friend of mine makes an observation: No road rage. There is no road rage here. People seem to take everything in stride, exhibiting a nonchalance that I not only admire: I almost envy it.

Could this be a window on the Indian character? The country can appear, to the visitor, exceptionally easygoing. (We grant the occasional bloody outburst, usually sectarian.) Or am I being all too whitey, anthropological, Kiplingesque?

‐You know that India is a heavily regulated country; and there’s no doubt about it. But it’s funny what they choose to regulate, and what not. For example, motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, and no one wears a helmet. Kids — tykes — ride on those motorcycles. Mothers on them have babes in arms. What would Joan Claybrook say?

And seatbelts, in vehicles, are a sometime thing — I mean, they may be there, they may not.

Then there are the countless firetraps and other insurer’s nightmares. The country can seem a vast absence of regulations, a riot without rules. And yet — on some highways, you have to stop every two feet to have your papers checked, or submit them, or whatever. As I said, odd — odd what is thought regulation-worthy and what is not.

‐Reporting from the Arab world, I have mentioned a lot of people just standing around — I mean, young men, during the day, just kind of hanging out, with nothing to do. You see the same thing in India. You also see three or four people doing a job that one person might easily do. This appears to be makework, or the stretching of work — which is better than joblessness, I’m sure.

‐It seems to me that people spend a lot of time drinking in fantasy from television — dopey, drippy MTV-ish things. Is this a bad habit, escapist, a kind of drug? If so, Indians aren’t the only ones taking it.

‐In Bombay, the Gandhi museum is worshipful, sort of a life of a saint. (I’m speaking of Mohandas Gandhi, of course, not Indira or any other.) And there is a lot to admire, along with flaws we pick at. He embodied an India fed up with indignities — with signs that said, “No dogs or Indians allowed.” I don’t mean to attempt in a sentence what others have written long and valuable books about. But it seems to me that the British, as imperialists, did a lot of good, from which India is still benefiting; and also a lot of bad — and that they stayed too long.

I’ll share an observation by a friend (Indian-American): Gandhi was a committed Anglophile, admiring and imitating the British in most every way. And then he was mortally insulted in South Africa — and that made all the difference. What would have happened if they had been nice? Gandhi may have stayed in his suits and ties, and been a jewel in the British crown.

‐You hear a lot about pollution in India, and I will make just two quick observations. First, I wonder whether the people living in it are aware of it — I mean, I wonder if one becomes inured. Was it that way in Gary, Ind.? Did people know the air they were breathing was foul? Or was it just air?

Second, when you’ve experienced real pollution — major-league pollution — you never want to hear a complaint by a Western environmentalist, about the West, again. Kyoto my . . .

‐I see some Bombay men in white outfits. And, looking quickly, I’m not quite sure whether they’re Muslims or Congressmen (that is, old-style members of the Congress party). In India, costumes can tell you a lot, along with names. And so it was in Britain, for many years. Is it still?

‐You know about the Great Gate of Kiev, from Mussorgsky’s canonical piece (Pictures at an Exhibition). But what about the Great Gate of Bombay? It was built for a visit by King George V and Queen Mary, and is known as the Gateway to India. It was a hell of a greeting, that gate. But I wouldn’t trade my greeting — by my friends — for anything in the world. I must be one of the luckiest travelers there have ever been.

Is that enough for today? I’ll have more notes tomorrow.

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