Politics & Policy

Notes on India, Part II

Friends, welcome to the second installment of these jottings from India. For the first, go here. And where were we? We were in Bombay, but now we’re in Bharuch, a town in Gujarat. And, one morning, I go out for a walk.

This should seem no big deal, but it is: I discover a lot, and others (this is less important) discover me. Couple of things about me, on this walk: I’m the only non-Indian. I’m the only one in a hat. I’m the only one in sunglasses. And I definitely, definitely am the only one in short pants. This is the Indian winter — February — and people think that wearing shorts is nuts. It’s about 78 degrees — i.e., chilly.

There’s another thing too: Grownups, I’m later informed, never wear shorts, or “half-pants,” as they’re called here. Only kids do. So here was this crazy foreigner out for a walk (not done much either) in short pants (never done) in the middle of winter (doubly never).

A friend of mine remembers when his father-in-law — a distinguished Indian lawyer — came to visit in the United States. It was June, and the weather was warm and pleasant: again, mid, high ’70s. And the man wore his topcoat, because he was used to a much hotter climate.

Anyway, on this walk, I’m stared at, as you can imagine — stared at wherever I go, by everyone. They are particularly staring at my legs, and not for their shapeliness, I regret to say. They’re simply amazed at this spectacle in shorts. They stare at me hard, and keep staring after I’ve passed. (I confirm this when I glance back.) One woman is open-mouthed — I mean, literally open-mouthed. Of course, she lives in a kind of shantytown, and I’m sure there’s not much foreign traffic through here in any case.

By the way, I was stared at wearing shorts once before — that was in Jerusalem, when I made the mistake of walking through an Orthodox neighborhood so attired. (Perhaps I should say ultra-Orthodox — I’m sketchy on the gradations.) In Jerusalem, the looks were disapproving, not to say hostile; here in Bharuch, the looks are merely wondering.

‐Bear a point in mind: When you walk in a city that has a language that doesn’t use your alphabet, it is much, much tougher. You can’t read the signs — so it’s hard to give yourself landmarks. You sort of memorize colors, shapes, images. And if you get lost here — no problem, because simple meandering is pleasant.

The girls are definitely pleasant, in their saris. This is true of richer ones and poorer ones, spiffier ones and scruffier ones. Are girls in India more attractive than elsewhere? You might think so, but I think they’re more attractive because they’re more feminine. (Are you allowed to say that today?) They seem to enjoy being female — carry themselves that way. They sort of sashay along. I doubt that softball here is much good. (Are you allowed to say that?)

And it’s odd to see people, beautifully dressed and beautiful-looking, walking gaily through filth. The contrast is great: the beauty and care of their persons, and the opposite in their surroundings.

People, bustling about their business, walk blithely past the poor — I mean, the desperately, wretchedly poor. It is simply part of life, and you get used to it, even if you shouldn’t.

A word about smells? India is famous for them — good and bad. And I get many whiffs, on this walk. One whiff I get is of incense — and it flashes me back to boarding school. The kids used to burn incense, for two reasons: It was cool, because New Age; and they wanted to cover up the smell of their pot.

As the women and girls are style conscious, so are the men. Indeed, you might even say they are vain — matching their clothes, combing their hair, Fonzie-style, frequently. And, like the women, they are aware of their appearance whether they’re well-off or not.

‐I see women with short brooms, stooping low to sweep. Why are they doing that? I see women carrying things — many sorts of things — on their head. Down by the river, I see women washing clothes in mud pools, beating them with a paddle. I’m surprised to see that this is still going on. And I think of my Indian-American friends back home: super-educated and affluent. How many generations removed are they from this clothes-paddling? Not many. Human life can move fast. (Both directions?)

Also by the river, I see some animal skeletons. I have not seen this much, in the places I’ve lived. In westerns — John Wayne movies, etc. — yes.

‐Through the neighborhoods come vendors with handcarts. They are calling out the names of their products as they go: vegetables, fruit, milk. They have all developed leather lungs. And no one sells more than one thing: either vegetables or fruit — and even then merely some vegetables, and some fruits — not both. It occurs to me that this is an anti-Wal-Marter’s dream. There is no one-stop shopping. Everyone sells a tiny line, earning pennies.

Charming, sweet, quaint — we’d all like to take a picture, as at Epcot. But good for humanity?

‐As I walk through Bharuch, my mind is a jumble of clichés about India. I think what everybody says. For one thing, they say that life and death are more stark here — in bold relief. And I find that true: There is tremendous vibrancy, but also dog carcasses by the side of the road. Life and death seem in front of your eyes and nostrils; not much is submerged.

They say that India is a combination of sensuality — that which beguiles — and repugnance. Uh-huh.

They say that the rich and poor (or, let’s say the comfortably off and poor) live in close proximity. Also true. I’ll put it to you in Washington, D.C., terms: Imagine that R Street (in Georgetown) and Anacostia were cheek by jowl. Or, in New York terms, imagine that the best of Park Avenue were cheek by jowl with the worst of Harlem — no buffer. One minute, I see lucky kids in smart school uniforms; the next minute, I see grimy tykes sitting in filth.

All of this seems utterly normal — after a day or two.


‐Bharuch is growing apace, and construction seems to be everywhere. But it’s funny about development: A road will simply run out. The pavement will end, and a dirt road, or a field, will begin.

Well, I guess a road has to run out sometime.

‐It is a great pleasure to talk with a host of mine in Bharuch. He is a distinguished intellectual, an educator and a novelist. He studied at Washington University (St. Louis) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He ran out of money, and would have had to leave school. But an American family — just middle class, in his description — took him in. They expected nothing in return. My host marvels at their generosity, and at their egalitarian spirit: “Here they were, sharing a bathroom and a kitchen and everything with an Indian boy — just as though it was nothing.”

Would something like this happen today? I’d like to think so.

My host was a Communist — “All Indians are born Communists” — but shook it, while in America. He does not know what he would believe today without this formative experience.

And do you know what he especially loves? Oklahoma! (Along with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.) He quotes a favorite song: “Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s goin’ my way.” For him, it expresses the spirit of America: open, optimistic.

Is it still true?

‐The Super Bowl is replayed here in Bharuch, the day after. I mean, broadcast on television, of course. The Giants still win.

‐Can I give you a height of pleasure? Taking a photo of an elderly lady with your BlackBerry — and then placing your BlackBerry in her hand, showing her the picture, and hearing her exclaim. Priceless. Practically worth the trip by itself. But there are many such moments.

Have you had enough for today? I’ll see you tomorrow, for Part III.


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