Politics & Policy

Notes on India, Part VII

Some quick linkage: Parts I, II, III, IV, V, and VI. And where were we?

As you know, I’ve been doing a lot of jumping around in this journal. Not just from topic to topic, but from place to place, and back again. I actually visit Bharuch twice, during my time in India: basking in the hospitality of families, which form one big family. When I leave, for the final time, I feel a pang. The rhythms of this town — and of this way of life — are nice.

And then I think of my Indian-American friends from Bharuch, who struck out for the U.S. long ago. What must it have been like for them?

One friend, a lady, had a week’s notice — seven days in which to get ready to leave it all behind. The man she was marrying was working in America. (And he was well worth moving for.) Do I have a pang, now, after a few days? Well, what about her, 40 years ago? She was leaving family, friends, and most everything she had known. It must have been like going to a different planet (and she confirms it was). She had to contend with a different language, different diet, different dominant religion — different everything.

And yet she did it, and has not really looked back. She and others prospered magnificently, and their children are American world-beaters. But I am reminded: People operate with more bravery than we may know.

I have related, here, an old, old American story — a human story, really. People have picked up and moved great distances from time immemorial. But it’s nice to particularize this old, old story now and then.

‐From Bharuch, I go to a village I have mentioned before in this journal: Dantali, a dot on the map near the relatively large town of Anand, in Gujarat. Actually, I should not say dot on the map. I have a fairly detailed map of Gujarat, and Dantali is not on it — the neighboring town, Petlad (much smaller than Anand), is.

And in Dantali I am in the arms of yet another family, and all their associates: There’s no hospitality like Indian hospitality, at least in my experience. One is simply bathed in warmth and solicitude.

Dantali is a village of Patels — everyone is named Patel. And Patel, as you may know, is the leading name in Gujarat. A big percentage of the population is named Patel. You distinguish people by other means: first names, fathers’ first names, and so on. Patels are known for their business skills, their loyalty, or solidarity — and their success.

And Dantali is indeed prosperous, a handsome village. The American connection is important. Many sons and daughters of this village have gone to America, to seek and make their fortunes. Some of that money has returned here, and sometimes the people do, too.

In my eyes, Dantali is almost a Walt Disney version of an Indian village — ideal. I arrive in late afternoon, when women are milking the cows, then taking the milk to the dairy collective. Men gather near the clock tower, playing cards (rummy). The pond is very peaceful, hosting interesting and — to me — unknown waterfowl. Temples ring the pond. And worshipers ring the bells, as they step in to pray.

At 5:20 in the morning, I hear more bells — and singing. People are going through the streets, praising God. And here is something small to praise: the milk over my cereal. It has come straight from a cow. It’s not like at the Safeway.

During the day, people sweep into the house, without knocking: This one brings this food item; this one brings another; this man picks up the laundry; these women come in to visit, to set a spell.

At some point in the morning, a woman, a housecleaner, bends down to touch my feet. I later ask my friends, “Why?” The answer: She is asking for my blessing, and signaling her respect. I would like to do the same to her — but I don’t get the opportunity.

‐Not long ago, many people were considered untouchable (and such thinking, if you can call it that, must still go on). What a human triumph: the recognition that no one is untouchable; that all are touchable.

‐I’ll tell you a couple of offbeat things. Bear with me for a second. Some months ago, Paul Johnson wrote about Arthur Hugh Clough, the British poet (1819-1861) who wrote one poem that stuck: “Say not the struggle naught availeth.” Johnson heard a car salesman in Perth recite it. And, as he heard this, Johnson thought, “That’s fame.”

Do you remember how, in yesterday’s installment, we were talking about cellphone rings — and their infinite variety? Well, one evening, in Dantali, a cellphone breaks the stillness. It is ringing the theme to Love Story, by Francis Lai (taken to dizzying popular heights by Henry Mancini). The thought comes immediately, and unbidden: “That’s fame.”

My second item: Dantali has no Internet station — no cybercafé or what have you — but Petlad does. And this town is steps away. And the Internet connection in Petlad? I have never had faster: not in New York, not in Munich, not anywhere. And out the window, camel carts are going by.

One of those juxtapositions that travelers, and travel writers, relish. (Probably over-relish.) (Sounds like a mistake in doctoring your hot dog.)

‐We visit another village, Gundi, where we are in the arms of relatives of friends. No surprise here: superb hospitality and generosity; and utmost dignity. When such people preside over it, the humblest home takes on almost a regality.

And hard by Gundi is Lothal, an ancient community, excavated. It is an archeological site, I should say. And Lothal is called a “City of the Dead.”

I think of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. (Wouldn’t you?) He wrote an opera called Die tote Stadt, or The City of the Dead. This refers to Bruges, in Belgium. I wonder what an Indian composer or librettist would make of Lothal.

‐When you visit India, the Taj Mahal, the temples, the palaces, and all that are very nice. But the best thing, to me, is the people. It is encounters with people that I most value.

Let’s start with the kids — and start with the fact that there are masses and masses of them. They say that India is overpopulated. It probably is. But maybe other places are underpopulated. It is sort of startling to be around so many kids. I realize I don’t see them much, back home in New York. If you have more than your allotted 1.1 or whatever, you’re considered an environment-destroying rabbit.

And encounters with Indian children are almost invariably delightful. Show them a little attention or kindness, and you’ll have it returned, with interest. Kids are open, curious, laughy, grateful, fun-loving — just plain loving. (I generalize, heaven knows. But you can’t write without that.)

This has happened to me before: When I’m abroad — especially in a developing country — I can’t help contrasting the local kids with American children. We don’t come out so well, by some measures. Have American kids seemed to you extraordinarily bratty — like premature adults, brimming with attitude? That’s part of what I’m trying to say: The Indian kids — no attitude.

Wherever I go in this country, there are masses of children in school uniforms. They are immaculately groomed, even if their surroundings are filthy. I see this over and over. And the contrast is striking. The kids are shiny as pennies; their environment . . . is not.

And they seem so all-fired happy, even enviably happy! (Again, pardon the generalization, which is unavoidable. Lectures on the misery of the world are unneeded.) I think of my own country: Land of Grievance, Land of Complaint, where everyone’s a victim. And if you don’t think you are, just wait a second — you’ll find a reason.

The Indian kids have so little, materially; and ours have so much. But I wonder whether ours have less, in significant ways.

Mainly, Indian kids seem like kids. I don’t know how to put it better than that. I guess they conform to my conception of kids. They like fun, they like play, they like laughter, they like kindness. They don’t strike poses. Their faces do not reflect concern or resentment or distaste. They don’t pout. Isn’t that the natural expression of a child, a pout? Not in poor, poor India.

In very remote Rajasthan, where abodes are cow-dung huts, there are immaculate children in school uniforms. As I said: All over. These kids’ classes are in the open air. Yet the classes seem orderly, tranquil, useful. The kids have upturned, expectant, appreciative faces. Whining seems . . . impossible.

I return to a theme: These schools have almost nothing, in a material way, and we have everything. But we’re always crying poor, aren’t we? “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need, and the Pentagon has to hold a bakesale.” I grew up with that bumper sticker. Well, kiss my . . .

‐At home, we used to have streetball; in India, they have streetcricket — I see it played everywhere, with great vigor. I can’t help thinking they’d like baseball better, if they only knew it. But surely that is my cultural bias . . .

‐I’ll give you a favorite kid episode. We’re in that little village of Gundi, and kids are massed in a square. Seeing me, they see an opportunity to try out their English. They want to count to ten. And I test them. They know the numbers — or most of them — but they don’t necessarily know the right order. I hold up three fingers, and I hear a cacophony of “Four!” “Two!” and so on. But “Three!” has the majority, I believe — or at least a strong plurality.

One little boy seems to specialize in the number seven. He likes to call out “Seven!” doggedly. I hold up six fingers: “Seven!” he exclaims. I have to shake my head. But then I hold up another finger — and at last it’s his time in the sun.

‐It goes without saying that not every child is in school — and not just the beggars. (Addressed in Part I of this journal.) Child labor is virtually everywhere. The person who checks our tires near Bikaner is a boy of about nine. (Hard to judge age here — because they are smaller than Western kids.) Does he go to school too? Don’t know.

And then there are the boys serving food and busing tables in a Jaisalmer restaurant. Totally charming children. Do they go to school? I’m told no. Their father can’t afford it. I don’t know whether this means 1) The schools aren’t free and the father doesn’t have the funds, or 2) The father requires the children to support the family.

Well, I have gone on in this seventh installment, haven’t I? I’ll continue with people — this time, adults — tomorrow, in Part VIII. That will be our finale. Thanks, and see you.

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