Eternal India


My walk to school takes me past the new IT towers of India (along that crumbling “Road of our Dreams”), and also past one of those canals teeming with shacks that wash out with every heavy monsoon. Other people live on the sidewalks or along the roads. There is one family that literally lives in the shadow of the school – a father, mother, and three young children. Sometimes there are other people living there. Their home is a makeshift shack about twenty feet long and eight feet wide, covered with black plastic. Water is from a pump down the road. The bathroom is a vacant lot behind them or, for the younger kids, the road in front of their house. There is no electricity. Meals are prepared over small fires built of whatever wood they can find laying around. The father sells cheap plaster religious statues which he makes from molds in a little workshop shack. The older girl helps him; she does not attend school. It is a nice family, and they seem very close. They always wave to me when I walk by. I have bought a few of his statues at over-inflated prices and have given them framed pictures of the kids. They are my object lesson to the wealthy students who fill my classroom. Lately, the “business” has branched out to include little twirl-in-the-wind things and even a little outdoor furniture. In a developed country, this industrious man would be an entrepreneur of some kind, a successful small businessman. I guess he is here, too; but his success will not lift his family out of the poverty in which they live, nor that which their uneducated children will inherit.

And this family, in the end, is what India is all about. Our perceptions are formed from the news accounts of the rising middle class, of the call centers and computer development sites, of the millionaires and billionaires at the top of the economic heap. India has made enormous progress, and it is rightfully proud of being a rising economic power, but thirty percent of India still lives below the official United Nations poverty line of a dollar a day. This is down from fifty percent, and India is justifiably proud of the accomplishment. But thirty percent of 1.3 billion people is almost FOUR MILLION PEOPLE, more than the entire population of the United States!! And this does not include people like this family who scrape by on, maybe, FIVE dollars a day! We read about the rising middle class in places like India and China, and that phenomenon is very real. And it is also very real that this burgeoning middle class is using resources and creating toxic waste at an alarming pace. But beneath that veneer is the Other India, the Eternal India of which the Indians are also very proud. In the idealized version, Eternal India is a place of great empires and beautiful cities. But it is also the Eternal India of the caste system and of sati (the self-immolation of widows) – both of which still exist in the villages of India – and of the little Dalit girl in the last update who was afraid to climb the steps of a store to claim her pack of cookies. And it is THIS India that is really the problem!! And the problem is even deeper than the poverty. It is the problem of the myth.

The Myth of Eternal India is that there is an essence of India that is ancient and timeless, that has endured over thousands of years, through the Aryan migrations, the Moghul rule, and the British Raj. This is the India that has never really changed and that never will end. It is a beautiful myth as myths go, full of beautiful love stories and courageous deeds and the mysterious doings of gods. But it is also a trap because, unfortunately, it is true. India is stuck in an eternal culture of superstition, class structures, and poverty that is thousands of years old, a world that Europe left with the Renaissance in the Fourteenth Century!

The biggest, most harmful, myth is the historical one. There really is no India, or there wasn’t one before the British created it. India prior to the British was a subcontinent of rival kingdoms and religions and cultures; and the unification imposed upon India really hasn’t changed that very much. The India of the crowded Gangetic Plains is a totally different place than the Dravidian world of the South, the Himalayan world of the far North, the Punjab in the Northwest, or the Burmese/Nepali cultures in the Northeast. India is predominantly Hindu, but has areas that are dominated by Muslim or Sikh majorities, and thousands of small tribal religions abound. There are more than twenty different officially recognized languages, with states pretty much drawn along linguistic lines – crossing a state line is like crossing into another country in terms of language and culture! There are unbelievably huge and crowded cities, but they only account for about ten percent of the population, most of which is spread in small towns and tiny villages throughout the country.

The image of Eternal India is the Aryan Brahmin Hindu world – an image that ignores the reality of over half the population of the country! This is the world that survived the centuries of British domination and the centuries of Muslim Mughal domination before that. In this myth, India was a thriving, peaceful world of learning and piety and wealth, a world where wisdom was received through the ages in the Vedas and passed on to the future intact, a world at eternal peace with itself. Of course, this was true only for the select few, the men at the top of the social pyramid. For the vast majority of the population, this was a world of war and violence between petty Brahmin-ruled kingdoms. It was a world of unending toil and hardship and poverty. And it was the world of a rigid class system that allowed no movement whatsoever because it was based upon the circumstances of birth and enforced through the religious structure, a world where some people were not even given the dignity of belonging to a human caste because their status was so low. In parts of India, there are variations of the myth: Dravidian kingdoms in the South, Buddhist kingdoms during some periods of time, the Muslim Mughal kingdoms in the North. But whatever the variation, the myth of an idealized India that never existed, an India blissfully unaware of the Industrial Revolution, of the Scientific Revolution, of The Enlightenment, is the image that rules the minds of India. And it is this image that still dictates the lives of most Indians today! It would be as if we, in the West, still modeled our society on that of the European Middle Ages!!!!! In a very real sense, India is the Middle Ages with cell phones.

From the news reports, you would think that India is in the midst of a driving Industrial Revolution. The news reports are wrong. Yes, India is industrializing at a breakneck pace. The parents at my school represented many aspects of that industrialization: clothing manufacturers who have gotten wealthy producing the brand name clothing that you buy at the mall, engineers who have been sent to supervise the building of infrastructure, managers of outsourced industrial and IT work. And yes, Indians are very proud of their home-grown steel and automobile industries. But Industrialism has barely touched the lives of most of the people in India. Before I left, I was searching for standard sized picture frames, which were not available anywhere. Why? Because all the picture frames are hand made by guys in little framing shops making each one by hand, despite the fact that a machine could turn out a zillion of them in half the time. A few months ago, I passed a guy painting a bridge railing. He had bicycled out to the “job site” with a one-gallon bucket of paint and a paintbrush. This is a job that would have taken a crew in the industrialized world two hours with a sand-blaster and a spray gun – it occupied this guy for weeks!!! They are building an addition to our school. Holes for the pilings are being dug by four guys turning a huge hand auger, going around in circles for hours to dig one hole. Concrete is dumped into a cart and pulled to the pouring location by a team of men hauling on ropes; or it is piled onto the heads of women to carry to the right place. Most farmers in India still plow their meager plots of land with buffalo. Most bookkeeping is still done by registering each sale by hand in ledger books – not even an adding machine!! This is a country where beasts of burden – oxen, horses, water buffalo, donkeys, camels – still do much of the work on the farms and in the cities; and humans are often the cheapest beasts of burden that is available!! The list is endless.

On a deeper level, the Scientific Revolution never really happened in India. Yes, they do have science, of course. They have even developed an atomic bomb, that great benchmarkmark of scientific accomplishment. But it is really technology, not science; there is no culture of rational enquiry here. Most people live in a world of ignorance and superstition. Astrologers are consulted for any important decision, and children are sacrificed to lift curses off families. Children wear “ugly marks” to ward off the “evil eye” and transvestites demand tribute from train passengers to avoid having them “curse” the train. Doctors practice whatever medicine they learned in medical school forty years ago, and teaching doctors pass on this outdated knowledge to their students. Engineers and “scientists” memorize volumes of information without ever questioning its validity, often from outdated texts and sometimes from Vedic “knowledge” that is thousands of years old. In fact, the entire educational structure is based upon memorizing received “wisdom”, not thinking. Children are taught to write by copying, word for word, from “great” Victorian men of letters. Passages of textbooks are memorized, again word for word, with no opportunity to discuss meaning. I worked with a group of orphans who had been “studying” The Merchant of Venice for three years . . . and didn’t know it was a play!! They had simply memorized answers to questions about the story – like memorizing the answers from the Cliff’s Notes!! Students, even at the university, memorize formulas and equations for tests, but have no idea what the applications for those equations might be. In the Indian model, great minds, either in the last century or in antiquity, have given us the answers; students receive this “wisdom” unquestioningly, passed down through their teachers; initiative is frowned upon, or even punished. It is really the Scholastic model from the Middle Ages!!!!! People who work with educated Indians – including Indians who have lived in the United States and returned to India – uniformly bemoan the fact that they seem to be incapable of independent thought and initiative. From the auto-rickshaw driver to the university-educated engineer, Indians will tell you what you want to hear because that is what they have been trained to do; but they will not take the initiative to make independent, rational decisions.

And on an even more fundamental level, The Enlightenment, that Humanistic movement that dragged Europe out of the Middle Ages, never really happened here. The idea of humans having power over their own lives, the idea of humans having an inherent dignity, is just not developed. Most Indians see themselves as victims of fate or karma or the gods or some other aspect outside of themselves. Wealthy Indians take their positions as a matter of entitlement. So the class structure endures in most of India just as it has for thousands of years. The “backward classes” might be catered to because of their voting power, but they are uniformly considered to be deserving of their plight. Any human dignity is salvaged only by belittling whoever is beneath you in the class structure. Millions of Indians are slowly starving to death, and politicians get elected on “cow protection” promises. Major infrastructure projects are halted because some priest declares that some incarnation of some god once touched some rock. There are, of course, people in America who still deny the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and they do carry undue weight on some contentious issues; but the entire society does not revolve around that attitude!!

So, is there hope for India? In terms of Industrialism, India is about where the United States was a hundred years ago. The social structure is not unlike that of Victorian England. Will India in a hundred years be where the United States is now? I don’t think so. Yes, their GDP will probably surpass that of the United States – if each person in India produced only ten thousand dollars worth of goods and services, that would be ten-thousand times 1.3 BILLION, or THIRTEEN TRILLION DOLLARS!!! But that thirteen trillion must also be spread across the HUGE population. And most of the new wealth of India is spread across a VERY thin veneer at the top of the society, the veneer that we read about in Time magazine.

But beneath that very thin veneer are a billion people living in an impoverished, medieval society. Part of the problem with India is that its THINKING has calcified into the thinking of the Middle Ages. A bigger problem is less esoteric: population pressure. There are simply too many people chasing too few opportunities in India; and as industrialism accelerates, the already severely stratified society will become even more so. The rise of the limited middle class also exerts powerful economic pressure – remember that if even 20% of Indians are considered middle class, that amounts to an extra 260,000,000 people demanding products and resources. This will be an impetus for economic growth, but as demand rises, India will be hard put to meet that demand. India is almost completely dependent upon foreign oil for transportation and agriculture; and when I left, the inflation rate was 11%!!! Another limitation on India’s survival is the combined effect of industrialization and population pressure; and that is the problem of environmental degradation. The air in India is black with pollution. The water supply is unsafe and becoming scarce; water is trucked into Chennai from hundreds of miles away (more air pollution!), and as the Himalayan glaciers melt from global warming, irrigation water will become unavailable. The Green Revolution of chemically-enhanced farming has forestalled Malthusian predictions, but I think it is only a matter of time before a year or two of poor monsoons, combined with soaring prices of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides, again brings famine on a massive scale to India. And that famine will create social and political disruptions that will destroy the meager and tentative gains that India has made. India’s progress and new-found wealth is flashy, but it does not run deeply enough to endure a major economic or social upheaval.

Indians like to talk to Americans. They like to ask about the bewildering politics. They like to ask about the culture. They like to ask if I can procure H-1 visas (visas for in-demand workers like doctors or engineers). Sometimes, their questions are pretty funny. Awhile ago, one group of young engineers, apparently believing the bragging of certain basketball players and Hollywood’s image of our country, asked whether I had had over six thousand sexual partners!! But on my last trip, a group in the Arangabad train station asked me to explain the difference between life in the United States and life in India. I didn’t know where to start!! How do you explain the wealth that oozes throughout American culture? How do you explain that a working class family visiting a Wal-Mart has more selection and buying power than everyone in an entire Indian village put together? Or that their children can attend good government schools for free, schools that will enable them to go to government universities and obtain jobs earning incomes and respect far beyond those of their parents. I am currently staying in a working-class or “starter” apartment whose living room is larger than most of their homes. The rest of the world looks at our failure to completely live up to our Founding Documents (The Declaration, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights), but the level that we DO manage to attain would be incomprehensible to those Indian men. Yes, we have poverty and class prejudices and ignorance and superstition and racism in the United States; but it is not on a scale that overshadows the entire society, and we are consciously trying to overcome those problems. Coming home from India, it is hard to believe that the two countries exist in the same Universe, let alone on the same planet!!

All pretty dreary stuff. So where is the positive part of the experience? Well, the obvious starting point is having been able to live in a completely different culture, one of the oldest cultures in the world and one that has very different assumptions about life and the universe. On a purely sight-seeing level, India has been astounding: the temples, the mountains, the cities, the people, the wildlife. And there are the day-to-day interactions that verify the profound differences between our cultures, but that also verify the underlying sameness that we share as human beings. The watchmen who wave to me as I walk down the street. The radiant smiles of the children. The determination of the statue guy, despite the odds that are

stacked against him. There are surprises around every corner. The drive and energy is a palpable entity as you walk down any street in any city or town in India. You are immersed in a chaos over which you have no control; like that co-worker’s wedding, India just sort of happens all around you. Then, there is the letting go of expectations. A friend took his family to a restaurant awhile ago and everyone ordered grilled cheese sandwiches. The sandwiches came, but there was no cheese on them. When they asked the waiter, he patiently explained that they were out of cheese. So he had brought cheese sandwiches, but without the cheese. Such is life in India, and you just gotta laugh and let it go.

The night before I left, my auto-driver showed up at my door. He had brought his family with him, whom I had never met. They had all dressed in their nicest clothes to come and thank me for all that I had done for their family by hiring Ramesh. They had very little English to draw upon for conversation, but they did their best. They brought their son’s medical records to indicate how my payments had enabled them to treat his blood disease. They brought their orphaned niece whom they were able to take in and save from a life in an orphanage or on the streets. Then, each one knelt down and touched my feet in a show of thanks and respect. And what had my largesse been that was so deserving of this honour? I paid Ramesh seventy-five dollars a month. It was more than a little uncomfortable, but it was also indicative of the personal connections that I have made since I have been here: the mini-tiffin guy at the restaurant where I go for breakfasts, another restaurant where the owner sadly consoled me for having to leave India, the many locally hired teachers and support personnel that I have come to know, the orphans at the school where I taught some Shakespeare, and of course the kids and the parents from the school.

And, finally, living in India for two years has made me appreciate my own culture even more: the freedom, the efficiency, the effortless wealth, the people, the high-quality food and drinkable water, the casual friendliness, the hitherto under-appreciated legacy of The Enlightenment. I appreciated all that before, but living in Indian has made it so much more apparent in a more-than-intellectual way. It is said that travel allows you to come home and see your own culture for the first time. That, alone, would have made the two-year experience worthwhile.

In one of my earliest letters, I described India as the country that you would get if it were designed by a group of well-meaning adolescents. I’ll stick with that metaphor. I love the insane, self-centered, chaotic, illogical world of adolescents – I have spent almost thirty years visiting in that world as a teacher!! But I wouldn’t want to be an adolescent again. I loved my time spent visiting the insane, self-centered, chaotic, illogical world of India, but I think that we, for all our faults, have more going for us as a culture and as a society. Yes, we have inefficiency and poverty and corruption and all the other plagues that human societies are prone to; but the Medieval thinking and sheer population pressure of India exacerbate these problems immeasurably, and make them much more entrenched in the society and much more intractable. I hope that my dire predictions about India will be wrong. I hope that the society there will have a chance to mature into the kind of progressive society that we enjoy in The West. The people there certainly deserve that. But the negatives I have described are India’s; my own experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

So now, I have been home for four weeks, with two weeks left to. A new grandchild. Seeing family and friends. Clean streets and beaches. Some concerts and shows. A little sanity. Then, off to Dubai, and another completely different culture. I’ll keep you updated.

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