A journey across India


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Category: Travel Date: 18 Feb 99

Part 1

It is the coldest winter in Delhi since 1970. Planes are delayed, unable to take off or land because of the fog. In winter, pollution is pretty. Industrial waste and fumes mingle with dense clouds, creating candy pink and silver dawns, or a saffron circle at sunset. 


Below lies all of humanity. Men and women wrapped in shawls, and turbans, wearing sweaters and socks with the traditional saris and shalvar khameez, kurta pajamas, young men and women dressed in trousers and jackets. It is difficult to separate the millions of strands that make up India. The cry of the hawkers, the caw of the crows - urgent shrieking sounds sound the same. Foreigners would find it difficult to pick the Hindus from the Muslims, or the Jains from the Parsees, the sects and castes and classes, but Indians will know, trained as they are from a lifetime of living within strict boundaries.


The vast sea of faces may blur into one in the streets and markets, but in India’s complicated hierarchy everyone has a place. It is not as static as it sounds. Modern India, has a capacity to absorb all foreign and new influences, and still stay timeless. We get through immigration quickly at Indira Gandhi Airport, which is shabby and spotlessly clean. The early morning drive out of the airport is as magical as the fog casts a dusky grey pall over the cities: past wide clean boulevards, past the embassies, past ancient monuments, past a garden in which deer roam and roses grow, to the guesthouse where we are to stay.


As an NRI or a Non Resident Indian, a term which all Indian born people and their children recognise is heavy with contradictions and paradoxes as is India herself, when we return to India we are in the unique position of having a two-way mirror: looking at India from the outside in and the world from inside out. Outside India, we live with an unchanging idealistic image of the country of our birth.


We too are looked on as part desi, part strange and foreign. Looked upon as a mother looked upon an estranged child, not quite accepted, lost to the clan, but embraced anyway, tolerated at times, and occasionally envied for the lack of restraint the West represents. The sanitised version of India can only last a day or two. Slowly, reality seeps in. How, you ask yourself, can a country sustain such a huge population? The answers come in the obvious sight of the slum areas, not quite tucked away, in the outstretched hands of beggars, many maimed, some with dirty children in their hands. When you reach into your pocket, you are told that even the beggars are part of an organised Mafia. The answers come, too, in the form of a taxman quietly tucking away notes, in the way milk is invariably mixed with water, receipts are withheld, in the bribery that is integral to every activity, from buying a house to paying an electricity bill. However, let me now talk about the India in my head. I respond to it not with my intellect but my senses.


What is this India made up of? It is the sound of a woman’s voice speaking Hindi, loudly badgering a desperate hawker, pointing out a flaw in a product, anything to bring the price down. It is about being surrounded by yards of gorgeous silk, chiffon, cotton saris, feeling a faint breeze stir in your face as the salesman flings open the yards of material for your inspection. It is in the markets cluttered with everything in the world, from tinsel to diamonds, from cow feed to caviar, and everything in-between - glass bangles, gold, silver, spices, shoes, books, artifacts of intricate designs, some of which are passed down for hundreds of years. It is in the sight of chauffeur-driven, well-heeled memsahibs picking their way from cow droppings into marble hotels in a few steps. It is in the smells of jasmines, incense, spices, fried food. It is in the sight of minarets and ancient temples carved with sensual mythic creatures. It is in the excessive poverty and obscene wealth, of age-old prejudice, customs and beliefs.


One of the incidents now burnt into my memory was watching a little girl in a bright costume turning expert cartwheels, just outside one of Delhi’s poshest boutiques where the well heeled casually buy stunning outfits - with price tags ranging from $2,000 upwards. She looked no older than six or seven and at first glance appeared to be indulging in the unselfconscious exuberance that only childhood permits. A closer look revealed that the cartwheels were too determined, too expert to be impulsive. The child’s face was dotted on four corners with rouge, the clothes were ragged, and her hands callused. After a succession of three she looked up without much hope for some reward. She was as opposite from a carefree child as you can get.


Another incident also summed up India for me. The way she has kept up with the world while remaining rooted in the old ways. The driver of a hired car loosening up at the end of a day told us how carefully he had to guard his car against the criminals. How pretending to perform bodily functions they inch towards cars and steal parts. He pointed out the way no traffic rules are maintained, how that man running through the red light in the scooter could have left behind father-less children. He talked about hard times and the way the company gave him very little commission. He said how we have everything in India including all the seasons of the world, from winter to summer, and how great this country would be if only people weren’t corrupt and paid attention to rules. We arrived at our destination. Once there, to our surprise, he asked if we could not mention the fact that we paid him overtime to his company. When we asked how we could get hold of him, this shabby, thin, exploited looking man pulled out his cell, and gave us the number. That is India.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur