India bursting with contradictions


Quick Links

1995, 1996, 1997

1998, 1999, 2000

2001, 2002, 2003

2004, 2005, 2006

2007, 2008, 2009

2010, 2011

Category: Travel Date: 04 Mar 99

ĎAny view on her (India), or even judgment, unless you are living there, is pointless without a comprehensive understanding of her complex socio/ historical/ political state.í


ĎOnly when India looks at itself from the outside in will she realise that her priority is to create a society which gives more people a chance, a way outí


Somebody asked me what I thought of India. My mind went blank. I had to confess. Travelling to three cities in as many weeks in India, I lost my journalistic instinct.


My camera swung on my shoulder, untouched. The pages of my diary remained clean. My pen rolled around in a handbag. I went through one day after the next, unable to catch my breath, as wave upon wave of India knocked me over: all I could do was gulp for air.


Contradictory, huge, ugly, beautiful, intricate, simple. All adjectives apply to India.

It is impossible to cram India into any category. If you do, she will burst out on all corners with contradictions. Any view on her, or even judgment, unless you are living there, is pointless without a comprehensive understanding of her complex socio/historical/political state. She is like a woman you cannot pin down.


So, as the poets used to do in the old days, writing odes to parts of a womanís body - ankle, wrist, or eye - I will attempt a mere pencil impression of India through its domestics, or servants, as they are known here.


In the West, the struggle for survival often turns the poor, uneducated and disadvantaged into aggressors. This is because they live in societies which pretend that, given half a chance, anyone can make it on top. And those who havenít made it lash out. I say ďpretendĒ because we all know that in the end, in our system, chances are, if you are born into a financially comfortable, educated home, you do well, and if youíre not you generally donít unless you are exceptional.


In India, the age-old caste system, a belief in karma (which basically means you have many lives and you reap in this one what you sowed in the last), a history of feudalism perpetuated by the Raj where various Maharajas and Nawabs ruled over hundreds of villages like feudal lords, and colonialism, has created a kind of fatalism amongst the underclass who number in the millions.

Within that circle of fatalism, there is the underworld of hustlers, those who make a trade out of poverty and disability, cracking bones and maiming children to make them more able beggars, the crook shopkeepers, the pimps and madams, the corrupt bureaucrats, the black market economy without which survival for so many would be impossible. But also in the circle of over-population and poverty live the innocents who, whether Muslim, Christian, or Hindu, believe fervently, and try to live according to the tenets of their faiths. These are Gandhiís people, the humble, the meek; but it does not appear that they will ever inherit the earth. For the most part, these simple men, women and children make up one of the most finely honed service industries in the world. And not just the tourist industry. They are the servants of India.


They live in the servantsí quarters, an integral part of every middle- and upper-class home. Here, in a couple of tiny, dark rooms, two families live off the leftovers of the masterís house. From these tiny rooms emerge a small army of people whose entire purpose in life is to serve - make life comfortable - for the privileged: The butler, the cook, and many little handmaidens rush about to answer the call of the Saab, Memsahib and their offspring, who tend to be plump from eating too much rich food. In the afternoons when Memsahib rests, legs are massaged, hair is oiled or washed. With one call, they come tearing across hallways and doorways to answer oneís bidding. The children of the servants, in contrast, are ragged, thin, shunted, out of sight, but, being children, amuse themselves with dirt and bits of leaves, and the world of imagination that children inhabit.


In the main houses, the sandalwood is dusted, silver and brass gleam, and embroidered cushions plumped up. Cups of tea appear miraculously, dirty clothes are whipped away and replaced with beautifully laundered ones. Floors glisten. The dining table is always luscious, each dish cooked with spices ground separately by the scullery maid. Mealtimes are very important in these households. Dinners and lunches of many intricate dishes garnished with cashews, cardamom, thick cream, yogurt, coconut, almonds appear. After meals, warm water is poured over your hands, the towel appears. The servants are the invisible of India. They are paid very little, their lives are handed over to their masters, and they are - no matter their age - treated like children. If their masters are good and kind, they benefit; if not, they suffer. The masters, too, are caught. They believe they are giving people a living and food in their mouth. It is the system, they say, drinking their tea in china. If we didnít give them jobs, where would they go? That, too, is unanswerable. As I child, I, too, took them for granted. Now, as a visitor, I see that a mediaeval world of serfdom exists in India. The serfs, the servants, are caught between Indiaís progress in the modern world and the foundation of her rich heritage. And only when India looks at itself from the outside in will she realise that her priority is to create a society which gives more people a chance, a way out.


Thatís probably true of most societies in the world. But take one look at the crowds, the huge machine India is, and you see that life without fatalism in India would be impossible. And thatís why in India you go blank, and become one of the unseeing.


horizontal rule



All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur