Still steeped in tradition


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Category: International 06 Jan 08



Travelling to India with my parents, husband and children, there is a sense of continuity, of security, of passing on something intangible, yet necessary to the next generation.

I saw the ease with which my mother wears her identity.

Having lived in India and Pakistan until she was the mother of teenagers, her sense of self is solid, as natural as breathing.

Ironically, that security allows her to be open to all races and cultures, embrace Trinidad and Tobago as her home and that of her grandchildren.

Moving on from Agra, we make the six-hour drive to Jaipur in a chilly afternoon filtered by dust and pollution, which gives the entire visit a dream-like quality.

Families are scattered along the highway in rough settlements. Children bathe under pipe stands, women cook squatting by open fires, men toil hammering stones and transporting heavy material for India’s runaway construction. Their care is etched in their faces.

Outside the bubble of a rapidly-developing India, these are the ones who have been left behind.

My cousins had warned me: “India is becoming a global power, but political corruption, partisan politics across the 17 states and the lumbering civil service, where bribery is the norm, block development for the poor.”

Midway to Jaipur, we all tumbled into two three-seaters to Fatehpur Sikri, the former imperial capital of the Mogul emperor Akbar, built during the 16th century.

As we ascend a magnificent staircase, we are beseeched by children and old men to buy trinkets, pay for blessings, for alms. Thin women holding babies make the gesture of hunger by putting their fingers to their mouths.

A small boy in rags with a beautiful face and thick lashes approached me. He recited me a love poem, in Persian, the language of emperors and courtiers, oblivious to the incongruity of his situation. His desperation to fill his belly makes the luxury of tourism, of poetry, obscene, and arouses in me, an intense guilt.

No wonder the Maoist and communist movements my cousin told me about are gathering momentum. India’s swelling middle class fears that this level of inequality will lead to civil unrest.

Ironically, it is technology—television, and the ubiquitous cellphone—that has given the lower castes in society, who in the past accepted their fate as their karma, a new boldness, a new hustle in able young men in particular.

They push us to buy while the vulnerable beg.

Jaipur, Rajasthan’s pink royal city, is flamboyant even at dusk.

Little seems to have changed since it was founded during the 1700s by the Rajputs.

As we drive into our hotel, we spot an elderly woman who is still, informally, the ruler of the city, the Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, sitting in her chauffeur-driven Bentley.

Widow of the Maharajah of Jaipur and a princess of the State of Cooch Behar, she was raised in a palace staffed with 500 servants; shot her first panther when she was 12, counted the late John F Kennedy and Prince Philip among her close friends, and is among the wealthiest women in India.

As we walk through the many palaces where she lived, Rambhag Palace, Rajmahal, City Palace, see portraits of her in fabulous jewels and take an early morning ride on a heavily-decorated elephant, I understand how steeped India is in its tradition and past, be it the caste system or princely states.

India draws you in while it breaks your heart.

Next week: Delhi


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur