India ready for change


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Category: Travel 12 Jan 14

We landed in Delhi in a fog so thick, it felt like we were still in the clouds.  Half in the air, a bit of me in England, which had been a whirl of umbrellas, rain storms, and rattling tube rides. And another in Trinidad...As we disembarked, we saw Dame Judi Dench, who had most recently achingly evoked India’s chaos and wonder in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She smiled through startling blue eyes and agreed to a photograph. It seemed a good portent.

We drove in the fog, so thick it felt like a kind of blindness—past enormous trucks and cycles, past mini-slum settlements with satellite dishes. At one point an entire eight lanes felt like a massive block of unending concrete which cars, bikes, mammoth trucks, auto-rickshaws, humans swathed in shawls against the biting cold, and even an odd cow crisscrossed and meandered. At another, using indicators as if in a film, vehicles moved in unison, in blocks of light, to overcome the fog. Signs above tall buildings blocked by the fog appeared suspended, ghostly, in the air.

Anyone interested in India will know that this city, with a population of more than 22 million now (the world’s second largest), has been continuously inhabited since the sixth century, served as capital of kingdoms and empires, and that it is a cluster of cities spread across the metro. It has both strong Islamic and Hindu base. The site of the Indraprastha, the mythical capital of the Pandavas during the Mahabharata. It is also a jewel in the Mogul Empire. There was going to be no time this time to visit the old walled city, Shahjehanabad, built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jehan. It was the seat of the Mogul Empire from 1649 to 1857, with its ancient mosques, narrow alleyways and markets.

But we did whip along New Delhi, built by the British in the 1920s with its wide boulevards, parks, monuments, museums, universities, metro stations and Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi’s homes, including the exact spot of the assassination of the latter two.  The sight of India Gate, built in 1931 commemorating 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British, is a perpetual reminder of how intertwined we once were with the British.

You can look at India endlessly, its tableaux of life played out on the street, the roadside barbers, the shouts from buses and autorickshaws, walled gardens, heavy, damp and pungent with overhanging fruit, the hawkers more interested in sharing paan (betel leaf with tobacco) than selling their multifarious wares, women trying on shoes, boys sewing together cartfuls of roses that make you want to take deep breaths, women being measured for blouses, newlyweds walking self-consciously, still sheepish about holding hands, the “eve teasers” training their eyes on women (sadly there are up to 200 rapes in India today).

There are the joggers who take the beggars in their stride, the girls in upscale coffee shops, designer malls, pubs and clubs like any metro in the world today. There are endless roads you can follow in India. You can talk to the art dealer, which will take you to some of the well-heeled quiet galleries of Delhi, or the squatting hawker who has substituted local savouries for foreign pastries, or the upper-class girl who has been waiting for the delivery of a particular shade of lipstick by Mac for three months, or the slum dweller who has managed to get enough money together to send her son to university.

India cannot, will not be pinned down. Earlier today, I was sweltering in the heat, and all evening I have been writing with fingers that feel frostbitten, it’s that cold.  The taxi driver from Simla tells me how the apples get easily frozen over when a snowfall is followed by hail. He has chosen to live in Delhi until he can afford to go home. There is migration both from the smaller towns and cities in the north and south in all the metros. Especially this one, teeming with service industries from technology, finance, banking, education and tourism.

Delhi, known as the “city of cities,” is India’s only union territory with its own legislature, high court and executive council of states headed by a chief minister.  My cousin, who lives in the booming suburbia of Gurgaun, off Delhi, fills me in with the political gossip. There is a new party called the AamAdmi—literally the party of the ordinary man, which whipped both the Congress and the BJP in the last state election.  Its new chief minister, who is equal to the head of this State, a man called Arjun Kejrival, was initially an anti-corruption activist. Within 24 hours of being elected in Delhi, he reduced both electric and water charges for ordinary people, got rid of the middle man who was fattening his pocket.

Kejrival refuses a fancy car or police escort and travelled to his swearing in on the metro. His party claims that the “common people of India remain unheard and unseen, except when it suits politicians to consider them.” The party has worked with the Gandhian concept of “self-governance, community-building and decentralisation.”

India’s young and old, middle class and aristocracy, are all going for it. Everyone who is fed-up of corruption and expressive bureaucracy is going for it, India is ready for a change. People say with finality that the Gandhi dynasty is on its way out.

This new party, I think, breathing in the Indian air with its particular mixture of tea and smoke, fuel and fresh lime, cool sunshine and dusty trees, I hope will bring a drastic change to India as the green revolution where the country became self sufficient with food, with technology, with its massive middle class of over 300 million people, and with education.

If corruption is dealt with, India could become a giant among nations.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur