The world through other eyes

Indian notebook 1

Travel may broaden the mind, but tootling down to south-west France for four months a year doesn’t broaden it very much. A first visit to India, however, is a different matter. Having just returned from three weeks there, mostly in Kerala and Rajasthan, with a finale in Delhi, my senses still feel bombarded by the assault of sights and sounds and smells. Now is the time to rationalise the experience.  

It is tempting to believe that a short immersion in an exotic culture, mostly spent in a comfortable tourist cocoon, can somehow produce instant enlightenment and a deep understanding. It cannot. At best it provides flashing impressions, as through the window of a high-speed train. The impressions provoke ruminations, and these lead to vague conclusions that may be partially accurate. They are tentatively offered here, and in the blogs that follow.

When countries ‘modernise’, that usually entails Americanisation. In India, it appears not to have done, at least as evidenced by the retail trade. In 10 days in Kerala, the count amounted to one KFC; in 10 days in Rajasthan, barely more. Brief drives through the streets of Mumbai and Delhi upped the total a little, but not by much. Coke and Pepsi were ubiquitous, but not dominant. Cars, wherever manufactured, carried Japanese or Indian brand names.

Instead of importing ready-made consumerism, India appears to have grown through exports. Obviously so in the case of manufactured fabrics; perhaps more significantly so in the case of its highly-trained, tech-savvy younger generation. It may be one of the few countries to see a potential benefit in an America led by Donald Trump. If Trump doesn’t want foreign techies sullying his domestic industries, that’s fine by us, seemed to be the attitude of Indian newspapers. They can come home and we’ll rebuild Silicon Valley here.

It would be interesting to know how many Indian expatriates there are. In Kerala especially, we saw many luxury mansions and apartment blocks which, according to our guide, belonged to Indian expats. Their sojourn overseas appears not to be permanent, but rather a short-term means of earning a great deal of money before coming home. The new Indian middle-class seems to understand and embrace the globalisation of people and jobs more than most Europeans or Americans do. Nor did their new mansions conform to any architectural pattern. Each one was fabulous in a different way. These must be good times for architects in Kerala.

The new wealth that India is creating is reflected on the roadside. The number of billboards advertising (very) expensive jewellery is staggering. As is the number of shops selling toilets – an oblique suggestion that some traditional habits are changing. (We saw no roadside squatting at all.) Most cars are new. Almost all the filling stations at the side of the roads are new. We saw few oxcarts.

So there would seem to have to have been a transport revolution in India, and it is recent. In parallel, there have no doubt been other revolutions, less visible. Anyone visiting India would be advised to buy an up-to-date travel guide. Much in the older ones is surely redundant by now.

But not necessarily for the rural areas, of which we saw little, except through a car window. The pace of change is never the same everywhere, and it is always slower in the countryside. In a wholesale warehouse in Jodhpur, we were offered an exquisite covering that we were told would have taken the weaver over a year to make. It was on sale to us for £120. (Or for about £700 in an American store.)

Rural poverty may have been reduced, but it is far from being eradicated. Urban poverty, which we observed only in Mumbai, and only fleetingly, is also diminished, but also far from being eradicated. Globalisation, for obvious reasons, is popular in India, but its benefits are unevenly conferred, just as its drawbacks are unevenly experienced in the West. I saw nothing to change my conviction that, on a macro-economic level, globalisation is a boon and and an opportunity for every country. However, on a micro-economic and social level, it throws up distortions that governments everywhere need urgently to address.

The Indian newspapers were a constant delight. The journalism was witty, informed, intelligent and beautifully written, unlike most of our own press these days. Take these excerpts from an Indian newspaper piece by Farrukh Dhondy, reacting to Trump’s proposed ban on Moslems:

‘My friends are encouraging me to apply for the post of Foreign Adviser, with Third World Credentials, to US President Donald Trump’s team… I came up with the following list of suggestions for Mr Trump…

‘Immediate construction should begin on a Canadian Wall stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific to prevent American women and professionals – scientists, journalists, lawyers, teachers, doctors and Jane Fonda escaping to Canada. If such a wall is not built and millions of women, fearing oppression and a reversal of the gains of the feminist movement flee to Canada, it will leave the US with a dangerously uneven gender ratio. This could result in millions of men crossing over to Mexico in search of women to marry. Even worse, it could result in vast trafficking of Russian women to the United States…

‘Mr Trump ought to take immediate executive action to dynamite the Statue of Liberty… It is, after all, a foreign construction … and it has the unhelpful message of welcoming the ‘poor and huddled masses’… I propose that a statue of President Trump … replace it – but instead of a torch, holding aloft some appropriate object like a pair of handcuffs or a revolver.’

Everywhere, in almost everyone we met, there was humour. A beautiful, gentle, wry, understated humour. It is one of the abiding memories of India that I have carried home. I would like to have carried a cow home as well, but that is for another week.