India: First Impressions
Lack of updates these past two weeks due to my relocation to India, where I shall be for the next four months. I will be interning with The Indian Express, a mid-sized daily newspaper, and living in Hyderabad, at the heart of the subcontinent.
India is a maze, a warren, a crazy mosaic of languages and cultures. And also, apparently, economic conditions. Nowhere else, save perhaps for China, can one so easily view rich and poor, privileged and deprived, hungry and satiated, living side by side, literally on top of one another. The inequality here is so stark as to astound a visitor from the “developed” world, and one needs only to open their eyes to see it.
This is not, of course, to say that America is any paragon of social equality. Indeed, the inequality one finds in America (the top 1% of American earners reap more than 66% of income gains) roughly compares to its Indian counterpart – but devices were put in place long ago to mask this, such that you would have to go back sixty or seventy years to see the kind of open poverty one views today in India.
Aravind Adiga, in his excellent novel The White Tiger, remarked that there were, in fact, two Indias: rich and poor, urban and rural, light and dark. But that betrays, I think, an anthropogenic love for duality. Would it not be more accurate to say there are tens of Indias, thousands, millions? There is still the Anglo-India, kow-towing to all things western, obsessed with “progress”, “advancement”; there is political India, where millionaires sit drinking tea served by “houseboys”, making pious speeches to one another about “the poor” while ensuring their houseboys don’t go anywhere; there is old India, whose fading citizens still carry dim memories of the British Raj, whom the rapid development of the past decades has left in utter confusion. And there is young India, comprising more than a quarter of the population, born after 1980, already in a world light-years from that of their parents. Beset by ceaseless advertisements and consumerism on one hand, and the receding puritanism of their parents on the other, their confusion is the confusion India faces today. Does not every one of India’s 250 + dialects confer its own reality, its own India? And then: do the myriad cities, each variegated in a manner so far removed from American homogeniety, not confer their own Indias? One more India we cannot forget, one which is growing more powerful and ruthless by the day: Corporate India.
Overpopulation is the defining issue of our day, and nowhere does it strike one so forcefully as India. When one steps out into the swirling chaos of the streets, when one stands admidst the teeming masses with faces so much like your own, when one looks down from a rooftop at the quivering mass of thousands, tens of thousands, it strikes: Can there truly be so many? And: What do all these people do? How do they survive?
Badly, as it turns out. My cousin informed me that 60% of India’s population lives hand-to-mouth, on less than 1,000 calories per day. “You could hardly call that living!” she exclaimed. And yet somehow it is. Confronted by the magnitude of the population problem, which is truly that of the whole world, one has no choice but to shut it out of his mind. Doing so, of course, is much easier in the West, where the density has not yet reached critical mass, but even in India, where one must live with it daily, one finds a curious detachment. Not that they don’t realize the problem; indeed, when brought up it is usually met with a disapproving shake of the head and cluck of the tongue, but invariably a shrug and some noises to the effect that “there is nothing to be done.”
Perhaps of a sense of powerlessness, then, one is able to look out the window at the roadways choked with 15 types of vehicle, the cars and motorcycles viciously competing for inches of space, the clouds of blue smoke that never quite disperse, or the thousands, tens of thousands of faces seen once and forgotten with a mere shrug. They have grown accustomed to it, so to speak, and I can already feel myself growing accustomed as well.