Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Farewell to mosquitoes

Howrah train station, Kolkata

Today is my last whole day in India, after about 6 weeks. Here is my pretentious post of reflections of what I've learned and experienced during my trip.

1. I haven't seen any Starbucks cafes, anywhere.
2. I haven't seen any street signs, anywhere. Only signs pointing to major highways. I still wonder how drivers navigate.
3. Delhi is a city full of smog. And lots of traffic. But with nice Metro trains.
4. Places like Humayun's tomb, Jama Masjid, and Lal Qila/Red Fort, make you forget that you are in the middle of a huge city, surrounded by 13 million people. I am a fan of Old Delhi.
5. Calcutta/Kolkata is my favourite Indian city.
6. From now on I think I'll just fly straight to Calcutta.
7. Bihar...needs help. Bihar is the most under-developed place I've been in, and the least safe. Before, I used to only see Bihar when I visited India, making me think that Bihar was India. Now I realize, that the rest of India is not like Bihar.
8. Bihar has many issues and faults, but I do actually miss it. I didn't mind the bumpy roads or the dinginess, I got used to it all pretty quickly.
9. India is in transition - but I wonder how much more it will actually change. Here are 2 Indias, out of many - the new, emerging economy of business India, 'new India', full of IT businesses, malls, flashy cars, and expensive clothes. Then there is the rest of India, that just gets left behind. The servant classes, of cleaners, drivers, cooks; the hundreds of millions who cannot read and don't have electricity. A prime example of course, is Bihar/Jharkand, seen to be the dark hole of India. The gap between the two Indias, only gets bigger everyday. India as a new emerging super-economy? Only for some.
10. I stand apart from the locals. The locals can usually tell right away that I've come from abroad. I usually don't care unless I'm buying something, and that's when I try the most to blend in.
11. My Hindi/Urdu has improved slightly since I got here. Same with my comprehension. Back in the States, for some reason a few people think that my Hindi/Urdu is amazing, whereas here, I can tell that it needs a lot of work.
12. India has good Indian food.

13. When I first got here I was very unnerved that were servants in the households I stayed in. What is frightening, is that very quickly, I got used to servants being around - i.e. I stopped thinking about the class inequalities, and just accepted the environment for how it is. It became very easy to brush aside any moral concerns I had regarding servants - I started to imitate a little, what others around me did. For example, while I would still (sometimes) get up from the table and start to put away the food, and then always being told not to, I stopped thinking about how this driver or this cleaning lady might live at home, how much they see their family, and how much they earn. I think this shows how easy it is to get used to the privilege I have here, and I find it very unnerving of how quickly I got used to it.

All in all, I'm very grateful I got to come here after such a long absence. I definitely feel more connected to the place and understand it a lot more. When I see Hindi films now, the locales seem familiar to me. And I can tell that my folks are happy that I came here, and that I'm able to get around without much hassle. I've learned a little bit here and there about Indian politics in my time here, but there's no way I'll ever be able to completely understand the whole context of even one issue. But I'll continue reading.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Obama vs Thackeray

I think he's too hopeful about Obama, but this piece gives a good contrast between what's going on in America and in India politically.

8 Nov 2008, 0010 hrs IST, Jug Suraiya

Perhaps no two politicians could be more dissimilar, not just in stature but, more importantly, in the philosophy they represent, than US president-elect Barack Obama and MNS chief Raj Thackeray. Obama, the black American president, represents what might be called the politics of togetherness; Thackeray personifies the politics of otherness.

In his victory speech, resonant not with triumphalism but with a resolve to overcome the many challenges ahead, Obama made it explicitly clear that he is not a black president, but a president for all Americans; not just a president of the Democratic Party, but for all shades of political opinion, including those who had voted against him.

Expressing his confi-dence that America as a whole would overcome the hard times that it faces, just like the African-American community had spectacularly overcome a history of enslavement and discrimination, Obama consistently stressed the word ‘United’, in the United States of America.

‘United’ was the key word in the pledge he made to the American people on that epochal day. We can do this, said the president-elect; we can do this together. And his enraptured listeners chorused in response: Yes, we can!

How different is this politics of cohesion, of togetherness from the politics of divisiveness, of otherness, that today threatens to balkanise India. Raj Thackeray is only one, though currently the most topical, of India’s all too many practitioners of the politics of otherness.

Raj is merely following in the footsteps of his uncle Bal Thackeray who hinged his politics of otherness on the expulsion from Maharashtra of so-called ‘south
Indian outsiders’; his nephew’s contribution to the politics of otherness has been the substitution of ‘south Indians’ with ‘north Indians’.

It is not just Maharashtra which has fallen prey to the divisive politics of otherness, of devising a feared and loathed ‘other’ in adversarial relation to which one can form one’s own identity based on caste, creed, ethnicity or language.

From Assam and the north-east to Kashmir, from the imminent Andhra-Telangana divide to the symbiotic rise of Islamic and Hindu radicalism in the form of Indian Mujahideen and Abhinav Bharat, the fabric of the Indian republic woven with such care and compassion by the framers of our Constitution seems remorselessly to be unravelling.

Bal and Raj Thackeray are archetypal of the post-independence Indian politician who bettered the British instruction of divide and rule by adopting the tactics of divide and misrule.

As real solutions to real problems — of unemployment, illi-teracy, social and religious prejudice — require hard work and patience to evolve, it’s much easier for the vote-catching politician-in-a-hurry to conjure an imaginary bogey, a scapegoat on which exploited frustration can wreak vengeance.

This self-destructive exercise is doubly efficacious as an electoral gimmick in that it ensures that the targeted vote bank, denied real development, will remain perpetually in thrall to its political puppeteer.

It would be easy to blame our political class for the politics of otherness and divisiveness that increasingly threatens to splinter the country.

But people get the politics, and the politicians, they deserve. If today America has a Barack Obama as its leader, it’s because the citizens of that country have through a long and arduous process of social and political turmoil forged a consensus to breach the barrier of racial inequality.

Today, if the US president-elect can emphasise the ‘United’ in United States, a unity of which he is an embodiment, it is because it is not just the politicians but the people of America who have recognised that even as differences and dissent are the lifeblood and oxygen of any democracy, the stifling of pluralism is its death knell.

And if today there are fears for India’s unity let’s not blame only Raj Thackeray and others like him. All of us who actively or passively helped create the climate of otherness and divisiveness must be held accountable if our republic ever becomes the Disunited States of India.