India 4: Post Scriptum

abby-me-and-the-taj-mahalINDIA: POST SCRIPTUM

Apparently my three part account of India was enough to put my American friend off India for life. I wouldn’t want to leave it like that because I actually feel quite positive about the land and my experience of it. Put it this way, if an offer came out of the blue to revisit in 2017, I would definitely go for it.

The first thing to say is that our trip took in only a small part of an entire sub-continent. We only visited two states – Rajasthan and Utter Pradesh – which probably accounts for less than 10 per cent of India. Although we got to see the Taj Mahal, we never saw the Ganges or witnessed the many rituals associated with it. Gilly said Kerala was the state he would recommend, but cities like Mombai, Kalkutta and Lucknow would be fascinating to visit.

So if I have been quick to point out the negatives in my account of the trip, perhaps I should dwell on some of the positives and the first has to be the people. Whatever their environment (and we saw some grim ones) the predominant facial gesture was smiling or laughing. This was a happy people who accepted their lot and made the most of it.

Maybe that was connected with the caste system, which Gilly explained at length from the front of the bus one day. There are four main castes, he said, and you can tell which caste a person belongs to by their name. (You can never change your name). I asked him which caste the current PM (Modi) belongs to and surprisingly it’s the third caste which is made up of merchants, farmers and agricultural workers. Gilly said he was of the warrior or rulers, the second caste. At the top of the pile is the Brahmin class consisting of those related to the priesthood, spiritual or teaching. The fourth caste are ‘the labourers’ and are not to be confused with the Dalit. The Dalit are not a caste. They are at the bottom of the pile and considered the untouchables. Ghandi tried to humanise the untouchables who were treated as pariahs in those times. Now they do jobs like cleaning toilets; the worst, most debasing jobs you can think of. These were the people who were handing out toilet tissue when we entered public conveniences. We were told not to tip them, but once or twice I did and the sheer gratitude at receiving just 10 rupees (mere pence) was humbling.

In the UK we have the class system. It too is something of a trap but it’s not a trap for life. I could never support a society that viewed a significant section of its people as ‘untouchables’. But there is no doubt that the caste system, which governs things like marriage and property rights, imparts a certain stability to Indian society.

Spiritualism is everywhere in India. For example, we saw countless dogs and cows roaming the towns and highways, but we never saw one hit by a vehicle. The notion of karma is deeply implanted in Indian people. To kill or injure an animal is something you will have to pay for in this life or the next. When you are reincarnated it will have a serious bearing on your status in the next life. This is not just a possibility or even something that is half-believed; it is a fact that everyone must live with. In the end your actions will balance out: do bad things and bad things will happen to you. Do good and happiness will ensue. I rather like that. Whether or not there is something in it, it does have a desirable outcome on people’s behaviour in the present.

Ghandi thought the 1947 partitioning of India which resulted (ultimately) in the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh by the splitting of the Punjab was a terrible mistake. He was right. Two million people were displaced – the largest movement of people in human history – and I believe 200,000 lives were lost. Muslims were consigned to Pakistan whereas Hindus and Sikhs remained in India.

When Indira Ghandi was assassinated by two of her trusted Sikh bodyguards in the 1980’s, the Sikhs were subject to awful treatment. Dalrymple records in City of Djinns that many innocent Sikh families were chased from their homes; captured and forced to drink kerosene and then burned alive. This is completely at odds with my impressions of calm and respect for others which seemed to be the predominant attitudes among citizens of Delhi and Jaipur.

The history of the place often overwhelmed us. So much in so small a time. But the architecture of temples and forts together with the accompanying legends was absorbing and riveting if you could keep focus. The Taj Mahal was like something out of an inspired dream and Jaipur’s time observatory (Jantur Mantur) was simply fascinating, especially given the advantage of a knowledgeable commentary by a guide who knew what he was talking about.

Then we have the food. It’s true to say that upon my return I told my wife that I wanted to go at least a month before I had my next curry. I was ‘curried out’. But that is in no way a comment on the quality of the food. Indians are mostly vegetarians. It is only European taste that has brought curried meat so heavily into the picture. What that means is that we were served a fantastic array of vegetarian dishes with the subtle employment of spices.

Nor did I realise how fond Indians are of their pastries and sweet dishes. In every hotel there was a table (or two) devoted to cakes and desserts and you couldn’t eat just one!

India is full of colour. The way people dress, their houses, their outlook on life. They also put a high value on education. If Modi and his government can succeed in raising the general level of education amongst the people who make up the bulk of the work force then there will be no stopping India. The BRIC economies may have felt the brakes being applied recently, but the sheer size of India and the positivity that flows everywhere should result in a country that soon moves to the top section of the economic league table.

Buildings were shooting up everywhere but always the scaffolding was made of wood and joints were tied with rope. One assumes that this must lead to a number of industrial accidents. Already India is a leading operator in medicine and technology. It’s a long way yet behind China but China is an autocracy. It may not be the de luxe version but India is at least a ragtag democracy.

My main concerns would be the uneasy relationship with neighbours Pakistan and how religion plays out in the years ahead. Sikhism and Hinduism seem to me to be religious ‘systems’ that are not at war with the state. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, Islam has produced ugly movements aimed at theocracy. If India can avoid going down that route, it should emerge as a powerful progressive democracy one day.


© Alan Combes, 2019. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes