India

I’d been in India for almost 6 days before I realised: I hadn’t seen a plane in the sky. Not a single one. Afterwards, I kept an eye skywards, but still I saw no planes. It wasn’t until I arrived in Chennai, the final city of my trip to India and my port of departure, that I saw aircraft again. Back in London, and any other city I’ve ever lived in, planes are a constant presence in the sky. One can look up any time, and be almost guaranteed to see a large jet. The noise they make doesn’t even consciously register.

So this is India: a country with 1.2 billion people – 20 people for every one of us in the UK, of whom so few can afford to fly that it’s possible to spend 8 days in reasonably populated areas without seeing an airplane. We hear of the growing Indian middle class, demanding cars and Western-branded clothing, and who fly on overseas holidays. This is the faux (yet aspirational) reality of Bollywood films and Thomas Friedman. And while, yes, it does exist, it’s a scanty collection of rare and rarified bubbles where wealth can temporarily repel the squalor, poverty and filth. Step outside these bubbles, as you must, and you find India.

The garbage in India beggars belief. It’s everywhere. It’s on every street, the parks, the empty blocks. Somehow, perhaps the rains carry it, perhaps it’s swept there, it migrates from there to the margins of the city, where it accumulates between the slums and the foetid waterways, or beside the railroad tracks, or on the empty blocks. These are the ad-hoc landfills. Kids play on them, observed without interest by stray dogs made languid by the heat. Every so often, one will catch on fire, and the waste will finally be destroyed, a sort of perverse bushfire clearing the refuse scrub. I don’t see what new green shoots will grow from this however. Yet the cycle goes on.

India does, at least, have half a sewage system: for a lot of people, what goes in the toilet isn’t simply dumped in the nearest creek. This isn’t the case in the slums, built without the benefit of infrastructure. The people who live here simply shit and piss on the piles of garbage outside their houses. The piles of rubbish that the kids play on.  The smell, raised by the heat from the excreta and detritus, lingers everywhere, a constant presence to ensure you never forget where you are, and the conditions there.

This is the libertarian nature of modern India: libertarian, not in the sense that the state has withered away (it hasn’t), but that the state is ineffectual. Despite the bureaucracy, its reach is limited, and it simply can’t enforce its laws and regulations. Small businesses of questionable legality emerge and disappear with neither the knowledge or the approval of the government. Traffic laws apparently exist, but are ignored without fear of punishment. So, by all accounts, India should be a paradise: the invisible hand of self-interest should have created an explosion of wealth and the rising tide of economic growth should be lifting 1.2 billion boats. This is patently untrue – almost all entrepreneurialism that exists is the entrepreneurialism of the desperate, where you can start a “business” to eke out subsidence, or you can starve.

Thus, on each corner, the wretchedly poor will establish their business every morning, hoping to sell enough lemons, cheap (yet colourful, like everything here) plastic tubs or flower chains to afford to eat and pay rent. I remember watching the fantastic BBC documentary “Welcome to India” before I left – there, other “entrepreneurs” dug in sewers for scraps of gold, or sold used plastic bottles. It spoke to a brutal and unforgiving existence, and this is what I saw.

With the need to survive so openly felt, you find – as a white person, who is therefore rich – that it becomes difficult to have interactions with people; in their place, you have transactions. Everything is a potential opportunity for profit, so the white tourist will be assailed by cries of “Hello, sir, hello!”, or “Where are you from?”, and will be often grabbed by the arm to be guided into a shop. This is a pity – perhaps in another situation, these shopkeepers might actually care where I’m from, but not now: the economic calculus demands otherwise. It would be churlish to actually get irritated at this though: it’s just a concrete demonstration of the privilege we Westerners have. But you do get very defensive.

 Holi powder, Mysore markets.

Holi powder, Mysore markets.

A less brutal aspect of India’s libertarian nature is found in her traffic. I said above that there may as well be no laws, and that’s what it feels like. Drivers pass drivers without hesitation nor caution, their horn telling the other guy that they’re there. It’s hair-raising stuff – particularly when it’s your introduction to India after falling, half-dazed, off a long-haul flight. Lane markings on the road appear to be purely decorative, with more cars regularly passing side by side than there are lanes drawn on the road (In fact, Indian English has given us a term to describe this phenomenon: “lane indiscipline”). There seem to be two rules to driving in India, and – amazingly – they seem to work: 1) Don’t hit the other guy, and 2) maintain your speed, no matter what. It sounds elegant when written, but seeing them put into practise when you’re sitting in the jump seat of a crowded bus is the sort of thing that aids atheists to rediscover God.

And ever better result of this disdain for enforcing rules is found on the trains: It’s completely possible to open the doors of trains as they move (and, indeed, on the Chennai metro system, the doors are permanently open), and sit on the door sill and watch the Indian countryside pass by. The conductors don’t care – at one point, they even showed me something on the other side of the train to take a photo of. This is how train travel is supposed to be, much as sterile and sealed carriages of the Eurostar might be more comfortable, and – it must be admitted – safer. But they’re not as much fun.

After a day or so in India, you really begin to believe that there are actually 1.2 billion people on here. Everywhere is crowded – every street, every restaurant, every train, every auto-rickshaw, every bus and every beach. Even watching the rural countryside from a moving train, there are people everywhere, working in almost every field, walking their goats, or simply waiting, waving and smiling at level crossings. This is, perhaps, a truer glimpse of the Indian character: denied the opportunity to make some money because you’re rocketing past at 60km/h, their truer, friendlier nature comes to the fore.

Another thing to become accustomed to is the unceasing cacophony of horns (so many horns!), cries of children, exhortations of street vendors and diesel engines. The noise is everywhere, and requires some effort to escape. It permeates into restaurants, parks and hotel rooms, an omnipresent roar of humanity. You do soon stop noticing it, until you find yourself in a temple or some other sanctuary where the noise won’t reach, and you wonder why its so preternaturally quiet.

As I write back now in London, it’s a typical winter day: Black denuded trees cast fractal shapes against a pallid grey sky. Everything is desaturated, as it ever is in London. In this town, colour is an intruder. In India, however, everything is colourful. Women in a spectrum of saris work verdant rice fields beneath bold cerulean skies, hues that penetrate even the omnipresent dust. Crowded markets overflow with produce – green, wet herbs, crimson pomegranates, bananas in every shade from yellow to green, entire stalls full of purple onions, and chains of yellow, white and pink flowers to offer at temple.

In another life as a recruiter, I used to chuckle when receiving CVs from Indian candidates with fonts in 7 or 8 different colours. I understand that now.

 Sri Meenkathi Temple, Madurai

Sri Meenkathi Temple, Madurai

The religious architecture of India surpasses any in the world. When first seen in the distance, you see towers, primal, mythical structures through the haze, far larger than anything in the surrounding cities or plains. Upon moving closer, you see the exquisitely coloured panoply of details, a thousand (literally – sometimes more) individual sculptures with a thousand meanings that somehow combine to form a striking, coherent whole. This is an architecture of hope and history and celebration, not the architecture of original sin and medieval power of Europe (with the exception of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona). Inside, things suddenly change: the spectacular abates, and the sacred emerges. Temple interiors use just as many shades as the exteriors, yet manage to be contemplative without being austere. Passages are cool and quiet, and somehow accomodate an inordinate number of people without ever feeling crowded. As a non-Hindu, their forbearance in allowing me to wander almost anywhere in their holy places still seems remarkable.

The orientalist conceit of the West is that we are the norm, and that India (or any other culture) is “exotic”. This is not so. In a world of 7 billion people, grinding poverty is still the norm, and the fact that you use a computer, or have air conditioning means that you are part of an exotic minority, a lucky aberration in a world that’s actually nothing like what you see out your window. It is said that 90% of people alive now will never leave the country they’re born in. When we reduce our reality to our own privileged existence, we are committing a delusion. This is why everyone should travel to India: because doing so forces you to see the world – just for an instant – not how you think it to be, nor how you want it to be, but how it is.