And I’m Off (Hence The Odour)

Greetings from ther departure lounge at Indira Gandhi International Airport. Allow me to describe my final hours in India.

Today, my hostess Sylvie and I went to a magnificent modern mandir (temple) built by the devotees of Sri Swaminarayan, who was a dude in the 18th century who wowed the people by showing signs of saintliness at an early age; in fact, he is thought by his followers to be another incarnation of the god Vishnu, and has thus been given the posthumous title, “Baghwan”.

Now, I’m quite uncomfortable with the idea of worshipping a human being. But that’s none of my business, so to each his own. The grounds of the mandir are quite fascinating, though. The style is that of Hindu temples of a thousand years ago, a design that has not been seen since that time. But, in modern Indian fashion, commerce is to be seen here, with an imax movie, a boat tour and other services being offered for a fee. The place is laced by an artificial river filled with “the waters of 151 holy rivers from around the world”, and devotees are invited to throw in money and take a dip. I think the holiest man in the world must be the janitor who wades in knee-deep every hour to collect all the change.

More interesting was the temple’s overstated Hindu chauvinism. In the garden are statues dedicated to India’s history. The ideal women portrayed were all mythological figures known for their fidelity an sacrifice. The ideal men, on the other hand, were all historical Hindu kings, politicians and intellectuals. It is odd that Ramanujan made it onto the pantheon (a great mathematician who killed himself while young) but none of the important Mughal emperors did. Hmmm, I wonder why? Religious divisions are not visible to the untrained eye, but they do run deeply here.

This was also a day for good rickshaw rides! For some reason, all the rides I took today required no haggling, and were all reasonably priced. In fact, at one point, a traffic official stopped us to make sure we weren’t getting ripped off! Methinks the Indian government is trying to crack down on the rampant ripping off of tourists. Hear hear! I took great pains to read the devanagari script on the back of our rickshaw. It read, “Maha Pita” which sort of means, “big daddy.”

Sylvie said that a clean, efficient India would be a joy to behold. The current India is also a joy, but one rife with characteristics that are less than charming: poor sewage facilities, rampant poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, corruption at all levels, air and water pollution, a seeming disdain for both pedestrians and greenery, and seemingly a dedicated effort to deny courtesy in all its forms! (Not least of which because one quickly becomes trained to ignore anyone saying, “excuse me,” because it’s always a guy trying to sell you something.)

But there are things here that I will sorely miss: the physical beauty of the people, the food, the charm of individuals when you take the time to know them, the ubiquitous children, the great deals, the great daily tolerance of diversity, strangeness and of one another’s space, and of course the great extremes of experience and characteristics which are to be had and observed.

There are also some things I’m still not quite sure what to make of. Like my last visit, I am continually intrigued by the over-staffing of every industry. Tasks that should require a single individual are performed by 3 or 4. Instead of a table to place your belongings as you step through a metal detector, for example, stands a fellow who holds your stuff for you. Instead of an arrow pointing the way to the theatre, there will be two fellows who will point the direction for you. This is what you get with a nation of a billion people and a depressing unemployment rate.

But the story of my trip continues to be the explosion of youth and youthful ideals. I met a 23 year old waiter in Bangalore named Karthik who works 10 hour shifts and never complains, because he is optimistic that his country is improving every day, and with that improvement will come an improved station for him and his family. “We work hard,” Karthik said, “But now we must learn to work smart.”

With the explosion of Indian power, wealth and influence on the world stage comes its intentional cultural prowess, too. Bollywood is being exported, via the huge NRI population, to the West. Indian fabrics and styles are now commonplace on the streets on London and New York. And, oh yes, the writing thing…

Publisher Ritu Menon was recently quoted in a local paper saying that the current world fascinating with Indian writing is just a fad, like the previous interest in Latin American writing. A professor at Nehru University disagreed. He told me that the influence of India on art, science and particularly on literature is here to stay. “We are the world’s largest producers of English language books,” he said. “By sheer numbers alone, we will dominate the field.”

I jokingly expressed a gratitude for my skin colour but a fear that my quasi-Indian heritage was insufficient, to which the professor said, “Don’t worry about not being Indian enough. We will claim you. It won’t be your choice.”

Indeed, history has shown that, like China, India’s tack has always been to absorb. When Buddhism erupted as a rival religion, the Hindus claimed Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, as they did for Jesus. When the Mughals came, they were quickly absorbed –and vice versa– into indigenous Indian culture. When the microchip arrived, India made it their own. At this rate, we might all be singsong-accented curry-eaters in a generation or two.

This century belongs to East and South Asia. I am completely convinced of this now.