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Incredible India!

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    Incredible India!

    A Pakistani discovers Incredible India

    Incredible India — Razi Azmi

    India’s central, state and local governments have not even bothered to clean up the towns that attract tourists, such as Varanasi (Benaras), Jaipur, or even Agra, for that matter. No cleanup or window-dressing for tourists. Take it as it is or leave it. Such is India’s allure that Western tourists keep coming nevertheless, some of them on their second and third visits

    The title of this column is borrowed from the buzzword of India’s official campaign to attract more Western tourists to the country. On my first trip to India, 15 years ago, I had visited Hyderabad, Madras (Chennai) and Bangalore in south India, as well as Mumbai (Bombay) in the west. Having just returned from another trip that took me to Kolkata (Calcutta), Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan, in the east, north and west, I have to agree. Incredible India!

    India takes one’s breath away, both metaphorically and literally. Metaphorically, because one is simply awestruck by the number and majesty of her monuments, by the size of the country, by its cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, and by the many signs of economic and social progress. India, it seems, has more world-class historical monuments than the rest of the world put together. Speaking of first-rate monuments of Muslim heritage, I wonder if India may not have more of them than the rest of the Muslim world combined.

    Stretching from Burma to Pakistan, from Sri Lanka to China, India’s diversity is stupefying. Imagine a Naga alongside a Sikh, a Tamil next to a Kashmiri. With 15 official languages and countless dialects, there is more diversity in India than entire continents can boast.

    Although it is a Hindu-majority country, there are as many Muslims in India than in Pakistan or Bangladesh, more Christians than in Australia, as well as millions of Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, animists and others.
    Predominantly Indo-Aryan in terms of racial origin, a quarter of India’s population is Dravidian and three percent are a mixture of Mongoloid and others. And it’s not mere statistics, India’s diversity is evident everywhere, in colour, cuisine and costume.

    India also takes one’s breath away quite literally, for there are streets, lanes and bazaars where one can hardly breathe — so strong is the stench from the strewn, rotting garbage and human and animal excrement. Incredible India!

    India’s central, state and local governments have not even bothered to clean up the towns that attract tourists, such as Varanasi (Benaras), Jaipur, or even Agra, for that matter. No cleanup or window-dressing for tourists. Take it as it is or leave it. Such is India’s allure that Western tourists keep coming nevertheless, some of them on their second and third visits. Not the stench, not “Delhi belly”, not even the bomb blasts, nothing will stop them. There is something magical about India. In fact, India is full of magic, superstition and surprises.

    If first impressions are last impressions, then I arrived at the wrong place. I flew into Kolkata, which has little to show by way of modern development, except a new bridge across the river Hooghly. Its finest buildings were built during the British Raj, but most are in various stages of decay or disrepair.

    Kolkata makes one wonder why the people of West Bengal continue to vote for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has delivered little except, possibly, subsidised food and cheap public transport. Enough reason to vote, some might say. Compared to Delhi or Mumbai, not to mention Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, Kolkata seems like another world, in a kind of time warp, forgotten by time — and by the central government in Delhi.

    The ride into town from Kolkata airport introduced me to that side of India which Pakistanis would much rather not know about, for they prefer tales of Muslim persecution in that country. The day of my arrival happened to be a public holiday throughout the country on account of Muharram. My taxi driver feared a traffic jam on the main road because of the Muharram tazya procession. And although we took the back streets, we still ran into a smaller procession, complete with chest beating and all.

    My first acquaintance with Kolkata’s bureaucracy was a trifle amusing, if a bit frustrating. It was typically Bengali, in terms of the tardiness, as well as the verbosity and sentimentalism on display. At a quarter to ten, I joined a line of mostly Westerners outside the locked doors of the railway reservation office for foreigners. The door opened a few minutes after ten. We were allowed in and made to sit in a waiting hall with numbered forms. The counter was equipped with four computer terminals, but only one of them was operating. Work didn’t commence until a quarter of an hour after opening time.

    With just one official at work, progress was slow anyway. But within about twenty minutes, it ground to a near-halt when he got into an acrimonious argument with a colleague in a mixture of Bengali and Hindi. On arrival, the colleague in question had been accused of being a habitual latecomer. As everyone watched, the two exchanged sharp words mixed with irony, with the accused saying that the accuser’s attitude confirmed what he had always suspected, that his life and welfare did not matter to the latter at all, for he had not even cared to ask the reason for his coming late.

    I was reminded of the comment of the American journalist, PJ O’Rourke, about his experience in Kolkata in 1998 in his book The CEO of the Sofa: “I spent the next four days trying to accomplish something in India again... This would take twenty minutes. Adjusting the clock to Indian Daylight Wasting Time, that’s four days.”

    The people of Kolkata vote for the Communists, but religion and superstition pervade their lives in a way that I have not seen elsewhere. Most taxis in the city are adorned with a miniature deity, or a picture of one, on the dashboard. That, of course, is not much different from the religious verses and incantations that are suspended from the rear-view mirrors of motor vehicles in Pakistan. What was different was that a driver would alternately touch the deity and his forehead two or three times with the fare to bless his income.

    On one occasion, I climbed the raised soil around a pipal (Banyan) tree on the footpath in order to better position myself to take a picture. But before I could take one, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A man had drawn my attention to something where I stood. Quickly, I retreated with an apology, for I had desecrated a sacred tree. I had failed to notice the two or three stones, along with few flowers and some vermilion, signifying something sacred. Every tenth tree or so had the aura of holiness attached to it in this manner.

    Later, in another incident that educated me in the social intricacies and religious nuances of India, I slipped my foot into a slipper (chappal), which I intended to buy, to make sure it was the right size. It happened to be on the top of a stack of slippers and miscellaneous footwear for sale on the footpath. Their owner furiously demanded that I withdraw my foot, which, I surmised, had the effect of defiling his stock.

    True, his stock consisted of footwear but, until sold, they were his capital, his asset, his means of livelihood, and therefore, clean and sacred, not to be trampled underfoot. Incredible India!

    This is the first part of a series of articles. The writer can be contacted at [email protected]
    Last edited by nicols_john; Mar 16, 2006, 08:59 AM.