- Feb 23, 2009
Letter from India : Once-Clear Thoughts Are Clouded
MUMBAI — There has always been a lush, adjectival richness to foreign correspondence from India. We write of creaking bullock carts, curled moustaches, stinking latrines, sallow-cheeked farmers, smoky air, sweltering megalopolises and aching villages. We relentlessly describe.
We write about India this way because India is beautiful — not beautiful like Paris, sumptuous and elegant, but beautiful in its distillation of the extremes of human experience. To go into a Mumbai slum or a rain-starved Rajasthani village is to know how beautiful ugliness can be.
But description tempts us, too, because India is mystifying. Correspondents send home answers. India withholds reliable answers. Correspondents schematize reality. India waits for the schema, then cruelly disproves it. The temptation to write 1,000-word tone poems is fierce in a country easier to describe than to explain, and easier to explain than to understand.
I will leave India soon for America, from where I came. I have spent six years seeking to understand. Before going, I wanted to write a column saying something conclusive about India, why it matters, what it means.
But India is a place for seeking, not concluding, and here the chasm between what I wonder and know has widened with time. So I decided instead to write down the questions that still haunt me after 2,000 days here, about justice, love, culture, power, freedom — questions I hope someone abler will answer someday.
The first thing you see in India is indignity: filthy slums, boulevard defecation, puffed-out bellies. You feel shocked but also noble in your compassion. Then it becomes normal. You see that the true degradation is in human relationships, in the belief that people come in different levels of humanness. The idea is so pervasive and tempting of your vanity that, in time, it infects you, too.
And so I wonder: At what moment does a child learn her level of humanness? How did so many in this generation suddenly defy those destinies, as their parents never dreamed? How can callousness to poverty mingle so closely with the warmth that Indians rain on family? Which will change India first, the trickle-down of compassion or the trickle-up of rage?
Some of what I wonder was clear to me until India clouded it.
Indian love — family love, romantic love — once felt alien. It was not easy to spend time in giant, multigenerational households. Love meant scolding, meddling, judging, people obsessing about your eating, telling each other why their skin is too dark or their frame too thin. In romance, too, love was understated and assumed, given through sacrifice. It never aimed to fascinate, exhilarate.
Then I began to see the power of love in which it’s not about you.
Now I wonder: does love mean never taking another for granted, as it often does in the West, or is it the serene liberty to do so? Which is more of a gamble, marriage by arrangement or by love? Is love more durable when it is just the two of us or when it weaves together tribes?
Then there is the question of what you keep.
In the Davos Age, there is a formula for developing nations: low tariffs, privatization, sushi, English fluency, jazz bars, Bellinis, fashion weeks, consumptiveness, thinness, the purging of superstitions. These nations must in a decade Xerox a way of life that rich countries built over centuries.
But India is an ancient, continuous civilization, and Indians feel excitement but also pain in the dueling pressures to be someone else and be themselves: to subscribe to their astrology charts, schedule things on “auspicious days,” dance to the beats of Punjab’s plains, drink lentil soup.
Can one be “global” without being a mimic? Does the English language obliterate or liberate, disguising the caste and class of those who master it? Why is more culture flowing into India today than flowing out?
I wonder, too, about Indian power. This week, at a summit meeting in Russia, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, stood shoulder to shoulder with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the dubiously re-elected president of Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad might have listened to Mr. Singh: India and Iran are cultural cousins, sharing elements of language and culture. Millions of Indians claim Persian descent. India buys Iranian oil.
But this week, as Iran trampled on the values that Indians hold so dear, Mr. Singh found nothing meaningful to say.
Why, when the world sees India as a great power, does India see itself as Burundi? Beyond its own affluence, what kind of world does India want? What will it do to build it?
And what can the world’s Irans learn from Indian democracy?
I once asked Mufti Shabbir Alam Sidiqi, an important Islamic cleric, whether disenfranchised Muslims were losing faith in India and taking solace in fundamentalist ideas.
“What you have in India you have in no other country,” he replied. “In this republic there are rights. We can demand our rights, speak out. In other countries: eat, drink and shut up. Go to Saudi Arabia: you can’t speak. There is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, Iraq, Iran. These things are nowhere. They are all dictatorships.”
Indian democracy should not work. Indians share no language. They cling to their identities. Most live below that level of middle-classness beyond which democracy supposedly thrives.
But the system holds. The coups, election theft and statecraft-by-murder that afflict much of the developing world don’t happen here. Democracy brings little to the poor, the state is corrupt, politicians lack principles and ideas. Yet those with no reason to believe continue to believe, vote, speak, petition.
And I wonder: Is India reinventing democracy — democracy designed not for colonial Virginia, but for societies like this: poor; inequitable; ethnically, religiously, linguistically balkanized; in the throes of convulsive change? Would India, if it summoned the will, be a more persuasive lecturer on democracy’s merits than America?
Then there is one more question. This one I will seek to answer — not now, but in my next and final letter from here.
Is a land with such beauty and possibility, with these vast questions still to answer in my lifetime, a land whose addiction canever be escaped?