Mamallapuram and thoughts on India

Trip Start May 05, 2008
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Trip End May 09, 2009


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Friday, January 16, 2009

The little town of Mamallapuram is the last stop of the Indian leg of our journey. We are flying out of Chennai airport on the 18th, but since Chennai has very little to offer a tourist besides the usual charms of a large Indian city (pollution, traffic and stress), we have decided to stay in this quiet corner. There's not a lot to do here normally, aside from seeing some 8 century Pallava ruins and walking down a beach which would be majestic if it was not littered with garbage. Fortunately for us it so happens that there is a month long dance festival ongoing right now, so we got to see some excellent Indian classical and folk dances in front of a stunning ancient sculpted backdrop. The rest of the time we spent it reading and trying to avoid shopkeepers intent on selling us sculptures with 1000% markup.
Since this is our last stop, and we are frankly a bit tired of India, this would be the best time for some general thoughts on India and on our experience. Before coming here, we had spoken to tourists who went there and the opinions differed. We had heard many stereotypes, of which the most common were that India is a more spiritual society than the West, that people are poor but happy and that India will change you. Well, we can say that India indeed changed us, but not necessarily in the way we expected it.
We have found India to be a land of amazing contrasts. Extreme poverty is side by side to great wealth. Walking down the street you can smell flowers or delicious food one moment and human excrement the next. The Taj Mahal, which we have found to be one of the most stunning architectural achievements in the world is smack in the middle of a huge shantytown straight out of a "help eradicate poverty" infomercial. The landscape is stunning, extremely diverse and hauntingly beautiful at times, but one sees garbage littered everywhere. There's just so many contrasts and assaults upon the senses, that one cannot spend the whole day walking through an Indian city: it's just too much. A couple of hours in Delhi can leave you exhausted. Certainly Indians live intensely, and every sense is pushed to its limit: their food is extremely flavourful, their clothes, houses, temples and rickhaws are exceedingly bright and colourful, the smells of all kinds are overpowering, Indian cities are at least 10 times louder than Western ones, and the mass of humanity everywhere makes your rub shoulders with more people in a day than you would in a week back home
The good news about India is that the land was at one point, and certainly has the potential to be again a veritable garden of Eden. The Indian subcontinent has some of the most dramatic scenery on earth and more variety than one can imagine. Ecosystems range from tropical forests and coral reefs in the south, through savannahs, forests and deserts, all the way to arctic alpine wastelands in the Himalayas. Add to this over a billion people, over 400 languages, most of the world's major religions being represented and living side by side, 5000 years of history and India is arguably the most interesting place on Earth. The place is never boring, very intense and by our standards very cheap, so travelling here can be a lot of fun. That is of course seeing the glass half full. When one travels here, one learns to see the empty half as well, and that can be somewhat discouraging.
Indians do indeed seem to be quite religious, but from conversations with locals and our own observations, we found less spirituality than we expected and instead a lot of emphasis instead on social conventions and rituals. In fact we think of Indian society to be even more materialistic than the West. Perhaps this perception is not helped by the fact that we as westerners, are on the fringes on Indian society and treated as such. Since the perception is that we are enormously rich, we are seen as walking dollar signs. Everyone wants a withdrawal from the bank of Rich Western Tourist: and one can expect to pay from 2 to 10 times the price for anything. It's not just a question of us not understanding the value of things here; Indians would very often rather pass up making a good profit such as a Westerner paying 2 times what an Indian would and not make a sale but rather wait for the next sucker who will pay 10 times what an Indian would. They don't even want your business if you expect to get an honest price. Well, we can't really complain too much: things are still cheap for us in this poor country and we can still live it up for not much money: probably this is a big reason why so many people love India. Then again, for the others on the fringes of Indian society things are much much worse. We have seen beggars being chased away with blows  because they were seen as a nuisance, and small puppies chained outside people's houses with dozens of open wounds which were obviosuly the result of being beaten. The Indians are supposed to regard all animals as sacred, but we have seen so much gratuitous violence against them that we felt sickened.
These are problems which probably go back into the depths of history and they explain why so many Indian ideologies preach compassion - they must have arisen as a reaction to this marginalization of the untouchables, the poor and the animals. In general, India has developed a system which for the better or the worse worked for much of its history, a system based on the notion that everyone deserves his or her lot in life due to past actions. This system ensured social stability in a society which given the intensity and harshness of life here would have created overwhelming social pressures otherwise. Walking in an Indian crowd, one feels very calm, a sense that despite the chaos, there is an inherent order, and crime is rare. This is the great achievement of the Indian social order: maintaining relative peace and order in the most intense and stressful society on the face of the planet. Then again, the system always had problems and many of them got magnified with the coming of the modern age. Many social conventions which worked for better or worse back in the "good old days" of Indian history have catastrophic consequences nowadays when population has increased to the limit of what the environment can suport and when India has adopted outside technologies which were not designed to work within its system. Since 1947, India has adopted many new technologies (media and plastic especially), created its own massive bureaucracy and abolished the caste system. A lot of changes which create a lot of problems.
A good example is the sickening pollution which has rendered Delhi's sky permanently opaque (you can barely see where the sun is because of the smog!), Indian streets, roads and beaches covered with garbage and sacred waterways such as the Ganges so polluted that there is no life in them except for bacteria. In the traditional Indian caste system, dealing with garbage and human waste was the exclusive domain of the untouchables. Most Indians would therefore throw garbage over their shoulder or defecate on the side of the road without a second thought. Most garbage was organic though so what the untouchables or the animals would not clean up, would end up decomposing, so there was a balance. Nowadays though, the population has increased dramatically, there is no more caste system and much of the garbage is non-degradable like plastics. The technology which results in the garbage was created in the west with the assumption of the existence of both a social ethic of garbage disposal and a system to dispose of it. However, people here just have no concept of disposing of their own garbage and the Indian bureaucracy is too underfunded and cumbersome to create an efficient waste disposal system on the western model, so the garbage just piles up. Everywhere!
Another example are some of the social conventions present here. It is not polite to say no to someone for fear of dissapointing them. If you ask for directions you will usually get some pretty detailed ones, even when the person has absolutely no idea what you are looking for (and Indians get fooled by this too, not just westerners). If you ask an Indian whether he can get some task done he will usually say no problem, even if he has no idea how to do it. Many western companies investing in India have been promised the delivery of a service only to find out when they needed it that the Indians couldn't deliver it despite their promises. This creates a cycle in the economy where no one can be certain of any deadline if they are dependent upon someone else; everything slows down as a result. Indian organization in general is rather chaotic and things move slow and when one combines it with the vestiges of a massive bureaucratic system modeled in the 1960s upon the old Soviet Union, one gets a country where simple tasks spiral out into huge headaches. Sending a package requires several forms and several visits to the post office. Withdrawing money from an ATM once took us 4 hours. 
The final example involves the social and sexual life of Indians. This is a society which traditionally based itself on arranged marriages at an early age. A brother could not marry until the elder brother did but given the stratified society, arranged marriages were somewhat easy to set up, so this was not much of a problem. With the abolition of the caste system, there is a new social mobility however, a new Indian dream propelling people. Education is becoming more and more important (hence young people stay in school much longer) and the marriage age has been raised. Urbanization and modernization has resulted in less children being born and people prefer boys, as they will take care of the elderly parents. There's a subsequent general lack of girls. This renders arranged marriages much more problematic. People are getting married later and sometimes not at all. An elder brother not getting married is catastrophic for the whole family, as the younger brothers cannot get married either, and sex outside of marriage is seen as deeply immoral. In every city we saw droves of single young men who can't marry, taking comfort in each other's company and holding hands, as they eye western women with a desperation which can only derive from extreme sexual frustration. Young couples have to go to great lengths to hide just to be able to kiss. Indeed surprisingly for a society which gave the world the Kama Sutra and erotic sculptures, we have met quite a few  Indians who struck us as very frustrated sexually. Not to say that all Indians are this way, but enough of them to give more than one westerner  this impression.
For a country which sees itself as a leader in technology and a future superpower capable of taking on the United States or China, India has some massive challenges ahead of it. Sure, some places like Bangalore and Mumbai have become major business and research centers, but the people involved are a minuscule proportion of the population and a large chunk of what is the educated elite. Future growth involves raising the education level of a country where a large proportion of the population is iliterate and expanding the middle class which is currently very small. These changes will take generations, a time which India may not have given the growing environmental catastrophe and the possible social upheavals awaiting it in the medium future. Add to this the fact that India has no fossil fuels and an infrastructure which is almost hopelessly behind other countries we've seen like Mexico, Turkey and yes even Egypt. Power failures are frequent, even in major cities like Delhi and Bangalore; the road system is so so bad that reaching 50km/h is a blinding speed, and the rail system hasn't changed much since the British. I have little faith in India's ability to overcome all these problems in the next few generations. With its population growth out of control, a collapsing environment and a frustrated empoverished young generation with big dreams, it's difficult to fathom just how things will progress here, but I shudder to think of possible outcomes if India does not get a handle on its problems soon.
At its best, India could be a paradise of lovely landscapes, good life, a rich culture and an example of religious tolerance. At its worst though, India could be an overcrowded, empoverished, polluted seething cauldron of humanity, where every ill coming out of Pandora's box rears its ugly head. May it be that hope, the last thing in the box will manifest itself though and that in the next few generations India will become closer to the best it can be rather than the worst.
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Comments

frans10
frans10 on

Iogen
Hey Tavi. Hope the travels are going well. Can you contact me by email? As a shareholder, we have something that needs your attention. Thanks. Fran Sabourin

tavini
tavini on

response to wow
I have reread my entry with the hindsight of time having passed by and I wanted to respond to your comment. I stand by most of the comments I have made. I still believe that India has enormous social and environmental problems that it's going to have a lot of problems solving. For your information, it is not simply our tourist experience that has served into forming these opinions: they were formed on the basis of years of studying Indian history and culture. I don't think I'm an expert on India by any means, but I'm entitled to my own somewhat educated opnion on this country and its future. What probably bothered you were the references to illiteracy and sexual frustration. As far as illiteracy goes, it is a documented fact that a full third of the population is illiterate, which in my books is enough to be a serious problem.

As far as the sexual frustration goes, it is indeed a touchy subject, which is taboo in most cultures. I based it upon conversations with a few Indian youths, some attempts by Indians to fondle my wife, the attitude of Indians regarding western women on the beach in Goa and a conversation with a westerner who lived in India for several years. All of those led to the conclusion I formulated. I could of course be wrong: it could simply be a coincidence that the facts I encountered led to it. It probably also has to do with ourselves coming from a country which has very different social standards regarding the public deisplay of sexuality. Perhaps my choice of words was not the best: I can see it retrospect how it could be taken the wrong way. The fact that I generalized is the one thing I should take back. Certainly not all Indians are frustrated sexually, but I will not deny the fact that enough of them were such to give us this impression. Everything else I stand by.

Finally I should mention that in retrospect, we actually had a really god time in India and we would love to go back.

jalu
jalu on

Insightful summary!
I enjoyed reading your thoughts at the end of travels in India, based upon your experiences and what you have read. They are generally accurate. One needs to keep in mind that Indian culture is vast and very deep, and is full of paradoxes. It tests even experts on India when forming opinions. As historian Stanley Wolpert puts it: Every generalization one makes about India could be disproved with evidence to the contrary from India itself.

I generally look at India as being marooned itself in a medieval religious culture and having a hard time to break itself free, in a world becoming modern fast. A lot of social issues in India can be traced to this Indian medieval mindset. Examples are the traditional dress code for Indian women, arranged marriage system, caste system, no public display of affection between sexes, indifference to cruel poverty, and so on. There are no laws supporting these behaviors but Indian culture self polices to preserve them. In this aspect Indian culture is similar to the Islamic world to its west, though laws there are designed to preserve Islamic culture. At the same time, people of the Far-east have had far less trouble in breaking away from their medieval culture to become a lot more modern.

The recent progress India has made in increasing the personal wealth of its citizens by outsourcing, freeing up internal markets and so on, has done little or nothing to change its underlying stubborn medieval culture. It has only given a sugar coating and has created another paradox. It is as though Indians are obsessed with its medieval culture. Indians in general are hypersensitive about any criticism of it. Their failure to question it only preserves its hold on them.

shantha on

nowadays lot of our precious things are spoiling due to our stupid surroundings.. please try to save. be proud to b an INDIAN

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