Monday, January 04, 2010

Extremely India

Whatever is said about India will be subject to fierce commentaries from anyone loosely involved with the Land of the Hindus. In an attempt to save my email inbox and the rest of my overseas friendships, I am raising a full disclaimer about this travel blog entry in general and my (few) unenthusiastic commentaries in particular.

Colorful Sarees, Jaipur

This experience is solely mine and is only reflecting my observations during my tiny ten days' travel in the North of India (Golden Triangle, expanded with Udaipur visit). I do understand that I could not understand anything within such a short amount of time, and will not try to pretend so (I am not sure either that one life time would be sufficient enough to grasp India; maybe that's why Hinduism has invented reincarnation). So if you abhor, dislike, detest, despise, disagree, differ, diverge, deviate, oppose, contest, dispute or simply loathe what I wrote about my Indian travel experience, please don't waste your time sending me an email, I will not respond to it.

Now, let me start travel blogging.

Mosque, Delhi

Two weeks after returning from my trip to India, I was still thinking about it, trying to figure out the best way to describe my journey in a blog entry until recently. I am usually softly enthusiastic and moderately resourceful in how to tackle a recent travel experience and translate it into words, but this time I was simply paralyzed. My ideas, recollections, and feelings about my trip were turning in my head without them being able to find their right spots in my memory shelves. This constant chaotic mindset was essentially mimicking my own experience back then. My mind was still unwinding slowly from India, and I am now left with two constant opposite pictures in my mind for every aspect of my trip. This constant duality is what I experienced of India.

Fatepur Sikri, near Agra

On one hand India is one of the poorest countries of the planet. It has the largest concentration of poor people in the world (42% below the poverty line of $1.25 a day in 2007), the highest rate of malnutrition among children under the age of three (46%, in 2007), and one of the highest rates in the world of underweight children (47%, nearly double the rate of Sub-Saharan Africa, in 2008). But on the other hand India is one of the richest countries in the world; with an average annual GDP growth rate of 6% for the past two decades, its economy is among the fastest growing in the world. India's GDP is above US$1.2 trillion, which makes it the twelfth-largest economy, and has joined recently the restricted circle of "above trillion dollar" countries in the world.

Entrance Gate at Agra Fort

By no means, the first few minutes you've been thrown into the face of India, you realize that the country is very complex, in its culture, in its societal organization (try to ask anyone to explain you the inter-caste marriage rules), or in its process (administration, business, …). But after some time, you can decipher among the constant chaos what people have in mind in their daily lives. Everyone is rushing to get an extra, be it an extra day, dollar, hour, or business contract. This simple rule for an "extra" makes the entire society stand together and move toward the same goal, (c)leaning chaos into a marching order for the extra bit.

Live Advertisement, Jaipur

India has one of lowest literacy rates in the world (61 %, 2009), well below the world average (84%, 2009). Despite large government investments, India's illiteracy rate had only decreased slowly since its independence in 1947, and a 1990 study estimated that it would be beyond 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy at then-current rate of progress. From its 113 universities and 2,088 colleges, India produced nearly 350,000 engineering graduates in 2005. All of Europe produced the same year, 100,000 engineering graduates, and America only produced 70,000. Although the poor quality of these engineers has been debated in many occasions, the sheer amount of graduate student is a living proof that India, like China and its 600,000 engineers a year, is already a major brain hub for the world. If you are familiar with numbers provided by Asian official sources, you would be inclined to think that the actual reality is way different; nevertheless the multiple headquarters recently created in Bangalore by giant US IT companies is a very good indicator that India has a large number of very well educated people at its disposal.

Street Boy, Udaipur

A close look at a map may make you think that traveling in India is an easy task and many interesting sites could be reached within a close range at the point of a pen, raising your travel expectations to a very high level of dopamine. The reality is quite different, and a short commute can easily turn into a very distant and delicate travel experience. Train could only be booked by foreigners at special office counters, which are widely imitated in signage by local tour operators, making the simple ticket booking a bundle of negotiation joy. Flight delays are so common that airports stop announcing them and propose instead a time bracket for departure. Roads are moving at the tail of the monsoon deluge, and final destinations are never quite reached unless extra money (see point above) has been asked for journey completion.

Lake Palace Morning Light, Udaipur

The immaculate palaces and other spotless museums are in absolute contrast with the outside street life. The clean hotel lobbies cannot make you forget that at the corner of the same street live entire families under temporary makeshift shelters in the dirtiest conditions imaginable. This contrast between palaces and temporary homes is equivalent to the crowds of street kids in major cities, knocking at expensive door cars for few rupees all day long.

Dhobi Ghat at Sunset, Udaipur

The primary reason that comes to my mind to explain how come India had stick together for so long despite its extreme complexity is its omnipresent spirituality. Acceptance of faith and the circle of time are the two components that make the Indian societal miracle happen, while its extremist counterpart, religions try at each possible occasion to spark the light of disastrous populist rebellions.

Dhobi Ghat, Washers, Udaipur

With an estimated population of 1.2 billion individuals, India is the world's second most populous country after China, and is estimated to be the largest by 2030. In 2001 there were already 35 million-plus-population cities in India, with the largest cities having a population of over 10 million each, being Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. The large population has in reality a counter intuitive impact; with so many people, the only way to survive is to watch out for yourself, and become a unique individual fighting for your survival. This duality of individualism within a group-thinking culture is the gas fueling the new economic paradigm shift that has been reported about India. Entrepreneurship is the most successful profession in India, and is a simple result of lack of support or opportunity from every force in the societal equation: family, government, private or public institutions, religious groups, or companies. In the densest group of human beings, one must think individually to survive.

Lake Palace, Udaipur
Where James Bond's
Octopussy (1983) Was Shot

Where to start when one must speak about food in India. From its vegetarian diet in the South to its extremely rich culinary feast from the North, the Indian foods have constantly impressed generations of royal families and the not-so-imperial herd of tourists. But one must know that if Indian food is a joy for the palate, it is usually much less for the stomach. Various stories of tourists being victim of food poisoning can only underline the difficulty of travel in India. With my two weeks' post-travel recovery finally ending, I am unfortunately another statistical number in the bumpy road of taste bud exploration of the Indian continent.

Future of India

India is the world's most culturally, linguistically and genetically diverse geographical country in the world. India's culture is marked by a high degree of cultural pluralism. The country has managed to preserve cultures and established traditions while absorbing new customs, traditions, and ideas from invaders and immigrants and spreading its cultural influence to other parts of Asia, mainly South East and East Asia. Bollywood is today a close second to the well oiled Hollywood entertainment industry (Nollywood being third place, and Hong Kong fourth), and has reached far beyond its original Asian markets. On the other hand the commercial success has not helped to raise the quality of the screen plays and basic raw emotions have only been permitted only to appeal to the largest audience possible.

School Boy at Red Fort, Delhi

More often than necessary, friendly conversations started on innocuous, trivial topics. Although the majority of the touters went to the "where-are-you-from" school, a very simple test to qualify how much money you can extract from a tourist victim, usually the discussion was carried on happily despite my often evasive answers. On few occasions, each time too early for me to be able to entertain a local talkative fellow, I decided to make the conversation short or counterproductive by challenging the source of the fact (Oh really, why do you think that UK is not part of Europe?). Every time the outcome was loud and clear. The friendly talk moved rapidly into an argumentative monologue with eyebrow and voice raising. Objection was endured as an offensive defamation from someone who could never be able to understand the meaning of India. A lack of both passive and active exposure, and continual shortcoming of capacity in every single domain force people to heavily and uniquely rely on close connections, proximity communications and word-of-mouth conversations. Novelty or divergence in opinion is perhaps usually perceived with a pinch of spice.

Elephant in the Street, Udaipur

I could go on and on … about putting together two dual opposites to illustrate my point, but I guess that I would only manage to suffocate you, my dearest reader, with a feeling that sometimes travelers experience in India. Unprepared tourists in India (don't know if anyone could ever be prepared) might choke simply by the sheer amount of overwhelming opposing experiences being thrown at them, (sometimes at the same time), and this constant information assault force mono-tasking human beings to position reactively and violently after a while in front of the experience. So you love it or you hate it.

Dhobi Ghat, Bath, Udaipur

Looking back at my travel experience, I think that I have experienced it the very best way, in the face, roughly, constantly challenging my values, and during my ten days there I experienced a bluntly raw and extremely extreme India.


If China has been described as the Middle Empire, India should be defined as the Extreme Empire.