India: Where centuries collide

cow

The first thing I see when I arrive in India is a Costa Coffee outlet. My heart sinks – so here is the ugly face of globalisation, the McWorld that wipes away all cultural differences and makes us all clones of one another. But not so fast. As days go by, I discover that in fact there is not one India, but several, separated not only by space but more so by time. India is a country that lives simultaneously in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

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The affluent suburb of Gurgaon provides jobs and accommodation for the rising Indian middle classes. Luxurious gated developments complete with underground car parks, perfectly groomed green spaces, air-conditioned gyms and swimming pools are mushrooming everywhere, with more on the way. Step into one of such apartment blocks inhabited by the English-speaking jeans-wearing urbanites and you may just as well be in New York or London. Cyber Hub, the main business park of Gurgaon, with its steel and glass skyscrapers of multinational companies and food courts populated with Starbuckses and Domino Pizzas, could also be an identical twin of London’s Canary Wharf or Paris’ La Defense.

Except that when a middle class Indian leaves his office he doesn’t catch the underground like his London counterpart would – his personal driver is already waiting to take him home. The porter opens the door to the block with a head bow and a greeting. Upon entering his apartment our hero is welcomed by the housemaid, who lives in the servants’ quarters section of the flat and works full time cooking and running the household. Not cleaning – there is a cleaner for that. The cleaner also takes care of the laundry, taking clothes to be washed and ironed – by a man in the street using a hot coal metal iron that went obsolete in Europe a century ago.

vipul greens

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the super rich here. Having three members of domestic staff is no luxury in India, just a perfectly normal and relatively inexpensive fact of life. It’s too easy to get used to being attended to at all times. Every possible wish gets fulfilled even before you get a chance to verbalise it. The food is prepared, served and cleaned up, the laundry and shopping are done, the floor is swept, the bed is made.

Any middle class Indian will tell you that the servants, often the same for decades, are in fact more like family members. Although not quite like family members. The employer will pay their medical bills or their children’s education, but he will not sit with them at the same table. What’s more, servants and their employers use different lifts – there is a separate service lift reserved for domestic workers, chauffeurs and… pets.

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Delhi’s most prestigious road stretches for about 3 km between India Gate and the Parliament. It is the heart of the government quarter, dotted with ministries and embassies of foreign countries. The streets are impeccable, the vegetation on the roundabouts pristine, and there is no single piece of rubbish on the pavements. You won’t see any rickshaws here, but instead you can spot chic white Ambassadors whose plates say ‘government of India’. Even the usually mad traffic is orderly here: no honking, no illegal shortcuts. I watch the sun set over the splendid Parliament House, I look towards India Gate and I can’t help thinking of the Champs Elysees in Paris, stretching between the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde. This is post-colonial India in its pride and glory.

india gate

It only takes a few minutes to drive from India Gate to Rajiv Chowk, the doorstep to Old Delhi. Just a few minutes, but it feels like you’ve gone three centuries back. You can wander in the tight mesh of narrow, unpaved streets for hours without getting bored. On each side of the road you have shops of all possible kinds, selling colourful fabrics, fragrant exotic spices, street food. On the pavement street sellers offer samosas or kebabs fried on open fires, paan (a digestive meant for chewing), sweets dripping with sticky syrup, or even a delicious omelet that you can buy from a sweat-drenched cook who flips the fluffy circles from behind a pile of egg cartons taller than himself. In addition to food, a street barber, a shoe polisher and even an ear cleaner are there waiting for customers. Directly in the street are the fruit and veg vendors offering bananas, papayas, coconuts, aubergines, cucumbers, lemons – whole or peeled and sliced. The streets themselves are a manic sea of moving humanity: cycle rickshaws, carts pulled by bulls, women in saris or Islamic burqas. I immediately lose orientation in the dark maze of streets and my head starts spinning from the concoction of sounds, smells and colours as my feet sink deep into the mud.

old delhi

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The Delhi metro, whose construction started in 1998 and still continues, puts the London Underground to shame. The stations are modern and clean, the air-conditioned carriages wide and comfortable. The train arrives on time and takes you from one far end of the city to another in just over an hour, much faster than a car would.

When you exit the clean air-conditioned metro at Shadipur station you almost immediately step into the city’s biggest slum – Kathputli Colony, inhabited mainly by street performers who have come from all over India in search of work and a better life and found themselves living in abject poverty instead. The principal street in the slum is an open sewer overflowing with rubbish and excrements. Some houses are made of brick, but one small room must do for a family of a dozen. The majority of homes are makeshift shacks packed so tightly that people are practically living on top of one another. Some households have electricity, usually illegally sourced through cables hanging in disarray low above the ground, but none have toilets or a water supply. Women and children walk for miles and queue for hours to fetch water for cooking, cleaning and washing. If walking to a latrine is not an option, slum dwellers simply relieve themselves directly into the gutter. Families often include as many as eight children, barefoot, half naked or dressed in dirty rags and shouting a loud ‘hello, hello’, ‘photo, photo’ whenever I pass. These people are living illegally in a development that could at any time be flattened by bulldozers; they have no water and no medical facilities; many children either don’t go to school at all or leave education after grade 10. The parents and older children scrap a living by making puppets, singing or giving shows of magic tricks, or sorting through rubbish. They possess next to nothing and live hand-to-mouth day after day, but almost every household boasts a colour TV, and most people have mobile phones, some even have smartphones.

slum

The educated and well-off urban dweller lives just like his counterparts in Europe or America. International schools, study abroad, consuming Western media, eating out, travelling. Women and men alike make fast corporate careers in rapidly modernising urban centres like Bangalore or Mumbai. A traditional sari or kurta are reserved for special occasions. Festive meals still mostly consist of Indian dishes, but the day-to-day experience is of global fast food chains. Parents may still have a say, but yuppies typically take their destiny into their own hands and marry the partners of their choice regardless of caste or even religion. At the same time, in slum areas and villages girls get pulled out of school at age 15, if they attended school at all, and get married off to a partner selected by their parents in exchange for a hefty dowry. Often the story finds a tragic finale when the bride’s family can’t keep up with the financial demands from the groom’s side. ‘Dowry deaths’ in which many young women perish every year, are not uncommon in India. Since the birth of a daughter could ruin the family’s finances, female infanticide is prevalent in rural areas, despite laws that prohibit gender testing in pregnant women.

A middle class Indian may be living just like his peers in America or Europe, but tradition and religion are never too far away. Every shop, every cab or rickshaw, almost every street corner is decorated with images of gods, most often Ganesh and Hanuman, the Monkey God. In every home there is a mini temple, often with a statue or portrait of the family’s private deity, to whom people offer fresh flowers and food. You are never too far away from a temple – not always an official establishment, often just a street corner where someone has put a statue and decorated it with flowers. Our hero may have an MBA from an American university and a high-flying corporate job, but he will still stop and bow to the deities surrounding him in the middle of his fast-paced daily routine.

India is built on paradoxes. A part of the country is rushing forward breathlessly, rapidly catching up with the McWorld, whereas another part seems forever stuck in the Middle Ages. The strangest thing is that these two worlds could be separated by just one street, yet completely divided and never overlapping.

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