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Week of 6.20.08

Impressions from India
by Correspondent Paul Beban

Paul Beban in India
Paul Beban in India
"Welcome to India," my sleepy-looking driver said after I landed in Chennai just after midnight. He may have seemed sleepy, but from the instant we cleared the parking lot and hit the rutted highway, he drove like a man on fire.

During the 15 minutes or so that it took to reach the hotel, I'm fairly certain he never touched the brake. Why would he bother, when the widely accepted practice appeared to be simply to swerve around all obstacles at full tilt? Obstacles, mind you, that included oncoming vehicles: motorcycles, cars and trucks barreling straight at us. You see, in much of India, the concept of driving on the "right" side of the road doesn't seem to have quite taken hold. Being a former British colony, they do that whole driving-on-the-left thing, but most people just seem to drive on whichever side of the road pleases them.

"During the 15 minutes or so that it took to reach the hotel, I'm fairly certain he never touched the brake."
And lest you think that traffic was light because of the late hour, think again: in this country of more than a billion people, major roads are busy day and night. Everybody honks constantly, and they do it with a cheerfulness that is so out of step with the chaos around them that it would seem downright diabolical if it wasn't actually sincere.

The blurred scenery along the nighttime highway was a sensory riot of color, scent and sound, bordering on the psychedelic: bright yellow and red trucks with bellowing horns, belching exhaust, all of them covered with meticulously hand-painted religious symbols and prayers ... Hindu, Muslim, Christian. The gods of all faiths are close at hand everywhere in India, and on that first cab ride, if I were religiously inclined, I would have prayed to all of them.

People on foot crowded the dim, dusty shoulders of the road - groups of women balancing bundles on their heads, striding men, a swirling pack of dogs, running children who seemed too small to be out alone. Roadside temples sprouting countless deities, draped in garlands of flowers, cast eerie shadows under the streetlights. We shot past it all, often just inches away from vehicle, temple, canine or pedestrian, weaving in and out of traffic until somehow, we pulled up to the hotel.

That Chennai cab ride made my most harrowing New York cab ride feel like a horse-and-carriage jaunt through Central Park by comparison. "Welcome to India," the driver repeated, as I staggered out of his cab. Welcome indeed.

"Riches, poverty, beauty, horror, you name it, India has it all, in the extremes."
I don't think any amount of reading or research could have adequately prepared me for India itself. On top of the books I gathered about economics, I'd also thrown in a couple of books about India in general. The best was Suketu Mehta's breathtaking memoir, "Maximum City". It's mostly about Bombay, India's commercial and entertainment capital, but the title could be applied to the country as a whole: Maximum Everything. Riches, poverty, beauty, horror, you name it, India has it all, in the extremes. Somehow, India seems to exist in the present, thousands of years in the past, and in some distant future, all in the same moment. Twenty-two official languages. Scores of ethnic groups. Countless gods. India is utterly overwhelming.

I think much of that has to do with the sheer number of people in India: 1.1 billion people and counting. Until you experience it, a number like that is mostly an abstraction. But I understood it better the very next morning, on a five-hour drive out of Chennai - itself a city of more than four million people. Mile after mile, I waited for that familiar sensation of the American open road, when it feels that you've truly put some distance between you and most of the other people "out there." But in India, that feeling never comes, because everywhere "out there" is filled with people: to the horizon, in every direction. It is both oddly comforting and terribly frightening. It is also humbling.

Another humbling aspect to being in India is realizing that you are in the world's largest democracy. Yes, it is messy, flawed, even chaotic (what, and our democracy isn't?), but it is a democracy nevertheless, one with a foundational narrative (see: Gandhi) as powerful as our own.

While we have democracy in common (and as we learned while reporting our story about the country's new middle class, consumerism) with India, what we don't share is culture. One of my most revealing conversations was with Minal Deshmukh, a 22-year-old farmer's daughter we met in Pune. Minal is about to graduate from college with an engineering degree, and she's already got a job lined up with Hewlett Packard. It's difficult to overstate the magnitude of the lifestyle leap she's about to make.

Minal was eager to talk about her desire for independence. Her goal of being able to support herself without help from her family or a husband is something she said all young Indian women want. This is—to borrow a phrase from author Robyn Meredith—"tectonic change" in India.

"Minal and young Indians like her aren't all that interested in American culture, because they already have their own."
When I told her that with her high-powered new job and desire for financial independence, she sounded an awful lot like a young American woman, Minal enthusiastically agreed. But when I asked her whether she had a favorite American movie, she struggled to think of one. She couldn't name a single American movie star. More tellingly, I could see that she was genuinely wondering why I would even ask these questions. That's when it dawned on me—and this would be confirmed in many conversations with other young Indians—Minal and young Indians like her aren't all that interested in American culture, because they already have their own. While they yearn for their own version of our social mobility and material prosperity, they don't yearn for much else about America. India—its values, traditions, culture, history—and future—is the center of their universe.

Please forgive me if I end this journal one with a bit of a punt: sharing Mark Twain's insightful observations about India.

"This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined."
—Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897
I wonder what Twain would have written about an Indian cab ride...