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october 8, 2003 -> India Unembellished

India is a disaster. But you'd never guess that from the tourist propaganda, or the photos that travelers bring home, or the numerous books written about India by Indians and foreigners alike. Instead, many observers of India seem to have fallen into a kind of trance where the India that they dreamed of - the colorful, exotic, immemorial, mystical India - refuses to collapse under the assault of the real India of awful, but socially-acceptable poverty; incredible inefficiency; open sewers; maddening din; and awful pollution.

For if you can learn to ignore India's horrors, you can focus on what brings so many people here as travelers: dark-skinned people in bright clothes, cows in the streets, elaborate temples to elephant-faced gods, decaying hilltop forts, holy men with wild hair and painted foreheads - photo opportunities everywhere. Lean out of a moving rickshaw and snap photos; there will be something interesting in each frame. India is many things but it is rarely boring.

"People say it takes a few months before you start to see the beauty of India," one traveler told me. If this is true, it is because it takes a few months before you can ignore the ugliness. I didn't want to ignore it; I couldn't ignore it. I swore that my stories wouldn't ignore it. The little girl defecating beside a busy street, the ragged homeless families, the omnipresent trash, the smell of urine, and the grotesque lepers are my strongest memories of India. I grew to hate the travelers who told me "We love India!" and couldn't understand what I was so upset about.

But foreigners aren't the only ones who choose to ignore India's ills. Delhi "must certainly be the greenest capital on earth" wrote an Indian journalist in my Insight guidebook. Anyone can be guilty of hyperbole when they discuss their home, but only a blind man could call Delhi green. (At the end of his long-winded panegyric was one qualifying paragraph that said something like "Of course, there are many reasons not to like Delhi: the traffic, the pollution, the poverty, the corruption, in short, 'nothing really works.'"!) An article in Jet Airways' in-flight magazine covered Mumbai (Bombay): "legends say the streets of Mumbai are paved with gold." Indian writers speak and write English so well - they seem to have a monopoly on the Booker Prize - that I want to believe that Mumbai's streets are paved with gold instead of the refuse and sidewalk sleepers that I know are there.

There are few moments of peace in India, and they are easily shattered. India's cacophony and chaos is pervasive; like a howling, gnashing demon it rampages down streets, pushes into hotel lobbies and airport terminals, it lurks on trains, and crashes into rural villages. On leaving a shop or hotel, we were immediately accosted by rickshaw drivers (who steered their vehicles to block our path), importuned by horribly crippled mendicants, and sideswiped by madly honking goods lorries. I am normally very patient, but India had me cursing at people. "No I don't want to see your f*ing store! Leave us alone!" In the final days of our visit to India we wore earplug -always.

The greatest irony of India is that the culture (which all the travelers profess to love) and the poverty (which they abhor, if they acknowledge it) are inextricably intertwined. The caste system - which enforces the hereditary poverty of the Untouchables (the lower castes) - remains a very powerful force. Lower castes must bathe downstream from upper castes. Upper castes cannot eat from bowls soiled by lower castes. Most people marry within their caste - which may be as narrowly defined as pottery makers or latrine cleaners. Why should Indians care about the Untouchables if they will always be Untouchables?

Things are changing; the caste system is breaking down; Horatio Alger-type 'rags to riches' stories abound; the lower castes have found their political voice. And that makes a lot of Indians nervous. The nascent uprising of the Untouchables is the "Million Mutinies Now" that V.S. Naipaul describes in his second book on India. Those trying to couch their fears in religion claim the breakdown of the caste system, and therefore the social order, is a harbinger of the "Age of Kali" - an age of darkness and destruction.

Modern India wants to be taken seriously. It wants a seat on the Security Council of the UN. After all, it has more than 1 billion people (Indians are inexplicably proud to say) and has a nuclear bomb. At current population growth rates, India will overtake China as the most populous nation within the next century. Fantastic. More hungry mouths to feed. India should learn from China. It needs something like a one child policy. Indians are proud of their laughably inefficient and corrupt democracy ("the world's biggest", many will tell you) but I kept feeling like a benign dictator is what the country needed. India should be so much more than it is.

Cows, as everyone knows, are sacred in India. They roam the streets, stand motionless in whizzing traffic circles, bask on highway medians, and barricade narrow alleys, eating whatever they can find; urban life has made them omnivorous. Delhi politicians had recently decided to get the cows off the streets; they made a horrible mess shitting everywhere and rooting through trash; they slowed down traffic, and often caused accidents. Inexperienced rustlers were capturing them and transporting them to paddocks at the fringe of the city. The BBC interviewed several white backpackers about the round-up, who predictably ignored the civic progress made by getting livestock off the streets:

"It's horrible," one said, "We came to India to see their culture and this is an important part of their culture!".

"It's the perfect image of India, exotic and different," said another.

For me, the cow issue summed up India's absurdity. A country that wants to be taken seriously - with cows wandering its streets. A country that breeds philosophers and physicists - that can't solve basic municipal problems. And foreign travelers who don't really care as long as they get good photos.