Journal on First Flight to India: January 1st, 2011

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On the plane ride to India I sat in the middle row toward the back of the plane, next to a business consultant who negotiated deals for security systems across the world. In this particular circumstance, it was South Asia.

“I’ve been to India ten times,” he said. He was tall, goateed man who spoke in a Boston accent. He had a reassured, sportsman’s attitude about him. “I’m supposed to be sitting up front in business class, but I gave my seat to a friend up front.” He waited for some kind of reaction. When I didn’t give it, he cleared his throat, and continued, “So this is your first time in India?”

I told him that I was from the University of Virginia, heading to India on January Term to study Indian society and politics. He nodded. “All power to you,” he said. “You’re in for a treat.”

He proceeded to give me the break-down. You will smell Delhi before you get there. The air is a fog of chemicals and smoke. It is one of the dirtiest places on earth. You wouldn’t believe the number of people, and the poverty…you have to harden yourself real fast to the beggars. You can never feel comfortable in this country. You constantly have to watch the water and the food. It’s like you’re drinking a Coke and then you remember, oh shit, the ice cubes. One of my good buddies got meningitis, and another got some kind of bug and vomited out fifteen pounds. And then there’s all the corruption. I saw a man shove a wad of rupees into the hands of an official at the airport….

He ended his tirade by clapping his hands, ranting a good two minutes about the caste system, and whistling about how backwards the place was. “You are going to have a good time.”

“I find their society fascinating,” I said, offended.

I highlighted the progress the country has made over the past twenty years. Poverty has been decreasing by 1% per year (Luce, 330). Caste discrimination exists, but in the urban areas it has been eroding with economic liberalization, and a need for a competitive globalized workforce. Corruption hinders the progress of the country, and India’s democracy certainly isn’t perfect, but voting levels in India are high. Your average Indian citizen, as compared with your average American, is more likely to read the newspaper and vote. And like affirmative action for blacks in the U.S., the quotas of SC’s and ST’s and the political mobilization of the lower-castes has done much to equalize previously existing social stratification. There is no disputing that social inequalities continue to exist—the caste system persists, and millions continue to live impoverished lives in the rural countryside—but India’s large demographics are also fueling the rise of soon to be one of the most influential powers in the world.

I didn’t say this so eloquently aloud. Half of it I mumbled in my head. The other half fell out of my mouth as disconnected facts. I love Indian culture, but I also understood that there would be no way to argue without looking naïve. The India I knew was an imaginary place – a world constructed of essay articles, academic journals, literature, German philosophic and counterculture orientalizations, Bollywood Movies, Hindu myths, my own fantasies. A country, to borrow the words of the famous Indian author, Amitav Gosht, constructed of shadow lines.

Or, to use an American metaphor: the security consultant watched me in the way the veteran Vietnam journalist watched Pyle in Grahman Greene’s book The Quiet American – an amused smirk at a student whose understanding of the world was limited to the windows of a college ivory tower.

“India has its problems,” I conceded.

My experiences in India will be important. I will see poverty, corruption, discrimination, pollution, overpopulation, and will be forced to synthesize these harsh realities in a way that merges my reservedly distanced academic understanding with a passionately close experiential one. I know, to this Boston security businessman, I probably seemed like a peace core zealot, setting out to change the world. And I recognize the context, its privileges and biases, of a college education. But by discovering my ownl India, I can rectify this bias. I want to see India and learn, so that, the next time an airplane neighbor compares India to the conditions of Gaza or the West Bank, I can politely disagree with anecdotes to compliment facts, or subside into a respectful, but knowing, silence.

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