Letter from Lucknow #4: The Wild Wild East

I read in the paper the other morning that the recent chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the first lower-caste woman ever elected to public office, Mayawati, has more than doubled her assets during her three year administration. She also commissioned the construction of humongous stone elephants and an effigy in her own image, costing the UP Government millions of dollars. Corruption is not foreign to Indian politics. When I asked my host mother whether she was going to vote in the upcoming municipal elections, she scrunched up her face in disgust. After badmouthing the politicians, she seized the opportunity to wax poetic about Lucknow’s lost tehezeeb (civilization) and the glorious days of the British Empire—when the streets were clean, citizens cultured, and, most gloriously, laws obeyed.

“When Indira Gandhi was in power, everything ran very efficiently. Now look at this mess! Such things do not happen in China.”

When I asked her what could be done to fix the problem, she responded firmly, “Martial law.”

Life certainly sprawls messily across the streets of India. A block down from our flat an apartment complex is being built. No cranes or special power tools are used in the construction of this complex, only a hundred Indians and their bare hands. Their labor persists day and night. From behind the front wall, whenever I walk to the neighborhood gym, I am greeted by the sight of Indians bathing—white suds sliding down black hair, faces contorted in concentration as they rub soap vigorously across their chests. The laborers work from thirty-feet high bamboo platforms. They do not wear harnesses or helmets. The bamboo poles zigzag precariously. The poles are latched together by nothing more than crude rope. When I absorb it all, it is like I am watching the construction of an ancient monument—a pharaoh pointing his finger toward the pyramids and laborers swarming over it like ants.

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On the side of the road are red-rusted iron trashcans, which cows and dogs scavenge from during the day. Underlying the trash is a bed of grass, leaves, and branches. When too much trash accumulates it is set afire. The crackling trash emits a sulfurous smoke that singes the nostrils and chokes the throat, and gives the sun a hazy glare during the afternoon. There are also smaller trash fires up and down the street, which leave behind signatures of black ash.

City beautification is divided into two spheres: public and private. The municipal corporation hires sweepers to dust the streets and remove the trash. Others collect the plastic and newspapers and sell them back to companies for a profit. One of our Urdu teachers said that in places like Mumbai, trash mafias are common; they monopolize the commercial value of the trash heaps. Our teacher was quick to maintain, however, that such things do not happen in Lucknow.

I am sympathetic of my host mother’s desire to retreat into the past. She was born of an elite Islamic family. Her first language was English, not Urdu—very rare for Indian families—and she also attended college, where she studied Mughal History and Urdu Literature. She lived through the idealistic days of the Nehru administration, when progress, development, and modernization were words like magical talismans, opening doors into a prosperous future. But since then, she has seen the fruits of the largest democracy on the planet: corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, a lack of provision of basic facilities in urban and rural areas, power shortages, and the infiltration of consumer culture.

“Paisa, Paisa, Paisa!” (Money, money, money) she exclaims. “That is all this country thinks about. Politicians have no morals anymore.”

I asked her about the Anna Hazare movement to uproot governmental corruption. She shook her head and said that it didn’t matter what he tried; it was too late. “The government is spoiled.”

My host mother does not vote. Her philosophy divides the world into two temporal categories: the past and the future. The past is full of good, honest people. The present is full of money-grubbing sharks. All political, economic, and logistical complications in India, despite their ongoing attempted amelioration by social activists, NGO’s, journalists, scholars, and every once in a blue moon, honest politician, fall on the wrong side of the line.

But this pessimism is not prevalent with everyone I talk to. Democracy is vibrant here in Lucknow. All of my language teachers, and whomever I questioned on the street, answered that they were voting in the municipal election. The elections were held last Saturday. When I met with my language partner, he brandished an ink-stained thumb with pride.

All shops are closed during the election, and so, with little else to do, I toured and observed the voting frenzy. Fold out tables and red tents were set up along street corners. Young and old men sat in circles on the curbs trading jokes, paan, and conversation. When I began taking pictures, the men and women grinned and struck ridiculous poses.

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The election has been hyped up for some time. Several days before the election in The Times of India, the second page was consumed entirely by political advertisements. In Hazrat Gang, the nearby bazaar, a gang of motorcycles zoomed down the road roaring political slogans while waving green and tan flags, each brandishing the party symbol: a fist clenched for justice. I felt like De-Tocqueville must have felt when first visiting America—awe at all of the democratic activity, if not necessarily the same levels of patriotism.

Indeed, while many vote, few have faith in the government. When I visited a girl named Nusrat, a girl my age who lives in a poor neighborhood near Ghomti Park, with a friend, she told me that she possessed a voter identification card, but had no desire to vote. She also has little faith in Indian politicians. It may be the case that in India, like in America, the youth have become disillusioned with the stagnancy of the political system. I wonder whether age plays a roll in voter participation here. I will have to investigate more closely.

India—or Lucknow, at least—strikes me as a Wild Wild East. Society functions not through a legalistic consensus between communities–Islamic, Hindu, or otherwise—, but rather, by an almost cultural, underlying system of how people should interact with one another. From an economic perspective, if the government of China is a sniper, and can pinpoint developmental needs with pinpoint accuracy, then India is a shotgun, exploding outward in a million different directions. If all this energy could be harnessed, I have no doubt that India could once again resume GDP growth in the double digits. But as it stands, problems with governmental policies to effectively channel this energy remain.

There is a reason, after all, why Indians say that the country grows at night, while the government sleeps.

(Letter written in Lucknow, India,  July 2012)

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