Life, photos but not the universe

India – what’s it all about?

Before leaving for India I read a book called ‘The White Tiger’ and on the plane going home I watched ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.  Thirty years ago after my last visit to India I read the Raj Quartet and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books and other novels of Kipling’s were constant companions when I was very young.  Very different views of a country which is rich in contrasts and extremes.

It’s so big.  And so full.  So utterly unlike the West and so completely itself.  We are accustomed to thinking of India as a place of extreme poverty but it is also a place of enormous wealth.   It has a pretty solid economy I think, though the way it runs is not the way we run things.

It has great spirituality and vitality together with great callousness and apathy.  But all of these are rooted a faith in reincarnation which is inextricably woven into the daily life of a large part of the population.  Fatalism and a will to move on go hand in hand and injustice is both accepted as a kind of karma and fought against with courage and conviction.

We have our ideas about India’s religions and institutions but without some understanding of how deeply they are a part of the culture it’s like saying we have ideas about the laws of a diffferent universe.

320,000,000 gods for 1 147 995 904 people.  How can you or I understand that?

1 doctor for every 10,000 people.  How can we understand that!*

As always when we go on tours in foreign countries, we have spent a good deal of our time with people who are educated and relatively well off.  Raju, the tour guide earns a reasonable living and supports a wife and family in his village in Rajasthan.  Ashok, the coach driver and Lalit, the boy who looks after us, have a regular wage and accommodation thrown in (the coach is where they sleep).  Raju, however was over the moon that he got to see Shimla and stay in the Wildflower Hall hotel.

Because we travelled big distances from city to city and each departure and arrival involved the counting, in and out, of 37 people, (this also had to be done at each and every monument, temple and tomb) we had the barest patchwork of interactions with the real people.  Hawkers (who dangled assorted wares in our faces – very in our faces – between every alighting from the coach to the gates of every place we stopped), waiters, hotel staff,  maintenance staff, beggars at every window on the road, people we passed in the villages, security staff, policemen, artisans (in the one or two specially chosen ‘government sponsored’ shops we were escorted through).

So many people, so little time to assess, discuss, relate, consider.  We had two words of Hindu (?) Namaste and Shukriya.  Hello** and thankyou.  People mostly seemed to like that.  It was late in the season so, except at the Taj, we were often the only Western tourists to be seen.  The coach was waved at, smiled at and stared at and us within our cool cocoon knew little of what those people really felt.  Rich looking Indian fellow hotel guests were often impressively rude and I felt they were simply making sure we knew they were high up some ladder involving caste and wealth and social standing.

Oh and on the subject of caste!  Of course the system sounds wrong and unjust to us who believe ourselves to be enlightened and liberal (Hmm).  Myself I feel that most systems designed between priests, Kings and governments to manage large numbers of other people are inevitably unjust.  Raju (a member of the (highest) Brahmin, priestly caste, assured us that there are members of the caste once called ‘untouchable’ in government in the highest official positions and that people of the Dahlli  (edit:  Dallit) caste (is that the right word?) can be, and are doctors, scientists, university lecturers – anything they want to be.  That there is nothing to stop them.  But there is still a movement throughout the country to fight the injustices they claim they still struggle against.

Ah well.  It’s a very big place and I am only a small fat person with the runs and I am struggling to assimilate, never mind understand, a tenth of what I’ve seen.  Speaking of which, I made no less than three trips to the surgery this morning.  To make an appointment, to keep it and then to deliver an unpleasantness in a sample bottle.  And now I think it’s getting better!

*Have I really remembered that correctly?

**Actually, namaste means rather more than that, being a kind of  blanket, respectful, ‘good morning, good evening, goodbye and fare you well’ expression.


April 17, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. …injustice is both accepted as a kind of karma and fought against with courage and conviction….

    Now that one was one that the girl tried to get me to understand when she talked with me about a teeny bit of the culture there.
    So many people, so many G-d’s, too few opportunities (according to her experiences)….and lots of colours.
    Brilliant colours.


    Oh, but what an adventure!
    I do so hope you’re feeling better.

    Indians seem very comfortable with their Gods and their caste system and their marriage system Mel. Although there are moves to change and modify those systems and Westernise many things, I would hesitate to say that our ways are better. For sure, our ways wouldn’t work any better than theirs without massive changes to the way money is moved around! We asked Raju if there was any likelihood that they’d ever abolish the caste system and he said no. Just like that. Not with shock or disapproval or astonishment (he’s an educated man, he knows how baffled and uncomprehending we are about it) just no. A touch of amusement maybe in his voice. And I wondered too if there was a touch of exasperation with these foreigners who don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, we never had the opportunity to talk to women much and it’s very possible that they have a far more critical and pragmatic approach. They usually do : )

    Comment by Mel | April 20, 2009 | Reply

  2. I really enjoyed reading this Mig, thanks. I’d love to go one day, it’s on my list.

    It’s an extraordinary place ziggi and leaves you thinking and remembering hard!. I’d like to go again but on a smaller, slower tour. And there are places which are amazingly beautiful as well as the heaving, throbbing bits!

    Comment by ziggi | April 21, 2009 | Reply

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