Yves in India Blog: Day 12

2008-10-21 00:00

Tuesday 7am local time in Dubai airport new terminal. It was bye Mumbai at 4.30. The airport was in chaos because of construction work. The intense security finally got to me: passports and tickets just to get into the building, then again at each of three separate checkpoints. At one stage I had to show them to a soldier a mere two metres away from where I had just shown them to another.

Monday was taken up by a visit to the CIPLA pharmaceutical plant in Patalganga, 80 km but two hours out of Mumbai. This is the company that won the World Court ruling to allow it to provide patent-busting generic Aids medication, which ultimately led to South Africa making it available to victims. Prominently on the wall is a quote from the CEO: "What's the point of developing life-saving medicines, if you can't make them affordable to the patient." The company is yet another example of the Indian drive to self-sufficiency. Before we leave we plant a frangipani (Plumeria Alba) in their tree garden, where Bill Clinton and delegations from France, Kazakhstan, Canada, Kenya and others have planted their trees too. By evening they had sent each of us a small photo album with pics of the day's proceedings, to add to the garlnads, gifts and sumptuous lunch we'd received.

Mumbai, the capital of Bollywood, swarms with 55000 antiquated Fiat yellow-and-black taxis who help serve its official population of 17 million. They might face they axe if proposal to scrap taxis of more than 25 years from the roads, but implementation would make our own taxi recapitalisation programme look like a formality. While poverty is, as always, visible everywhere, our guide cautions us not to be deceived by the humble exteriors of many flats and houses. Inside, she says, many of them are luxurious. Their owners prefer to keep a low profile to keep the envious, the thieves and the taxman away.

Random entrepreneurial transactions take place on every paving stone. As we pay a quick visit to the Hanging Gardens, a hawker offers us a "walking Indian air-conditioner" - a peacock-feather fan - for $1. On the way out he offered it for $2. The Hanging Gardens don't hang: they've been planted over what used to be an open reservoir, which was covered because carrion birds were dropping bits of Parsees into the water and contaminating it. To explain: there's a small Parsee community in Mumbai, which is ultra-secretive and in-bred, our guide tells us, and which is withering as a result. Their custom on death is to lay the body out for the vultures to feed on, and it is this that caused the water problem.

We take a turn past India gate, built to commemorate the marriage of George V and Queen Mary, and from where, our guide tells us, "the British set sail when they left India". I find it interesting that a monument buiilt by the British has been re-imagined, not as a symbol of oppression, but as a symbol of the end of oppression. The main railway station - a world heritage site - is also still referred to as Victoria Terminus, even though it has another more politically correct name.

I have loved the way the Indians use English, with a charming lilt, odd modifications of idiom and idiosyncratic spelling. Trucks have "Horn OK Please" painted on their tailgates. Say what? On a pillar as we go through a toll plaza is a sign saying "D'not spit". The papers often dispense with "the" and "a". A news story tells of a man who has been prosecuted for "eveteasing", which has me baffled. It's explained as when a man "is too forward with a woman". As I understand it it's a form of sexual harassment. Another story talks of a robber being sent to "chowky" - is that the origin of our own "chookie"?

A charming picture I have in my mind, apart from the ever-varying flashes of colour of women's saris, is of couples on motorbikes, the driver, usually a man, helmeted or bandanna-ed, with his passenger, relaxed on the back fixing her hair, on the cellphone, or just demurely tucked into his back. It's so incongruous, so carefree in terrifying traffic, I could watch the passing show all day.

So as I leave I try to make sense of the whirl of impressions from the last 10 days of travelling from New Delhi in the east, Bangalore in the south and Ahmedabad and Mumbai in the west. Is this a country muscling its way to economic greatness, or will its chaotic poverty drag it down as it prepares to leap into the future? Many Indians, our guide says, don't understand India, and that sums up its vast complexity. But two things are inescapable: the country works, and its spirituality is tangible in every sphere of activity. The fact that it works is a revelation. I say that with no disrespect. I say it in the realisation that for so many people, under sometimes profoundly adverse conditions, to live together in vast cities and poor countryside, is an mammoth achievement in itself. Notions of development that presume the mantle of prosperity can ultimately be spread over the entire country's people are I think unrealistic, even without the complicating factor of fractious internal politics. The reality of India will probably remain that of multiple economies rubbing up against each other and having to find an acceptance that the task is superhuman. In a nutshell: four out of 10 Indian children are undernourished; India ranks 66th out of 88 countries in the Global Hunger Index, which says that India has more hungry people (200 million) than any other country in the world; one-third of the world's poor live in India, according to the World Bank. Based on its poverty threshhold ($1,25/day), India's poor have gone up from 421 million in 1981 to 456 million in 2005; India ranks 128 out of 177 countries in the UN's Human Development Index. India launches a rocket into space today, and its economic resurgence is aimed at the stars too. But many social commentators, and Booker prize winner Aravind Adiga, have warned that, even though "inequality and injustice have always been around us, what makes these times that we live in, distinct, is that it does not seem even to cause outrage any longer".

The second indelible impression is of a gentleness, an open acceptance of others and each other, that is rooted in the multitude of spiritual beliefs across all 24 states. Acceptance is obviously a sound psychological strategy in the face of almost insurmountable odds, but it lives as a positive force rather than a defensive shelter from the storm. The teachings of Gandhi, too, are enmeshed in the daily philosophy. Even the Chief Minister of Gujarat, apropos of nothing, discoursed on the need to explore ourselves for an inner truth.

But there can be no true conclusions, and I leave with the warm touch of a great country and a great people on my shoulder.

One last note:

Before signing off, a few thanks are in order. Journalists sometimes dismissively refer to these kinds of tours as junkets. What is ignored is the trouble and the cost that goes into pulling a trip of this nature together. We South African journalists were more fortunate than our Brazilian colleagues, flying business class while they languished in economy. Even so, four business class flights from SA and three economy from Brazil doesn't come cheap, and to that must be added the in-country flights. Then there's the hotels. The Oberoi's rates in New Delhi are 16500 rupees/day, or about R3300, excluding meals. It's the type of hotel where when you go to the bathroom an attendant squeezes soap onto your hand and passes you a towel when you're done. In Mumbai the rate is closer to 19 000 rupees/day. Each day was a logistical achievement, and having the use of drivers made us mobile, and to be frank, without them it's not unlikely we'd have been trapped in our rooms too exhausted to plan a route for ourselves.

Guides were laid on, and government press officers were assigned to help us all the way. We saw a scope of activities and people from extremes of poverty to the heights of global technology that would have been impossible to organise on our own in such a condensed period. Every day was a surprise even when it looked unpromising to start off with, and we were treated as honoured guests by all we came into contact with. The Indian government has invested a lot in just this one small group of people in its bid to forge links and promote understanding of its ambitions, its constraints and its people. So, special thanks to the Consul General of India in Durban, Mr Harsh Shringla, and the wonderful representatives of his government who just blew us away.


Read Yves's blog from Day 1.

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