It’s worth repeating that there are many Indias. Whilst 70% of the population lives in almost medieval conditions in the countryside, there are suburbs of the big cities where Indians live to Western standards and have similar values. As a traveler much of the racial, religious and caste distinctions be quite invisible but you can be sure that most Indians make up half their mind about someone the moment they hear their name.
Indians are mainly Hindu with a huge population of Muslims grouped together in the centre of the country and the north. There are Christians in the South and Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs make up the rest of the multi-faith picture. India has always been one of the most tolerant cultures in the world and despite bloody riots stirred up by nationalists and political agitators, Indians manage to get along with one another in relative peace. No mean feat when you consider just the sheer density of the population.
There’s immense poverty in India. The majority of the population lives below the poverty line and many’s the farmer who commits suicide with his family after the rains fail. There are massive slums in most ciities where people live in conditions that can only be called miserable and beggars are to be seen everywhere. Appearances can be mislaeading though and often the begging is actually an organised business with pitches allotted by the local mendicant mafia.
Things weren’t always so bad in India but since Independence the rulers have continued with the venerable British tradition of bleeding the country dry.the populations has almost trebled in forty years and so much of the best of Indian culture and values have been trampled underfoot by the ‘annihilating multitudes who will not let you live or die in peace’, according to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Indians are, however, by and large light-hearted, generous people with a strong sense of ethics. Their unruffled sense of calm amid the chaos is an achievement lifetimes beyond the average traveler in India. Living with a billion other souls has taught the Indians how to create their own island universes amid the chaos. You might see a woman applying her make up with a compact mirror in the middle of streaming traffic. Or a man merrily explaining the plot of a movie to his friend on a cell phone – while he’s in the cinema. And you’ll be the only one who gets pissed off.
At the same time the Indians you meet on your travels can drive you quite insane. India is the land of Maybe and this makes it next to impossible to get anything done here. The national committment to the Principle of Uncertainty can be seen in the waggle of the head that is forever between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. It’s all in the hands of the gods in this land of no logic.
India is a country to beat the restlessness out of anyone. Fantasy and reality mix seamlessly and leave you tearing your hair out. There is a childlike quality to many Indians and a readiness to believe that is touching. When the religious epic, the Ramayana, was made into a television series, the actor playing Rama was constantly besieged by mothers in the street to cure their sick children.
Other times it can manifest itself in an ignorance that’s hard to bear. An Indian who argues with you that ‘Aids was caused by the immoral Westerners’ will back up his argument by asking you ‘your educational standard’ – Obviously his Masters in business management gives him the higher ground.
Thanks to the Bollywood movies Hindi is now widely understood throughout the country and Indians are master linguists. Even those with an average education may speak a charming archaic English full of phrases like ‘bamboozle’ and ‘tomfoolery’.
Men in the street can seem impossibly childish and a lot of this is repressed sexual energy. You’ll see the men walking down the road hand in hand and they giggle like schoolboys well into their forties. And why not.
Women are carefully kept away until marriage and even then both parties are plunged into relations without any idea of what to do. Whilst arranged marriage certainly has its good points, sex education in much of India is often virtually non-existent. To make things worse they usually have no option except to move into the groom’s family house. It’s a lucky couple that gets a bed to themselves.
This is one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. There are huge rates of infanticide amongst female babies because of the dowries that must be paid to the grooms’ family – many familes simply cannot afford daughters. Often so much pressure is put on the wife that some are encouraged to douse themselves with kerosene and burn themselves to death.
Chauvinism and racism are endemic in India. For the main part women are second class citizens with few opportunities unless they have the right kind of background and can work in a middle class occupation like call centres, fashion or computing. Otherwise you won’t see too many women in the street unless they’re out shopping. Their domain is still largely supposed to be the home with the onus on the man ot provide an income.
And whilst there are few really white Indians, light skin is often held to be a virtue and acid ‘skin lightening’ products are frequently flogged to a wishful public. The lower castes tend to have darker skins and a tan is still associated with those who work outdoors under the sun – peasants. It can be a challenge to black in India.
Much of the above just doesn’t apply when referring to the middle classes in India. Depending on how you measure these things they number between 50-250 million and always speak impeccable English. As with the rich in many countries though they tend to take little interest in the lives of the poor and are often quite keen to distance themselves from the foreign stereotypes of the average Indian.
But chances are that, as a traveler, most of the time you’ll be with the simpler village people and the Indians of the street. Not many well-to-do Indians would be seen dead with some crusty backpacker anyway, much less share a chillum.