Is there any country on earth more polarising, more seemingly dysfunctional, or anywhere that even comes close to being such a brutal assault on the senses as this giant sub-continent? In my experience, the answer is a definitive “no”. The constant deafening noise of car, bike and rickshaw horns, the shouting from the seemingly thousands of touts and market stall vendors, the beautifully bright colours of the women’s sari’s, matched only by those of the spice mounds piled up on every street corner. The smells of tumeric, cumin and clove mixed with urine and diesel fumes which hit you every time you inhale. It really does cause your brain to go into overload, to the point where it can stop you dead in your tracks. The sheer amount of people crammed into the many major cities here make it almost impossible to describe it to anyone who has not seen and experienced it first hand… It operates by it’s own creed, it’s own set of indiscernible rules, but for some unknown reason, it just works…
As I write this, I am sitting on my hotel balcony overlooking the famous River Ganges, waiting for the sun to slowly sink behind me in order to provide some refuge from the searing, pre-monsoon heat, and to watch the daily rituals of the holy river coming to life. I’ve finally arrived after what was supposed to be a 14 hour overnight train ride from New Delhi to Varanasi, one of the most sacred Hindu cities in the world. As is to be expected, the train ride took just over 20 hours. Thankfully I was able to secure a last minute sleeper bed in a 3 tiered air conditioned carriage yesterday morning, after a number of hours being pushed and pulled in every which direction to try to find the actual ticketing office. Ignoring the, quite literally, hundreds of touts assuring me that the office was closed today due to some obscure holiday, but fortunately for me, they had a friend with a travel desk who could secure me a ticket at a “very good price, sir. No problems, sir. Follow with me, sir”… I think not… Delhi was a mild 43 degrees yesterday, and that was in the shade of the bougainvillea’s and the oversized Indian flag flying high above Connaught Place park at 10am. So understandably, I was in no mood to be pushed around the city… That’s the thing with India, everything just feels so much more difficult than it needs to be. Last time I was here I’d let it get the better of me by the third week, so I was determined to prepare myself mentally for what was to come this week.
I’d learnt from my previous trip that to try to fight India is a futile, fruitless exercise. It is a fight which you simply cannot win. It is too strong willed, too set in it’s ways and too excruciatingly stressful to approach with this mindset. The only way to not only survive, but truly enjoy India, is to accept that almost nothing will go to plan or be easy, that many people will try to rip you off, and then to just roll with it like a wave washing over you. Once you can allow your mind to do that, it becomes the most tantalising place on the planet.
So here I sit, cold Kingfisher in hand as I watch the young boys below playing cricket on the banks of Assi Ghat with a tennis ball and tree branch for a bat, while the Hindu Guru’s and Swami’s meditate and assist the faithful in purging their sins by bathing in the sacred river. I can see the smoke beginning to rise above the Ganges from the “Burning Ghat” not 500m up the river… This is where pilgrims bring their dead or ailing family members from all over the world, for if they are cremated here they are blessed with the promise of eternal life. It’s a scene which is so unique to this place, it makes it almost impossible not to stare and be anything but completely present and enthralled by the moment. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuing cities in the world, and walking the banks of the Ganges at sunrise is indeed like being transported back in time. Wander off the banks, through the winding back alleys, and it’s a different story. I love how one can wander the cobbled lanes of the old city and see Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists all sipping chai together on a street corner and talking animatedly amongst themselves whilst playing cards. There seem to be too few places left in the world where this type of harmony is the norm, and whilst I’m not tied to any one religion, I think we could all learn a lot from the Indian people in this regard.
We only have two weeks here after our extended stint volunteering in Nepal, and it’s hard to resist the temptation of rushing to fit in as many places as possible. We did this the first time, and I don’t regret a minute of it. However, I know now that – for me – to rush India is equivalent to sculling a glass of Penfold’s Grange after a night on a cheap cask of red… It’s a place to be savoured, not rushed. So, I’ll focus now on Varanasi and Mumbai, with a short stop in Jaipur to break up the trip…
Before my first trip here, I asked a friend who had been here many times what it’s like… Her answer was this: “When you are there, all you want to do is leave. And when you leave, all you want to do is go back…” This is a frighteningly accurate summary for many first time visitors to India (myself included). For if you do not take the time to understand how it works, to let go and become a part of it, it can be chew you up and spit you out with no remorse. If, on the other hand you accept it for the chaotic, noisy, dirty and overcrowded place that it is, I can almost guarantee that you be seduced by it’s endless charms, and will forever be longing to return.
There are of course two sides to every story, and India is no exception. The sheer number of people residing in most corners of this country, mean there are some serious problems affecting the population and the environment… One of the first things I noticed on arrival is the endless mounds of rubbish piled up on every street, railway line and beach. There is literally no concept of sustainable waste management here, people discard of their litter haphazardly, anywhere they feel like it. The short term affects of this are obviously far more than simply aesthetic, and the long term ramifications are potentially disastrous for the environment, and the thousands of species reliant on it – including humans. If something isn’t done soon to tackle this issue then I truly fear the worst, not only for the Indian people, but for the rest of us around the globe who will also wear the consequences.
The poverty level in India is absolutely staggering. It’s unimaginable to even begin to describe how poor the vast majority of it’s 1 billion citizens are, and how little hope there is for so many. It exists on every street in every city. It is inescapable, and it is one of the heartbreaking things I have ever seen. We’ve spent the last 6 months living amongst some of the poorest communities in the world, yet none of them come close to India in this regard.
I spoke of how polarising this country is at the outset, and for me, one of the most perplexing issues is the gap in the wealth disparity. Let’s take Mumbai for example. The ‘Island City’ is home to more than 21 million people. More than 70% of it’s residents earn less than $4 per day, which should – at least in theory and basic mathematics – place the city well below the international poverty line. Yet, if we look at Mumbai as a whole, it is actually considered to be quite an affluent city… I’m sure you’re now scratching your head just as I was, but here’s why. There are more Billionaire’s in Mumbai than any other city in Southern and Eastern Asia, and more Millionaire’s per square mile, than any other city in the world. Thus, bringing the city’s average disposable income up above the poverty line in the eyes on the UN. It’s quite common to drive or walk past mansions which could easily be mistaken for entire hotels in the middle of the city, these are where the wealthy self made and aristocratic families reside. Outside their beautifully groomed gardens, you will usually also see up to 50 families who live on the footpaths between their paradise and the main roads, under tarpaulins, scrap cardboard and tin. They use the highway gutters as latrines, and are generally forced to beg from dawn till late in the evening. What is even more heartbreaking though, is the fact that their own children, who should be in school, are also forced to beg, and in many cases, sold to pimps and drug lords to work in the darkest of all the black markets, the illegal sex trade. I’m talking boys and girls who are 9 years old. Their parents may truly believe that they are giving them a better hope for the future or believe that they are genuinely going to a legitimate form of employment, but more often than not, this isn’t the case.
The public education system in India is also well below the international standard, with only 50% of 10 year old children considered to be literate. That figure, as we’ve seen in many countries, is much lower for girls than boys. Some factions of the government and NGO’s in India have accused the education system of “Promoting the Rat Race, and not developing children’s personas”… Essentially, the students are asked to memorise entire text books which they don’t understand, and not encouraged to play or spend time socialising with each other during school hours. This means that even the brightest young minds are being groomed to partake in the “rat race” as they are not able to develop any analytical skills or meaningful social skills. There are a number of NGO’s working with the government to improve the education system, but in the last 10 years there have been no real changes of note.
If we are to judge the success of a nation by how it treats its poorest citizens, then, like many developing nations, India still has a long way to go. The fact that it has experienced such exponential and rapid economic growth over the past 15 years, only serves to make the challenge more difficult as the government and the people try to keep up with international demand for labor, which, unfortunately can mean child labor despite the tough measure imposed by the government.
I will follow this article up next week with a number of NGO’s based out of Mumbai who we hope to meet up with and talk to. There are so many amazing people in this country, with such great faith in their country and fellow citizens that it is bound to continue to improve over time. I just hope some of these problems are recognised and tackled sooner rather than later, or else the next generation may miss out on the truly incredible experience of seeing India first hand for them selves.