My Indian Odyssey
|Who can forget the day on which he first
sees one of the Seven Wonders of the World? I vividly remember the details
of the August day when I first saw the Taj Mahal.
Armed with a camera and a frayed notepad, I trotted out of the YMCA at about 5:30 in the morning. After a humid, sweaty night, the cool air enlivened me as I walked briskly toward the center of New Delhi. Thousands of chirping birds serenaded me as I strolled along the main boulevards. A fat, bushy-tailed squirrel crossed my path a few inches from my shoes, exhibiting no fear. Such an abundance of small birds and animals was in stark contrast to what I had seen in Laos and Thailand. Indo-Chinese cities have a scarcity of small game because people eat almost any non-poisonous, four-legged creatures available. In India, however, small game has the rigorous protection of religious taboo — a power far greater than hunger.
Small animals were not the only beings in great abundance. So were people. Along one long sidewalk, I saw hundreds of wooden shelves about the size of a refrigerator lying on their sides. Each served as home for at least one person. Even less fortunate souls lay on the grass or in the brown dirt with a tattered blanket serving as their only shelter. Some had only rags to protect themselves from the elements. About a block from the YMCA, an old man grunted as he squatted and defecated in the gutter. A little further on, a bony couple engaged in mechanical sexual intercourse while two children sat beside them, taking little notice of their parents as they played in the dust. Millions in India live out their lives on the public streets awash in the dried mud. There they are born, and there they bathe, eat, sleep, excrete and copulate. As attested by the teeming population, the one thing they seem to do best is breed. [Image: Leprous Indian beggar.]
As I penetrated deeper into the center of New Delhi, I saw many modern structures. Most of the structures housed branches of European firms doing business in India. Many Indian government buildings had been constructed in the Colonial style of the twenties and thirties under the auspices of English imperial rule. The contrast between abject human debasement only a few steps away from such esthetic architectural achievements was disconcerting; but my eyes slowly got used to the stark disparity as I headed for one of the main commercial squares.
At about 8:30 a.m. I reached a main square where I planned to inquire about bus service to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, one of the Wonders of the World. The streets buzzed with activity. A large white bull pulled a cylindrical lawnmower over the grass on the boulevard's center ground. Dressed in white of a shade that matched the animal's hide, a turbaned Indian guided it patiently. At the cabstand I learned that I could ride to Agra and back in a taxi cab (a round trip of about two hundred miles) for only $12. I met a young English student from Cambridge traveling during his summer vacation, and we decided to share a cab after getting some breakfast at the main coffeehouse on the square.
Six Indians behind the counter worked at a furious pace, serving hundreds of patrons. Each worker had a separate job. Only one of them washed dishes, and cleanliness was not one of his finer points, for he looked as though he moonlighted as a gravedigger. Crusty black dirt trimmed the tips of his long fingernails; the lighter spots on his face and neck, on closer inspection, turned out to be streaks where sweat had washed off some layers of muck. After hundreds of swabbings from the same filthy water, his dishrag resembled what I imagined were mummy wrappings. The man wiped the filthy plates and utensils according to their immediate necessity right before the eyes of the customer.
Upon deeper consideration, I discovered that I no longer had any hunger. But Rodney Johnson, my new English friend, wolfed down the coffee and fried eggs without the slightest suggestion of discomfort. He seemed oblivious to the unsanitary conditions. I told him that I had never imagined British Colonial grit was the foreign matter found in their food.
We hired a rundown taxi of a make I could not identify. Some sort of strange religious symbols hung from the rearview mirror, and the clear plastic seats immediately stuck to our bare legs as the three-hour trip to Agra began. The dozen books I had read on India had not prepared me for the panorama of horrors unfolding as we sped from the business district of New Delhi. By the roadsides I saw hundreds of rickety, bug-eyed children, and even a couple of emaciated corpses lying on the street, treated by passersby like so much refuse to be hauled away. The bargaining and squabbling of the marketplace were strange and annoying to my ears, and I could not get accustomed to the stenches. Sometimes the odors came from the fires made from briquettes of bovine and human dung. Amid the ruins and rubble lay intermittent piles of ancient garbage through which the starving picked in search of even the tiniest of rotting morsels.
Once in a while an old temple or structure would heave into view out of this sea of desolation and offer a brief glimpse into a high culture that had once flourished here. Visiting India for the first time, I decided not to be depressed by the ugliness and the decay, and gradually, in the midst of the ruins and putrefaction, I resurrected in my imagination the once beautiful, magnificent empire of India. I could feel the vitality and creativity that had ruled this land thousands of years ago. In my mind's eye, I could see the farmers and tradesmen, the artisans and musicians, the road builders and architects, the noblemen and the warriors.
As the cab began to wind out of the stifling city and escaped into the countryside, I wrestled with what I knew about the once great Indian civilization. Green rice fields sped by the window of my cab as I weighed what I had learned from books on ancient Indian history and from conversations I had with some New Delhi college professors I had met during the previous few days. The historical facts mingled in my mind with the impressions harvested by my own eyes.
Aryans, or Indo-Europeans (Caucasians) created the great Indian, or Hindu civilization. Aryans swept over the Himalayas to the Indian sub-continent and conquered the aboriginal people. The original term "India" was coined by the Aryan invaders from their Sanskrit word Sindu, for the river now called the Indus. Sanskrit is perhaps the oldest of the Indo-European languages, having a common origin to all the modern languages of Europe. The word "Aryan" has an etymological origin in the word Arya from Sanskrit, meaning noble. The word also has been associated with gold, the noble metal, and denoted the golden skinned invaders (as compared to the brown skinned aboriginals) from the West.
Composed in about 1500 B.C., the Hindu religious texts of the Rig Veda tell the story of the long struggles between the Aryans and the aboriginal people of the Indian subcontinent. Sixteen Aryan states were partitioned by the sixth century A.D., and Brahmanism became the chief religion of India. The conquering race initiated a caste system to preserve their status and their racial identity. The Hindu word for caste is Varna, which directly translated into English, means "color." Today the word is usually associated with occupation or trade; but that is because occupations evolved on the basis of skin color and ethnicity. The most pale skinned were called the Brahmin. These were the warrior-priest class, the top of the social ladder. The Untouchables (or Pariahs) were the racially mixed in the bottom caste.
Over the past few centuries the clear racial differences have faded, but one can still notice the lighter hues and taller statures of the higher castes. Many scholars consider Sanskrit the oldest and purest of the Indo-European languages. In modern India, the greatest insult one could pay a fellow Indian is to call him "black." [Image: Brahmin actress Madhuri Dixit, India's most popular contemporary film star.]
In spite of all the organized government and media efforts to root out racial feeling, there is still ample evidence that race does matter in modern India. Rodney Johnson showed me the personal ad columns that catered to the English-speaking Indians. The skin color of the advertiser is always described very precisely. I found that many of the ads emphasized the degree of lightness of the prospective husband or wife.
The average Christian conservative of the Western world would be aghast at the exuberant interest displayed by the ancient Indians in sex and in the ways they publicly displayed sexual experience through art. Hindu history, though, seems to indicate that it was not preoccupation with sex that brought down the high culture as much as it was the racial impact of that obsession. In spite of strict religious and civil taboos, the ancient Aryans crossed the color line. Slavery, or a similar system, had made servant women easily obtainable and proved a dangerous temptation for some of the basest of the slaveholders. Only a small percentage of each generation had sexual liaisons with the lower castes, but over dozens of generations a gradual change in the racial composition occurred. Such changes are almost imperceptible in a single generation. But they are dramatic after a millennium.
One of the problems of the Indian civilization is that the most creative, most intelligent, and most successful people have many avenues of fulfillment, while the lower classes consider sex a form of recreation. Sex is the one highly enjoyable pastime the poor can always afford. Every civilization has a lower average birthrate among its most talented elements, while its less intelligent and unproductive tend to proliferate. Ancient India was no exception.
Even traveling 45 miles per hour with all the taxi's windows down, it was still so hot and dusty that my British friend and I felt as though we could not get enough air. However, India was not the dry, desert-like expanse that I had pictured. Certainly India has its arid areas, but great portions of the country are humid and wet. During my stay I saw beautiful seaports, green fertile valleys, thick forests and jungles, mountains that glittered with the reflection of their vast mineral wealth. The countryside we traveled through was far from dry. Rice field followed rice field, and there were many watering holes — usually filled with cows cooling their sacred hides.
At midmorning we decided to stop for a little refreshment, and the cab driver pulled off the highway by a little shanty cafe. By this time my hunger had overcome my lack of enthusiasm for Indian dishwashing. Rodney, undaunted as ever, ordered some fried eggs. I optimistically thought that eggs fried in a hot skillet — albeit dirty — would not do much harm, so I put my order in. Since the coffee was boiling hot, I consented to have some of it as well.
After letting them cool a bit, I ravenously consumed a yellow spoonful of eggs. A feeling like liquid fire spread from my tongue to the roof of my mouth and clear back to my larynx. It spread from my throat into my esophagus and stomach. My eyes watered. My nose ran. I tried to swallow, but I could not. I looked at the swarthy, beady-eyed driver, then at the proprietor of the shanty, and for a fleeting moment I imagined a criminal conspiracy between them. I pictured the authorities finding my poisoned, pain-contorted body in a rice paddy a few days later, stripped of identification, passport, camera, and cash.
Then, through a blurry film, I saw Rodney wolfing down his eggs like they were milk chocolate. Maybe what I had taken for British bravado was only his true affection for this land and its traits. I believed that I had stumbled onto the reason why almost all the food in India is intolerably hot, for as famished as I was, that one bite was more than enough for me that morning. Suddenly I had no more hunger. But it was no longer fear of dirty utensils that killed my desire to eat, for I figured that few germs could have survived the heat of the little red infernos the Indians call peppers. Growing up in south Louisiana, I had often eaten spicy and hot food, but those Indian peppers are indistinguishable from glowing embers of lava. Only the English could have colonized this place, I thought, for only they, like Rodney, had the stomach for it.
Near the shanty where we ate were hordes of small children. A number of them had deformities such as full or partial blindness and amputated limbs. The cab driver told me that many parents purposely mutilate their own children to increase their intake from begging.
As we drove on, I found the poverty of New Delhi duplicated in the countryside. We passed many settlements teeming with rag-swathed, skeleton people. Children were starving everywhere. Cruel, open sores spotted their bodies, and the unrelenting flies swarmed the children to feast on their festering wounds. The probable first impulse of any Westerner who learns of India's plight is to send money and food. But by sending such assistance, he actually only compounds the agony. The reason that so many Indians are starving is their chronically high birth rate combined with their low ability rate. The resulting overpopulation outstrips the ability of the people to feed themselves. Unless the givers tie aid to absolute guarantees of population control, the increased food simply feeds another reproducing generation that in turn only multiples the problem. Despite this self-evident fact, Western nations have poured seemingly unending food and medical supplies into India. The purpose of the relief at its start early in this century was to help the thousands who were starving. Paradoxically, because of our generosity we can now report that tens of millions starve in India. The sunken faces of the malnourished, sick, and mutilated children around the nation are the results of misplaced humanitarianism that has only increased human suffering and death. [Image: Dalit ("Untouchable") beggar.]