Friday, January 02, 2009

India I: Same Basic Idea

It's ten days after the Mumbai attacks and I'm sitting in my 2-tier AC berth, waiting for my first Indian train trip ever. It's a miracle I made it this far, what with the increased security these days at Mumbai Central.

Heading in to the station I was greeted with a "Security is Never Everyone's Problem" sign. Not sure what they were going for. But you could see they meant business. There was a column separating the main entrance: to the left were three metal detectors; to the right a big "Do Not Enter" sign. I walked through a metal detector that gave a loud beep as I passed through. But I was obviously no threat. The dozen or so security personnel camped out just inside the station didn't interrupt their discussions and milling about for one second. I stopped for a second just to make sure and looked back to see several people casually walking around the metal detectors through the out door. There would be no attacks today, my friends.

But here we are back on the train. For those of you unfamiliar, 2-tier AC is the second highest class of the nine different classes on Indian trains. Four berths on the right side enclosed by a curtain.

Travel Companion 1: Where are you from?
M: America
TC1: Oh, just like India!

His emphasis suggested he didn't doubt the veracity of his statement one bit. I, on the other hand, needed a bit of convincing. I had landed in the middle of last night at the decaying international airport and was immediately overwhelmed by the stench of dung that permeated the cabin even before the doors were opened. I'd been to Mumbai before, but I'd forgotten the smell. The overpowering, unavoidable smell of India. It took us over an hour by cab to cover the six miles to my hotel, located on a side street covered in dust, dirt, and people, animals, and dung of all stripe. Walking around the train station that morning I was confronted by numerous hotel touts and beggars, stepped over sleeping (rabid?) dogs, avoided cows, and learned to navigate through traffic that didn't know any rule of law. I ate a delicious lunch of Butter Chicken for a dollar at a local eatery, while an employee dusted the place on his hands and knees under the tables. I hadn't been there very long, but so far NOTHING about this place resembled my native land.

But I was intrigued.

M: Uh, yeah, kind of like India. But how do you mean?
TC1: Democracy. Same basic idea. You can say what you want!

And there we had it. And I have to admit, I was kind of touched. India might be poorer, denser, older, smellier, but it was a democracy, with basic political freedom. And, legally, for the most part, you really could say what you want. And go where you want. And do what you want. My traveling companion, unlike his Chinese counterpart, for example, was free — and he cherished his freedom.

So India was, after all, just like America, right? There's something to be said for political freedom. And they had it. The train started rolling and I looked out at the India countryside and felt a certain kinship with my Indian companion.

The next day in Ahmedabad, Gujarat I was confronted on the sidewalk by a shirtless beggar carrying what looked like a diseased and near lifeless naked baby. He chased me down the sidewalk thrusting the baby in my direction while the pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk looked on as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Several sources — don't know if they're reliable — say these beggars are run by gangs who disfigure the babies intentionally to get more sympathy and then collect anything the beggars gather. Whether that's true or not, they were on most street corners and more wretched and desperate than anything you can find in the US. And there are thousands, millions, tens (hundreds?) of millions equally impoverished.

So maybe there is more to defining a country than political freedom.

I'm not the first person to write about India, but the next several posts are going to cover what I saw, as honestly as I can. The point isn't to point out how awful or wonderful the country is, or ours is by comparison. But it won't be a gushing "your country is so wonderful!" travel blog. I'm not trying to convince you to go or to stay away. Apologies if anyone gets offended by my candid observations about their country. I know this is just one man's observations seen through his uniquely biased eye. But they'll be honest observations and you'll get the good with the bad.

We've got several juicy topics to cover: Indian man on the street thoughts on war with Pakistan, Leopards raiding villages, cow shit, crushing poverty, delicious food, how individual freedom gets crushed but not by the government, living streets, impenetrable forts, and more!

Glad to have you back, Mithridates. Did your namesake ever make it into India, or was he always stabbing westward?

Just a couple thoughts:

First, on panhandlers. You have to feel that, like most competitive occupations, the best are the most assertive — and the assertive are often the least scrupulous. The thing is, when you're just giving someone money (as opposed to purchasing something) you want it to go to someone who deserves it. They can "deserve" it by serving up some kind of shtick, like the guys at Fenway who play drums on overturned buckets, or the guy in Uptown Manhattan back in the day who would tell Michael Jackson-as-pedophile jokes. Or they can "deserve" it by needing it the most. You have to figure the weakest, the hungriest, the most needy aren't throwing the best elbows to get into your view. Anyway, it sounds like a long way from Harvard Square, where it's the teenager who got into a fight with her parents about the lip ring, so she ran away on some silly romantic trip with her boyfriend and his acoustic guitar. It all makes me want to scream, starting with PUNK ROCKERS DON'T PLAY ACOUSTIC GUITARS! But anyway.

Second, if you had to choose: would you prefer prosperity without freedom, or freedom without prosperity?

First, I'm clearly not getting the point across. These people are nothing like any beggars I've seen anywhere in the US. It's just a different ball game. They are hands down the most wretched people I have ever seen (OK, fair enough, I've never been to Congo training camp for child soldiers). And if you're in an open auto-rickshaw they'll corner you at an intersection and paw you. If you give them something a crowd will come after you. You can't help but pity them, but who knows what disease you might get by touching them. It's a horrifically awful situation. Worse for them than you, for sure . . .

Second, you're implying this is the choice and that these people are "free" and just lack prosperity. They might be free in the Hayek, Constitution of Liberty sense, as in the government isn't depriving them of anything. But any other meaning of the word doesn't apply. They have nowhere to go, no opportunity, no one who cares about them, and by some accounts they are enslaved by gangs who control the beggars. That's no freedom and no prosperity.

But we're going to tackle individual freedom in India in a later post.

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