Passage to India

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I am in India.
When I lived and worked here, few things were world-class. One was a private airline company, Jet Airways. Now it is just a normal second-rate airline. I used to stay at the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi. It was a very snobby, top-top-grade hotel. Returning to it now, after 12 years, I find it has been reduced to just a normal hotel. The towels could have been better.

Ironically, this is a good sign.

In the past, being an airline hostess was seen as a very glamorous job. The best and the most beautiful went to work for the airline industry. Other career options were limited. The fall in the quality of service has resulted from the fact that the best people now have a lot of better options in life. Accompanying the decline in service is a decline in what may be called the quality of average travelers. This has deteriorated quite sharply. It means that more Indians – the nouveau riche, or at least prosperous – are now traveling, an indication that prosperity is spreading.

At Mumbai airport, the runway was closed because of extreme air pollution (no rains). My flight for Bhopal was delayed for five hours for lack of visibility. People were shout- ing at the check-in staff, who were being very patient. I wished

I could get into their minds. Maybe they are just super-patient people – maybe they just don’t give a damn. Looking at their beautiful faces, I like to believe the former. My rational and cynical mind makes me believe the latter.

When I was on the Jet Airways flight from Bangkok to Delhi, the mostly Indian travelers were adamant about get- ting their money’s worth for every penny they had spent. For four hours requests for drinks and other accommodations never stopped. The poor stewards worked like slaves, accept- ing every stupid demand. Conditions like these, which would take away the softness and niceness from most people and equipment, suggest that the world-class quality of anything in India will revert to the mean.

In Mumbai I stayed at the Trident, one of the two hotels taken over by terrorists in 2008. I stayed there a few months back, and paid a quarter of what it was worth – why should I pay more, when, unlike many Indians, I am not afraid of the ghosts of those killed? Then, it was almost empty and had high security. On this trip, it was brimming with people. Security was still time consuming, but alas! it is very easy to fool the security guys, as I often did to save time. I am sure

The government and the company agreed to use eminent domain to confiscate land from poor farmers, at 5% of market value. 

 

that the reason why terrorist attacks don’t happen is that it is only a rare individual who is ready to die. The “virgins and free alcohol” theory has no value in reality.

Now, as I travel through India’s smaller towns and villages, I gather many impressions, both of change and of continuity .

I stay in rooms that cost me $2 a day, and purchase all-you- can-eat food for 50 cents. I pay my driver the princely sum of $7 a day. To Westerners, these prices will appear astonishingly low, but inflation of food prices in India is close to 20%. Food is very expensive for regular folks, and speculators are being blamed. I am constantly amazed that there is never any mention of the fact that the Indian government still runs one of the most efficient printing presses in the world – printing money, of course. The only thing that limits inflation is the high rate of real economic growth. Yet the Indian government is getting extremely addicted to increasing expenditures. The government’s fiscal deficit is about 12% of CDP. To me this is like addiction to heroin. What will happen if the growth rate falters?

In an isolated place, a woman sells me a IS-kilogram bag of fruit for a total of 60 cents – fruit worth about $15 in Bhopal. Her companions think she’s won a lottery. These wretched women chase me and beg me to buy some from them. I feel sorry for the little girl who had tears in her eyes. Yet I am repelled by the fact that so many Indians easily grovel and beg. The worst is when well-off people do this. A visit to a government office in India is essential if you want to under- stand the degradation that the Indian public accepts even today.

I meet the top management of a company constructing a major highway. The highway was deemed uneconomical, so the government and the company agreed that they would use eminent domain to confiscate a lot more land than was necessary from the farmers, at 5% of the market value. The extra land would be converted into condos or commercial space. The poor people would subsidize development. Why should they subsidize the development of the country? This is social- ism in practice, although the farmers are branded communists when they rebel. Meanwhile people in the West believe there is something romantic about poverty – a view that is not only hypocritical but pathetically wrong.

The woman who cleans utensils at my parents’ home earns $13 a month. Her husband, who tyrannizes over her, contributes 20 cents a day for household expenses. The wife of our security guard, who lives within my parents’ property, has had her third daughter. She wanted this child to be a son. Between them, the couple earns $70 a month, but they give their girls a decent education. Not too long in the past, one or more of the girls would have died of something mysterious or would have just disappeared.

At my parents’ home, the live-in maid is “buying” a wife for her son. The cost is $400. The maid earns only $12 per month (that’s not a typo). The good thing is that if the son mis- treats the wife, she will likely run away with someone else. By itself this is a huge change for the better.

Speaking of purchases, the woman who does laundry at my parents’ house and also earns about $12 a month has got her daughter to stand for the local elections. The daughter’s campaign cost will be $1,000, obviously a fortune for her; but she.told.my mom that if she wins the election, she hopes to “make” ten times more money each year.

In India there are all kinds of affirmative action policies. For example, half the local seats in elections in Bhopal are reserved for women. The mayoral post is also reserved for a woman. What kind of democracy is this?, I wonder.

My maternal grandmother died 15 years ago. She had a huge house. Since she was.a widow, she rented sections of the house to about 15 people. Most of these people had grown up in front of her. She had helped many study or get married. She had let several of them live in her house without paying any rent. Before she died, she had all these people take an oath in a temple that they would vacate the house whenever my mother asked them to. When she did so, not one of them left. They all wanted money in lieu of leaving. To get them out was a herculean effort, involving cash payments worth about $30,000. After 15 years of efforts, the last tenant has just been kicked out.

I remember that when I was a kid, I used to wake up early in the morning to get the buffalo milked in front of me, to try to keep the milkman from adulterating the milk. So I would sit with flies hovering around me, observing the milkman milking. Before he started, I would quietly inspect his bucket. Then he would then place the bucketful of milk in front of me and go to wash his hands. He would return without wiping his hands, shake them over the bucket, and let a few drops of water fall into it. I once objected to this behavior. He said it was a ritual that must be followed: milk must be at least symbolically adulterated. I am not sure where the Indian culture

The milkman said it was a ritual that must be followed: milk must be at least symbolically adulterated.

 

of cheating comes from, but there is a saying in Hindi: “You cannot mix religion (implying ethics) with business.” I don’t know whether cheating in business transactions is a result of the recent socialist past or is a part of Hinduism. But this is the problem you face all the time in India. From what I hear, India is even more corrupt than it was before; now the public servants expect an even bigger slice of the pie.

Young Indians are becoming increasingly religious – atheism was more fashionable in my generation. They seem not to have a fanatic bent but a superstitious one. They go to the temple to worship the god, hoping it will help them become prosperous and successfuL Popular religious are extremely materialistic and self-centered. I am sure that a lot of people, almost unaware of why they are doing it, have religious interests because it suggests to them an easy way to get laid, just as I think that behind a lot of the environmental movement in the West is the possibility of easy access to drugs and sex. On balance, this may be good. For many people, dependence on a higher authority is crucial, and I would rather see people believe in an impersonal god than make gods out of political leaders or film celebrities.

There is far more pollution everywhere than I have ever seen. Garbage is rotting everywhere. The lake in Bhopal looks like it’s filled with ducks; a closer inspection shows that the ducks are actually debris floating on the surface.

But the great fact about India right now is that the economy continues to grow at 7% or more – an absolutely amazing rate. This is my third visit within 12 months, and I see changes on every journey.

Twenty years back, most roads were dirt. On this trip, I have not encountered a single dirt road. Even in the most backward places, I see children, including girls, going to school. When these kids enter the workforce, that will be the mother of all revolutions.

Twenty years back, life was one long forced and even self- inflicted course of suffering, even for the well-off, for that was the message of the collectivist system. Today, people are learning to take time off and enjoy themselves.

At least seven generations of my family grew up in the same place in Bhopal. When my parents left that place in 1984, we were the first family among all the descendants in those seven generations to leave the huge, but by then thoroughly partitioned, house. I was the first perhaps in that whole “family” to leave Bhopal. All marriages were arranged. Within the last 10 years, more than half of these people have moved to suburbs. Half of the new marriages have been with people from out- side our religion and have of course not been arranged by the families. More than half, perhaps all, of the college-going kids have gone to another city to work and study. Girls are living by themselves in other cities and working there. Most of this has happened in the last four years or so.

There is a huge churning taking place in the society. It is as if everyone is now starting to move a step ahead. Bhopal today is full of student hostels, where kids from rural areas come to study. So far, growth has touched only some sectors of India, but there is a constant stream of poor people joining the middle class, while the middle class is getting richer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of growth continued for decades, constantly transforming the India I see around me.

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