MAIIC Residency Report from India #3:
A Real Report (from November 19, 2011)
Michael Real, Professor
Bombarding the Senses, Challenging the Mind:
The Contradictions That Are Today’s India
Sights & Sounds/Conflicts & Contradictions/A New & Confused Sense of India/Penetrating the Layers in the Castle
The 17th century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, described her spiritual experiences through the metaphor of passing into progressive layers of what she called The Interior Castle. Attempting to understand India calls that to mind. As one cohort member, Andre, puts it: “When I have moved 3 steps forward in understanding, I suddenly am thrown 20 steps back by a new complexity or contradiction.”
The city of Ahmedabad, an economic powerhouse of 7.1 million people largely unheard of outside of India, constantly poses such conundrums. Yesterday we were confronted with one such.
Visiting Gandhi’s ashram and university, meeting with dedicated NGOs, inspired by the ideals and efforts of countless people dedicated to grassroots, participatory development, the local picture seemed extremely positive. Then we were suddenly confronted with the bald fact that this is a totally segregated, polarized city. A line - sometimes the river, other times a street - separates the perhaps 85% Hindu majority from the 15% Muslim minority. Each population lives and stays within its own district. No one has friends in the other group; none have been in the house of the other. Both sides feel threatened and vulnerable. Outwardly calm now, the tensions and potential for outbursts lurks just below the surface.
This tragic near-apartheid world came out in a discussion of a locally made video documentary Play Peace. In 2002, there were devastating riots in which many homes were burned and residents were murdered. In one building 32 people were trapped and burned – 17 women, 5 men, 10 children. Last week 55 men were convicted, nine years later, for the massacre. Many, many other terrible incidents happened in 2002, silently endorsed by the government and, until now, never investigated or prosecuted. Play Peace is the encouraging story of an annual cricket tournament that requires each team to be made up half of Muslims and half of Hindus.
Hindus are people of India, of yoga and meditation, of Gandhi and nonviolent resistance. Or so we tend to think. They are also frustrated masses, susceptible to mob action. The 2002 riots are one of a series of landmarks in the tragic divisions and conflicts that scar modern India and Pakistan. The current polarization jerks one back into a realization that, underneath the high energy street movement and colorful clothing of the women, there are darker realities.
Some contradictions conflict with that dark separation. Some of our cohort took locally managed tours of the slums of Mumbai, the largest in Asia. They found people with few personal belongings or space but people who have a sense of unity with each other, even across religious-ethnic lines. Like Gandhi, the world leader whose final possessions barely filled a shoebox, Indians can manage with less space, fewer belongings, and little of the material needs of those in wealthy countries. Far from a utopia, India nevertheless offers much that we can learn from.
Today’s India is both poverty-stricken and wealthy, and not just because a few are extravagantly wealthy and many poor. The birthday of a super-rich businessman this week featured Shakira, Beckham and Posh, other celebrities and entertainers, lavish eating, high-end consumerism, and every imaginable luxury. The owner of the second largest airline in India, one near bankruptcy at the moment and on which many of us are scheduled to fly, lives in a 100,000 square foot penthouse atop a luxury building of his. His airline has canceled 39% of its flights some days and has seen 130 pilots quit, but he still owns a very expensive Formula One racing team. And yet the NGOs we meet work with villagers who wait in line or fight for the opportunity to lower a bucket down for precious water from a crowded, muddy well. Community-made documentaries show villages without reliable electricity or roads, with corrupt officials, with few opportunities and little hope.
Progress and success can be seen in the growing economic power of India, as in the sophistication of the National Institute of Design (NID) and the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), two locations of our field placements this week. At the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), where next Mondays speaker teaches and conducts research, recruiters from Microsoft hired 35 in their job fair last week. Large Indian corporations and many major transnationals – Heinz, Brittania, Monsanto – recruit there.
The contradictions and contrasts are found among these peoples and cultures with, literally, thousands of years of history and roots. The landscape of beige huts and dry wandering hills, the presence of livestock and vegetation, the visual intrigue of camel caravans and rickety vehicles fill the community-made documentaries of Drishti and SEWA, NGOs where others of our MA learners are placed. Their community produced documentaries tell the story of people struggling to come together to fight off repression and create new opportunity. Lively young hosts lead us through the story of the fight to repair the main road into the village, to avoid the weeks of closure every rainy season, and to stop the 10% of cooking kerosene raked off by vendors. In one village, acute power shortages force villagers to pay five rupees to recharge their mobile phones at the battery-powered local variety stores. By Western standards, these villages have so little. They can struggle or they can despair.
In Ahmedabad, this endlessly spread out capital city of Gujarat province/state, the complexities abound. One sees, of course, cows, the protected symbol of the country, but also goats, dogs, monkeys, hawks, chickens, all blended into the side roads and neighborhoods, intermingled with the endless profusion of people.
On the one hand, the traffic of Ahmedabad seems a terrifying chaos. One rides in the 3-person back seat of green and yellow motorized rickshaws. Behind the front shield, the driver negotiates with motorcycle style handlebars, many mirrors, and an uncanny ability to read other drivers in what seems an elaborate game of chicken but is actually a well-functioning system of negotiation among innumerable vehicles with a margin of error of only inches. What seems out of place in this system are the cars that feel too bulky and cumbersome for this system.
As rickshaws, bicycles, scooters, and the less common automobiles negotiate an intersection or roundabout, the flow brings to mind the way schools of fish move and dart in different directions, the way they swim through each other in opposite directions without collision, the way they swarm and part as needed. The honk of a horn has clear meaning – coming through, I’m shifting over, you must negotiate this half-lane with me, or just look out.
Riding in the rickshaw is unsettling because one cannot imagine what it takes to negotiate this system. But it is also reassuring because the limited size and speed of traffic puts one in a middle ground between the sensation of walking and that of driving. Importantly, the small size and limited engine capacity of the rickshaws anchors a transportation system that consumes far less fuel than would one made up of full-size vehicles. One breathes the fumes in the open-sided rickshaws but accepts that the same number of vehicles transmuted into full size, closed cars would force instant gridlock. They would not fit.
We have five teams in the field now being led through their NGO’s work in the slums and villages, in the training centres and planning offices, along the coast, in villages, and in cities. On next Tuesday, they will report on their three or four days of field work. I cannot imagine how we will absorb or make sense of their observations, of the complexity and contradictions of what they have confronted, and, yes also, the vision and beauty, that are today’s India
As we work our way into the denser inner rooms of the castle of Indian culture and society, we struggle to keep track of where we are in the labyrinth, to find our way further toward its inner core, and to comprehend what it means. India is a delight and a challenge, an adventure and a mystery, and more.