It’s complicated

November 23, 2008

I read somewhere that Indians tend to get irritated by the constant and amused references to their holy cows. I couldn’t agree more. The fact that, when we talk about the biggest democracy in the world, where writers can pocket two Booker Prizes in three years (Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga) where just about everyone is an entrepreneur, and where poetry was being written while we white faces were still fighting wars with snow balls, the fact that when we talk about this country we talk about the bloody cows wandering in the traffic can only be irritating for Indians.

One day at a party, an English lady on her first trip to India was telling me and an Indian friend of mine how much she liked Jaipur. “It’s such a wonderful city, she exclaimed, but so dirty! Why doesn’t anyone pick up the garbage on the streets?”. “Who would want to do something like pick up the garbage?” my friend replied. “And what would the cows eat?”, I asked. She stared at us, bewildered.

Along with the cows and the dirt, another common question is poverty. The amount and the behaviour of beggars on Indian streets is indeed crazy. If you live here, however, you have no choice but get used to it. Everyone asks me how I cope with it. The best answer to this eternal and eternally annoying question comes from Mark Tully, English writer and long-time Delhi-wallah : “I don’t have to cope with the poverty, the poor have to cope with the poverty”.

The two other subjects of intense and judgmental fascination for first-timers are caste and arranged marriages. I have had endless conversations about these with visiting friends. As with everything in India, it is difficult to be definitive on these topics. There are so many different realities that generalization is impossible. A farmer’s daughter from Uttar Pradesh and a middle class Bombay girl have nothing in common (except maybe a crush on Akshay Kumar), and when they get married, it will be for different reasons and in ways poles apart.

As for caste, it is an even tougher one. Unlike the arranged marriage stuff, there is nothing vaguely romantic about it. It is hard to joke about something that has caused so much pain, so mercifully. In cities, where castes are somehow blurred by money and education, people tend to shrug the issue off. Castes are joked about, not cried over. On the other hand, rural India’s caste system is still, I think, pretty hardcore. Caste-related murders are common and low caste people live a hard, sad and fearful life. But this is a side of India, definitely not shining, that few people are interested in and even fewer do report from (grab Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger for a ferocious glimpse of it).

Poverty, arranged marriages and castes: like India itself, it englobes millions of truths, contradictions, surprises and subtleties.