A Travellerspoint blog

August 2010

Western India

Hello from India once again, hope you're enjoying the Summer!

When I flew back into India I had to take a 32hr train to Mumbai which eventually became 42hrs but it was alright as it turned up in the morning rather than at midnight. Whilst I think getting onto a busy train shows Indians at their very worst with all the fighting and inhumanity of it, once you're onboard I think it bizarrely shows them at their courteous most hospitable best. Traveling by train is my favorite mode of transport and India it's been a wonderful experience. Unlike buses they're comfortable and unlike planes they really help knit the landscape together giving you a real feel for how you move across the country geographically. India would also have to rank as the best country I've ever been to for land transport, whilst planes are surprisingly expensive overland travel here is insanely cheap- the train to Mumbai cost me just $10 for a 2nd class sleeper ticket. On top of that the combination of a large densely settled population of whom few have cars means that transport is always plentiful and I can rarely remember having to wait more than an hr or two to go anywhere. What isn't quite so easy is actually buying tickets; India is of course notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient and the process of buying a train ticket can often take more than 2hrs and involve having to speak to 4 different people. They're not really at the stage of computerized bookings let alone card payments and everything is very 'labour intensive'. As with many other things in India it also involves lots of annoying rules and regulations which can be another frustrating aspect of the country. The country is a stickler for unnecessary rules and dealing with low level clerks or security guards can be an absolute nightmare, like you're in a nation of Gareth Keenans. Several times I've got into ludicrous arguments with people over things like where you're allowed to stand on a train platform or waiting 2 minutes til a temple is officially opened etc. Of course you can always bribe them as this is India after all (as the Delhi Commonwealth games scandal is currently showing) but I'm not generally too keen on that..

When I arrived in the worlds 4th biggest city I instantly felt 'wow'! Mumbai is a phenomenal city and by some distance the hardest to describe that I've been to on this trip; at the same time it feels both very Indian and un-Indian in lots of ways and on every level I just found it a fascinating place to be. In fact so much so that I've written so much about it I'll need to send another email in a few weeks- sorry!
The Portuguese named it the good bay (bom bahia) and the city originally made up of islands has got a fantastic geography to it. Through tetrapods they've reclaimed enough land to connect the different islands of the bay and you're treated with wonderful vistas of skyscrapers looking out over the Arabian Sea along a series of curves reminiscent of Rio.
It's long been the most financially successful city in India and for over 100 years has attracted people from all over the place looking to seek their fortune.
In the early 1990's the then Finance minister and now PM Manoman Singh opened the Indian economy from a previous more finacncially regulated system. Since then India has been growing fairly rapidly as an economy and nowhere more so than Mumbai; home to the stock market and one of the worlds most important harbors it's growing wealth has created a fascinating cultural mix and it's definitely ground zero of the 'New India'.
It's a bit of a vague concept but to me it seems to mainly entail the swelling ranks of the middle and upper classes behaving and acting ever more Western and ever less Indian. They dress in Jeans and T-shirts, snobbishly refuse to speak anything but English and in Mumbai I saw things I've not seen anywhere else in the country; fat people, glamorous people, American cars and even a McDonalds and at times it feels not so much one but a few steps ahead of the rest of the country- or perhaps aside would be a better description.
It's very multicultural with a big Arabic presence as well as Europeans, Africans and others from all over Asia but I found the Indian diversity more striking to look at. Over 200 languages are spoken in the city and at times it feels like a microcosm of the country as a whole as years of attracting 5,000+ new inhabitants per week have given the city a striking breakdown of the different fashions, foods and languages of the different states but also one of the biggest rich-poor gaps you'll see anywhere in the world.

Whilst the likes of Brazil and South Africa are famous for it I believe India as a country and Mumbai as a city has perhaps now overtaken them all as the place where you see so many people with so much, but so many with almost literally nothing. Due to the more liberal market regulations introduced in the early 1990s, the sheer size of the population in India has meant that the number of entrepreneurs who've become millionaires in India has been skyrocketing in recent years to nearly 100,000. In Mumbai there are signs of this everywhere from the luxury apartments in the plum locations to some of the most expensive restaurants you'll see almost anywhere in the developing world, though the most extreme thing I saw was the incredible sight a Lamborghini flying along Marine Drive one day.
But at the same time 1/3rd of India's population still live on less than a dollar a day- you're never far from a bustee (shantytown) in Mumbai and many have much less than a roof over their heads. Even in some of the most prominent spots in the city (beneath the national bank, on the central Cowpatty beach etc) you see destitute refugee families huddled under makeshift tents or without even that level of luxury and I found nocturnal walks would have to be on the roads as most of the pavements are taken as beds for the homeless numbering in 6 figures. The monsoon in Mumbai is absolutely vicious and whilst the rains which can gut entire days out won't kill you, if you don't have a roof above your head it really would be a terrible and presumably fairly short life.
Like many quick growing developing economies a narrowing of the rich poor gap is high on the list of things India needs to improve on but it's a hard balance to pick. Much of their growth is based on lower taxes for companies and the rich but as you've probably heard the army has been fighting an ultra left wing peasant army called the Naxalites in the poorer states for some years now and trying to make sure everyone's quality of life improves over the coming years is not easy.

But it's not all about making money in Mumbai; it's also the undoubted cultural capital of the country and the entire subcontinent. Whilst it has a strong literary and arts scene it is of course most famous for Bollywood (or should it be renamed Mullywood?).
Over the last few years the films are generally agreed to have greatly improved with different plots from the overblown love stories and historical epics and a cut from the 3hr+ running times. But they still have the worst choreographed action sequences in the world, a laughably strict censorship (they cut away at 'you may now kiss the bride moments in wedding scenes' and go blank with health warnings when alcohol is shown being drunk) and the surreal leaps into expansive song and dance numbers so I've found myself surprisingly entertained by the films. India has an obsession with celebrities unlike anywhere I've seen before; if people rightly moan about the overdoses of Heat, Pop Idol etc we get in Western countries then put it this way- there is no Hindi word for 'overexposure'. If you took the 10 most famous English celebrities and counted how many times you saw their face in various media I estimate you'd count 1-3 times per day, but in India I'd put the 10 biggest celebs (say 8 Bollywood stars and the 2 biggest cricketers) at nearer double figures. They advertise absolutely anything and everything and whilst it's amusing to see 'hardman' actors plugging air fresheners I find it quite sad seeing Sachin Tendulkar fronting ads for cement companies. Without taking any particular interest in the film industry, through the sheer ubiquity of their images I found I could very quickly tell Katrina Kaif from Kareena Kapoor and one thing became very apparent. If you want to be a star in Bollywood unless you really are one of the 'beautiful people' just forget about it. Whilst there are normally a few comic roles and moustache toting baddies who don't need to look great it's fair to say 'not many' Indian men look like Salman or Shahrukh Khan but for the women it's much harsher. There are far fewer female roles and they're often nothing more than 'the love interest', whilst Hollywood is rightly criticised for overglamourising at times (eg Angelina Jolie in Changeling) it's nothing compared to Bollywood. Actresses who I'd consider as no more than quite good looking (eg Maggie Gylenhaal, Kirsten Dunst etc) would have to be content with little more than back up dancing roles here. Meanwhile actresses who are successful in Hollywood because they're very good at acting eg Hilary Swank or Toni Collette would be simply laughed out the casting agents door as the always perfect looking Pryti Zinta, Bipasa Basu and Ashwarya Rai (who actually was Miss World!) simply glide into all the best roles. The public seem to very much want fantasy and as a friend of mine who lived here a while put it cruelly (but fairly) "Nowhere in the world is the gap between the looks of people who you see on screen and on the street so wide".

One of the things I find surprising about Bollywood's enduring popularity is that the films are in Hindi but India is made up of so many different languages. Traveling around the different states one of the standard questions you get asked is 'Can you speak Malayam/Tamil/Gujarati'? etc or whatever the local language may be. Hindi is spoken in the so called 'cow belt' in the North and acts as the main language of the country but isn't spoken by everyone, particularly in the South. Therefore English is often used as the default 'national language' but that position is very controversial; Hindu nationalists in particular believe that Hindi should assume this role and be the 'Indian national language' and the country should ditch the colonial past. However India has an extremely English literary heritage boasting authors like Rushdie, Naipaul and Seth and I don't think it should drop English too much. One of the easiest things about travelling in India is that unless you're really in the sticks at least someone will speak pretty good English, the promotion of English in schools and the ability of most of the middle class to speak it fairly fluently is an advantage over the likes of China that the country shouldn't squander in attracting business and it's ability to communicate with the rest of the world generally.

After leaving Mumbai I went to the state of Gujarat; where half of Leicester originally comes from (it's where the Patels come from you see, and everyone seems to think London is the capital of Leicester) both culturally and geographically it's one of the most diverse states in the country, and I even fulfilled an odd ambition of mine in sleeping on the roof of a church in the former Portuguese colony of Diu :-).
The area of Saurashtra is one of the few places the British never conquered in the subcontinent and is also the last remaining refuge of Asiatic lions. Considering they were down to just 12 in the 1870's the current tally of over 300 represents a remarkable comeback, in their national park they're easy to spot. They don't quite have the looks of their African brothers as a huge bald spot and less luxuriant mane means they resemble Scar rather than Simba but in a country with the land pressures of India it's impressive to see they're still surviving. I also headed out to 'India's Wild West' in an area called the Kutch; towards the Pakistan border it's an extremely dry and infertile landscape but great to explore. Aside from the odd looking Siddi people (mixture of Indians and descendants of African slaves brought over by the Portuguese Gujarat is home to some of the most colourful adivasis (tribal peoples) in the country where I uncharacteristically felt out of my depth in my lack of tattoos and piercings. Many women have tattoos on every visible part of their bodies or carrying the familys' wealth around with bangles covering their entire arms though my favourite guy I saw had 42 facial piercings- it didn't look so good.

Gujarat is also the home state of Gandhi which any of my family can confirm is one of my all time heroes. Whenever I see a statue of the great man I have to have my photo taken with him and it's a sign of how lucky I've been in terms of where I've gone in recent years that some of my most prized photos are me with him locations as diverse at the source of the Nile in Uganda, on Central Avenue in Panama City and Gorky Park in Moscow. In India very quickly I had to ditch this photo fixation as the man is absolutely everywhere; whilst Nehru was India's first Prime Minister for a whopping 17 years, it's definitely Gandhi who's seen as the Father of the nation. Every medium sized city and up will have a big statue of him, the main street named after him and he regally appears on all the bank notes.
His achievements were wide-ranging, from philosophies on how to live a better life to more practical issues like improving education and healthcare but his achievements went deeper too with many great political figures (Luther King, Mandela etc) using his examples even now. His influence on India is profound but if there's one particular area I'd pick out of his achievements it would be beginning to give the most marginalized members of Indian society, the so-called Untouchable castes a sense of respect far beyond where they'd ever been before.
Whilst he eventually led the campaign for the the British to leave India he actually spent most of his life agreeing with the British occupation, he felt the British were a civilizing influence and crucially didn't understand the caste system and wouldn't pay any attention to it, this he felt was the future Hinduism needed to embrace. Whilst Americans don't understand how I can use 6 words to describe my 'class' the Indian system is way more complicated than England, there are 4 main groups but there are believed over 2000 sub castes and so complicated you could easily do a degree course in it. Unlike race or religion it's very difficult to 'spot' the differences yet it still plays a huge role in everyday Indian life. When independence came Gandhi made sure they had the vote, quotas in state jobs and parliament and technically removed the 'untouchables' designation altogether. However, many higher caste will refuse to drink from the same fountains, eat at the same restaurants etc in fear of 'ritual pollution' and a quick glance at the hilarious personal ads in the papers show phrases like 'social suitability' (ie of the right caste) to be the most important factor in deciding marriage.

One of the most insidious consequences of the caste discrimination is the so called honor killings where members of mismatched castes fall in love only to be shortly afterwards killed by the family of the higher caste partner. There are around 7000 of these killings every year and it's very hard for a non-Hindu to understand. The complex details which decide who can marry who also gives rise to the problem of dowries as women are seen as more or less the property of the family she is marrying into. This means the grooms family traditionally requires a payment to take her in (normally gold, jewellery etc.) and one of the biggest compliments you can pay someone in Hindi is "May you have 100 sons and no daughters" whilst one of the favorite curses is "May you have 10 daughters and they all marry well". Gandhi worked tirelessly to remove these outdated social practices but unfortunately they're still alive and well, particularly in the poorer countryside. Unsurprisingly with women so obviously second preference there are almost 10 men for every 9 women in the country and it's another huge challenge the nation faces as it tries to modernize.

I ended my time in Gujarat with a couple of adventurous (ie slightly reckless) days out when hunting the huge splendidly named Great Rann of Kutch salt marsh. When I got back to the nearest town someone asked me where I'd been and when I told him he gave me a shocked look and said it was deeply illegal and I could have got in a lot of legal trouble cos it was past the last town before the Pakistan border. I can't say I cared much as they were wicked days. I couldn't get any English out of the locals so ended doing a tortuous 3hr walk through these horrible huge weeds called gavel bandos or 'crazy thorn bushes' (which are decimating the landscape) in sandals before finally gloriously finding it. I waded in as far as my shins and took some photos of the endless horizon where something that appears to be 200m turns out to take 15mins before coming out. Some locals nearby were a bit shocked to see me but gave me a cup of chai and tried speaking to me in their local dialect, I worked out they were trying to ask where I was from but 'England' didn't seem to mean much to them. They started guessing other local states in India before one of them ejaculated 'Nepal'! and all the others congratulated him on getting the answer 'right'- I didn't really know what to say but it's one of those moments when I realised I'm both a long way from home and the world is really quite a big place.
Only to have that theory slammed back down the next day. A local told me about a temple in the middle of nowhere so I got a local bus for about 2hours and then walking a few km before finding it. There was very little there but hung around with the caretaker for a bit until I needed to head back, b4 I left he got me to sign his notebook which many Indians have. It was a few years old and there were a couple of other foreigners listed who'd obviously passed by before; whilst the name won't mean anything to most people on this list to those who it will you can understand quite how spooked I was when I saw the name Giora Moss and a Nigerian address given. It's a small world after all I guess.

I'm now in Rajahstan and will be slowly heading North for the next few weeks.
From Udaipur,

Posted by carlswall 13:38 Archived in India Comments (0)