Friday, January 29, 2010

A Method to its Madness

My last four weeks were spent in India, in a city down south called Hyderabad. This is the city I was born and raised in. I left Hyderabad eighteen years ago in search of America. Ever since, I have returned every couple of years from my current home in Brooklyn, to reconnect with my roots. My trips back are always complicated and conflicted with the inevitable question always posed, whether I could return to live here again-in urban India-and feel at home.

India is announced almost every other day in newspapers and on TV globally as "BOOM TOWN" nation. Even President Obama in his State of the Union address, highlighted India and China as two nations to watch as they transform into economic giants. While there is some truth to it and it is reflected in the rampant consumerism you see in the rapidly expanding urban middle class, there are other indicators that are far from being reached that would qualify India to be evolving into a "developed" nation. Clean air and drinking water for most is a luxury, poverty is sizable, corruption is ever present, social unrest is always round the corner, quality public services are in short supply and collective social responsibility is limited only to its expanding gated communities. Yet there is a method to this madness, and therefore India survives and thrives as a functioning democracy, decade after decade, falling, failing and rising to be reckoned with.

If one were to pick a metaphor to describe the state of affairs in this nation, any city roadway would paint an apt picture. The traffic in any urban city in India has always been in a state of complete chaos. It has steadily gotten worse with the astronomical growth in vehicular traffic, a reflection of the increase in purchasing power. People for some reason on the street do not see any purpose in obeying any rules, unless there is a policeman involved. Traffic lights seldom work, and when they do they are seen as an irritant. Then there are vehicles of all different speeds on the same road. From the rickshaw, mopeds, motorcycles to the buses, all fight for space on the same narrow street. While today you see, Benzes, BMWs, Bentleys and other gas guzzling mammoth machines shunned by the west, the fact of the matter is the roads have not changed at all. They are still bumpy, in disrepair and full of potholes and speed breakers. The new cars offer air-conditioning without which driving is an ordeal and injurious to health as the pollution is out of control. At every traffic stop one is stormed by destitute beggars and street vendors trying to eek out an existence selling tissue boxes and other cheap Chinese made knick-knacks. Sidewalks do not exist so people have to walk on the same street as the traffic. Having to cross a street as a pedestrian, is putting ones life at risk. And so the urban Indian street becomes a vivid representation of the struggle being waged inside the psyche of this great nation.

The person walking the street or riding a two-wheeler feels it is as much his/her street as the person driving a shiny Benz. And there in lies the problem. While India has achieved phenomenal growth since the economy liberalized two decades ago, certain fundamentals have not changed. And whether they will change is a question I ponder, every time I am here. I feel there is no cohesive vision for the future to level society in terms of basic human rights and dignity. It is a difficult proposition to fundamentally bring about change in the social and cultural behavior of a people, who have come to accept the apathy of the system as a constant companion. Navigating it is the only way to exisit. Class-ism, caste-ism, regionalism, ethnic division and disparity still seem to tear at the nation, and most people put up blinders to avoid confrontation in plain sight. A sense of collective social responsibility seems to be missing across all levels of society as a loss of sense of history seems to plague a people. On the other hand consumerism creates a greed that is insatiable, putting it in direct conflict with its spiritual foundations. It seems like there are two Indias that exist side by side. One that has money and aspires to afford an American lifestyle, and the other that struggles with inflation and just about makes ends meet. The India that wants to be America is the one that is celebrated and projected into the consciousness of the people via television, films, popular youth culture and everything else. All the while corruption becoming the mainstay and an ethical existence becoming harder to achieve as money becomes the only defining factor of ones success and status.

While corruption is not native only to India, it just happens to be in your face here. It runs from the bottom to the top touching every one in its path. While in America, the corruption seems to exist only at the highest levels. As America struggles to pass a Health Care bill and fails to fix Wall Street's debauchery, the cancer that grips its political and business establishment at this juncture, shows its devastating impact touching everyone in its path not just at home but around the globe. A nation that prides itself to be developed and wealthy, and a defender of democracy and freedom, in some ways is no different.

The over arching mood of any nation defines the people that live in it. One does get a skewed vision of reality when viewed through the eyes of the media, but the view one gets from one's car window sometimes is more telling. Hyderabad was a place I once loved, I am ambiguous about that love today. The people here are near and dear to me, but the city seems to be slipping away. Whether it is just the change I see that is not to my liking or whether it is the nostalgic self that yearns to see the past that is gone, in my eyes the corruption of the soul of the city is hard to escape from. Within one's four walls the culture is rich, irreplaceable and heart warming beyond compare. The generosity of its people is unmatched but why this does not translate out into the public sphere is a mystery. The Hyderabad of today is dotted with malls, hotels, fancy restaurants, trendy living spaces, software companies and multiplexes. What are gone are the wide open spaces, the culture of respect and the recognition of its rich history that made it a unique city. Every place has to change, and change is inevitable, but change that does not value the past is oppressive.

During my stay in Hyderabad, my father-in-law, to whom I was very close, met with a sudden end. He was an honorable professor who stood tall and believed in the dream Jawahar-Lal-Nehru envisioned in his youth. All his life he refused to bribe anyone and resisted all forms of corruption and lead an ethical life. It so happened that it became my responsibility to record his death at the local municipal office in order to receive his death certificate. The irony of it all is that I had to bribe an official to receive his death certificate in a hurry. 

Despite all of the above, despite all its flaws and frustrations there is something very present, tactile and sublime about this nation. Even if I don't physically live here, Hyderabad will always be home.
It is what it is.