Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Nobel laureate and an auto-rickshaw driver

What's common to the two, you might be wondering. Well, nothing offhand. But I had a rather interesting experience with two of them today.

I hailed an auto to get to my destination today and I don't really remember what I was thinking but I was smiling. So the auto driver goes, 'You look very happy that I put the meter on'. Actually, that WAS a good thing - not all auto drivers here have the decency to put it on and often talk to you like they are doing you a favour - but in response to his statement, I said that I was generally smiling to myself. So he responds, 'That's good. It's good to smile'. And thus started a rather interesting conversation, which started off with the weather. According to him, Delhi's winters are not as cold as they should be because of the growing population and cutting down of trees to make way for buildings. This progressed to a discussion on how most Indians today in a city like Delhi are not honest - they attract all sorts of vile people. And the government is not able to manage the growing number of people, a majority of whom are illiterate migrants from places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, because the people in government are themselves crooks. To add fuel to the fire, I remarked that even if an honest man wants to get into politics, he becomes corrupt in due course. That seemed to go down well with the driver, who affirmed this and said that the number of good people is outnumbered by the corrupt and they are forced to toe the line or else be put in jail on a false accusation, or 'bumped off'.

Next on the agenda was the topic of AIDS. This guy seemed to be remarkably informed and as if he was reading my mind, he said that he watched the Discovery Channel in Hindi a lot. I was quite intrigued. Media certainly is making a difference to the lives of these poor people in India anyway. Apparently he had attended a talk by a lady who explained how AIDS is contracted. As a joke, he remarked that as AIDS has no cure yet, soon everyone in the world would be affected and we would cease to exist as a race! From AIDS he started his discourse on other diseases like diabetes and said that on the whole (a very astute statement, this) women were more unhealthy and prone to disease than men. I rose to the occasion as a woman and argued that this was because we have to bear children and take care of the house, trying to needle him again. He laughed and said that it was because they lacked exercise, and were content sitting in the house, especially in India, while men got much more exercise on a daily basis. I had to hand it to this guy!

Next was India's position in the world today. In his opinion, one cannot say as the BJP does that this is a Hindu land, based on Hindutva. Simply because it is no longer only the land of Hindus. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and a number of other religions have made India their home. He used the analogy of khichdi (which he told me, is used a lot by his fellow people), to say that just as you cannot separate the different kinds of dal easily once they are mixed - (moong, masoor, toor), you can't separate these different religions anymore. India's national language in itself, Hindi, can no longer be called the national language in a true sense because Hindi in Delhi and Hindi in Haryana and elsewhere sound so different. It is time to make way for English, the international language (!!!!).

And then of course, the philosophy aspect. I was wondering when that would come. He spoke about how when the eyes see something, a bag of money for example, it communicates this message to the mind, which then starts thinking of things like taking some of it, for example. So the mind is very strong, and though the soul should be stronger, often there is a tussle between the two.

I finally reached my destination, quite thankful that the auto driver had managed to keep his eyes on the road during his speech, and thanked him for an enjoyable ride.
The same afternoon, I attended a lecture by Professor Amartya Sen. His topic of discussion was 'India:Large and Small' and he traced India's history to its present-day politics, noting that the fact that India today has a Muslim President, Sikh Prime Minister and Christian leader of Opposition is testimony to its status as a melting pot of cultures. The party in power in 2002 during the Gujarat riots, the BJP, made a mistake when the state government failed to handle the issue adequately, and later on in December when it was re-elected to power, and this was seen in the massive victory that the Congress obtained in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. I was struck at that moment by the fact that what a poor auto-driver had told me just that morning, about India's secular status today, was almost exactly the same as the point that the Nobel laureate was making. One, a globally renowned academic and the other, the man on the street. How different were their education and background. And yet, how different are their lives today. One a global citizen, and the other an Indian from the hinterland.

Who would you say is more aware of the reality of life, and who is more educated?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

It happens only in India

Delhi's traffic is legendary and I have experienced it quite a few times by now, but yesterday was one of the worst traffic jams I have seen.

On the way to Gurgaon, the road had bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles and sitting in a car observing what was happening all around was quite amusing but at times downright exasperating. Obviously a few weddings were taking place at some of the farmhouses on that long stretch, because (and while I know for Delhi this is nothing spectacular) almost everyone sitting in the cars was dressed to kill, often bordering on the overdressed! After ten minutes, with traffic moving at snail's pace, I slowly turned my attention to the other side of the road to see if that side had better luck, and my jaw dropped as I noticed that cars were actually going in the OPPOSITE direction on that side of the road, to avoid the traffic jam. At first there were just a few, but deriving inspiration from the brave (or idiotic, whichever way you choose to look at it) drivers who were openly flaunting all traffic regulations in existence, soon I saw a file of cars following suit, with blinkers flashing as if that gave them the right to drive against the flow of traffic. As they say, it happens only in India!

Scene number two: a chariot with a lone driver emerging from a dark side street, all done up in flowers, but with no groom or bride or party of followers. It looked quite forlorn actually, as if it was expecting to be the centre of attraction but had to settle for being a broom thrown in a corner carelessly.

Scene number three: an elephant (rent of hiring it for a wedding: Rs.40,000 per evening approximately) outside a wedding venue, caparisoned and royal, as guests lined up behind it.

I suppose this was nothing compared to last weekend, where it was widely reported that 14,000 weddings took place on one day!! God knows what happened then!