A Short Update On India and Open Defecation

Tom Friedman Ever Been On This Bus?It is 2013 and I still get emails about this post from February of 2009. It was an exceptionally harsh post on and about India. My main reason for writing it? I was sick and tired of all the bullshit in the Western press about the Indian economic miracle. I was also very sick of what Pankaj Mishra in this recent New York Review of Books essay calls, “day tripping columnists” from the West. This is clearly a jab at Tom “Flathead” Friedman, but could be a jab at many others too boot. I do wonder how many people have spent more than two weeks in India?

Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley certainly did, and he called India right way back in 2007. On a visit to Bombay he noted that the infrastructure was horrid and would at some point become a serious bottleneck to economic growth to the country. How did he come up with such a fanciful economic prediction? Did he run a quantitative model on the country? Did he look at its current account deficit and extrapolate out? Did investment banking friends of his tell him that at some point they’d simply stopped lending to India because of some hidden fundamentals they’d uncovered and didn’t like?

None of those actually–and probably all of them at a later date. At the time he made this prediction, however, based on a lot of his own personal experience in the developing world and one critical observation he had while on the trip. He was on India’s sole north to south superhighway (only four lanes total at the time) and his car almost his a cow.


Beggar LadyHere were are in late 2013 and his prediction has pretty much come true. Economic growth in India has been cut in half–actually more than half from its peak after the “reforms” of the 1990s. The main problem is that there is no manufacturing–and if there were, as I clearly said back in 2009 it couldn’t get to port because of India’s shitty infrastructure. Therefore, there is very little employment growth. Yet, the extraction economy continues and India, by some measures, has actually gotten worse.

Let’s recount just where India now stands in 2013:

All of the following stats were gleaned from and/or directly quoted from the above-linked Mishra story, so read it.

One hundred people in India are worth $300 billion, 25% of the nation’s GDP.

Brazil grew by only 1% between 1993 and 2005 but reduced poverty twice as quickly as India.

Bangladesh, which is half as rich as India on a per capita basis, has a longer life expectancy, better child mortality and immunization rates than India.

The 2011 census of India revealed that half of Indian households practiced open defecation. For those of you who are daft, this statistic means that one of every two people in the country takes a shit in public. I don’t like to euphemize. No toilets, so men just unzip their trousers or women hike up their saris, squat down and shit. In public.

Good enough visual for you?

“Almost half of Indian children are underweight,” compared to 25% in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Calorie and protein intake among the poor has actually dropped” in India since the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 60s.

Bangalore Air PollutionMishra writes: “The skies are polluted. The rivers are dead or dying. Waters tables are falling. Forests are disappearing.”

The man who very well may be the next Prime Minister of India—Narendra Modi—was barred from traveling in the United States for his alleged complicity in communal violence—also known as incitement to race or religion based mass murder—in Gujurat in 2002 that left 1,000 Muslims dead.

Overall, says Pankaj Mishra, “India’s economy grew at about 5% in the 80s, ran up to nearly 10% and recently has slowed to less than half that rate in recent months.”
Madurai Street Scene
Yes, there is a middle class in India with pent up consumer demand, which likes Western and global brands. They are gobbling up as much as they can. This middle class finds its incomes in real estate, IT, telecom and banking. When the offshoring play runs out IT and telecom will go bust. That will leave banking and real estate to pick up the slack, because there is little to no manufacturing in India. In fact, there is more in next door Bangladesh.
Time is like a wall of bricks
Then again, because of global warming Bangladesh will be underwater, so maybe India can help the Bangladeshis move their manufacturing base uphill.

Oh, and on my pet infrastructure project: the railways? Absolutely no money has been put into them to modernize them. Yes, you can buy a ticket online now, but tell me, how does a farmer who has to shit in public afford the internet?

The Weak and The Poor

Delhi SquatterOn the Arabian Sea-side of Mumbai sits a white jewel of a shrine in the midst of the sapphire waters. The causeway out to the shrine is about three-fourths of a kilometer long. I visited it one day in 2005. What I saw will haunt me forever. Even now, seven years in remove, it brings tears to my eyes and a choking rage at the way some people treat their fellow humans. In the words of Virgil, “if I had a hundred mouths and a hundred tongues and a throat of iron, I could not rehearse their crimes or name their punishments.”

One of the reasons I dislike India so much is the myth making, the lie that it is a nation living up to its Gandhian inspiration, when in reality it hides behind it, a nation of a few powerful feeding off the many who are weak.

Is this a harsh judgment? Then read this.

A Westernist Perspective?

Mahogany ForestBarnaby Haszard Morris takes me to task for having a ‘Westernist’ perspective. He also notes that my post, “Reflections On India” was “roundly negative . . . and irresponsible.”

For the record, and certainly not for the last time, let me spell something out. Of course I write from a Westernist perspective. I’ve never denied this. Nor should Mr. Morris. He is, after all, a creature of the West, just as I am. I’m sure he could argue that his Westernist perspective is softened due to the presence of Maoris in New Zealand life, just as sure as I could argue that my Westernist perspective is ameliorated by the presence of Native Americans in mine. But that would be a dubious argument.

That I am Western and that every single observation and judgment I make is inherently biased by my education and cultural upbringing has never been in doubt. It is precisely because I have such biases that I have traveled so widely. It’s what compelled me to live in South Korea in the early nineties. It’s what compelled me to travel from Istanbul to Bombay overland in 2003. It’s what compelled me to visit China almost a dozen times. It’s what compelled me to stay in a Mayan Indian village in Belize. It’s what compelled me to travel to Iran in 2006 and Ethiopia later that year. It’s what compelled me to travel in 2008 through 2009 from Singapore, across South East Asia, India and the Middle East as well.

Sometimes, in my quiet moments, I fear I am never going to be able to rid myself of my inherent biases that I may never be able to see the world through the eyes of coffee farmer in the Sumatran highlands, or a rice farmer in deepest China. Would that I were able to do so the stories I could tell, the ideas I could communicate and the humanity I could convey.

All of that being said, in his post, Morris offers up not one substantive disagreement with the core of my critique that India is plagued by the following: debilitating infrastructure issues, massive direct and observable pollution–one reason pollution is a curse in India is that Hindus find value in ritual purity, which is very different from hygiene–and a terribly corrupt bureaucratic and business class. He disagrees with the tone but not the substance and then accuses me of trying to “otherize” Indians. My only reply to this would be to take a look at the full body of my work before accusing me of such a thing. In my opinion that is an extremely ugly accusation to make without a vast arsenal of evidence to back it up. I’m not Flaubert and I’m not Lord Macaulay.

Now, to Morris’ credit, he does dink me about portraying Kerala as a place of “unicorns and rainbows.” Those aren’t my words–they are his–but he’s correct: I should have noted in the post that my view of Kerala is a relative view. (This has been corrected in the book, however.) Kerala is a terribly filthy place, just no where near as filthy as the Gangetic Plain. The point in singling out Kerala was to note that it was significantly better than the rest of India for several reasons that were beyond the scope of my post. Kerala has a very different history than that of the rest of India. Kerala from the very earliest of times was linked to the global ecumene by the Spice Trade, a subject I discuss at length in my book and one of the major reasons I visited Kerala. But again, this was far, far beyond the scope of a single blog post.

Morris then accuses me of “a lack of genuine interest in why things are as they are, or what the people he writes about represent historically, philosophically, emotionally.” I could just as easily accuse Morris as lacking a genuine interest in the rest of India, because, as he says himself, “I haven’t travelled extensively in India.” Why not? You’ve been there for two years? Is such behavior not indicative of someone uninterested in why all of India is the way it is, or what the people of India represent historically, philosophically and emotionally?

You see how easy it is to set up such a silly argument? I can’t divine his motives because I haven’t investigated any of his other writings on Kerala, or India for that matter. But I seriously doubt he is uninterested. If he looked a little deeper he might notice the same in me, but he didn’t.

Here’s what I think: Morris isn’t disagreeing with me, per se, he’s just arguing from authority: because he lives there only he is capable of making such judgments, judgments that are identical to mine. There is also a need as a blogger to simply comment. It’s almost compulsive at times, the need to say something about something you know, even if you agree, but disagree on the margins. Look, I’ve done all this myself–and will no doubt do it again–so no harm, no foul. And, of course, not all arguments from authority are wrong, especially in a post-modern, super relative world, but Morris’ attempt in this case falls flat.

In the end I believe the reception the article has received in India speaks for itself. It was written nearly two years ago. I still get close to ten emails a week about it, of which nine out of ten Indians agree with the substance. Was I roundly negative? Sure. That was the whole point of the post. It wasn’t an unkind post. It wasn’t a message of insults or name calling. I did not imply or say outright that Indians were somehow inferior than me, or the West. My criticisms were based on empirical observation and a desire to see India live up to her own high aspirations and honor her own values, values the rest of the world could learn from. What it said was, if India wants to modernize–a choice entirely up to Indians, I hasten to add–India will have to face some hard truths. Facts are inconvenient, but never irresponsible.

And sometimes the most responsible (and kind) thing is to deliver harsh truths without sugar coating.

Words Written In The Shade Of Aurangzeb’s Tomb

Tomb Of AurangzebI saw Aurangzeb, the ‘the world conquering emperor’ sitting at the feet of Baba Shah Muzaffar weaving a skullcap, his head bowed low.

A harsh, dry February wind blew up from Kanyakumari, over the Wayanands.

“Master,” Aurangzeb said, “I have conquered the Deccan and sent the infidel fleeing in the four directions.”

Aurangzeb’s men had slaughtered a hundred thousand souls.

To this Baba lifted his gray gaze.

“But you have not conquered yourself.”

On Trains in India

Delhi SquatterA correspondent from India chimes in on my criticisms of the rail system in India. Full disclosure he writes on more topics than this, but I want to address his one idea on the trains in India specifically, as it is a meme I encounter about the online booking system in India that is, well, rather infuriating. He writes:

a) I travel regularly by train and it never takes more than 5 minutes to book a confirmed ticket online.

This is all fine and well. I applaud the ease with which middle class Indians, all 120 million of them, can use the internet to make online reservations.

But really, we’re forgetting the other 880 million Indians who do not have internet access, much less know what it is. This is a bogus excuse.

Does the farmer in Orissa who needs travel 300 miles to go to a family wedding, or somesuch, have access to the internet?

Does the woman who lives in a small Kerala town, with several children, and no internet access, have the whereabouts to visit her son in the army halfway across the country?

Or do they both have to stand in interminably long lines at the train station, fighting off huge crowds for a day or longer, just to get their tickets?

If you have ever traveled in India you know the answer to this, even if you life in a middle class cocoon of privilege and servants.

On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.

Home To A Billion Heartbeats

Indian Mass TransitEdmond writes in from India:

Dear Sean Paul Kelley,

let me tell you, india is the only place with all its faults, the soul finds its freedom, its peace & joy.
being home to a billion beats , this country has huge resources & beyond. can they be typified under a single banner?

i agree when you say, this is a dirty place, electrical grid is surely a joke, there are many other concerns which india faces today.

but that doesn’t mean people out here aren’t interested . we are. to every enemy there is a friend. to all corrupt people, there are good people. its all round the corner, just a glance away.

i wudnt want to call you the spoilt kid of the west, but when you compare, why is there so many broken families? divorce rules the roost. depression takes its toll. at a young age , students are into bad company?

i bet, this is far far better in India. night life is the only thing in most mindset in westerners.
the govt here is lack lustre, more appropriate corrupted, but change wont happen in a day right?

we can always look at the bright side of things, if we want too. its all in the state of mind.

” Here are some amazing facts that will make you more proud to be an Indian. Read on …
India invented the Number System. Zero was invented by Aryabhatta. India never invaded any country in her last 10000 years of history.

Sanskrit is the mother of all the European languages. Sanskrit is the most suitable language for computer software, according to a report in Forbes magazine, July 1987.

The World’s first university was established in Takshila in 700BC. More than 10,500 students from all over the world studied more than 60 subjects there. The University of Nalanda built in the 4th century BC was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in the field of education.

Ayurveda is the earliest school of medicine known to humans. Charaka, the father of medicine consolidated Ayurveda 2500 years ago. Today Ayurveda is fast regaining its rightful place in our
civilization.India was the richest country on earth until the British invaded in the early 17th Century. Christopher Columbus was attracted by India’s wealth.

Bhaskaracharya calculated the time taken by the earth to orbit the sun hundreds of years before the astronomer Smart. Time taken by earth to orbit the sun in the 5th century – 365.258756484 days. The art of navigation was born in the river Sindh 6000 years ago. The very word Navigation is derived from the Sanskrit word NAVGATIH. The word navy is also derived from Sanskrit ‘Nou’.

The value of “pi” was first calculated by Budhayana, and he explained the concept of what is known as the Pythagorean Theorem. He discovered this in the 6th century long before the European mathematicians. According to the Gemological Institute of America, up until 1896, India was the only source for diamonds to the world.

Algebra, trigonometry and calculus came from India. Quadratic equations were by Sridharacharya in the 11th century. The largest numbers the Greeks and the Romans used were 106 whereas Hindus used numbers as big as 10**53(10 to the power of 53) with specific names as early as 5000 BCE during the Vedic period. Even today, the largest used number is Tera 10**12(10 to the power of 12).

Usage of anesthesia was well known in ancient India medicine. Detailed knowledge of anatomy, embryology, digestion, metabolism, physiology, etiology, genetics and immunity is also found in many ancient Indian texts.

USA based IEEE has proved what has been a century old suspicion in the world scientific community, that the pioneer of wireless communication was Prof. Jagdeesh Bose and not Marconi.
Sushruta is the father of surgery. 2600 years ago he and health scientists of his time conducted complicated surgeries like cesareans, cataract

, artificial limbs, fractures, urinary stones and even plastic surgery

and brain surgery. Usage of anesthesia was well known in ancient India. Over 125 surgical equipment were used. Deep knowledge of anatomy, physiology, etiology, embryology, digestion, metabolism, genetics and immunity is also found in many texts.

The earliest reservoir and dam for irrigation was built in Saurashtra.

Chess (Shataranja or AshtaPada) was invented in India. When many cultures were only nomadic forest dwellers over 5000 years ago, Indians established Harappan culture in Sindh Valley, known as the Indus Valley Civilization.

The place value system, the decimal system was developed in India in 100 BC. Spiritual science, Yoga and most of the religions were found in India and the teachings spread all over the world by Indian Mystics and the Saints.

The World’s First Granite Temple is the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The shikhara is made from a single ‘ 80-tonne ‘ piece of granite. Also, this magnificient temple was built in just five years, (between 1004 AD and 1009 AD) during the reign of Rajaraja Chola

India is…….the Largest democracy in the world, the 6th largest country in the world AND one of the most ancient and living civilizations (at least 10, 000 years old).
The game of snakes & ladders was created by the 13th century poet saint Gyandev. It was originally called ‘Mokshapat.’ The ladders in the game represented virtues and the snakes indicated vices. The game was played with cowrie shells and dices. Later through time, the game underwent several modifications but the meaning is the same i.e good deeds take us to heaven and evil to a cycle of re-births.”

there is so much, & so much more. but is it the blind side??
why are the people there  so racists? did the people there create human or God did? where do you compare culture? & traditions?

moreover, how can you help to make this country what it can be? people like mother Theresa came here, did their best, many more are doing it. this can only change with time. the west only robbed india & went back. if not for the independence movement, we would still be slaves.

i can go on and on, but intend to stop here. i would want to here from you.

Dear sean, this is just my opinion, no offences, i just disagreed on some issues but respect your right to say.

do you want to make a trip to this country again ? would be happy to meet you. await your reply
yours in friendship,

First and foremost, thank you Edmond for writing in. I’ve received countless letters from Indian expats and residents. Most of them have been similar in temperament to yours in that they highlight the ancient glories of India as a way of pointing towards the future.

That may be so, but in a former life I was an asset manager and one key principle we learned was ‘past performance is no guarantee of future results.’

Just look at America! What began as an auspicious experiment in Enlightenment Political Theory, progressed , after our Civil War and Progressive Era to the Vanguard of the West is now sinking under the combined weight of greed and anti-intellectualism run amok. We, like you, cannot rest on our laurels. When we do, we betray our fundamental principles.

But, I should really, rather respond to your specific arguments, or historical anecdotes, such as they are:

a.) Sanskrit, while an amazing language and one that has facilitated a great many intellectual awakenings in the East and West, is not the Indo-European mother tongue. As you and I both know, the Aryans who invaded Hindustan around 2,000BCE brought with them a proto-Sanskrit closely related to Avestan and the Anatolian ancestral tongues.

b.) I was unaware of the university at Takshila, but this doesn’t surprise me. India has a very long and distinguished history of learning.

c.) Aryuveda: yes, indeed. India has given much to the world and the West ignores its gifts mostly due to ignorance and arrogance.

d.) Columbus and the wealth of the Indies: this is indisputable, if largely forgotten in the West as well. Columbus believed the earth was a globe–another idea I believe that has its genesis in a fusion of Greek and Indian knowledge–and sailed West in the (false) belief that he would reach India.

e.) Higher Math, Algebra and Zero: Zero, as a concept came from India and it was a concept the West resisted for centuries. The higher math examples you offer I can’t speak to, as I am no mathematician or historian of math, except I can say, with certainty, that algebra did not come from India. Algebra was a Perso-Arab development that came from the region between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers in what is present-day Uzbekistan: Kwarazm.

But that’s really not what’s important. What’s key here is that India, as you document, has given the world many great things. This is not, nor was it ever, in dispute by me. My purpose, in arguing the way I did in “Reflections on India” was not to take away form what India had given the world, but to ask: how does India plan to follow up on its previous accomplishments. Also, I wrote it as a tonic to much of the hype here in the West about how India is the next ‘big thing.’ And all the nonsense about ‘how easy it is to do business in India.’

While what I wrote was addressed to my India friends in particular, it was meant as a wake-up call to Western businessmen and women about the difficulties they will face doing business in India. There is a lot of myth-making about India here in the West, especially by people like Tom Friedman. It needs to be countered. If India and the United States are going to have a global partnership of sorts, as looks increasingly likely, well, then we need to understand each other better, not just our strengths, but our weaknesses, as well.

Would you not agree?

I Get Hatemail

A Toilet In Hell?My post ‘Reflections On India’ has generated a great deal of email. More email than anything I have every written, as a matter of fact. Most of the emails have been positive, in one way or another. I’d say the ratio is about 35-1 positive to negative.

In the post I was very harsh on India; however, what I wrote seems to have struck a chord. I’ve been moved by the honest replies I’ve gotten and look forward to meeting many new friends when the chance comes. But today I received my first hate email via Facebook.

The title was simple and eloquent: “Go Fuck Yourself.”

The body of the email was equally simple: “Motherfucker.”

Now, aside from the fact that I have dated women who are mothers from time to time, I don’t think this is what my interlocutor meant. I was tempted to tell him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” But I didn’t and I replied thusly:

“That’s quite an intelligent reply. I’ll be sure an add that one to my next response post.
However, if you would like to try again and actually offer substantive points to debate, instead of insults, I’d be happy to discuss this with you.
Sean Paul”

In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to point my new friend to this New York Times story validating everything I ever said about India’s rail lines.

It can’t all be negative, however. So, I offer this wonderful photo as evidence that there are things in India you simply will never see anywhere else in the world.

“The West Pollutes Far More Than India Does”

Tikka ColorsSB writes:

You clearly lack understanding and find India an easy target.

You say, “In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians.”

When you have a large population that lives in poverty, you immediate concerns are not the environment. Maslows theory is well known. And as far the pollution is concerned, the West pollutes far more than what India does. I guess what you really meant was sanitation.

My lack of understanding? Perhaps, as I am not omniscient, but I often find when someone uses, “you lack understanding” as an opener it means they’re just unwilling to listen. As I said, I may lack understanding, but I do not lack the will to understand. So, perhaps we can move this conversation forward and in good faith I offer a few corrections on my end.

Yes, there is a difference between sanitation and pollution. Many of the issues I address are, more properly, understood under the heading of sanitation. India’s very real air-pollution in cities aside, let’s focus on sanitation, as I’ve since been corrected many times, not only about the difference between the two, but also the fact that India’s carbon footprint, per capita, is one of the lowest in the world. I am also aware that the Indian conception of purity and cleanliness is much different than that in the West. It is a cultural issue. My point about sanitation is this: if Indians desire more investment from the West, this is something Indians need to address from a purely self-interested, pragmatic calculation. I’ll say it again: this is India’s choice, and as I have made clear, I respect India’s choices.

I’d also add, in India’s favor the fact that the wildlife in India is almost the most diverse and rich in the world, outside of Africa it certainly is. The lack of hardcore, industrial pollution in India is one of two reasons for this bounty. The other is the simple fact that most Indian’s are vegetarians of a sort, and the wildlife is much safer than in a place like China. This is to be applauded by all peoples, not just the self-righteous environmentalists of the West, in our increasingly small world

You say: “Infrastructure is poor. I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the US I guess.”

The West did not build all its infrastructure in one day. And when you have two hostile nuclear armed neighbors, you are forced to spend on defense.

No doubt this is true. However, China, which has a population larger than India’s, and started from a baseline GDP per capita similar to India’s created world-class infrastructure in less than 40 years. India is twenty years along in its reform effort and not even remotely close to where the Chinese were in a comparable stage. And China had the same excuse of nuclear armed neighbors: Russia and the US bases in Japan. You can use this excuse all you want, but it is a crutch, just like the one the US uses on the ‘War on Terror.’ It’s a false choice: either we invest in our own people and live up to our own ideals, as democracies, or we don’t. The US falls far, far short of its ideals, actually betraying them far too often for my taste. But having ‘bad neighbors’ or ‘people who hate our freedoms’ is a lame excuse. Nothing more.

You say, “The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in status.”

The British too had servants in the 19th century while the Americans had their slaves.

The likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson talked about right to freedom but never gave it to their black slaves. In fact racism against blacks continued till as late 1960′s and 70′s. That’s 200 years after they got independence. But those years did not have media scrutiny and internet.There are large number of illegal migrants in US and Europe who actually work as servants at homes.

I don’t dispute any of this. I’ll only say the following two things. One, you can lecture me on racism when a Dalit is prime-minister of India. Until then, I have an African-American president, and while I criticize him frequently, I am proud of that my country has largely, but not perfectly, moved past race. This is one ideal we have lived up to as a society. Not without pain and suffering, but we have made very real progress.

Second: Russia, Great Britain, France and the US all did away with slavery and involuntary servitude in the 19th century. When are you going to do the same? When does the reality of building an economy on the sweat of another man or woman’s labor become too much? And this is not about guilt, historical or otherwise, as guilt is too easy to project. It is about mobilizing the best capital you have in India: all of your people, men and women.

You say, “And I’ve seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does”

No doubt that India has its problems. But you never mentioned its strengths. India has democracy. It is perhaps the only instance where democracy has worked despite widespread poverty.

India cannot throw away slumdwellers like China does. For Beijing Olympics, large number of people were simply thrown out.

China has massive pollution. Most people, including those in cities actually drink polluted water.

India has its problems and at least for the next 20 years, many of these shall continue. But it is our democracy that gives us hope. Ours is an extremely complicated society. We have defied the basic definition of a nation state – which talks about people bound by common culture, language and religion. We have created our own definition. That’s India.

No doubt India has its strengths, some of which I have identified above. There are more. And I will write about them at length sometime soon, when I wind down a few writing projects I am engaged in currently. As I have said before in other forums: my primary aim in my ‘India Critique’ is to impart some realism about the hurdles Western businessmen will face if they choose to invest in India. A myth is being built around the ‘emergence of India’ and I think that myth needs to be demystified. I’m a realist. I see the opportunities in India. But I see them with open eyes, not rose colored glasses.

Do you agree? Disagree with the author’s opnion? Then leave a comment!

Further commentary on India can be found here. Reader responses to this story can be found here and here. Please contact me via Facebook (you can message me via Facebook even if you don’t have an account) if you would like to respond. My only request is that you be polite and not call me names.

The Glory Of India

Shore TempleI received this email yesterday from a friend in India in response to my post entitled, “Reflections on India” and I just had to post it. It encapsulates in a way I never could, all that is India, in all of her glorious complexity. Not only is it a beautiful email, it contains something that I’ve never been explain to people: the music of Indian English. If you’ve never heard Indian-English spoken in India, you are missing something:

At first, I wanted to stab you and snatch your purse, but then I realized I cant do that. Cause you don’t have a purse, your a man! err.. Yeah I read your name after I read the write up, call me careless err.. you already did hehe, sorry I’m sounding so cocky but I’m just a lad trying to grow a French beard for quite some time now.

I must say, it’s an impressive write, I’d relish it with a tinge of lemon in root beer if I were in any other country (I dont know how root beer tastes with lemon) but as it is, I’m an Indian (with no motives to kill you)

Its good to know that you’ve seen almost all of India and better, came up with so few problems. Makes me think.. is 4 your favorite number? Cause I can be sure that there are a few thousand more problems in India. Your observations and explanations are really nice and pictures. pollution, lack of infrastructure , corruption etc etc are indeed very Indian. But India is not a city built in an Age Of Empires game. Millions of people divided on probably more lines than there are people have just one thing in common, we are Indians. Conservative, primitive, careless, hypocritical or whatever suits the mood, and have been a part of this ever growing world with due attention and equal consideration. Everyone is cared for, people care for themselves, selfish as one might call it, but I see it to be as an effort to promote and make place for personal interests. Simply, its like the millions of crazy school clubs that the kids in the US come up with. Only here, its grown ups fighting for rights and also end up getting free publicity. These are the games Indians play, its actually a book, called Games Indians play, nice and funny. You should read it.

Mad Sadhu!I read this other book called Keep off the grass, a book by a second generation Indian who made about half a million dollars working on wall street. The book starts with his feel of wanting to know his roots, and he comes down to India for an MBA. His experiences of India are quite similar to yours and he knows nothing of his mission of soul or root search. By the end, he begins to read a few books by Ruskin Bond and relates himself to Mr. Bond. He feels that Mr. Bond would be able to clear out a few things and plans a visit.

The protagonist asks “why did you leave London? Why did you settle down in India?” To which Mr. Bond said “hmm.. well, it always had to be India, it couldnt be anywhere else, I guess. I belong here. No publishing deal or pound advances in the UK could change that.”

He paused, “you know I read a joke in the newspaper this morning. If Brooke Shields marries Ruskin Bond she would become Brooke Bond. Silly, I know, but well, I almost fell down laughing. Could I ever appreciate that in London or anywhere else in the world? Belonging, thats what it is about. You cant be happy if you cant be whole. Does that make sense?

The protagonist, Samrat Ratan decides to do away with the life his parents chose and settles down in India.

Tamil GompuramYou are right, I am careless, actually carefree, carefree of what you have to say about me. I want to change, I know it would only do good, but things are not in my hands, I cant go out overnight and tell people not to wear green socks, cause then people would first ask me why, then tell me that i didnt have the right to say, then that they like green socks and there are people who would ask me what socks are.. I hope you get my point.

I do not have numbers, nor do I know more to be able to speak to you. But India is not a book, not a word, not a country. Its a feel. I like to call myself a world citizen, but there’s only one place I call home. Sentimental fool I might sound, but that again, is Indian! It’s a place where we offer milk to snakes, touch and worship a cow thats blocking traffic. My dad doesnt fight with the father of a kid who beat me up, nor have I learnt his credit card numbers by heart. But I have people to go home to. The inability of the government to provide me with amenities is replaced by the care and comfort of my home. change this, and I would cease to be me.


Well said.


Do you agree? Disagree with the author’s opnion? Then leave a comment!

Further commentary on India can be found here. Reader responses to this story can be found here and here. Please contact me via Facebook (you can message me via Facebook even if you don’t have an account) if you would like to respond. My only request is that you be polite and not call me names.