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Posts from the ‘India’ Category

Fantastic Fluidity

Some more thoughts as we travel around India, especially on their wonderful railways.  To many in the West, any discussion about India is typically framed around the challenges the country faces – its corruption, its journey from a heavily regulated past, its crazy traffic habits and its lack of quality infrastructure.  There seems to be the view that the more “westernized” it becomes, the better.  However, from a number of angles India may in fact be better positioned for the future than we are in the West.
Let me explain by starting with the astonishing traffic experience you get, right from the moment you leave the curb at Delhi Airport.  From my British standpoint, it’s absolute madness: constant tailgating, cars meeting each other head on and only veering away at the last minute, incessant hooting (indeed their favourite saying is that to drive well you need good brakes, a good horn and good luck…).  It is interesting that when you look at the road stats, deaths per capita are higher, but not that much higher, than the developed world (see WHO stats here).  This is partly due to lower levels of car penetration, of course, but its also due to the serenity I was referring to in my last post: despite the truly acrobatic nature of much of the driving, I have yet to see a single instance of lost temper or panic, which is why most accidents happen.  Their tolerance for constant road negotiation seems bottomless, whereas we act with brittle, puffed up anger at the slightest sleight.  And, when you stand back at look at it, their traffic is astonishingly efficient at pushing the most through the smallest openings – it seems to imitate water through a course, rather than the prussian “keep your distance” protocols I was brought up on.  That got me thinking: rather than trying to get robotic cars to imitate brittle westerners with their low boiling points, it would be much better for the machines to imitate the Delhi rush hour. The obvious point is that it would take some time for Westerners to get comfortable in this new, fluid world, whereas Indians would take to it like ducks to water.

From traffic, you can get to other areas where India’s sometimes alarming framelessness is in fact its greatest strength.  Many people have remarked that, given the advance of mobile telephone technology and the relative paucity of fixed line infrastructure, India is “missing out” that stage of development.  But this is really only half the story: yes, they are making their calls on their mobile phones, but the real story is what else they are doing on them.  Apps like Uber have opened up new avenues to match buyers and sellers of services, but this is causing severe indigestion in the rigid, “switched circuits” of the developed world, where value chains have ossified into tightly delineated, company intermediated exchanges where most Westerners have managed to avoid the indignity of having to pitch (and possibly fail) for business.  Cue attempts by Western courts to hem the new technology into old cast iron cages of twentieth century labour relations, like insisting on a saddle in a car.  Good luck with that.  India, by contrast, is already the ultimate “gig economy” where value chains form and reform with great flexibility, allowing the real economy to operate at digital speed, the challenge facing everyone in the twenty-first century.  

Of course, this is not to say that India, like all nations, does not face any serious challenges.  Any visitor will be struck by their levels of poverty, and despite my protestations about their driving, 140,000 are killed on the roads each year.  However, they possess great strengths, and it remains to be seen whether that brittle Western ego that prevents us from enduring the tiniest roadside affront will also deign to see what we can learn from them.  If so, it is truly an Eastern future.


Dwelling a bit on one of the subjects of the last post, I thought I’d spend a little time on the nature of Indian identity.  I do so, dear reader, as a man whose only understanding on India hitherto has come from sport, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and reading The Economist, whose single lens is one of government deregulation like a stuck record blaring out peons to free trade, drowning out other perspectives but appearing to inform.  So, if I appear gauchely simplistic, or indeed step in the cow poo of historical inaccuracy (a particular crime in this bovine hero state), please forgive me.  My intention is not to be authoritative but to pass on what strikes me, as it might other chaps from my generation similarly starved.

I remarked that Indian history seemed less Hindu than I had been expecting: the religion of the ruling Mughals had in fact been Islam, and whilst they destroyed many Hindu temples, they did not seem too keen to subject their newly conquered peoples to much forced conversion.  Over time, they seem sensibly to have assimilated many of the native traditions and beliefs, blending what they regarded as the best of all the traditions into an imperial humanist creed – a sort of Now That’s What I Call Religion 1.  Thus the Mughal Emperor Akbar, arguably the greatest of the great Mughals, could fashion a column (below) upon which he sat to receive counsel from his advisors that incorporated both Islamic and Hindu imagery, and even Graeco-Roman columns, acknowledging the influence particularly Alexander the Great had on the country.  

At the same time in Europe, the French were massacring each other on St Bartholomew’s Day, the English were burning each other, and the Germans were gearing up for a Thirty Year War that seems to have been every bit as defenestrating (as it were) for the common man as the Second World War.  And all over (simplistically) liturgical differences.  Of course, it was more complex than that: ambitious would-be kings clothed themselves in religious grievance to surf to power, but that is my point: there doesn’t seem to have been this rigid church-state attachment in India, giving the lie to my lazy assumption that the world has become more ecumenical as it has aged.

Another reason for less historical religious heat and light in India is that those religions originating here are less about preparations for the next life, and more about how to go about this one.  Perhaps that’s why they can be blended more easily than “true path” religions, where borrowing suggests apostasy.  Which gets us back to indianness: from the very ancient civilisations that grew up around the Indus, through the Mauryan Empire and onto the Mughals, there has been a strong strain of non violence and a sense of the pursuit of transcendence (India gave Buddhism to the World, after all) which gives them a general serenity that I find remarkable and charming.

Before you charge me with having a few too many Kingfishers, I’m not blind to some of the rough edges in their past.  Karen and I visited the site of Gandhi’s assassination (of course by a Hindu nationalist upset by his tolerance of Islam), where the pain of the partition is particularly evident – there was violence on scale that dwarfs Aleppo.  Talking to Indians today, that decision to create Pakistan in 1947 still rankles and methinks there might be a few more chapters to go on that one.  All I’m saying is that India seems not to be an idea dependent on a particular religious creed, battle or sense of injustice (and, believe you me, they’ve had a few of those, particularly from us British), in great contrast to some European states I could mention.

Delhi Thoughts

Karen and I have just spent the last 24 hours in the extraordinary city of Delhi.  For those who don’t know, the real Delhi (or the “Old” one, according to the British) is actually eight cities, and both old and new (the one laid out by Lutyens, the Art Deco designer of the Cenotaph) contain fully 17 million people.  It is a return for me, having played a hockey tournament here in 1994.  It captured me then, and I vowed to come back: it hasn’t disappointed.  

Why? There’s something releasing about Indians: to this stuck-up and stiff Englishman, their joy, their charm and their sheer delight at being alive (despite some pretty obvious poverty) is an inspiration.  What I’m discovering is that this isn’t new, and the same captivation was felt by those Englishmen coming in the days of Empire.  Freed from the rigid conventions of Victorian uniform and cooking, arriving in India to the sight of such a cornucopia of colour and of taste was clearly impactful then and it retains its impact now, even though we English have loosened a bit since the days when a chair leg was seen as impossibly erotic.

We have spent the last day and a half visiting a series of historical sites, which has taught me a little more about Indian history, and reinforced the gut instinct that history rhymes in a big way.  My impression of India has always been of a restless Hindu majority rather sitting on its Muslim minority: the latest hooha over Prime Minister Modi’s links to Hindu nationalists only goes to illustrate this in my mind.  However (and, reader, you may already be aware of this, so humour me), the reality is that the Muslim faith was that of the Mughal rulers who held sway for almost 200 years, and Delhi is full of their triumphant architecture, and indeed of their pious vandalism, where Hindu temples were destroyed and the idols contained therein had their faces defaced – Isis, anyone?

Of course, I have to admit that part of my thrill of being in India is an association with a time when Britain led the World – the Indians harbour still a respect for its old oppressor that is sadly so at odds with its 21st Century reality: health and safety mad (completely absent in India, it seems), cringing insularity and the ascendancy of the little people.  Heho.