I am currently in Pune, Maharastra, a burgeoning city in India, roughly 8,000 miles away from TNC, the Motley, and Sushi Cruise, sandwiched between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Along with Bangalore and Hyderabad, Pune is part of the robust Information Technology (IT) sector, which has carried much of India’s development. Although I am missing the simplicities of life—plain food, in particular—I cannot help but feel that I am extremely lucky to be here. Full disclosure: Try as I may, this letter will not teach you much about India. In short, I would have you try my shoes on for size, but shoes are overrated in India—and for good reason—the best way to know India is to touch its temples with bare feet and eat its food with your hands, making sure to lick off every last drop of dal.
Wherever your look, whichever stone you turn, India is a persistent contradiction. Perhaps it is the CMC in me, but the only coherent way I can describe it is to place its charms against its shortcomings in a sort of plus-minus, cost-benefit equation. Old men and women lie on the crumbling sidewalks, which double as runways for brightly colored saris and tailored kurtas. Intricately organized and meticulously decorated temples are hidden inside the inconspicuous frames of brittle walls. Skyscrapers with Indian-style toilets and bucket showers stand as proud as mountains, even as slums lie littered at their base. Spheres of smell constantly collide as wafts of fresh chapatis are overwhelmed by the fumes of rickshaws and two-wheelers shuffling travelers across the city. The latter sometimes collide against each other, as well, reminding me that the apparent ease with which they weave away from each other is not always without incident or accident.
Any attempt to illustrate India would be hollow without discussing religion, food, and promise.
Ganesh, Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, Kali, and hundreds of other deities adorn the corners of Hindu homes, temples, and buildings. Here in Maharashtra, Ganesh—endearingly referred to as Gonapati, which roughly means leader of all classes—is everywhere. Hundreds of Ganesh statues, icons, paintings, and stickers are loosely sprinkled throughout the city. Locals and “outsiders” worship these idols privately and publicly; their attentions could almost be casual if they were not so routine and sincere. People arrive in small crowds, hastily bowing their heads to the stoic idols and dipping the tips of their fingers in the scarlet powder to dot the center of their brow. The priests stand in front of the shrines, zealously attending to the deities by accepting offerings, offering blessings, and dressing the idols in an assortment of robes and jewelry often several times a day. But there is no need for a temple or a priest to communicate with the deities. Before I had my eyebrows threaded, the beautician insisted on dabbing ochre paste on a framed image of the elephant-human form and circling incense around its border. There was no hesitation in the act; it was done with the calm and care of an experienced artist.
This worship occurs with many other devas or devis, gods or goddesses. As I learned in my Hinduism class first semester of last year, Hinduism is a marketplace religion, catering to all needs and desires even when they would appear to contradict one another. The Birla temple, a Hindu sanctuary in Hyderabad, has stunning, hand-carved images of Visnu’s avatars, as well as of Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. Each city hosts a variety of Muslim temples, Buddhist monasteries, and Christian churches that readily supply spiritual sanctuary to accepting parties, among them those who vehemently reject the oppression of the traditional Hindu caste system.
And the food…
Suffice it to say that if I were to adhere to the custom of finishing everything on my plate or attempt to taste even the main dishes of every region, I would most likely be weighed down by an indecent amount of stupor and heft, seriously jeopardizing my ability to make my way out of India’s embrace. There really is no dearth of quantity, quality, or flavor, especially when you are craving a little less sweat-inducing-spice.
Overall, a lot of what you have read about India is true, including its promise. Although levels of development vary considerably, the potential that is so heavily reported is evident in the exchanges I have had with people our own age. In Pune, young people not only wish to learn, but also actively pursue higher education. Interestingly, I almost feel that there are comparatively more women here pursuing degrees in finance and economics than there are at CMC. Overall, young college students and recent graduates have an immense amount of alacrity about their own future, even as international rating agencies become less hopeful about India’s forecast. The students’ insights are inspiring. These young men and women are aware of the enormous challenges that India faces, most of which are symptoms of the widespread and almost chronic government corruption, but unfazed by its effect on their own chances of success.
Overall, being in India feels like a timewarp of sorts. The blend of tradition and modernity is lumpy, the former being rich in some areas and relatively sparse in others. The feeling that the present is quickly becoming the past frames many of my experiences. I see young men and women in kurtis and kurtas and picture their unborn children accepting more globalized wear. I hear about PhDs in Sufi music and wonder how steady the interest in them will remain. Thinking about India’s development brings on a melancholy, almost as if I am already missing an acquaintance I have barely met. I know that, as India opens up to the world, its streets will host less glitter and more glamour. Yet for today, tradition comfortably rests alongside change, unaware or unsuspecting that the latter will be moving out to live full time with it’s current mistress—modernity. The latter relationship is still in its beginning stages, but the flirtation is steady and becoming more heated. It’s only a matter of time before tradition takes a backseat, even if a clear divorce takes much longer to occur.
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