Impressions of India

India remains a mys­tery to me. I spent two weeks in south­ern India in Jan­u­ary, in Chen­nai and Ker­ala. It was the first time I had vis­ited any part of the coun­try although, in the past decade I’ve spent some time in all of the states that bor­der India bar Nepal. I expected to find a richer, more hope­ful coun­try with­out the bit­ter war that tore Sri Lanka apart or the end­less inse­cu­rity of Pak­istan or the cor­rupt, indo­lent and mil­i­tarised gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh; a place where a great civil­i­sa­tion was re-emerging.

But I found noth­ing to inspire such hope.

Think­ing back on the trip, it is the super­fi­cial impres­sions that stand out because the sur­face of the place is so… obtru­sive. The lit­ter of dust and paper and plas­tic sweep­ing around every pub­lic space; the lumps of garbage strewn along every street or piled at any gate; the sour smells of decay; the shit of men, cows and dogs on the beaches, on the pave­ments, beside the wall; crum­bling brick, rot­ten wood and con­crete decay; the sooty-smeared stones and stale, dingy clam­our of the tem­ples; greasy-foul water in every chan­nel; roads half-made and more than half-broken.

None of this is unavoid­able or sim­ply an acci­dent of poverty. The neglect looks worse than the casual abuse of the com­mons; it looks more like dis­in­ter­est. I can­not believe that a cul­ture that takes so lit­tle care of pub­lic places will share suf­fi­cient pur­pose to rise far. But per­haps it is dif­fer­ent in the North.

No doubt, my dys­pep­tic view of India was coloured by one of the books I read dur­ing my stay: The Siege of Krish­na­pur by J G Far­rell. The 1973 Booker Prize-winner mocks the res­olute, class-bound jin­go­ism and impe­r­ial pre­ten­sions of the besieged British with great comic effect but finds few redeem­ing qual­i­ties in their Indian assailants, either. It is a book about the lim­its of any civil­i­sa­tion; in the end there is a sort of spare vic­tory for not-very-inspiring char­ac­ter­is­tics — dogged­ness, bloody-mindedness, sur­vival. But even the most sym­pa­thetic Indi­ans (in Farrell’s book) exhibit none of these virtues. Unfair?

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