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?