Sunday, January 13, 2008

Letter from Calcutta

I am sitting in a room here in Calcutta, without an internet connection, hoping to get a connection sometime soon so I can send out a letter. In a couple of hours I will be heading out on the Ganga in a small boat, to scatter my Mom’s ashes. The Ganga is of course India’s holiest river, but this is also the place where she was born, so it all seems appropriate. She was not a religious person, but she tried to live her life according to the principles claimed by many religions: generosity toward those less fortunate, stewardship of the world we live in, respect for all living things. She did a better job of it than most who claim to be religious.

While I wait, I reflect on what I have seen of the country she loved, and over which she despaired. From the brief snapshot I have had in Delhi and Calcutta, India remains a place of incredible life and energy, but also a place mired in suffering. The filth and chaos in the streets are noticeably worse than when I was here two years ago. The truth is that India’s remarkable economic growth is benefitting too few people, and the birth rate remains sky high—India is about to surpass China as the world’s most populous place, and there are simply no resources to keep up.

Ironically, modernization is making the problem worse in many ways. When the streets were filled with camels and cows, and the garbage was more organic, the animals did a decent job of recycling the detritus. Now, a dense mesh of discarded plastic bags forms an indestructible trap for filth that lines the sides of the streets, and the soot of millions of recently added cars mixes with the dust to form a suffocating brown haze that leaves everything with a gritty coat. In the midst of it all, the poorest women still manage to wear their brightly coloured saris with something like aplomb, as they navigate the chaos.

One irony is that Calcutta, long the icon in the West of monumental Asian misery, looks to be a cleaner and more functional place than Delhi. It is certainly a warmer place, built on a more human scale and inhabited by less isolated people. It seems no worse than it was two years ago.

The same cannot be said of Delhi. Already designed to be people-unfriendly, it has become noticeably more miserable. The traffic is ludicrously bad, the streets more crowded, the dust inescapable. There is no sign India's economic boom, reported so breathlessly in Western papers, has touched this place, the capital of India. There are a handful of stores, often in compounds under armed guard, that sell luxury designer goods at prices that would make Neiman Marcus blush. Just steps outside, emaciated men offer shoe shines for 50 cents and maimed children beg, risking their lives in the traffic to knock on the windows of cars.

The stunning thing about it is the lack of anger. Indians of all classes seem resigned to the conditions around them. The papers, which even the poor read voraciously, cover petty political scandals (the level of personal attacks makes Washington look genteel, indeed), the dalliances of Bollywood stars, and cricket. The media are admirably free in India, and if there were a groundswell of discontent, one can be sure the press would cover, if not fan the flames. There is a lesson for us spoiled Westerners, in the easy smiles and quick generosity of people who have so little. Yet one almost wishes more of them would get angry, for the sake of their children.