Monday, March 9, 2009
Delhi, February 2009
In writing about a trip to India, I think there is some expectation, on behalf of the reader, of profundity in some grand commentary on her current condition. One is expected to rant on the stark poverty, the inequities of wealth and, of course, the unfairness of the Caste system. Preaching about the evils of of Western colonialism, as reflected by India's somewhat sad post-colonial state, is always popular. In closing, an explanation of how the always popular Western do-gooders can solve all of her ills, would be in order. You know, sort of like they are doing in Africa. Well you will get none of that here.
What you will read is ethnocentric, mildly insensitive and lacks objectivity. In fact, I can say with some degree of certainty, that I, being a trained anthropologist, would likely be burned at the stake for avoiding the guilt mongering and social preaching described above. Maybe that is why I chose not to hang around the academics.
I am simply going to tell you that I like India and try to explain why. Just as is the case with morning and night people, there is another dichotomy among Westerners. There are those who like India and those who don't. Although, I think the distribution is skewed in favor of those who don't much like it.
For some reason I have always been attracted to Third World chaos and the order that somehow emerges from it. I find the stark contrasts stimulating, especially the visual contrasts. The Third World is a place of contradictions, like beauty amidst squalor. OK, some will say India is not a third world country, but I have my own classification system. Using my system, a country that has livestock roaming the streets of its capital, where it is unsafe to drink tap water and people can be observed crapping on the side of the road is deemed Third World. Anyway, in spite of these things, or perhaps because of these things, I like India.
I get bored easily. Predictability is the bane of my existence and nothing is more boring than a routine. However, in India, there is no routine, for the routine is never routine. Even the proverbial trip to the store can turn into a life altering adventure.
Getting in a car and going from point A to point B is a s thrilling as any amusement park ride and the things you observe along the roadside result in double takes that serve to take your mind off the impending death, otherwise called traffic, that surrounds you. The potential of death or serious bodily harm always has a way of keeping me living in the moment and constantly taking note of the details of my surroundings.
The chaos of the streets is not the only thing that serves to remind you of the potential of unpleasant experiences. Terrorism, street crime and civil unrest are always effective in bringing one back to their core instincts of self-preservation. These instincts and this level of vigilance is something that is suppressed by many of us who walk modern, safe, first world streets and this is not necessarily a good thing. It is why domesticated rabbits make easier prey than wild ones, their survival instincts have been suppressed. I personally like to reacquaint myself with what my ancestors used on a regular basis to stay alive and besides, it too helps me live in the moment.
The potential for terrorist attacks and other such repugnant acts also results in countermeasures that I find entertaining, depending on where I am in the world. India was the source of such entertainment. Since the Mumbai attacks, security at hotels has been increased, or at least the facade of security has been increased. Initially, it looks quite impressive, sort of like the fake Rolex you buy on the street in New York. Upon closer examination the absurdity is evident.
It is as if the process is more important than the outcome, which I might add, is something I have observed in other former British colonies, as well as in Great Britain. I think an example is in order.
Upon arrival at the hotel one's vehicle is stopped and what appears to be a sweep for explosives is conducted. Upon closer observation, one notes that a hand-held magnetometer is being used on the luggage in the trunk. Being that the car and parts of the luggage contain metal, the magnetometer is constantly beeping. I guess nobody told them that it does not detect bombs nor that the beeping means it has detected something. None-the-less, the magnetometer guy has the required stern look and appears to be dilligent and to have faith in his efforts.
Next is the bomb dog or explosives detection canine, if you want to sound like you know what you are talking about. This is interesting because the dog is so fat. In fact, most dogs I saw in India were well-nourished, to say the least, but I digress. The dog is led to the car where he saunters a few steps behind the handler, as opposed to eagerly approaching with handler in tow. He then proceeds to sniff the front driver's side tire and is quickly taken away before he can lift his leg to relieve himself. Second phase complete, now for the visual inspection of the undercarriage.
This is done super efficiently in that a mirror is used to look indirectly under the car. Unfortunately, only about an area the size of the mirror itself is examined since the guard walks up to the front, sticks the mirror underneath, looks down and walks away. Now that the possibility of a car bomb has not been ruled out, it is time to rule out the possibility of concealed weapons on our person.
For this purpose the walk-through magnetometer is used and, for all I know, they are trying to detect, or appear to try to detect, explosives on our person with the machine that only detects metal. No worries for us though, because while every one of us and our luggage sounds the alarm, none of us are detained.
So the mission for these security personnel has been accomplished. They have successfully wasted almost as much time and man (and dog) power as they would have used if they had actually done proper searches. No worries though, what is more important than actually doing something is appearing to actually do something. The real problem lies in that it does not take a trained eye to see right through the charade.
The anthropologist in me wants to know why it is done this way. It definitely is not laziness, after all they are almost doing as much work as if they were really doing a search. Besides, laziness was not a trait of most Indians I had contact with. Ignorance? That is always a popular explanation for inexplicable behavior, but I don't think this is the case either. The activities I observed were almost ritualistic in nature in that they were merely representative of what should be happening. Anyway, I don't know. Maybe there is a few million dollars in "economic stimulus" earmarked for some academic to study this and some how connect it to evil capitalism and U.S. imperialism.
Luckily the phony security measures did not make me feel any more secure and take away from the experience of living a little closer to death that I rather enjoy in the Third World. Besides, if the security measures are good enough for the Dalai Lama, whom I met in the lobby, then they are good enough for me.
So why do I like India? I guess it is simple. I feel more alive there. All the senses are sharpened and stimulated by unfamiliar things and the gross contrasts that surround me. More importantly, in India, I can better live in the moment and therefore better live.