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24 February 2011, Gateway House

The India I knew – The India I know

A former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer recollects the India of yesteryear and yearns for the old in the new scenario


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The India I knew was the India of 40 years ago. It was then mostly Bharat, the rural nation of villages not far from the Grand Trunk Road in Haryana, North India.  Indira Gandhi was then prime minister.  It was the India of Mother India and oil lamps. Private enterprise and capital formation were, if not a social evil, something to be discouraged or regulated ferociously.

It was the India of walks at night, dunda in hand, to the halwai for a gulab jamun, or to the paan shop for meetha pan. There was always something to talk about there.  You would just drop in on people – there were no telephones to call in advance.

It was the India of trains – the famous steam locomotives like the Flying Mail and Western Express. There was the shrill whistle of the Kalka Mail in the middle of the night.  The railway stations were dusty, with the smell of ozone and coal smoke at night, and the scent of bidis and agricultural produce in jute bags on the platforms. Sections of track were opened by means of a key thrown from the incoming engine to the stationmaster. In many of the big railway stations, you could weigh yourself on an ancient machine for a few paisa.   At a train stop, in the cold air of a winter night, east U.P. and Bihar felt very desolate.

There were film posters and music in the streets, small boys with ox carts of sugar cane en route to the processing mill, electric tubewells pumping day and night, and farmers in white kurtas or shirts and pajamas.  They were inquisitive, polite and proud of their wheat.  Sometimes the greeting was Jai Ram Ji Ki.  When the day’s work was done, there was conversation and gur eaten on charpais. In a nearby town, music from the local gurdwara pierced the air with recitations from the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib.

It was the India of colorful, crooked and crowded backstreets of the old city – and the awe and majesty of the Jama Masjid at dusk, and a Shiva temple on the Ganges.  It was the India of bustees near factories and railway depots, little shanties made of discarded tin containers, newspaper piled high, tire treads, and cinder blocks, with corrugated metal roofing and sometimes dirty tarpaulins suspended on wooden poles.  This India lived off what other Indians discarded.

It was the India of legend, sacrifice, and imposing architectural works. There was pageantry – Sikhs, Gurkhas, Rajputs and other storied regiments marching down the majestic Raj Path in Delhi once a year on Jan. 26, Republic Day.  One might sense ghosts – of the Mughals and the Raj – on the red sandstone ramparts of Fatehpur Sikri and in the deodar forests of Shimla.  It was a time of simplicity when people might still think to themselves, “What would Gandhiji say?”

In the India I knew, simplicity was a virtue. A simple man worked hard, ate basic food, had his beliefs and had no vices.  There was an innate sense of fair play in the walks of life, except for the occasional budmash.  There was an assumed notion of “what isn’t done, won’t be done.” Even the simplest of tasks, such as writing a cheque, mailing a package, or addressing someone, properly required attention to this protocol. There was great respect for elders. A portable radio and a gold pen in the pocket of a Terylene shirt were things that mattered.  At night, it was All India Radio bringing in the news of the day in Hindi. There was an ingrained sense of politeness.  A mushaira would draw the attention of Urdu lovers and the curious.

The India I knew was not anti-American – completely to the contrary – even though there was a serious Cold War chill-out between New Delhi and Washington that prevailed for decades.  The Indian people from Srinagar to Rameshwaram, Mumbai to Darjeeling were engaging and went out of their way to help foreigners experience their country. They were extroverted and interested in America, too.

This is how I remember it and like to remember it – mostly the good.  But there was plenty of difficulty to go around. Conditions were physically and psychologically challenging, with limited privacy, and there was always daily uncertainty about things.  There were occasional and bewildering visits to the tesildar and patwari.

The heat for months was unbelievable, and the asphalt of the GT Road shimmered in the distance.  At night, some tiny insects could get through the mosquito netting and bite.  October was the best month for sleeping outdoors. Sanitation issues were well-known, and this was before bottled water was everywhere.

While the India of yesteryear may be seen through a romantic prism, modern India could be viewed more clinically through the prism of its accomplishments.

The India of today has defied the odds in less than a generation – and, one must be pleased to say, the cynics.  Since 1947, life expectancy has more than doubled to 66 and due to rigorous and sustained effort, the average family which had over six children now has fewer than three. Goldman Sachs thinks India could become the second largest economy in the world by 2050, and identifies ten major challenges to enable that.  The movies are now not just about escapism, i.e. rich boy meets poor girl (or vice versa) with the “420” (villain) easily identifiable by appearance, but about reality, and they are highly respected in the West.

Part of India is making it very well in medicine, IT, business enterprise, and other professions.  Its armed forces are modernizing and rank in the world’s top five in terms of scale. The country is definitely more corporate in character, although the corporate culture is still a relatively small part of a vast matrix of life having many realities, beautiful and grim.

Entrepreneurs and investors have benefited, along with the English-speaking part of the population, as have the consumer, real estate and commodities sectors.  Competition has resulted in a focus on quality, with creative fashion on the rise. Hundreds of millions – the number is really not known – have been able to improve their standard of living and expectations. Now the challenge for Indian business and private markets is how to balance supply chain and corporate efficiency and profit-making with a concept of social equity.

The din and chaotic traffic in city streets are still there.  The demands upon infrastructure – water, sanitation, public health, electricity, and transportation – are still vast, and urban planning continues in large part in the old culture, its processes not commensurate with strides made in the corporate sector.  Cellular usage, with recent selling rates at an estimated 15 million telephones per month, is raising expectations and curiosity, as gardeners, watchmen, cobblers, cooks, taxi and rickshaw drivers, bicycle repairmen, bricklayers, postal clerks, shopkeepers, and farmers report to their friends and families in villages about who has what and who is doing what.

Those trading on unearned privilege, unfocused old-line conglomerates, and middlemen that do not add enough value are among the losers in the new order of things.  Tribal, low caste and landless populations have also not been assimilated, and the intensity of the Naxalite movement in perhaps a third of India’s districts is evidence of much rural unrest.

The accomplishments of India as a parliamentary democracy in what may be the most disparate society on earth give the country a moral authority not seen since Nehru’s India of the 1950s in the aftermath of decolonization. Enhanced governance, emphasis on education, development of infrastructure and public health, and a continued high single digit GDP growth rate are among the factors  to assure that  the future of India is bright.

The India I knew is definitely harder to find. There are not as many dundas in hand, and some of the halwais are not there or have become fast food joints.   Now people telephone in advance and the pace of life is fast.  There are flyovers where the tea stalls used to be, and much development has taken place in the hill stations.

But I know I can still find it.

Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former international banking executive. He is a lecturer on South Asian affairs at the University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy where he has served on the Dean’s International Council. He was posted in north India in the U.S. Peace Corps and speaks Hindi-Urdu.

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