In popular culture, India is viewed as an escape from the pressures of modern life, where young ‘gap-yah’ takers or unfulfilled middle-age women – a la Eat, Pray, Love – can shed their Western preconceptions, don baggy cloth pants, and ‘find their inner self’.
Though my inner self continues to elude me, the six weeks I spent interning in Mumbai were fittingly contemplative, mainly because I spent almost half of my time there sitting on a toilet— a place for genuine inspiration where mental (and in my case, physical as well) juices flow freely.
Three bouts of what the locals refer to as ‘Delhi Belly’ gave me ample time to think about my experience in India and my discoveries therein. Two incidents during my stay in India provided the most food for thought.
The first was quite literally food for thought – on July 16th,a group of students in the state of Bihar suffered from severe food poisoning, and twenty-three of them died soon afterwards. The incident was a national scandal that made headlines across the country.
The students had gotten their food from The Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS), a government initiative that, on working days, provides a free lunch to children in primary schools in rural or poverty stricken areas in India. In conjunction with the SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan), it’s a gargantuan effort at providing quality universal education. The MDMS is the largest school-feeding program in the world, affecting about 120,000,000 children across the country. The media reports on the scandal neglected to mention the scope of the MDMS and how important it is for some children— for many, it’s the only full meal they will have for the day.
Still, a program of this scale is bound to have accidents, and the twenty-three deaths were the tragic result of inadvertent carelessness…right?
The day after the food-poisoning scandal, I was sandwiched within a group of commuters on a bus in Mumbai when I began talking to a middle-aged man beside me. He intimated to me that the food poisoning incident had a deliberate act of sabotage by the opposition party in Bihar.
Crazy conspiracy? Maybe elsewhere – on July 29th, the ruling party condemned the opposition for purposefully contaminating the food once preliminary investigations revealed that the incident was caused by a highly poisonous insecticide. To see such a malicious act carried out by a legitimate opposition party was quite unsettling – India is the largest democracy in the world, but at what cost?
The second thought-provoking incident had occurred a few weeks earlier, on July 7th. On that day, one of the holiest Buddhist temples in India, the Bodh Gaya temple, was hit by a series of bomb blasts. The Indian Mujahadeen claimed responsibility through a Twitter and threatened to bomb Mumbai the following week. I was frightened, but I seemed to be in the minority.
The Indians remained calm: they don’t carry the destabilizing knee-jerk reflex associated with political scandals and terrorism. The Mumbaikars I talked to all said that they’re used to this kind of atmosphere, and don’t see the point of altering their behaviour. On the day of the bomb threat, the trains were just as packed, and the roads were still clogged with honking cars that would not budge for anyone except a passing cow.
How could this be? Was India truly, as propagated by Western society, conducive to an inner meditative peace?
Not exactly. At face value, India epitomizes inequality: a 2011 OECD report puts 42% of its people living on less than 1.25 USD a day, with the top 10% of wage earners making 12 times more than the bottom 10%. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the way these numbers work, a quick Google image search of a wealthy area in Southern Mumbai and another of a slum such as Dharavi should give you a graphic idea.
In Mumbai, the rich and poor live side by side, sometimes literally within a stone’s throw of each other. There can be a sprawling slum with children playing cricket on a muddy street five minutes away from a cluster of pristine mansions. In other words, they know exactly how different their lives are. Normally such a situation would be rife with conflict, a Marxist’s wet dream of proletarian uprisings. For some reason, however, there just isn’t that much tension. Heck, according to an Ipsos poll, India is the second happiest country in the world. How can this be?
I asked a few Indians, and regardless of their economic situation they said that being content was part of Indian culture. ‘Accepting your fate’ lies at the crux of Hinduism and other Indian faiths— what we know as karma. This aspect of their identity was reinforced by the British during the oppressive colonial era, consequently leading to a people who do not often contest their relative socioeconomic situation. They accept their position in (this) life.
There is no doubt that India’s culture is shifting in tandem with its growing role on the global economic stage. Will this feature of its national identity, this ‘acceptance’, affect their rise to power? Already, the younger Indian generation is beginning to protest what they see as domestic corruption or injustice – has karma gone the way of colonialism? Or has the concept simply been renewed to reflect India’s changing place in world politics?
India is a country of paradoxes. Though protest and democracy seem to be a feature of modernizing India, the younger generation are weary of fighting for change. According to a recent Hindustan Times youth survey, 52% of youths thought the country would be better off in a dictatorship where the government ‘would get things done’. As the 2014 elections approaches, this is a sobering statistic.