16 & 17 September 2006
I half-slept through the nine hours on the Amristar-Delhi express bus. For the first half of the trip, this huge sikh wearing an orange turban kept shouting “Dilli dilli dilli dilli!” at people along the way, trying to pick up more passengers. When he found someone who wanted to hitch a ride, he’d come and shove me aside (I was half-asleep, slumped over against the seat in front of me) to make room for the new guy. Eventually this all calmed down, and it got to the point that I could stretch out on the whole seat. I was repeatedly awoken by sudden stops, which tossed me onto the floor. I really have no idea how much sleep I got, but I’m sure it wasn’t more than an hour.
At one of the pit stops, some friendly college students bought me some food. Cool guys. They were interested in what I was studying, and unsurprisingly they were all engineering students.
When I arrived in Delhi, I found a rickshaw and went back to the trusty old Anoop Hotel. It must have been 4:30 or 5 in the morning. They asked me when I was going to check out, and I said “in about 6 hours.” They were perplexed, but more than happy to take my money. I had some breakfast and took a shower, and then napped fitfully until about noon. I was too stressed to sleep, largely because of a text message my mother sent me saying that Delta had pushed up my flight to depart three hours earlier. My ticket back to Bombay wouldn’t get me there until four hours before I was supposed to be on the plane out of the city. Oh fuck.
Unable to get to sleep, I commenced a high-speed dash across Asia. I took one last autorickshaw, and of course the obligatory scam attempt happened. I made the mistake of telling him when my flight left as part of an explanation of how I was going to the airport to talk to Delta about my rebooking. Of course he had a friend who ran a nice little boutique at a mall nearby, and I could just look for five minutes. He was sure that I could. I tried my damnedest to explain how I had to be at the airport now, not in an hour, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally the fact that these guys don’t run the meter worked to my advantage. If he stopped before we reached the airport, I said, I would get out and refuse to pay him anything. I admit that I was in a bad mood, and it was sort of cruel, but there was something so satisfying about how quickly and completely he dropped his line of bullshit.
At the airport I bought a copy of The Economist. Inside, there was a story about India, with the obligatory map. And on that map, as I sure was the case for the equivalent map in every copy of the magazine in the country, was a stamp that said “THE EXTERNAL BORDERS OF INDIA AS DRAWN ARE NEITHER ACCURATE NOR VERIFIED.” Because God forbid people think that the boundaries of India are contested in a little place called Kashmir.
Quite amazingly, my SpiceJet flight to Bombay was early. As I was entering Bombay the sun went down on my trip to India, and it was a damned good one. Check out those clouds.
Because of the early flight I ended up with an extra 30 minutes to sprint to my apartment and pick up my stuff. I even got a chance to shower, and eat a Frankie. They’re like the rolls I had in Calcutta, only Bombay-style and not quite as good. Still, delicious. Plus I drank a Thums Up. Thums Up tastes just like Coke, and the story I heard is that the founder worked as the main bottler for Coca-Cola in India, then quit to start his own company and stole the formula.
So I made it to the airport, with over an hour to spare. After being redirected through several lines, I finally talked to a guy who said that wait, I didn’t need to immediately jump on a plane to Singappore and make a 15-minute connection from there to Seoul at all. I could go through France. And it didn’t leave for another two hours! Hurray! Frustrated and exhausted I was, but I was damned glad to have made my connection.
My trip home was long as hell, but I actually slept quite well on the first leg. In Paris, I invaded the kids zone and got to play Nintendo with some little French boy. He sucked. And I mean that in the sense that we were playing soccer on the same team, and I had to keep him from scoring own goals.
I couldn’t sleep on the second leg, which was an epic, 13-hour flight directly from Paris to San Francisco. Airplanes don’t fly in straight lines as represented on maps, and in fact don’t even fly in what looks like a straight line on a globe. They take the geodesic, which is a curved path that takes the least amount of time. That means that we more or less went over the North Pole. I got to see Greenland for the first time:
Cool stuff. I was sitting next to a French guy named Guillam, who was flying for the very first time. He was going into an English language program in San Francisco. Not even home yet, I already got a chance to make use of what I’d learned in India. Everyone in India, with the exception of those seeking a direct profit from me, was an incredibly gracious host, and I did my best to help Guillam out. He was very nervous about his English, but I kept up a conversation with him at an appropriate level, and even taught him a few words. I also helped prepare him for what he’d be exposed to in the city, and gave him my contact information so that he could reach me if he needed help. For his part, he told a few raunchy jokes that somehow survived translation, and transferred a bunch of rock music in French onto my USB key.
On arriving back in the US, I had a double cheeseburger at In N Out, drank a huge glass of milk, and crashed at my cousin Peter’s house, where I slept like the dead for fifteen hours.
So this is it. The 64th and final entry in my online journal for this summer. I’d like to thank anybody who read this thing for taking the time, and I encourage you to post comments here about anything you read – they’ll get emailed to me automatically. Special thanks go to Peter and Mary (yes, the same Peter) for suggesting I do this. It’s been an invaluable exercise for me just to practice writing. Moreover, it was a great way for me to process and think about everything that I saw and learned and did and had done to me.
I’m going to do a little more of that right now. “Reality Speaks” was the bookend to my stay in Bombay and my internship. These, on the other hand, are my conclusions about the entire summer and India as a whole.
First, the things I left out. Too many to count, but here’s a highlight reel:
- The amazing signs on the way up to Darjeeling. Tragically, my camera ran out of batteries on the way up, and then on the way down we took a different road and I didn’t see them again. Some were to the point: “Make today an accident-free day”, but one was a true classic: “Donate blood at the hospital, not on the road.” I will regret not taking a picture of that one until the day I die.
- Speaking of Darjeeling, there was this total Ron Jeremy lookalike who somehow ended up everywhere we went, including the flight up and back, the mountaineering institute, and even Tiger Hill. He actually spoke to me then, pointing out the wrong mountain and telling me that some local guy said that was Kamchenjenga. I’m glad I saw the real thing, because the one he was pointing at was the most disappointing imaginable candidate for the World’s Third-Tallest Mountain. For starters, it was visibly shorter than surrounding peaks.
- The kids I played soccer with, and their beautiful school. One of the first times I played soccer, it was with these kids from the local park. The boldest one talked to me at great length, only I knew about three words in Hindi, and he knew just as many in English: “my”, “beautiful”, and “school”. He kept pointing south and saying “My school,” meanwhile calling it, my soccer ball, the ocean, India, and America “beautiful”. They were all cool kids. We went swimming together after the game.
- My last day in Bombay, I finally beat the cab drivers at their own game. For weeks I had been biding my time, waiting for a mistake. They would always offer some (high) fare for a trip to a given destination, in the hopes of not using the meter. Then this guy offered 50 rupees to take me to Chowpatty, and I knew I had won. After we were a quarter of the way there, he tried to renege, since he realized that he was the one losing out. “Hell no”, I informed him, “50 rupees to Chowpatty – you said it, not me.” In the end, the traffic was lighter than usual and 50 was probably about what the meter would have said, but it’s the moral victory that counts here.
- The elephants and Deepika. All summer, she and I had a running joke about my dream of riding an elephant. Although I succeeded, it was a pyrrhic victory – I didn’t get to go to a wildlife park. Sorry, Deepika. I failed.
There are so many more, but those are the best ones. This was a strangely appropriate trip at a strangely appropriate time. I think what I said in “Reality Speaks” holds doubly for my whole trip: being here has caused me to see the world in a different way that accentuates the coincidences. However, the coincidences are real, and have real causes. It was no chance event that the first-ever SIG fellowship in India was this year. This trip coincided with a flurry of stories in the media about India, and a generally greater focus on India’s potential, relationship with America, and strength as a rising democracy. In the broadest possible sense, India is rising. The stories in the media, the exceptional growth rate (projected at a sustainable 10%), the initiation of the fellowship I was on, and the nuclear deal with America are all reflections of this same phenomenon. India is also rising in a unique way: it is transitioning straight into a service-based information economy.
Economic theorists have been predicting this sort of event for decades, where a developing country skips the industrialization process in part or entirely. Many doubters of India’s prospects rest their case on the fact that there aren’t enough factories being built here, but they are misguided. Bombay drives the entire country’s economy, and no longer has any industry to speak of. In short, India is booming and I was there for the tipping point, when its potential converted into an unstoppable cascade. Your children will work for an Indian company. Get used to it.
On a smaller scale this summer was highly appropriate as well. Here’s a list of the major events that I was present for, often in close proximity to the action:
- Flooding panic during the first week of the monsoon. In 2005, hundreds drowned during heavy rains, and this year mild floods kept people at home include my coworkers.
- Religious/Marathi nationalist riots.
- June 11, 2006 Bombay Train Bombings – the second-deadliest terrorist attack in Indian history.
- The London plane plot, which, as many Americans are probably unaware, was organized in part by Britons of South Asian descent. This was big news in India, as was the following spate of racial profiling against anyone South Asian looking. A large group of Muslims from Bombay was detained and interrogated in Holland for acting suspicious, shortly after the plot was exposed.
- Globalization on trial, Indian style. The Indian equivalent of American IT workers complaining about job loss due to outsourcing. Massive protests by bank workers about the outsourcing of their job functions, which will cause job loss because Indian banks are ridiculously inefficient. Also, a huge upswelling of anger and protest toward American soda companies, which totally dominate the Indian market, for allegedly selling tainted sodas. Just as there’s no evidence that globalization is anything but good for everyone, there’s no evidence that the levels of pesticides in the sodas, which are lower than in Indian drinking water, could cause any harm.
- This last week, there was another terrorist attack, this time at a Muslim shrine. Many suspect that SIMI, the same Muslim terrorist group responsible for the Bombay attacks, was behind this one as well. I guess the idea is to stir up religious hatred.
I learned a lot this summer, and I went a good distance toward developing some sort of actual career path. One of my conclusions has already been stated: India is growing, in stature and in power, far faster than you can imagine, faster than people believe.
Here’s my last lesson from this summer. In the US right now, we are bogged down in two wars and slogging through an endless political fistfight over Islamist (as opposed to Islamic) terrorism. The underlying problem is the failure of secularism in the Muslim world, which in turn leads to radical leaders, failed states, the alienation of youth, social unrest, war and catastrophic terrorism. We as a society have decided that the solution to this problem lies in the Middle East, because that’s where people have always gone looking for it.
There is some validity to this approach. The base of Muslim power and the center of the Muslim religion are both located in that region. However, what we want, and what the world needs, is a secularization process throughout the world, for all Muslims. I would have you recall that the secularization of Christendom did not start in Christianity’s power base in Rome, nor in its birthplace in Jerusalem. Martin Luther came from a small kingdom in a region of the Holy Roman Empire known as “Germany”, which wasn’t even a country at that point. There was nothing central about Germany, and a priori one would not expect a Reformation to start there and spread across the globe. But it did. It doesn’t really matter where a liberalizing ideology starts, because such ideas are infectious and powerful in their own right. The idea that all men, rich or poor, should be equal before God (and later the State) just sounds right. The idea that kings should be free to choose their own state’s religious affiliation (and later that people should do the same for themselves) has an undeniable appeal.
But Martin Luther had to have a protector, and he got one in the Elector of Saxony. Dozens of failed attempts at secularization across Europe had been quelled by the power of the Church, because no one would stand up for good ideas.
Islam has the seeds of its secularization, growing right now in fertile soil. Surprisingly, this revolution is not happening in the wildly rich and yet dogmatic kingdom of Dubai, nor among the educated and still shockingly fundamentalist Muslim elite of Western Europe. It is certainly not happening in Iraq or Palestine. The revolution is beginning, right now, in India. It is starting in parts of Pakistan, and throughout South Asia. Despite all the terrorism and angst and fear and inequality, secularism works in India. There are more Muslims in India than in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan combined. There are in fact more Muslims in India than in any other country besides Indonesia, and given the stunning growth rate of India’s Muslims, that may change in my lifetime.
It is not only government secularism that works in India, it is the idea of secularism, the widespread friendship between people of different religious groups. And it is part of a cosmopolitan culture that is spreading beyond its borders. The most popular actor in Pakistan is Shah Rukh Khan, an Indian, who happens to be a Muslim, yet is nevertheless married to a Hindu and plays a Hindu in many movies. This is the greatest hope for India, and the one in which it needs the most help: it can bring peace between Muslims and the modern world. Its Muslims can secularize, and even speak out in the press about secular values.
We are fighting in the wrong place. The clash of civilizations, if you want to call it that, will be won or lost in India.