Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The White Man's Burden

Thanks to wholesale overbooking by British Airways, I got upgraded to first class on the way home from Delhi, and am in the seat of my dreams 1A at the very front of the plane where the windows curve to give you a view forwards. From this vantage point, I can - just - see the brown villages of India slipping beneath the fuselage.

And I'm in torment. Having spent most of the past two weeks in the small village of Bijaipur in Rajasthan, staying in whatever comfort it can manage as a paying guest of the local 'Rao' (I think it translates as 'King') in his ramshackle castle, I've had an opportunity to see, up close and personal, how more than four-fifths of the population of India survives in the 21st century. Which is to say literally scratching a living from the red dirt.

What point is there, then, to complain that the lobster tasted of fridge-chill and the Chablis had more oak than the average coffin, when 35,000 feet below people are starving. These are the kinds of counterpoints which have been exercising me since a few days into the holiday.

I've been to India before, in fact this was my sixth or seventh visit, and surprisingly little has changed since my first trip 25 years ago except perhaps my attitudes and the fact I now know to bring a hot-water bottle because the nights are so cold.

Castle Bijaipur has been in the family for pushing five hundred years, and the current Rao Saheb Narendra Singh is the feudal lord of the local manor. Except the title is not a mere honorific. When you see the local people run to bow to the ground and touch his clothes, you realise that to them he is landlord, employer, teacher, judge, father, and king. It's a bizarre anachronism.

And none of the feudal loyalty seems affected or fawning, it's transparent that the farmers, goat-boys, watchmen and keepers we encounter on our early morning birdwatching walks with Narendra genuinely adore and revere him. Although clearly an authority figure, he never patronises them in his demeanour or conversation. It's like a working version of the sixteenth century, and the inequality and injustice compete with the obvious munificence and working practicalities to tug confusingly at my liberal heart.

It's strange to be a tourist where tourists are so rare. In most of my forays to Asia, I've followed well-trodden paths and seen only a sanitised version of the country. Typically if you try to photograph a local they will shy away, or women pull a veil across their faces. Here, when our safari in rattling old Indian Army jeeps encounters a woman trudging home along a forest road with a bundle on her head and a baby on her hip, the Nikons and Canons are instantly levelled at her like a firing squad. Instead of retreating, she widens her smile and hitches the baby higher on her hip to oblige the photographers. No question of payment or small gift, this is friendly return of curiosity. It's uncanny.

Returning to Delhi is a nasty shock. The city seems hell-bent on Westernised destruction. Whilst the dignified Lutyens government buildings still flank Rajpath and have been remarkably preserved, the commercial areas are as frenetic as anything in Hong Kong or Singapore, rabid with retailers chasing the middle-class rupee. In its relentless pursuit of commercialism, with adverts for mobile phones, cars, scooters, sportswear, media and airlines on every hoarding and in every magazine, it appears that the Government of India, in cahoots with the multi-nationals, has decided that there are enough salaried Indians to sustain an urban middle-class consumer market, but that the rest of the population - say a billion of India's 1,200,000,000 headcount - can be safely ignored.

200 million people represents a market the size of any four major European countries, and presumably justifies the advertising spend of Nokia, Nike, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, but the consequences will be the continuing polarisation of India where the city-dwelling fifth of the population has its aspirational lifestyle built on air-conditioning, cellphone, laptop and MTV while the other four-fifths don't have clean water or sanitation.

These concerns were honed for me by reading Aravind Adiga's Booker prize-winner White Tiger which refers to the uncommercialised sector of Indian society as 'The Darkness' and seeing Danny Boyle's Oscar dead-cert 'Slumdog Millionaire' whose plot hinges on the unlikelihood of a tea-boy from the slums to have had any sort of education.

... to be continued