Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from an Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: Feast of Sleebo, Second Coming of Jesus, Onam
Volume 6 No. 374 Sept 12, 2016
 
III. Onam Supplement: India Today

Letter To My Grandson

by Dr. Verghese Kurien

When did I write to you last? I have trouble even remembering! In today's fast-paced world we have become so addicted to instant communication that we prefer to use a telephone. But speaking on the telephone only gives us an immediate but fleeting joy. Writing is different. Writing - even if it is a letter - not only conveys our present concerns and views of the events taking place around us but it becomes a possession that can be treasured and re-read over the years, with great, abiding pleasure.

What is contained in the chapters (The Book: I TOO HAD A DREAM) that follow is, of course, more than a letter. You may not wish to read it all right away but, perhaps, a couple of decades or more from now, you will pick up these jottings of mine again and they will give you a deeper understanding of what I have done, and the reasons I pursued a life of services to our nation's farmers. You will then discover in them valuable reminder of the days just before the world entered the twenty-first century. And you may want to share my memories with those of your generation, or even younger, provide them glimpse of the world your grandparents lived in and knew.

I started my working life soon after our country became independent. The noblest task in those days was to contribute in whatever way we could towards building an India of our dreams - a nation where our people would not only hold their heads high in freedom but would be free from hunger and poverty. A nation where our people could live with equal respect and love for one another. A nation that would eventually be counted among the foremost nations of the world. It was then that I realized, in all humility, that choosing to lead one kind of life means putting aside the desire to pursue other options. This transformation took place within me fifty years ago, when I agreed to work for a small cooperative of dairy farmers who were trying to gain control over their lives.

To be quite honest, service to our nation's farmers was not the career I had envisioned for myself. But somehow, a series of events swept me along and put me in a certain place at a certain time when I had to choose between one option or another. I was faced with a choice that would transform my life. I could have pursued a career in metallurgy and perhaps become the chief executive of a large company. Or, I could have opted for a commission in the Indian Army and maybe retired as a general. Or, I could have left for the US and gone on to become a highly successful NRI. Yet I chose none of these because somewhere, deep down, I knew I could make a more meaningful contribution by working here in Anand, Gujarat.

Your grandmother too made an important choice. She knew, in those early days, life in Anand could not offer even the simple comforts that we take for granted today. However, she ardently supported my choice to live and work in Anand. That choice of your grandmother to stand by me has given me an everlasting strength, always ensuring that I shouldered my responsibilities with poise.

Whenever I have received any recognition for my contributions towards the progress of our country, I have always emphasized that it is recognition of the achievements of many people with whom I had the privilege to be associated with. I would like to stress even more strongly that my contributions have been possible only because I have consistently adhered to certain core values. Values that I inherited from my parents and other family elders; values that I saw in my mentor and supporter here in Anand - Tribhuvandas Patel. I have often spoken of integrity as the most important of these values, realizing that integrity - and personal integrity, at that - is being honest to yourself. If you are always honest to yourself, it does not take much effort in always being honest with others.

I have also learnt what I am sure you, too, will find out some day. Life is a privilege and to waste it would be wrong. In living this privilege called 'Life'. You must accept responsibility for yourself, always use your talents to the best of your ability and contribute somehow to the common good. That common good will present itself to you in many forms everyday. If you just look around you, you will find there is a lot waiting to be done: your friend may need some help, your teacher could be looking for a volunteer, or the community you live in will need you to make a contribution. I hope that you, too, will discover, as I did, that failure is not about not succeeding. Rather, it is about not putting in you best effort and not contributing, however modestly, to the common good.

In life you, too, will discover, as I did, that anything can go wrong at any time and mostly does. Yet, there is little correlation between the circumstances of people's lives and how happy they are. Most of us compare ourselves with someone we think is happier - a relative, an acquaintance, or often, someone we barely know. But when we start looking closely we realize that what we saw were only images of perfection. And that will help us understand and cherish what we have, rather than what we don't have.

Do you remember when you accompanied me to the magnificent ceremony in Delhi in which our President awarded me the Padma Vibhushan in 1999? With great pride, you slipped the medal around your neck, looked at it in awe and asked me very innocently if you could keep it. Do you remember the answer your grandmother and I gave you? We told you that of course, this medal was yours as much as it is mine but that you should not be satisfied in merely keeping my awards - the challenge before you was to earn your own rewards for the work that you did in you life time.

And in the end, if we are brave enough to love, strong enough to rejoice in another's happiness and wise enough to know that there is enough to go around for all, then we would have lived our lives to the fullest.

Source: Contents of a letter addressed by Late Dr. Verghese Kurien (appeared in his autobiography)

Living in India is Like Having an Intense but Insane Affair

By expat Catherine Taylor.

TONIGHT, as I waved my high heel in the face of a bewildered taxi driver, I thought suddenly: I am absolutely nuts in India. It's a thought I have often. Someone or something is always going nuts, and quite often it's me

I was trying to get a taxi driver to take me home, a mere 500 metres away, but it was pouring with rain and my shoes were oh-so-high, and it was late. He, of course, was having none of it; no amount of shoe-waving and sad-facing from a wild-haired firangi was changing his mind, when suddenly I remembered the magic trick - pay more than you should. "Arre, bhai sahab,50 rupees to Altamount Road? Please?" And off we went.

I have lived in Mumbai for almost three years. It was my choice to come - I wanted offshore experience in my media career and India was the only country looking to hire - and I wanted a change. I needed something new, exciting, thrilling, terrifying. And India gave that to me in spades. In fact, she turned it all the way up to 11. And then she turned it up a little more.

To outsiders, living in India has a particular kind of glamour attached to it, a special sparkle that sees people crowding around me at parties. "You live in India? My God, really? I could never do that. What's it like?" The closest I have come to answering that question is that it's like being in a very intense, extremely dysfunctional relationship. India and I fight, we scream, we argue, we don't speak for days on end, but really, deep down, we love each other. She's a strange beast, this India. She hugs me, so tightly sometimes that I can't breathe, then she turns and punches me hard in the face, leaving me stunned. Then she hugs me again, and suddenly I know everything will be all right.

She wonders why I don't just "know" how things are done, why I argue with her about everything, why I judge, why I rail at injustice and then do nothing about it. She wonders how old I am, how much I earn, why I'm not married. (The poor census man looked at me, stunned, then asked in a faltering voice, "But madam, if you're not married, then, who is the head of your household?") I wonder how she can stand by when small children are begging on corners, how she can let people foul up the streets so much that they are impossible to walk along, how she can allow such corruption, such injustice, such A LOT OF HONKING.

But she has taught me things. She has taught me to be brave, bold, independent, sometimes even fierce and terrifying. She has taught me to walk in another man's chappals, and ask questions a different way when at first the answer is no. She has taught me to accept the things I cannot change. She has taught me that there are always, always, two sides to every argument. And she was kind enough to let me come and stay.

She didn't make it easy though (but then, why should she?). The Foreigner Regional Registration Office, banks, mobile phone companies and rental agencies are drowning under piles of carbon paper, photocopies of passports (I always carry a minimum of three) and the soggy tissues of foreigners who fall to pieces in the face of maddening bureaucracy. What costs you 50 rupees one day might be 500 rupees the next, and nobody will tell you why. What you didn't need to bring yesterday, you suddenly need to bring today. Your signature doesn't look like your signature. And no, we can't help you. Come back tomorrow and see.

It's not easy being here, although I am spoiled by a maid who cooks for me, and a delivery service from everywhere that ensures I rarely have to wave my shoes at taxi drivers. I buy cheap flowers, trawl for gorgeous antiques, buy incredibly cheap books; I have long, boozy brunches in five-star hotels for the price of a nice bottle of wine at home, I have a very nice roof over my head . on the face of it, it would seem I have little to complain about. But then, I am stared at constantly, I have been spat on, sexually harassed, had my (covered) breasts videotaped as I walked through a market, had my drink spiked, been followed countless times. I have wept more here than I have ever in my life, out of frustration, anger, loneliness, the sheer hugeness of being here. But the longer I stay, the more I seem to relax, let go, let it be.

But I do often wonder why I'm here, especially when I'm tired, teary and homesick, my phone has been disconnected for the 19th time despite promises it would never happen again, when it's raining and no taxis will take me home. But then a willing ride always comes along, and we'll turn a corner and be suddenly in the midst of some banging, crashing mad festival full of colour, where everyone is dancing behind a slow-moving truck, and I won't have a clue what's going on but a mum holding a child will dance up to my window and point and smile and laugh, and I breathe out and think, really, my God, this is fantastic. This is India! I live in India! She hugs me, she punches me, and she hugs me again.

Yet I know I won't ever belong here, not properly. I know this when I listen to girls discussing what colour blouses they should wear to their weddings - she's Gujarati, he's from the south, she's wearing a Keralan sari. I know when my friends give me house-hunting advice: "Look at the names of the people who already live there, then you'll know what kind of building it is." (Trouble is, I don't know my Kapoors from my Kapurs, my Sippys from my Sindhis, my Khans from my Jains). I know this when my lovely fruit man (who also delivers) begs me to taste a strawberry he is holding in his grubby hands and I have to say no, I can't eat it, I'll die. I know I will never belong because, as stupid as it sounds, being truly, properly Indian is in your DNA. I marvel at how incredibly well educated so many of them are, how they can all speak at least three languages and think it's no big deal, how they fit 1000 people into a train carriage meant for 300 and all stand together quite peacefully, how they know the songs from every Hindi film ever made, how they welcome anyone and everyone (even wild-haired, complaining firangis) into their homes for food, and chai, and more food.

I've seen terrible things - someone fall under a train, children with sliced-off ears, old, old men sitting in the rain nursing half-limbs while they beg, children covered in flies sleeping on the pavement, beggars with no legs weaving themselves through traffic on trolleys, men in lunghis working with their hands in tiny corridors with no fans in sky-high temperatures. I've read heartbreaking things, of gang rapes, corruption, environmental abuse. I've smelled smells that have stripped the inside of my nostrils, stepped over open sewers in markets, watched a goat being bled to death.

I've done things of which I am ashamed, things I never thought I would do. I have slapped a starving child away, I have turned my head in annoyance when beggars have tapped repeatedly on my taxi window, I have yelled at grown men in the face. I have been pinched and pinched back, with force. I have slapped, I have hit, I have pushed. I have screamed in anger. I have, at times, not recognised myself.

I've yelled at a man for kicking a dog, and yelled at a woman who pushed into a line ahead of me when I wasn't at all in a hurry. When a teenage beggar stood at the window of my taxi, saying "F. you madam" over and over, I told him to go f. himself and gave him the finger; once on the train I let a kid keep 100 rupees as change. I am kind and I am cold-hearted, I am fair and I am mean, I am delightful and I am downright rude. I am all of these at once and I distress myself wildly over it, but somehow, India accepts me. She has no time for navel-gazing foreigners; she just shoved everyone along a bit and made room for me. She has no time to dwell on my shortcomings, she just keeps moving along.

And then, and then. I've been to temples where I've sung along with old women who had no teeth, I've held countless smiling ink-marked babies for photos, I've had unknown aunties in saris smile and cup my face with their soft, wrinkled hands, I've made street vendors laugh when I've choked on their spicy food, I've danced through the streets at Ganpati, fervently sung the national anthem (phonetically) in cinemas, had designers make me dresses, I've met with CEOs and heads of companies just because I asked if I could. She hugs, she punches, she hugs again.

In short, I have been among the luckiest of the lucky. She keeps me on my toes, Ms India, and I have been blessed that she let me stay for a while. She wanted me to succeed here and she gave me grand opportunities and endless second chances. She willed me forward like a stern parent. She welcomed me. And when I leave, because I know I will one day, I will weep, because I will miss her terribly. And because I know she won't even notice that I am gone.

Reflections on India

by Sean Paul Kelley

If you are Indian, or of Indian descent, I must preface this post with a clear warning: you are not going to like what I have to say. My criticisms may be very hard to stomach. But consider them as the hard words and loving advice of a good friend. Someone who is being honest with you and wants nothing from you.

These criticisms apply to all of India except Kerala and the places I didn't visit, except that I have a feeling it applies to all of India.

Lastly, before anyone accuses me of Western Cultural Imperialism, let me say this: if this is what India and Indians want, then, who am I to tell them differently. Take what you like and leave the rest. In the end it doesn't really matter, as I get the sense that Indians, at least many upper class Indians, don't seem to care and the lower classes just don't know any better, what with Indian culture being so intense and pervasive on the sub-continent. But, here goes, nonetheless.

India is a mess. It's that simple, but it's also quite complicated. I'll start with what I think are India's four major problems - the four most preventing India from becoming a developing nation - and then move to some of the ancillary ones. 1. Pollution

1. Pollution.

In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution, indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don't know how cultural the filth is, but it's really beyond anything I have ever encountered. At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump. Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, to a lesser degree, were so very polluted as to make me physically ill.. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all too common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter, was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it. Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight.

Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far to few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for ones' health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads.

The only two cities that could be considered sanitary, in my journey, were Trivandrum - the capital of Kerala - and Calicut. I don't know why this is, but I can assure you that, at some point, this pollution will cut into India's productivity, if it already hasn't. The pollution will hobble India's growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small c' sense.)

2. Infrastructure

The second issue, infrastructure, can be divided into four subcategories: Roads, Rails, Ports and the Electric Grid.

The Electric Grid is a joke.

Load shedding is all too common, everywhere in India. Wide swathes of the country spend much of the day without the electricity they actually pay for. Without regular electricity, productivity, again, falls. The Ports are a joke.

Antiquated, out of date, hardly even appropriate for the mechanized world of container ports, more in line with the days of longshoremen and the like.

Roads are an equal disaster.

I only saw one elevated highway that would be considered decent in Thailand, much less Western Europe or America and I covered fully two-thirds of the country during my visit.

There are so few dual carriage-way roads as to be laughable. There are no traffic laws to speak of and, if there are, they are rarely obeyed, much less enforced (another sideline is police corruption). A drive that should take an hour takes three. A drive that should take three takes nine. The buses are at least thirty years old, if not older, and, generally, in poor mechanical repair, belching clouds of poisonous smoke and fumes.

Everyone in India, or who travels in India, raves about the railway system.

Rubbish! It's awful! When I was there in 2003 and then late 2004 it was decent. But, in the last five years, the traffic on the rails has grown so quickly that once again, it is threatening productivity. Waiting in line just to ask a question now takes thirty minutes. Routes are routinely sold out three and four days in advance now, leaving travelers stranded with little option except to take the decrepit and dangerous buses. At least fifty million people use the trains a day in India. 50 million people! Not surprising that wait lists of 500 or more people are common now.

The rails are affordable and comprehensive, but, they are overcrowded and what with budget airlines popping up in India like sadhus in an ashram in the middle and lowers classes are left to deal with the overutilized rails and quality suffers. No one seems to give a shit.

Seriously, I just never have the impression that the Indian government really cares. Too interested in buying weapons from Russia, Israel and the US, I guess.

3. Bureaucracy and Corruption

The last major problem in India is an old problem and can be divided into two parts: that've been two sides of the same coin since government was invented: bureaucracy and corruption.

It take triplicates to register into a hotel. To get a SIM card for ones' phone is like wading into a jungle of red-tape and photocopies one is not likely to emerge from in a good mood, much less satisfied with customer service.

Getting train tickets is a terrible ordeal, first you have to find the train number, which takes 30 minutes, then you have to fill in the form, which is far from easy, then you have to wait in line to try and make a reservation, which takes 30 minutes at least and if you made a single mistake on the form, back you go to the end of the queue, or what passes for a queue in India. The government is notoriously uninterested in the problems of the commoners. Too busy fleecing the rich, or trying to get rich themselves in some way, shape or form. Take the trash, for example, civil rubbish collection authorities are too busy taking kickbacks from the wealthy to keep their areas clean that they don't have the time, manpower, money or interest in doing their job. Rural hospitals are perennially understaffed as doctors pocket the fees the government pays them, never show up at the rural hospitals and practice in the cities instead.

Does Anyone Cares?

I could go on for quite some time about my perception of India and its problems, but in all seriousness, I don't think anyone in India really cares. And that, to me, is the biggest problem. India is too conservative a society to want to change in any way.

Mumbai, Indias' financial capital, is about as filthy, polluted and poor as the worst city imaginable in Vietnam, or Indonesia - and being more polluted than Medan, in Sumatra, is no easy task. The biggest rats I have ever seen were in Medan ! One would expect a certain amount of, yes, I am going to use this word, "backwardness," in a country that hasn't produced so many Nobel Laureates, nuclear physicists, imminent economists and entrepreneurs.

But, India has all these things and what have they brought back to India with them? Nothing. The rich still have their servants, the lower castes are still there to do the dirty work and so the country remains in stasis. It's a shame. Indians and India have many wonderful things to offer the world, but I'm far from sanguine that India will amount to much in my lifetime.

Now, you have it, call me a cultural imperialist, a spoiled child of the West and all that. But remember, I've been there. I've done it and I've seen 50 other countries on this planet and none, not even Ethiopia, have as long and gargantuan a laundry list of problems as India does. And, the bottom line is, I don't think India really cares. Too complacent and too conservative.

About The Author:

Sean Paul Kelley is a travel writer, former radio host, and before that, an asset manager for a Wall Street investment bank that is still (barely) alive. He recently left a fantastic job in Singapore working for Solar Winds, a software company based out of Austin, to travel around the world for a year or two.

He founded 'The Agonist', in 2002, which is still considered the top international affairs, culture and news destination for progressives. He is also the Global Correspondent for The Young Turks, on satellite radio and Air America.

An Indian education?

by Thane Richards

I recently read an article written by some students from St. Stephen's College in Delhi that really made me think. To quickly summarize, the piece criticized the draconian views of the Principal of St. Stephen's College regarding curfews on women's dormitories and his stymieing of his students' democratic ideals of discussion, protest, and open criticism. The students' frustration was palpable in the text and their story felt to me like a perfect example of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Except Indian students are not an unstoppable force. Not even close.

In 2007 I was a student at St. Stephen's College for seven months as part of a study abroad program offered by my home institution, Brown University. In as many ways as possible, I tried to become a Stephenian: I joined the football (soccer) team, acted in a school play written and directed by an Indian peer, performed in the school talent show, was a member of the Honors Economics Society, and went to several student events on and off campus.

More importantly, though, I was a frequenter of the school's cafe and enjoyed endless chais and butter toasts with my Indian peers under the monotonous relief of the fans spinning overhead. Most of my friends were 3rd years, like me, and all of them were obviously very bright. I was curious about what their plans were after they graduated. With only a few exceptions, they were planning on pursuing second undergraduate degrees at foreign universities.

"Wait, what?! You are studying here for three years just so you can go do it again for four more years?" I could not grasp the logic of this. What changed my understanding was when I started taking classes at St. Stephen's College. Except for one, they were horrible.

This was not an isolated incident - all my fellow exchange students concurred that the academics were a joke compared to what we were used to back home. In one economic history class the professor would enter the room, take attendance, open his notebook, and begin reading. He would read his notes word for word while we, his students, copied these notes word for word until the bell sounded. Next class he would find the spot where the bell had interrupted him, like a storyteller reading to children and trying to recall where he had last put down the story. He would even pause slightly at the end of a long sentence to give us enough time to finish writing before he moved on. And this was only when he decided to show up - many times I arrived on campus to find class abruptly cancelled. Classmates exchanged cell phone numbers and created phone trees just to circulate word of a cancelled class. I got a text almost daily about one of my classes. My foreigner peers had many similar experiences.

I would sit in class and think to myself "Can you just photocopy your notebook and give me the notes so I can spend my time doing something less completely useless?" I refused to participate. Instead, I sat at my desk writing letters to friends.

If it were not for the fact that attendance counted towards my marks, I would have never showed up at all. There was no need. I calculated the minimum attendance required not to fail, hit that target square on, and still got excellent grades. In one political science class the only requirements for the entire period between August and December were two papers, each 2,500 words. I wrote more intense papers in my U.S. public high school in a month. Readings were required but how can this be enforced when there is no discussion that makes students accountable for coming to class prepared? The only questions I heard asked during my classes were about whether the material being covered that day would be on the exam. Remember, this was not any regular liberal arts college - St. Stephen's College is regarded as one of, if not the best, colleges in India.

The best learning experience I had was hundreds of miles from campus with four other students and one professor on a trek to Kedarnath during the October break. We had multi-day conversations spanning morality, faith, and history. During one memorable overnight bus ride our professor told us the entire Mahabharata epic from memory while we leaned over seats or squatted in the aisle to be closer to the campfire of his voice while the rest of the bus dozed around us. The thirst in these students was there and this professor exemplified passionate teaching, but the system was and is broken. Bearing in mind the richness of India's intellectual tradition, my entire study abroad experience in India, from an academic standpoint, was an enormous disappointment.

To pause for a moment, here is the problem with me talking about this topic: right now many Indians reading this are starting to feel defensive. "Nationalist" is a term I have heard as a self-description as they defend Mother India from the bigoted, criticizing foreigner. They focus on me rather than the problem. I have had people unfriend me on Facebook and walk out on meals because I politely expressed an opinion on politics or history that went against the publicly consented "Indian opinion." For a nation that prides itself on the 17 languages printed on its currency, I am greeted with remarkable intolerance. Even after living in India for close to three years, attending an Indian college, working for an Indian company, founding an Indian company, paying taxes in India, and making India my home, I am not Indian enough to speak my mind. But in a nation that rivals all others in the breadth of its human diversity, who is Indian enough? Because if loyalty and a feeling of patriotism were the barometers for "Indianness," rather than skin color or a government document, then I would easily be a dual U.S.-Indian citizen. This Indian defensiveness is false nationalism. It is not a stance that cares about India, it is one that cares about what others think of India, which is not nationalism. That is narcissism.

My voice should be drowned out by the millions around me who are disappointed with how they have been short-changed by the Indian government - their government. Education is one of the most poignant examples of this and serves as great dinner conversation amongst the elite:

"The Indian education system is lost in the past and failing India." Everyone at the table nods, mumbles their concurrence, and cites the most recent Economist article or Pricewaterhouse Cooper study on the matter in order to masquerade as informed.

"Yes, how sad."
"Yes, how terrible."
"Yes, India must fix this."

Yet amongst my fellow Indian education alumni, I mostly hear a deafening silence when it comes to action. What is remarkable is that all students in India know what I am talking about. They know and are coping: Indian students are taking their useless Indian liberal arts degrees and going abroad to get real ones that signify a real education. A real education being one that challenges the intellect and questions paradigms, not one of rote memorisation and conformity. Or, as was the case with my Indian friends at Brown, they skip India altogether. Sure, I took some unimpressive classes at Brown and no curriculum is perfect, but Indian students should be demanding more. Much more.

We are entering a year of politics and elections. Movement against the inertia of regressive forces is an atavistic trait in young Indians and the students of St. Stephen's have much to gain from change. Instead of just the promise and illusion of an amazing liberal arts education, imagine if my teachers had actually taught their classes? Whoa. If the end is knowledge, then St. Stephen's students would win big. Yet, when it comes to change, the students wrote the following:

"Education in India awaits a rescue from the hands of such figures [The Principal]."

Who, may I ask, do you hope to be your rescuers? Your representatives in government? Your parents? The characters from Rang De Basanti?

One lesson that no college is very good at teaching is that in life you should not expect others to fight your battles for you. While higher education is a public good and has champions in the private and public world, students are the ultimate stakeholders.

About The Author:

Thane Richard is obsessed with the future of digital journalism and founded Dabba Radio while living in Mumbai to counter the restricted FM news regime. He is currently overseeing an ongoing editorial and design re-imagining of StartupNation.

A version of this piece was originally published by Kafila.org

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