The Vitality of India

This week’s Economist Magazine features a rough economic comparison between India and China, suggesting that India may be a better bet long term. That’s largely for two reasons: India has a young population, whereas China’s is beginning to turn old. And India is a democracy, able to adapt to changing conditions in a way that is difficult for a dictatorship.

Of all the places in the world I’ve visited, there is no place like India for standing on a street corner and staring. It’s an extraordinarily complex place, and a lot of the complexity is on display in any traffic jam. How can people live cheek by jowl for a thousand years and yet remain so utterly unmixed?

I’m currently planning a trip to India and reading Nine Lives, by one of my favorite writers, William Dalrymple. In it he chronicles individuals who embody the rich, religious, historic sensibilities of India, in a setting that is very rapidly modernizing.

I’ve read about a Jain nun who gently sweeps the path in front of her in order to avoid stepping on any living thing, and who is so dedicated to the via negativa that she takes the decision to starve to death—a common Jain practice.

Quite different are the dancers/performers of the gods, usually lowly Dalit workmen who for a few months of the year are worshiped. They wear extraordinary costumes and speak frankly of being taken over by the gods while they perform in all-night, outdoor festivals.

Then there are the devadasi, women who by an ancient tradition are dedicated to the gods at an early age so that they can become prostitutes. Driven from Hindu temples by 19th century reformers, they still carry on. There’s genuine religious sentiment and ritual, and more than a little pride among the devadasi at their superiority to ordinary women of the night.

Again, troubadors still make their living by performing epic poetry of the gods—reciting from memory (they are often illiterate) thousands and thousands of lines of poetry that may take several all-night sessions to declaim. Bollywood is cutting into their trade but they carry on, like medieval bards reciting Beowulf.

What’s clear is that some very ancient, very strange traditions survive side by side with skyscrapers and heart surgery and call centers. As horrible as some of these traditions seem to me, I can’t help admiring the remarkable survival of difference. Over the past decade we’ve all been told that China is the world’s future, but the future is very difficult to predict. (Ask Japan.) Is it possible that India, with its chaos and unpredictability, has the vitality and flexibility, indeed the creativity, to deal with the future?

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