mugshot photo of Rick McCharles

India Cheap and Best!

Apr 23, 1999
by Rick McCharles <e-mail>

A puffed-up poet named Charles March Blackride wrote to challenge the "comprehensivity of my India reportage", and my sanity. He may have a point.

A couple of weeks Quit, the bubbling vat of my India experiences is starting to congeal.

"Cheap and Best!" is the highest praise possible from any street tout. They always display a "great and misplaced enthusiasm" for whatever product or service the tourist is hurrying past.

Cheap and Best? India is ridiculously inexpensive and offers much. There must be more World Heritage Sites here than in any other country.

My first visit to India was the big city touristic fast lane; Varanasi, Agra (Taj Mahal), Jaipur, Udaipur, Bombay. I was quite critical of India that trip, though I loved it and wanted to return as soon as possible.

This time I visited many smaller places. Check-out this random list of some of my favourite spots including (population):

- Pushkar (13,000)
- Dharamsala (19,000)
- Rishikesh (82,000)
- Kodaicanal (31,000)
- Varkhala Beach (41,000)
- Darjeeling (83,000)
- Hampi (930)
- Sevagram (10,000?)
- Jaisalmer (46,000)
- Mt. Abu (18,000)
- Bharatpur bird sanctuary (millions of birds)

The smaller centres are better for me as my greatest griefs are big city griefs; traffic and pollution (air, water, noise). Indian cities have "all of the vices and few of the virtues of civilization". (Mattiesson)

I thought China was noisy but India is much worse, reaching ear-damaging volumes. The Muslim call to prayer is amplified 5 times a day. (Actually, this one I like. "Allah, Akbar. Prayer is better than sleep.") Christians and Hindus blare their speakers in religious competition. Simultaneously, vehicles and shops play Hindi film songs at "diabolical volumes" (Dervla Murphy)

This cacophony is punctuated by the many air horns found now on all manner of vehicles, even putt-putt Vespa motor-scooters.

Every citizen I talked to blamed most of India's problems on over-population. I think the main problem is cultural. There are many regions in other countries just as crowded, just as poor, which are organized, happy, neat and tidy. (Northern Myanmar, for example, from where I write. I haven't caught a whiff of stale urine, India's national odour, since I got to this country.)

Nowhere else in the world but India will you find such conspicuous inefficiency, ignorance, and injustice. The reason is simple, said Gita Meha, "conservatism, massive passivity, opaqueness, apathy, and nearly sanctified prejudices".

India just doesn't seem to adapt to changing times. 50 years ago you should throw all your trash on the street -- it was quickly eaten by roaming cows.

Now we have plastic.

50 years ago you could defecate and urinate just about anywhere. It would be "smulched" into the soil.

Now we have concrete.

Just a few years ago in India tea was served in a clay cup which you smashed when finished. Now they use plastic cups.

I have no faith at all in the government to educate the population.

Governments seem almost powerless in India. Not even Sonya Gandhi, with her vast wealth of political experience as Rajiv Gandhi's widow, offers any hope.

Corruption seems to be a source of perverse National pride. Many told me, "India is the most corrupt country on Earth." Actually, I read they ranked 8th worst on the Transparency International ranking. (Perhaps the committee was bought-off.)

Certainly much has improved even since I was here before. Trains and buses now depart close to schedule. Newspapers are excellent. The Elite of India are rising quickly to 1st world standard.

So am I being too critical of India?

Perhaps I just need more hyperbole to balance the vitriol. (Ah, but the villain is always more interesting than the hero in any picture.)

No, I'm not being over-critical. India needs more teachers, leaders, constructive critics -- not fewer. As Gandhi said, "All criticism is not intolerance".

This is an ancient culture, but a baby nation. Much was left undone over the past 50 years.

HIGHLIGHTS

I was blown away by the Kailasa Hindu rock temple at Elora. It's been acclaimed as one of the "most audacious feats of architecture ever conceived". Carving stone from the top down, artisans cut out a complex twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens. That being difficult enough, the precision and detail of this monolith is also fabulous.

I visited the most fantastic Jain temple complex at Shatrunjaya. This is a hilltop strewn with over 800 gleaming white immaculate temples.

Gorgeous. Jain temples are always first class, usually constructed of fine marble.

The very best Jain temple is Dilwara on Mt. Abu. There you will find, some say, the finest marble carving anywhere in the world, so fine it is translucent in places. A giant lotus flower hangs down from the centre of the temple dome carved from a single block of marble.

I liked a lot of the stone carving, especially the erotic images. Indian Gods, like movie stars, must be respectably chubby. Goddesses are voluptuous, consorts Hefneresque. Those ancient carvers must have enjoyed their work.

The Rat Temple near Bikaner is unique. Rats are holy here. Like all Hindu temples, bare feet are demanded. I stood patiently until one of the thousands of rats finally scampered over my feet (very auspicious!) before I scampered out myself. Actually, the rats look small and sickly despite the mountains of food offerings they get.

I liked better the nearby camel farm. I tried to confirm the rumour that camels have been bred so as to be unable to mate without human assistance. Not true. But they are somewhat incompetent so the handlers usually assist with insertion.

For me the biggest attraction to India this time was the Jaisalmer Fort. Of all the amazing forts in fort-studded Rajasthan, this is everyone's favourite.

"Straight out of the 'Tales of the Arabian Nights' ... captivating, romantic, and unspoiled ... no one who makes the effort to get to this sandy outpost departs disappointed."

You really need to see it at sunset, massive and sprawling, washed in a golden desert glow. Unforgettable.

Another favourite was Daulatabad Fort. Very "Indiana Jones" with defences including crocodiles, poisonous snakes, rock-hewn spiral passageways, fire traps, boiling oil. A 6 km escape tunnel leads to the plains below.

Certainly impregnable, this fort was never taken by force. (The gate guards were bribed.)

The Sultan of Delhi liked the fort so much that he marched the entire population of Delhi 1100 km to make it his new capital. His unhappy subjects dropped like flies in their new home. He finally marched them back again 17 years later.

Being a jock philistine, the Arts are a low priority for me on these trips. But I did manage to stumble on to some amazing acts.

I saw a frantic 12-year-old girl tabla prodigy. The tabla is like a bizarre double bongo which can produce wild sounds. Indians play jazzy rhythms unknown to me. But I like them.

Of course I saw sitar players several times. (Once on a hotel roof overlooking the Taj Mahal. Magic.) But the best of all was an old fellow playing an inverted clay pot, drumming with his hands, special rings on his fingers. This gives a unique percussive sound.

I enjoyed the Kathakali dance performed in Kerala. Dynamic, dramatic, with unbelievably detailed make-up and masks. The dancers put something in their eyes to make them large and red, expressive eye movements being the highlight of Kathakali.

The next day we had a charismatic boat captain described by Anna from Finland as "one of most beautiful human beings she had ever seen".

Turned-out he was a Kathokali dancer. He ran that ship as he danced.

In Delhi I dropped in to a place called the "Crafts Museum", not expecting much. I was the only one there. It turned out to be the funkiest, hippest folk art gallery I've ever seen. Craft work from all over India, but displayed in tasteful and interesting ways. I loved everything.

I had wanted for a long time to visit the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar. It is glorious! I stayed in the pilgrim complex too, for free (donation).

Sikhism puts high importance on social service. For example, every temple has an attached free kitchen. At the Golden Temple they feed 40,000 / day, all sitting on the floor as equals (no caste). They feed anyone; the poor, Hindus, Muslims, even me.

This is what all religions should be doing.

Every Sikh I've met has been courteous, educated and affluent. These people are so industrious they've made their state the richest in India.

I was very lucky to meet Gopi and Chitra. Gopi was born in India and educated in Canada and the U.S. He married Chitra who was born in Edmonton. They now live in Pondicherry with their 6-year-old daughter.

I spent a good deal of time with them, meeting both sets of parents. (Chitra's parents live in Vancouver but come over for a few months each year.) Chitra & Gopi are certainly an Indian couple, but with western sensibilities and understanding. They answered all of my questions about Indian society in 1999.

The family "keeps" a 12-year-old untouchable girl as a baby-sitter and companion for their daughter. This is quite common for progressive families. The "servant" does odd chores, as well, in exchange for room, board, and a little spending money. It seemed to work well. The two were best of friends.

Every time you turn a corner in India there is something to make you grin:

  • an ox-drawn lawn-mower
  • an elephant in downtown Delhi traffic
  • the "village idiot" mental health care system
  • street clothes-pressers using big brass irons filled with charcoal
  • postal workers emptying the mail box and hauling away the mail by bicycle
  • feeding the street cows my paper garbage
  • kohl-eyed toddlers (black eye make-up)

At one of Gandhi's memorials I was outraged to see women cutting the lawn, sitting, using tiny hand scythes. Then I thought, "How Gandhian". He always said India didn't need mass production, but rather production by the masses. At least until the population is fully employed.

Everything is done in the most labour intensive way possible. For example, men carry milk from the plains up to Mt. Abu every morning. A really heavy load. A very steep 5 hour climb. Yet there is a perfect road up. The milk could be driven.

Crazy things still happen in India every day. Pick up any paper and you are likely to read:

  • "Father beheads his two sons as offerings to the Goddess Kali."
  • "Mother dies while being exorcised of a ghost by loving son." The exorcism is not detailed -- but called "torture".
  • unlicensed "sexologist" prescribes arsenic and crushed pearls instead of Viagra
  • "40-year-old doctor weds Krishna." The story goes on to detail that she will sleep with a full-size statue of the God in her bed.
  • Matrimonial ads are great fun. "Homely spinster with wheatish complexion", or, "Christian gentleman with sober habits for an R.C."

You've noticed the Indian peoples have "only imperfectly mastered the Canadian language". Actually its a quaint "Hinglish" (Hindi-English):

  • ads for "Suitings, Shirtings, Ready-mades"
  • I'm still pondering his building signage: "Suck well-cum-Pump house"

Varanassi; the sacred centre of Hinduism, he most atmospheric and filthiest place in India. If you visit only one city, this is it. You will find all of India down on the river ghats.

To die in Varanassi is immediate release from the cycle of rebirth and a direct ticket to Heaven. Pilgrims drown themselves or their children in the holy Ganges, swimming out tied to empty clay pots. (Actually the British put a stop to that in the early 1800s.)

The diseased and aged make their way here, many begging. Usually I can smile, greet them, and walk on, leaving them to work out their own salvation.

But for the first time I was really shaken. A young woman. Wasted. Obviously dying. AIDS? I walked past, but haunted.

What to do? Mother Teressa's hospice for the Dying Destitute is a few metres away. Yet she chooses to beg in the street.

In the morning I returned, still unsure. Of all the beggars working the cremation ghat, she was the only one still left wrapped-up in her dirty sheet. I waited 5 minutes but could detect no sign of breathing.

At a loss, still, I walked away. I hope she finds release.

I returned along the river ghats looking for sweepers. India is filthy because these people are despised and under-paid. Each untouchable I could find, I patted on the back, thanked, and then offered a cash tip (disguised in a candy wrapper not to draw too much attention).

Each and every one stared back at me blankly -- "This is a madman." -- then took the cash.


Siva devotee

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