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The Actual Nation of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Journey to India


This essay is lengthy. I attempted to separate it into two elements, nevertheless it was dropping its move. My recommendation to you is to put aside a while to learn it; don’t rush via it.

The Actual Nation of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Journey to India

I have to preface this essay. My seventeen-year-old daughter Hannah and I spent lower than two weeks in India. We visited a small a part of this massive nation, probably the most populous on the planet. There are various Indias; we solely noticed a restricted model of 1. Due to this fact, I’m nicely conscious that my ideas right here could also be incomplete (and even incorrect) and that the extent of my ignorance about India is huge.

The Real Country of Contrasts: Our Unforgettable Trip to India - map

Our journey started in New Delhi, the place we had been for barely greater than a day. We spent most of our time in Rajasthan, primarily in two cities: Jodhpur (“the Blue Metropolis”) and Udaipur, with its enchanting Lake Pichola). We spent an evening in a tent within the Dhora Desert. We concluded our journey in Mumbai, the place I gave a speech on the CFA Society of India’s annual convention.

Observe, Don’t Choose

As Hannah and I stepped off the airplane in New Delhi, the three phrases “observing with out judgment” had been in the back of my thoughts. Our airplane landed at 2 AM, and the very first thing I seen was that it was troublesome to breathe. The day earlier than, I had caught a small chilly. My lungs had been already infected, and the polluted air didn’t assist. We checked the air high quality index and it was nicely over 300, which is extremely unhealthy. Denver’s air high quality index on the time confirmed 20.

As we drove from the airport on empty streets, we encountered a number of cows taking their nightly stroll alongside the street. Out of the blue, we occurred upon a cargo rickshaw (a three-wheeler) mendacity on its facet by the street. Our driver stopped the automotive and we ran to the rickshaw to seek out the motive force unhurt. Not solely was he okay, he was soundly asleep. He will need to have fallen asleep and his car hit the curb, inflicting it to flip. A couple of different vehicles pulled over, and we helped the motive force get out. Then 5 males flipped the rickshaw and the motive force was on his option to wherever he was going.

Once we arrived on the lodge, the very first thing that shocked me was that our automotive was examined by safety guards as if we had been getting into a navy facility. A guard motioned to the motive force to open the hood of the automotive, and he fastidiously examined the engine compartment; then he appeared via our trunk. Hannah and I had been waved via a metallic detector. The safety guards who had been doing this smiled at us, held their palms collectively in entrance of their faces, and barely bowed, saying “Namaste” (a greeting to honor you). We encountered this tradition in every single place we went, and it by no means bought outdated. 

India continues to be reeling from the assaults by Pakistani terrorists in 2008, which resulted within the deaths of 168 individuals. Safety checks, which we encountered in each touristy location, appeared very superficial, as we walked via metallic detectors with our cell telephones and the detectors had been buzzing, however no one appeared to care. Or maybe my Hannah didn’t match the profile of a Pakistani terrorist. Arguably, my scruffy beard and unsophisticated alternative of clothes made me extra carefully resemble a garden-variety terrorist. The purpose nonetheless stands: It’s exhausting to take care of the identical degree of alertness for many years.

Nation of Contrasts 

After I moved to the US from the Soviet Union, my father informed me that the US was a rustic of contrasts. He was proper. Within the USSR, the predominant majority was equally poor. Since all companies had been owned by the federal government, rich individuals had been simply stealing from the federal government higher than others, or had been in positions of energy and thus had a second revenue from bribes. Total, we had been all equally poor – socialism is nice at equalizing poverty however not so good at creating wealth.

However the true nation of contrasts is trendy India. 

The astonishing distinction between unimaginable opulence and large-scale poverty proper subsequent to one another was a shock to us in New Delhi. Our journey agent put us up within the Leela Resort, which might be the perfect lodge I’ve ever stayed in; it makes The 4 Seasons appear like the three seasons. Nevertheless, after we left the gates of the lodge, we encountered poverty as we had by no means seen it earlier than – streets stuffed with trash, blocks upon blocks of slums (tiny homes fabricated from plywood), and beggars.

Leo Tolstoy’s first phrases in Anna Karenina had been, “Glad households are all alike; each sad household is sad in its personal approach.” I felt the alternative after we encountered poverty in each metropolis we visited in India: Poverty in India is painted in a single colour, gray. The colour of dust, trash, damaged roads, concrete sticking jaggedly out of buildings, and animal excrement that we needed to step over on the streets. 

Gray is the colour of the air in New Delhi; the town is enveloped in a fog of mud. We had been informed that there are two foremost causes for the poor air high quality: the massive variety of vehicles, with 32 million individuals occupying the town, and farmers burning their fields. It’s also not unusual to come across a small campfire fabricated from trash on the road by individuals merely making an attempt to remain heat and slums aren’t powered by pure gasoline however by burning wooden.

The beggars had the largest impression on Hannah and me. We had been at a streetlight when a lady in her twenties, carrying her ten-month-old child, approached us begging for cash. We had simply completed breakfast, which had been served by 4 waiters (extra on this a bit later), and this lady was begging as a result of she stated she couldn’t feed her child. Our response was not rational – Hannah and I had not induced her scenario, however we had been overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. We encountered beggars knocking on the home windows of our automotive at each main intersection in New Delhi.

These had been the emotional experiences that engulfed Hannah and me in our first few hours visiting New Delhi. 

We arrived at our lodge at 4 AM. We slept for a number of hours, had breakfast and launched into our tour of the town, which began with a Sikh temple. To enter, we needed to take off our sneakers and even our socks (as we realized, a standard requirement in getting into any Sikh or Hindu temple). I don’t keep in mind being impressed by the temple a lot as by its kitchen, which feeds 50,000 individuals each single day, completely free. 

Our subsequent cease was Akshardham, a Hindu temple that rivals in magnificence the Taj Mahal. I’m basing this not on private expertise however on conversations with associates who visited each. The Taj Mahal is situated in Agra, about 4 hours from New Delhi, and we determined to not go to, as we solely had in the future for New Delhi. 

Akshardham is a brand new temple; it opened its doorways in 2005. For safety causes, they don’t permit any digital gadgets on the grounds, not even cell telephones. For this reason I believe it’s a less-known monument than the Taj Mahal. I’ve to admit, I’ve been to temples all over the world, from the Sistine Chapel within the Vatican to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and none of them had the identical impression on me as Akshardham. The mix of its huge measurement, consideration to detailed craftsmanship, and great thing about the Indian arts displayed make it an architectural masterpiece. 

Although not having the ability to usher in cell telephones is dangerous for Akshardham’s publicity, Hannah and I discovered that it truly enhanced our expertise. We had been extra current, specializing in taking footage with our eyes.

A Nation and Tradition Formed by Faith

Beginning our journey by visiting a Sikh temple and Akshardham was the precise option to start, because it launched us to the function faith performs in India. Faith is deeply embedded on this nation, rather more so than within the West. This may be seen of their remedy of animals. Hindus consider in reincarnation, so a cow crossing the road or a pigeon alighting at your toes for a handout could also be a relative of yours. Karma is a large consider each particular person resolution; good intent and choices will impression the end result of your rebirth. We noticed this out there in Jodhpur, the place on the finish of the day a retailer proprietor introduced out seeds and water containers for the pigeons. 

All of the cities we visited had been stuffed with stray canine. These armies of strays had been fed like members of the family by individuals who doubtless lived on a number of {dollars} a day. Cows are sacred animals in India, and the consumption of beef is taboo. Even McDonald’s in India is generally vegetarian, similar to a lot of the nation’s inhabitants. The one meat they serve is hen. Cows wandering in the course of the streets had been as frequent as streetlights. We had been informed that these cows are privately owned. Their homeowners allow them to wander via the town throughout the day, and the cows discover their approach residence within the night. Cows occur to favor busy streets as a result of there are not any flies, so that is the place they spend their days. 

The Indian obsession with Karma permeates their each day conduct. At first, the cynic in me attributed the kindness we encountered to the high-quality customer support of the inns we stayed in. However as our interactions prolonged to random individuals we encountered on our journey, I seen this tradition of giving in every single place, from a taxi driver taking us to the airport to a shopkeeper I requested for instructions to our lodge early within the morning. 

At nearly each restaurant we went to, we had been served by three or 4 individuals without delay. What would usually be a job for one individual within the US or Europe was typically carried out by a number of. On the convention in Mumbai, it bought to a comical degree once I requested for tea. One individual opened a tea bag, one other poured water, one other added honey, and the final one stirred it. The availability and abundance of low-skilled labor is so giant, and the price of labor so low (wages will be as little as $8 a day) that there isn’t a must try for effectivity. 

What was superb was that these individuals had little or no pores and skin within the recreation, but they made us really feel that they cared. Hannah joked that they’d soul within the recreation. I believe she is true; extra exactly, they’d soul in our recreation; they’d a want to assist and to make the lives of random strangers barely higher.

This “how can I make your life a bit higher” conduct was touching and disarming and had a fair greater impression on us than the magnificence of Akshardham.

India is a rustic with tens of millions of gods (in keeping with our tour guides), and so they hold discovering new gods on a regular basis. On our approach from Jodhpur to Udaipur, we stopped by a temple the place they worshiped a bike. This isn’t a publicity gimmick; it’s a actual temple, and we needed to take off our sneakers to enter. 

In 1988, Om Banna, an area resident, misplaced management of his motorbike and was tragically killed. His motorbike plunged right into a ditch, the place the police retrieved it and locked it up within the precinct. Nevertheless, the motorbike mysteriously confirmed up the following morning on the web site of the accident. The police took it again and locked it up once more, nevertheless it nonetheless reappeared the place its proprietor had died. This occurred sufficient occasions that the motorbike grew to become a topic of worship. Individuals cease by there on daily basis to wish for a protected journey.

Whereas we’re on the subject of driving. I’ve been driving for nearly 30 years, however I have to admit I might not be capable of drive in India. I’m positive there may be order within the chaos, however I couldn’t discover it. Drivers are magically in a position to create three or 4 lanes of visitors from a single lane, and so they calmly navigate via it, albeit with a whole lot of honking. On these roads, you aren’t solely competing for house with different vehicles but in addition with auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled taxis) buzzing in every single place, cows and canine randomly crossing the road, a person pushing a fruit cart, and incoming visitors out of the blue exhibiting up in your facet of the lane.

Within the West, we use the horn sparingly – normally when the motive force forward of us is just too preoccupied tweeting whereas at a stoplight. Utilizing the horn has a unfavorable connotation within the West. Not in India. They use it nearly nonstop, telling different drivers “I’m right here.” Honking horns are a continuing sound (nearly like a serenade) you hear in New Delhi, Jaipur, and Udaipur. (There’s a bit much less of it in Mumbai.)

Is India the Subsequent China?

The investor in me was taking a look at India and pondering, “Is India the following China?” It’s now probably the most populous nation. In contrast to China, whose demographics are poised on the fringe of an unavoidable cliff, India has a younger and rising inhabitants. It’s a democracy that respects property rights and is pleasant to the West. It needs to be on the receiving facet of the West’s deglobalization from China. 

To my shock, we encountered a residue of the caste system in Jodhpur. (I’ve a sense it’s nonetheless current in rural cities.) The 4 varnas (social courses) nonetheless exist: Brahmins (students, academics), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors), Vaishyas (farmers, retailers), and Shudras (retailers, servants). After which there are the Dalits, or “untouchables,” who fall outdoors the caste system. Every social class has its personal traditions, cultural innuendos, dietary restrictions. Whereas discrimination based mostly on the caste system is against the law, individuals nonetheless typically marry and socialize inside their caste. Although it’s unlawful to not rent as a physician somebody born into the service provider caste, I’ve to surprise how a lot the affect of their mother and father and tradition impression the non-public growth and social development of Indian kids. And the way a lot has the caste system impacted the event of the nation?

Regardless of India having two dozen native languages and over 100 dialects, a really giant a part of the inhabitants speaks English. At the least, that is the official line. Our expertise with English in India was very spotty. We discovered that in smaller cities, English was hit and miss (largely miss). Nevertheless, the CFA convention in Mumbai was performed in English. I’ve a really giant readership in India. My ebook Soul within the Recreation has been printed in Marathi, the language spoken in Maharashtra (the state of which Mumbai is the capital). Nevertheless, out of the 30 readers I met at my reader meetup in Mumbai, just one learn in Marathi; everybody else most popular English.

I believe that is the place the a number of Indias psychological mannequin turns into helpful. Sure, it’s a nation the place it takes seven hours to journey 150 miles (our journey from Jodhpur to Udaipur), and if you’re a Western driver like myself, you want a whole lot of assist from the motorbike god to make this journey in a single piece. 

I remind myself that India is a creating nation that’s nonetheless constructing out its freeway system. In contrast to China, India is a democracy, a system that tends to be sluggish and inefficient, and is much more so in India’s case. I’ve a superb pal in America who was born in India and not too long ago got here into an inheritance. He spent the final eleven months in India making an attempt to say what’s legally his, which isn’t an uncommon story. 

Autocracies are environment friendly, although typically very corrupt, which is why China can construct highways and airports seemingly in a single day. Authorities doesn’t have to fret about property rights. Nevertheless, there isn’t a shortcut to greatness. Chinese language effectivity comes on the expense of the long-term robustness of its system. Democracies and free-market economies are normally slower, however they’re much less oppressive in direction of their residents and normally extra sturdy in the long term. I’ve written many essays on China; however to sum up, I don’t belief the standard and robustness of excessive, straight-line, uninterrupted development mandated by a central planning committee and fueled by mountains of debt.

China has a greater training system than India. For instance, it has a literacy fee of 92% in comparison with India’s 60%. But when I needed to guess on both India or China over the following twenty years, I might cautiously place my guess on India.

India is the nation the place you’ll discover trendy buying malls and supermarkets in Mumbai, whereas Jodhpur, the second largest metropolis in Rajasthan and residential to 1.3 million individuals, has only some supermarkets. Most individuals nonetheless store for groceries in bazaars, the place they’ve been purchasing for centuries, and the pharmacies resemble tobacco shops within the US.

Mockingly, that is the place the upside lies for India. In time, Jodhpur will come to extra carefully resemble Mumbai, and the standard of lifetime of its individuals will enhance, as will the value-added duties they carry out, which is able to make society and its residents wealthier.

As I write this, I’m combating a thought that was behind Hannah’s and my minds the entire journey: Would growth make them happier? Hannah and I strived to watch India with out judgment on this journey, always reminding one another to “observe, don’t decide.” 

Poverty = Unhappiness? 

Once we walked the streets of Jodhpur, we noticed goal poverty, however we didn’t see any fewer smiles on the individuals’s faces than we see on the streets of Denver. These individuals stay on a number of {dollars} a day, in dwellings the dimensions of a one-car storage, and their life seems to us in a single shade of gray. However are they any much less completely happy than the typical American, who lives the lifetime of a potentate by comparability? I noticed that the colour gray that I assigned to poverty was the filter via which I noticed their lives. 

Right here is one other approach to have a look at it.

I grew up in Murmansk, a metropolis situated above the Arctic Circle, which has lengthy, chilly winters with little or no daylight for months. I by no means considered my childhood as significantly troublesome or disadvantaged, as I used to be born into it and didn’t know any higher. If you happen to despatched a median Denverite (Denver has 300 days of sunshine) or one in every of my youngsters to Murmansk, at first they’d really feel as if they’d been despatched to a gulag. Nevertheless, after a 12 months or two, they’d adapt and study to understand the fantastic thing about crisp snow on the bottom, tobogganing down the native hillsides, and the enjoyment of ingesting sizzling chocolate once they bought residence and out of the chilly. 

Writing that is making me a bit nostalgic for my childhood! 

People adapt. The variation course of is far simpler when you’re born into an atmosphere and don’t expertise the options. Sure, buying in supermarkets is extra environment friendly and doubtless cheaper than in Jodhpur’s bazaar. However some could discover worth in strolling via the busy bazaar, bumping into outdated associates, shopping for tomatoes from a service provider whose household you’ve recognized for many years. My youngsters would have a look at my forcing them to make use of $100 Android telephones as a substitute of iPhones as baby abuse, whereas India appears to be “surviving” on low-cost Android telephones. There are various ranges of poverty, I do know. 

In Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts discusses two years he spent dwelling within the slums of Mumbai. He tailored and located magnificence and which means in that have. Once we had been coming residence, Hannah informed me she wished to maneuver again in together with her nine-year-old sister, Mia Sarah. Hannah and Mia Sarah used to share a room. Then, when my son Jonah moved out to go to varsity, Hannah moved into his room. Hannah stated that, though she appreciated having her personal room, she missed the time she spent with Mia Sarah once they shared a room. Mia Sarah’s room is just not fairly a Mumbai slum, however I’m very pleased with Hannah’s resolution. 

Throughout this journey, in our conversations, Hannah and I stored coming again to the great outdated Stoic thinker Epictetus: “Wealth consists not in having nice possessions however in having few needs.”

Studying this from a “cash man” who runs an funding agency, whose each day job is to generate profits for others by discovering undervalued issues to purchase, it will not be the message you’d anticipate to listen to. And no, I’m not about to promote my home and transfer my household into my neighbor’s one-car storage. However there may be undoubtedly worth in studying to need what you may have. What we actually want is just not practically as a lot as we expect we would like. This journey jogged my memory of this time and again. 

(FYI: I wrote an essay in regards to the worth of shortage, which is included within the bonus chapters of Soul within the Recreation. Discover ways to get this essay and different chapters right here.)

Many associates requested if I might advocate this journey to them. I stated completely, particularly if they carry their youngsters. Nevertheless, this isn’t your conventional sightseeing journey to Europe or a calming journey to Hawaii. Although the cheapness of the rupee allowed us to remain in five-star inns and have a driver and a information in every single place we went, I might not let Hannah enterprise outdoors the lodge alone. India continues to be a creating nation with typically nonexistent sidewalks and streets typically stuffed with stray canine which will or will not be innocent

This journey widened the Western lens via which Hannah and I have a look at the world; it expanded our myopic circles. (I wrote in regards to the myopic circles psychological mannequin right here.) I’m not simply speaking about poverty. To expertise that I may have taken Hannah to many international locations south of the border which can be only some hours away. India is not only one other nation; it’s a vastly completely different world with an historic tradition and wealthy traditions, typically beautiful structure, meals to die for, potent smells (they take their spices critically), and people who find themselves the warmest and most welcoming we’ve ever encountered. This journey stirred many deep conversations that Hannah and I might not have had in any other case. We’ll keep in mind this expertise for the remainder of our lives.

Right here is my favourite image from the journey: Dawn in Dhora Desert.

Hannah Katsenelson - Sunrise in Dhora Desert - The Real Country of Contrasts Our Unforgettable Trip to India

As I used to be touring, I took footage and shared them with my Twitter followers. I collapsed all my tweets into one tweet on your comfort – you possibly can learn it right here.



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