Friday, March 16, 2007
Returning from a month in India, my mind is still whirling. The vivid flashes of colour of saris were everywhere. Whole cities were washed with pink (Jaipur), blue (Jodhpur) and gold (Jaisalmer). Icons like the Taj Mahal, familiar from a thousand calendars and books, felt entirely different up close. Cows, oxen, goats, dogs, boars, camels, elephants, monkeys and mosquitoes owned the cities equally with their human cohabitants. Auto-rickshaws, mopeds, trucks and buses flowed around them in a rampaging torrent, sounding horns constantly as echo-location to stay inches apart. How pedestrian the stately Georgian terraces and garden squares of Bloomsbury appear in comparison!
Arriving at conferences in Bangalore and Delhi, the similarities with the culture of the subcontinent in the UK were striking. The Times (of India) featured news and gossip of the cricket world cup and of Bollywood and Big Brother star Shilpa Shetty meeting the Queen. Photos of girls in shalwar kameez walking to school through the snow could have been from Bradford — but were actually of Srinagar in Kashmir. The British Council held a conference club night for visiting and local conference participants that was a highly successful exercise of the soft power that is so much more influential in international relations than illegal invasions of oil-rich nations.
Our post-conference Holi party was a first reminder that not all aspects of India are yet everyday in the UK. We started in white tunics and trousers and ended up all shades of the red, green, yellow and orange paint being thrown around in celebration of the arrival of spring.
But in Varanasi we were plunged into a totally different world. The warren of streets of the old city were squalid, with piles of dung and rubbish everywhere. But our hotel looked out over the serene Ganges, with hundreds of devotees down below bathing and brushing teeth in water heavily polluted with sewage, toxic waste and even the cremated bodies we occasionally saw floating past. Thousands of visitors crowded the ghats or steps that lined the river — including the burning ghats from where funeral pyres were launched.
Our train to Agra took us to yet another culture. The monumental marbled tombs, mosques and palaces of the Mughals could have been a real disappointment given their global fame. Seen from a hundred different angles, up close and from far away, they were instead an awe-inspiring living reminder of the central Asian empires that ruled northern India centuries ago.
The fort cities of the desert state of Rajasthan were our final destination. The Amber Fort overlooked the bazaars, back-street factories and elephants of the pink city of Jaipur, where we celebrated my birthday in a marbled colonial hotel with chocolate cake and a fortuitous TV viewing of Octopussy. Our haveli (merchant mansion) in Jodhpur sat amidst a sea of blue-washed cubist buildings in the shadow of the towering Mehrangarh fort, which has remained impervious to the charging elephants and sieges of numerous invading armies since it was built in 1459.
The golden sandstone fort of Jaisalmer rose out of the Thar desert, where we spent an afternoon camel trekking before watching the sun set over the sand dunes. The languorous pace of life in a city whose summer temperatures top 50C was interrupted only by the roar overhead of the Indian Air Force's MiG-29s and Mirages, a reminder of the still tense stand-off with Pakistan, which saw just last month 68 people killed in a bombing of the Delhi-Lahore Friendship Express.
Travelling back into Delhi, just feet from the slums that line the train tracks, it felt as though this trip had been much more intense than my previous travels — even to countries such as China. Perhaps it was the centuries of history visible from every corner — largely crushed from China by Mao's Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it was the flashes of recognition of elements of an intertwined Anglo-Indian culture that goes back centuries. It certainly had something to do with the extreme poverty that is whitewashed from tourist areas by most other governments.
This grinding poverty upset me less than many European visitors because I spent the first two weeks of my visit devouring The End of Poverty by the head of the UN Millennium Development Project, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs. He is highly optimistic that with appropriate aid, fair global trading rules and action on debt, the developing world can leap forward to sustainable economic growth that will bring billions of developing world citizens out of poverty.
This astonishing, intense and awe-inspiring visit has redoubled my enthusiasm to try and make some small contribution to these Millennium Goals myself. We hope that our Fair Tracing project will encourage a more ethically and environmentally sound global trade system; and the increasingly successful campaign for a development focus in world intellectual property rules should help developing nations move decisively into high-value information industries in the same manner as North American and European nations last century, and as the regions surrounding Bangalore and Hyderabad have already done so successfully in software and outsourcing.
The fortunate one billion citizens of the rich world owe nothing less to the remaining five-sixths of humanity.