I’d like to clarify, as a preface, that this piece is borne out of my observations — the observations of a born and bred Canadian, a “Western,” left-leaning, downward-dogging internal kitty-kat/hippie and external coffee-chugging urbanite (yeah, whatever that means). Research has been minimal. Make what you will of it.
About a week and half into my volunteering placement, the coordinator of my programme suggested that we visit Akshardham, India’s most elaborate monument dedicated to Hinduism. Officials have crowned the temple, built in 2005, as the “jewel” of the country.
Upon arrival, what greeted us certainly met our expectations. The entire complex was unusually clean — pristine, even — the gardens lush, and the man-made lake serene. A towering gate led us into a hall where illuminated posters displayed information on the various exhibits of the temple, such as a 3D movie, a boat ride, or a dance show. It was, more or less, a spiritual amusement park.
The temple itself was breathtaking. According to the posters, thousands upon thousands of volunteers are to credit for its construction. On the outside, elaborate carvings spread across the entire surface of the temple. Inside, sky high ceilings were adorned with murals, walls were gilded with gold & soaring Hindu statues told an epic. Relics were encased in sophisticated glass chests. Underneath our feet was white marble that sprawled across the grounds of the entire complex.
Was I impressed? Absolutely.
But there was another, unidentified feeling I couldn’t shake off, and it stayed with me hours after we left the temple.
I was conflicted. On one hand, I was mystified by the temple’s grandeur. On the other, I soon came to realize that Akshardham exemplifies, at least to me, everything that is so deeply wrong with India.
For one, I’ve never been to a country where the disparity between the rich & the poor is so painfully obvious. It’s something that struck me almost immediately when I left the haven that is Rishikesh for Faridabad, a city outside of Delhi. As my taxi skirted in and out of traffic, I noticed mansions lining the streets and assumed we must have been in a nice area. But then, around the corner, we came across a row of tents in which families were housed. It didn’t matter which neighborhood you were in — here, the very rich and the very poor exist right alongside each other, the rich hidden behind their castle walls and the poor exposed in their skimpy tents. Building developments for luxury hotel chains can be found right next door to huge slums. When I passed by such sites, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sympathy. The average local, however, having been desensitized, regards such sights with (an almost cruel) nonchalance. After all, it’s normal. Life goes on.
Secondly, this vast economic gap is only further perpetuated by a broken educational system. I discovered this quite quickly as an English teacher at a slum school, an institution that serves the lower, or backward, castes of Indian society. At this school, students are taught to do not much more than memorize. Their English guidebooks are filled with “letters” that they must reproduce on government-sanctioned board exams. There were about a hundred of these letters for hypothetical situations, from getting a refund to applying for a job. When I asked my students to spit up a letter demanding a raise, for example, they recited it without a problem. But when asked to identify the noun or the tense being used — not a damn clue. Because of an education grounded in memorization — not actual, practical application — these students can get across their most basic messages but cannot form proper sentences to save a life. With these sort of teaching methods at lower caste schools, it’s a wonder these kids learn anything at all.
Infrastructure is another area in which the government of India has failed. To put it bluntly — there isn’t any. Case in point: pothole-ridden, dirt paths are the Indian government’s pathetic excuse for roads. Frail-looking sewage pipes leak god-knows-what into the very streets that people traverse barefoot. I’m not even sure if actual landfills or proper garbage collection exist because every inch of India is already covered in muck, dirt, and garbage. Such a sight may terrorize the Western traveler, but for the local, again, complete indifference — Indians are accustomed to throwing food wrappers out the window & peeing and shitting on the train tracks. But the locals should care — such environments are the very ones out of which diseases are borne. If the streets weren’t constantly awash with mud, kids would stop coming in to our medical clinics with foot infections.Respiratory problems would cease to exist if the air was not so damn polluted.
At every turn, I find myself asking, “Where are the Indian government’s priorities?” It’s a hard question to answer, but this much is clear: their priorities are not with the people, especially the lower-caste people. Nope. The government’s too busy building and touting their massive temples & crafting agreements with luxury hotel chains. Who cares that the lower castes are not getting the education that they deserve? Who cares that slums are a breeding ground for disease?
Even more exasperatingly, so many of my questions would not — could not — be answered by government intervention alone. In schools, for example, physical abuse is an expected — and acceptable — course of action for misbehaving students. Once, my friend B not so much as raised his right hand up in the air to see his student cower in terror, turning his face away, waiting for the assault. I’ve watched a teacher aggressively pull on a crying toddler’s ear; I’ve seen this same teacher slap a kid across the face. I’ve seen kids forced to walk across a classroom with their heads in between their legs. Rumours are rife about a whip in the principal’s office; I’ve never seen it. Apparently, teachers in India have not yet caught the memo that bullying students is just as ineffective as mindless memorization. My gut feeling, however, is that they know what they’re doing is wrong; after all, why would the principal hide the whip on my watch? Another practice that is difficult to change is that of arranged child marriages. Despite government interventions to prevent arranged child marriages — they were outlawed in 2006 — it’s common knowledge that they still go on. And why wouldn’t they, when the locals can’t seem to grasp what’s wrong with them? How can they be wrong if they’re cultural?
These issues simply cannot be resolved by mere political means. They require a massive change in the Indian way of life & the Indian frame of mind. Most significantly, they require a willingness to alter a generations-old caste system, the very foundation for all these harmful ideologies and practices.
But that is much easier said than done. According to a local I know, the average Indian is compelled to stay in his own caste, resigned to a hierarchy that he feels he can never change.
Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed — and spoiled — having been born and raised in North America, but I cannot imagine living in a society that stifles my freedom & resigns me to a class. Perhaps I’m just so deeply entrenched in my own liberal, left-handed views — cultivated through years of Canadian schooling — that I am unable to see what’s wrong with my way of doing things. After all, in this foreign, smelly, vibrant country, I’m the stranger. And who am I, someone who’s spent a mere 6 weeks here, to judge a country and push upon it my own values? Is my volunteering stint nothing more than 21st century neocolonialism? Indeed, some of us Westerners come to these developing countries under the notion that we can “save” others, but often it’s us that needs saving first.
And perhaps I’m just really damn American for still having faith in the American dream, but it’s my belief that such resignation is not only to the detriment of the individual but also to his country. If we limit innovation & intellect to only the uppermost echelons of society, we’re not giving those at the lower levels a fair chance; we’re not giving India a fair chance.
I end my rant with an anecdote that speaks for itself: one morning, I started my lesson at the slum school with the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I discovered that amongst these humble kids were future doctors, DJs, software engineers, teachers, mathematicians, and even playboys! They’re bright. They’re kind. They’re lower caste. And they deserve a fair chance. India deserves a fair chance.