India in the 21st century (a personal view)

My adventures in India, although centred around my overriding interest in history and archaeology, are producing quite an insight into this fascinating but frustrating country. When I arrived in Jaipur a couple of weeks ago and saw the amount of construction work taking place I was struck by how quickly the capital of Rajasthan was coming to resemble any other major metropolis. But in the same city at the same time, two hundred children were being seized from a late night train to the State of West Bengal, the victims of traffickers looking for cheap labour to work in the bangle factories.

Every week night on National Television, Arnab Goswami (aka Mr Shouty), rails against such injustices and the almost universal corruption that allows them to continue despite widespread exposure and an ever growing access to information technology. The proportion of people entering into informed debate is on the increase all the time but, even so, girl children continue to be aborted at rates that threaten to destabilize vast sections of future society. India may be the land of opportunity for the modern entrepreneur but continues to endure the “brain drain” of its brightest students to Europe and America. Those that can’t leave isolate themselves in “Technology Parks”; futuristic residential and business complexes with their own schools, shops and hospitals.

It is difficult to comprehend the lure of our ailing Western societies, especially given the lack of welcome being extended in such wretched economic times but young people in India still seem to want nothing so much as to leave. Well, that and to have better marriage prospects and lighter skin. With each trip that I make the people on the billboards get more and more fair skinned and the advertisements for skin lightening products more flagrant. I only hope that the dermatological oncologists are keeping up. It’s no longer surprising to find that so many young people of Indian parentage, settled in other parts of the world, feel so ambivalent about going back.

A frightening level of conservatism runs through all social levels in India, with caste still central to many aspects of daily life and the acquisition of material wealth seemingly revered above all other achievements. It is not so much a case of those who had nothing now aspiring to claim their share as it is a case of the traditionally privileged now desperately attempting to increase their lead. If a climate of equality and secularism once permeated the intelligentsia of India it now seems to be in danger of dissipation by a series of corrupt governments, a highly divisive quota system and an unregulated explosion of industrial-scale religious revival.

Hinduism is the oldest still-practised religion in the world and, since many of its tenets are remarkably flexible, absolutely anyone can set themselves up as a guru and, not surprisingly, many have. Last year’s death of trillionaire* philanthropist Sathya Sai Baba led a a rash of exposes about cleverly staged conjuring tricks, truck loads of bullion and tax evasion on a hitherto unprecedented scale. This did not stop a number of other religious leaders and politicians from publicly paying him tribute; after all, he got away with it for a very long time. During my last visit, the Times of India ran an expose on “Religious Prostitution”, a phenomenon which bears little resemblance to the rather pathetic residue of 1960’s the free love still sought by lady visitors of a certain age, but turns out to be yet another form of organised people trafficking to which the authorities turn a blind eye.

The most jaw-dropping phenomenon of recent years probably has to be Shri Radhe Maa, a diamond-dripping forty four year old woman of obscure origin and mixed European parentage. The mass hysteria which greets her carefully crafted public appearances (music playing helicopters and industrial scale cranes have been employed) is suitably offset by the comfortably vague message of her teaching: universal love, good works, welfare for cows and more diamonds, please. Her benign, spiritual expression appears to be not so much the product of the holy life as the application of a truck load of botox and a rather painful chemical peel. It is no good waiting for this woman to be found out. She already has but this is India and people don’t seem to care.

*that’s a Rupees trillionaire (but still an unthinkable amount of money)


1 Comment

  • Ed Cleveland says:


    I read half your articles. Nice. Glad to see you are experiencing both the good and ugly of India. I meet the tour bus visitors in the airports and they never experienced buying a ticket in the local line, or haggling with an auto driver, or realizing they paid 10 times the local price for something, or the backsheesh way of life, and power issues…. Wow, a little bit of everything, both good and bad, but rarely simple.


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