In 2007–08, the inaugural Faculty Study Group discussed Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, which examines the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India and makes more general allusions to the tension between fundamentalisms and democracy in India and in other nations, including the United States. The group traveled in India 15 – 28 May 2008, and this site carries a partial record of their journey.

For a more detailed description of this project please see the press release.

Reflections While Touring

May 23rd, 2008

We’re all a bit punch-drunk from a long bus ride, but I thought I should add a brief word. We’ll be traveling tomorrow to Chennai. We’ve spent the last couple of days as true tourists, driving southeast from Delhi to Agra through an early and unexpected rain to visit the Taj Mahal, the marble mausoleum of Shah Jehan. After a few more visits – the Agra Fort, Fatepuhr Sikri, marvelous testaments to Moghul India – we drove back to Delhi today. And so we’ve traversed two points of the golden triangle of the northwest (Delhi – Agra – Jaipur) the most visited cities of India. Take a look at the map and you’ll see we’ve barely scratched the surface. (Indeed, India is some 2000 miles north to south and 1800 miles east to west).

Taj Mahal

We spent a long time on the bus in the last two days. With traffic and detours it took us eight hours to make our way back from Agra today. Along the way, we watched a small strip of India through the window. Green and yellow auto-rickshaws humming along on the shoulder of the road. The (mostly) orange heavy trucks painted in beautiful and intricate designs. The constant bleating of the horns. Peddlars standing by at intersections. Stray dogs. Herds of goats. And cows, often wandering in groups of two or three. Brick factories among the fields, their chimneys marking the landscape like exclamation points. On the outskirts of Delhi, sparkling shopping malls three or four stories tall. And as we came close to the city, dense commercial centers of shops and markets, a thick smog hanging low.

Street Scene

In the midst of such stimuli I set to wondering about the talks I’ve heard and the reading I’ve been doing. Consciousness abhors a vacuum. A full accounting would take hours and pages. I’ll just note a few of the lines that rang in my head.

On the remarkable diversity of India. Aswini Ray: “India has all the religions you know of, and many you haven’t heard of before.” Today India counts 23 official languages, but tallies of the language groups range into the thousands. Add to that the remarkable diversities of region, of cultural traditions, of social experience, of caste

On the very idea of India. A geographical expression, if you want to get etymological. But what more? Another of our interlocutors, Sangeeta DasGupta (?): “1947 was the creation of India, but the creation of Indians remained.” What holds India together? It is still an open question.

On the pluralistic tradition of religious coexistence. One more of our commentators from JNU, Kunal Chakravarty: “If we take the long view – and I’m thinking of two thousand years of Indian history – I don’t believe that Hindu nationalism will succeed. India’s diverse tradition reasons against it.”

On the struggles of development in “the era of globalization.” Economic growth since the early nineties has been remarkable (GDP growth of 7-8-9 per cent a year, about twice Europe and the US). What has been the effect of this growth on the poor of India? We’ve heard different accounts, but the most compelling (and authoritative?) comes down to something like this, from Aditya Mukherjee: India’s growth has improved the standard of living of the poorest Indians, but not so much as it has improved the lives of the middle class and the wealthy. In other words, the standard of living is improving, but inequality is growing.

Yes, we are only scratching the surface here, but it is food for thought.

Down the Mountain from Devprayag

May 22nd, 2008

Our driver during the Haridwar visit was extraordinarily skilled, and the clips below show why we came to trust him. The road back down the mountain from Devprayag seemed to us extremely challenging.

Driving in India, like driving anywhere, involves a complex language of negotiation. In passing, one sounds one’s horn and, if the other vehicle makes a tiny move to the left, one passes quickly on the right, sometimes using the horn to remind the passee of one’s presence. There is a fine gesture in the driving vocabulary here: the arm is extended, hand up, in the direction of another driver, almost in supplication, with an expression of deep disappointment. It seems to say, “Ah! That you could do a thing like that.” I like this much better than typical American gestures in such situations.

There are two clips below covering the same near-death experience, one short (30 sec) and one long (1:20). The longer one includes glimpses of the extensive terracing farmers use in the mountains.

Down the Mountain Short

Down the Mountain Long


May 21st, 2008

Delhi Train Station

On Sunday at about 6:00 AM, we arrived at the Delhi Train Station. It reminded me of similar stations in Russia. Villagers coming in from the countryside, small time traders with bundles of goods, transients looking for a place to sleep, porters with large carts and vendors hawking provisions. In spite of the crowd, people were remarkably calm and well mannered, which was very different from what I had experienced in Moscow. In as much as it was possible, people didn’t seem to be pushing or cross. I heard few harsh words exchanged. Groups I didn’t notice were drunks and the type of predatory individuals who haunt inner-city stations hoping to make the best of the disorientation of travelers. Of course, unfamiliar with India, we didn’t really know what to look for and, by the time we took our seats, we had been relieved of a camera and a wallet.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I watched as the camera was stolen. As we entered our wagon, three non-descript men walking against the flow of passengers collided with the first member of our group (let’s call him professor X). They were indignant, accused Professor X of pushing (or so their tone suggested; my Hindi is still a bit rusty) as they shoved him into one row of seats. He tried to apologize and help them to get through, but they continued to reproach him for blocking their way. In the meantime, they spun him round and round, maneuvering him back and forth across the aisle. Another Wooster professor looked on, hoping to help the poor men through. How the wallet was extracted from a zipped handbag remains a matter of speculation.

Delhi Traffic

May 21st, 2008

From a bicycle rickshaw perspective. Click on title below left to see video.

Delhi Traffic

Contradictions: A Freewrite

May 21st, 2008

On the Street in Delhi 5_17
Shards of glass atop the brick boundary–the British are coming, the British have come–do they keep them out or keep them in//a mother breast feeds her child sitting on the side of the overcrowded, dusty highway//eyes stare at us//colors of the rainbow expand beyond measure in the flow of fabric from woman to woman//the pungent smell of tantalizing and vulgar scents–sandalwood, jasmine, lavender, curry//the urine runs on//monkeys, dogs, pigs, horses//Holy COW//there’s nothing romantic here, but the sublime and grotesque dance an unending dance//the tears run down//squatters takes on on a whole new meaning here//”Halo, halo,” they yell out. “Rupe?” “Chocolat?”//Mmmm, the taste of Masala tea sweet on the lips and tongue//How I long for the familiar and yearn for the next adventure//”Life is a journey. Complete it.”//Eyes still stare; hers with a smile, his not so much//Rickshaw, motorbike, buses overflowing with people pouring out of every crevice//cover your hair so you don’t draw attention//Ahhh, the taste of foreign fruit and naan in the morning//the threat of Delhi belly//I try not to stare back//there’s a war going on here–survival of the fittest–the highest caste, the privilege of education, east and west, male and female, Pepsi and Coke//the familiar is made strange//time stands still with a Kingfisher beer//how can one feel so sad and joyful at the same time//Mother India–a contradiction.
Spices 5/19

Swimming the Ganges

May 20th, 2008

This video shows the power of the Ganges’ current near Haridwar.

Swimming the Ganges


May 20th, 2008

Lots of tourists in this video, none western, visiting the Qutb Minar.

Tourists at Qutb Minar

No Glass Here

May 20th, 2008

This video covers a few minutes of our walk from our bus to the hotel in Haridwar, through the market that borders the River Ganges. Click on the title below left to open the video in a separate window.

Through the bazaar

Performing Aarti in Haridwar

May 20th, 2008

In Haridwar, a family together performs Aarti to Mother Ganga by moving the leaf boat of flowers and fire in circles and then placing it in the water. (Click on title below left to open a brief video in a separate window.)

Performing Aarti

Beggars in Delhi

May 20th, 2008

The baby was pressed up against the window glass of the car with his tiny brown face flattened against the surface maybe three inches from my eyes on the other side. He was wearing only a torn strip of a shirt at the top of his chest. On his bare torso below were tightly wrapped long thin fingers. The shock of seeing the dull eyes of the child forced my view down to those fingers, following them to the full hands, wrists, arms and then the startling face of the young woman pushing the baby towards me. Her eyes were bright through a few strands of black hair falling down her forehead, and she looked directly at me. Here we are, she seemed to say in those two seconds of connection. What are you going to do about it?

The car then began to roll again in the Delhi traffic, the baby was pulled back, the woman disappeared behind us. The driver sitting beside me, a wonderfully chatty older Indian woman who was one of our hosts, simply said, “You know to just ignore them, don’t you?”

Of course, I wordlessly responded, I already have two days of experience in this city ignoring the beggars. The night before I was startled during our brief evening shopping trip when on the sidewalk a small child suddenly grasped my hand from below, looking upwards. I pulled back in surprise and watched a security guard push the child off the sidewalk and back to the gutter with, I now noticed, the other beggars. Hank pointed out that a man had sent the little boy up to approach us, no doubt because he could quickly duck below the long sticks of the guards and at least get our attention.

In this group of people kept off the sidewalk at least intermittently was a one-armed man who had his single hand thrust out at the group during our entire visit. As we crossed streets he would quickly approach, staying to the side and out of our paths, but making sure we saw him. He said nothing. I watched him when he was looking elsewhere. I wanted to see that he really had a left arm kept hidden under his long, ripped shirt to increase the effect of distress. That would make me feel better to see deception, I thought. A quick flash of a withered stump, though, demonstrated that the arm really was gone. It then occurred to me that even if he was hiding an existing limb it would still be the same tragedy. There he was, here I am, and I avoided his eyes the whole time.

I’ve encountered many beggars before, of course, from cities as diverse as Los Angeles and Jerusalem. I have lots of practice at ignoring them. Here in Delhi, though, we have seen so many in such a short stay. Along with beggars are the families living in the streets just outside our bus window, often squatting listlessly in the heat, slowly fanning a sleeping child on a thin mat. And then there are the thousands of others on the sidewalks who will sell us fruit, brass trinkets, questionable jewelry. These souls surround us here by the millions. They do not define the “real India”, of course. There seems to be no defining feature of India other than incredible diversity in all things and a certain, as Grant Cornwell would say, “positionality”. They certainly captured our attention, though, as much as any academic lectures or monuments.

Do I feel guilt in the presence of these beggars for having all I can ever want in life? Do I feel that my “white skin privilege” has been a cudgel to beat these people over the generations? No. It is far more mixed than that. For every imperialist atrocity over the centuries there may be a life-saving innovation from the same culture. This is not to balance or excuse the past but only to recognize the complexity of causes, effects and contingency in history. I felt less guilty than profoundly sad. I will gain much from my diverse Indian experience, and this encounter will be woven into so many more, but this woman’s eyes will stay locked to mine.

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