Keep it Clean, Keep it Green

May 29th, 2008


Indian public intellectual, Vandana Shiva, argues that large corporate farming practices ultimately do violence to farmers and the land. It is implied that we should model our agri-culture upon the small organic agrarian village, for these communities have lived sustainably for centuries. Having read such things, I was naively led to believe that India is an environmental Shangri-La; a country with a population dispositionally attuned to the land. But, one must resist such romantic visions. Arriving in urban Delhi, I was struck by the smog, the garbage in the streets, the syrupy nature of the standing water in the puddles and drainage troughs, and the bits and pieces of plastic that are strewn everywhere. Such perceptions were only exacerbated by our travel to and from the small towns of Haridwar and Devprayag. And yet, Indian scholars that we met stress that, environmentally speaking, India is a much greener nation when compared with other nations with comparable population size. We were told that India is a recycling nation; apparently, the byproducts/garbage in India is so picked through, that little waste is left for landfills. It has been challenging for me to square these claims with my brief experiences in these regions, but until I have better evidence I will defer to judgments of my Indian colleagues.

Fortunately, we were treated to a three-day foray into Chennai (Madras). The main streets and thoroughfares of Chennai seemed noticeably cleaner and tidier, though pieces of plastic bags and bottles still littered the open lots and alleyways. I’m not sure what to attribute this difference to, but I was intrigued to find signs around town that say: “Your Town, Your Pride; Keep it Clean, Keep it Green.” Perhaps those environmentalists are right who argue that the fostering of a sense of place is integral to the responsible management of ecological resources – perhaps people do take care of their towns when they have a sense of pride connected to their province.

Old Delhi

May 28th, 2008

 Red Fort

Hank Kreuzman organized an afternoon trip by several of us to Old Delhi.  We first toured the Red Fort (see above), which was the primary palace of the Mughal emperors until 1857 and a British and Indian administrative center since.  It is a fascinating place, especially considering its long and complex history.

The capitol city of Delhi is under high alert this week because of demonstrations across the region by the Gujjars, a nomadic group of people agitating for a change in their official government status.  They held a protest in Delhi today and have blockaded several railway lines passing from the city to the west and south.  The army and police thus had high visibility at sites of national interest like the Red Fort.  You can see from the photo below that part of the security system involves keeping automatic rifles aimed at the crowd at all times.

Soldier at Red Fort

We also had an adventurous walk through the streets of Old Delhi (see below).

Old Delhi

Our goal was to visit the most famous mosque in India, the Jama Masjid (pictured below).  This mosque was completed in 1656 by Shah Jahan, the same emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal.  It can hold up to 25,000 worshippers in its courtyard.  We could only go to the northeast steps, but this was close enough to see the huge minarets and see the domes.  We were fortunate to be there to hear a haunting call to prayer.

Jama Masjid

Flight over India

May 25th, 2008


As the Kingfisher jet pushed its way up through the humid, gray air of Delhi, we watched the colorful streets of the city fade and the vast north Indian plain open below us. The flight south to Chennai was a chance to see India from yet another perspective.

The mark of humanity on the land was always visible, but the bones of the Earth show through the thin veneer. The dominant geological features in the north are rivers and streams meandering across the flat brown surface. They appear as thin threads of blue with sandy point bars too large for their current flow in this dry season. The floodplains, which are generally marked by the width of the meanders, are very large, in some cases intersecting so that vast regions must be under water during the monsoons. Agricultural plots cling to the sides of the water courses and extend outwards, following the fertile soil deposited in high water times.

As we crossed over more hilly country, the number and size of the farmed areas diminished and numerous lakes began to appear, almost all with a visible dam which trapped the waters in long, narrow valleys. Small villages could be seen below the dams in the original river channels.

During our descent into Chennai we passed over low mountains covered with deep green vegetation and punctuated by sharp white cliffs. When we crossed the coast of the Indian Ocean a large sandy beach stretched below us with a few tiny dots representing people walking the shore in the noonday sun. The longshore current was visible as a brown streak of water clinging to the shore and moving north Long stone groins stretched perpendicular to the shore to retard the flow of sediment into Chennai’s main harbor.

Chennai Shoreline

Visit with JNU History Faculty

May 24th, 2008

JNU and Wooster Historians

Talking with new colleagues

[Clicking on the title above will bring up a clip of our mingled group.]

Meeting with the History Faculty at JNU

We’ve been so busy – and stimulated by a barrage of new experiences – over the past week that it has been hard to find time to reflect on what we’ve learned during our field experience. We all want to make sure that our posts reflect the new connections we’re making and the sparks of insights into both India and our own fields of expertise, but the pace makes this quite a challenge. Nonetheless, Peter and I decided to take a few moments on the plane to Chennai to comment on one of the most significant intellectual experiences of the trip to date: our seminar with the History faculty at Jawaharlala Nehru University, India’s premier university.

Despite the fact that courses were not in session, eight historians took the time to spend half a day with us giving brief presentations on Indian history and responding to our numerous questions. Our conversations continued over lunch and we gathered in small groups to find out more about the roles of historians in contemporary India. I hesitate to speculate how many of our colleagues would have been available for a similar meeting during summer break. This generosity– and the desire to engage in impassioned scholarly and political debates – has characterized all the academics we’ve been lucky enough to meet in Delhi.

For me, one of the most interesting debates the JNU faculty addressed was the question of colonial legacies: in what ways did British colonialism shape the history of modern India? What is the relationship between colonialism and the challenges India faces as a developing nation? How do the forms of knowledge codified under the colonial system (from the significance and definition of caste, to notions of justice and democracy) shape the struggles of governing a heterogeneous democracy? These are all questions of central importance to modern Latin American history as well, so it was fascinating to hear how another group of intellectuals address them. Although they disagreed about the extent of these legacies, there was a general consensus that it would take a considerable amount of time for India to further improve its commitment to human development.

Peter: One of the surprises for me was just how the Indian scholars fit within a global discourse in history. Their models, premises and references would not have been noticeably different from those one would hear articulated at any American academic conference. In fact, in this sense, India strikes me as much more European than Russia, where intellectual debates, although informed by Western models, are guided by a national framework. (It is in part a result of the fact that Indian academics are themselves so well integrated into universities in Europe and the United States.)

All of the talks were truly outstanding. Well prepared, intellectually provocative and beautifully delivered but a few points stuck out. First, one of the scholars, clearly the rebel in the group, took a very different stance than the rest of his colleagues about the nature of post-independence India. Rather than viewing India as the world’s largest democracy and the years since 1947 as a steady process of nation building, he spoke of the story of independent India as the reestablishment of the Mogul and British Empires along new lines. The evidence for this was the presence in contemporary India of a highly centralized state, bourgeois social order, discriminatory language policies (in which provinces in the North have attempted to assert their hegemony by making Hindi the official language) and a police force that has not been reformed since the British left. When his colleagues later responded, they couldn’t dispute any of his charges with specifics but pointed instead to the fact that the centralizing/repressive processes that he described as Imperial were not uncommon in nation states.

Some of his ideas seemed confirmed in my mind when for example when we saw in the midst of an unruly traffic jam in the predominantly Hindu Himalayas a Sikh police officer using a WWII vintage rifle to maintain order. (The British considered the Sikhs a “martial” people and used Sikh soldiers and policemen to control the other peoples of India). Also, on local news we’ve seen attention was given to the repression of armed resistance movements in India’s peripheral provinces, something one doesn’t hear about much in the Western media. The scholar also related his theories about India as empire to the violence at Gujarat, which he saw as part of a larger history of state violence that Nussbaum had unfortunately ignored. He called particular attention to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 (facilitated not by Hindu right wing parties but the supposedly progressive Congress Party.) The Congress party – to his mind – would not be willing to investigate communal violence, even the violence at Gujarat, for fear of calling attention to its own bloody history.

Another scholar spent a lot of time distinguishing between Chinese and Indian patterns of development. This was also one of the themes brought out in our seminar at the Indian Institute of Technology. Indian scholars do not want to be grouped with China. A political scientist at IIT pointed out that while current attempts to negotiate global environmental treaties placed China and India in the same camp, this was inappropriate. While India was, like China, developing rapidly, its industrial sector was much smaller. Consequently, the country was leaving a small carbon footprint given the size of its population. Moreover, most of the Indian economy, based on small-scale rural farming, was ecologically sustainable. A historian at JNU pointed to the fact that India’s economic globalization had been carried out by Democratic means over the course of decades rather than through authoritarian measures dictated by people at the top (as in China). Moreover, politicians of all parties had made sure that the growth of the last decade had not come at the expense of India’s poorest (also in contrast to China). How was this progressive development achieved? India possessed a stable democratic political culture that had its origins in the Independence movement and resistance to the British in the mid 19th century. It was shared by members of the elite and the common people. This democratic tradition stands in sharp contrast to what I’ve studied in Russia where neither the elite nor the common people share a commitment to democracy.

Most of us left the meeting feeling that we would see our colleagues at JNU again and that this meeting was the first step in a (hopefully) long-term collaboration. Several of us have already talked about joint projects.

—posted by Katie Holt & Peter Pozefsky

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.

Sights and Smells

May 19th, 2008

You will have to excuse us. We have been thrown into a country and culture jarringly different from our own, and we are still adapting, still forming our considered impressions, as thoughtful people do. But, you want first impressions, don’t you? Okay, here are a few first impressions.

We landed in Delhi in the evening. Leaving the terminal, I immediately noticed a fog or mist. “No,” Katie told me, “that’s smog.” Then, I recognized just how unlikely it would be for fog to form in 90-degree weather. Okay, so the point is that Delhi is a bit smoggy during the summer. Another thing, New Delhi has a system of roads and roundabouts that, at first glance, appear wide, well-kept, and British. Then, looking closer, you notice that the homes and buildings that line the street are walled- or fenced-off. Then, you notice the people living in makeshift shanties on or near the sidewalk. It’s hard to know what to think about this. Smells? In Delhi, the smell of car exhaust is ubiquitous. There is, of course, the alluring smell of tea, fruit lassies, and street food – sweet, spicy, and fried. Like New York or Atlanta in the summer, from time to time, you can catch the smell of hot garbage and urine. Then, you turn the corner and you are met with intense incense, oils, and perfume.

Please take these observations for what they are: first impressions. I’m still working on my considered impressions. And, given our recent, trip to the headwaters of the Ganges River (Haridwar and Rishikesh), it is awfully clear that I cannot judge India or Indian culture based on my first two days in Delhi. The people, the customs, the environment, the infrastructure are vastly different in different regions. I’ll unpack this when I can.


May 15th, 2008

We all arrived safely. After fourteen hours on the plane, we are sitting in the Hotel bar, drinking Indian beer, eating Japanese snacks, and listening to American 80′s music. We are also watching a cricket match on the TV and trying to understand the game! The appetizers are excellent. We are having Kati rolls (Indian bread wrapped around Paneer or chicken and Shish Kabobs) Note: we are going to be describing the foods we eat here every day!

Leaving Wooster