Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2007


Part IV... continued from: 

The tour left the ship in Bombay harbor and stayed for a couple of days in the imposing and historic Taj Palace Hotel. Southern India is disorganized and dusty, but there aren't quite so many people, either. The north never lets you forget what it means to travel in a nation of 1.2 billion. Even in an over-air-conditioned room in a giant hotel you hear mad beeping outside from the cars—the horn is a basic tool, used to announce overtaking someone.

Our room faced the harbor and the Gate of India, an 18th century stone archway. The painted caves of Elephanta Island, just across the bay by ferry, were mysterious. The Portuguese blasted some of the carvings with rifles since they were ancient religious images of Shiva, Krishna, etc.; insults to Christ. But they didn’t dare attack temples very much. The Brits wisely left religion alone entirely.

We stayed in Taj chain hotels when not cruising; top of the line. Swimming pools, wireless, fine food, plentiful staff. The pools are tiled in blue and rely on the sun for heating and keep one fresh, though not all have a heavy machine gun brooding over them. Elsewhere this luxury would isolate you, but in India it’s a good idea. The wear and tear of travel, especially overland, is large.

The “cobra roads” are rocky, traffic a nightmare (and opposite handed), while everything runs on IST— Indian Standard Time, which becomes Indian Stretchable Time. The moist heat penetrates to the bone. Crowds are huge, poverty lurks everywhere. Education is better in the south, though political power is in the north. When Indians laud their diversity, they really mean their many religions and castes; there were few black or oriental faces.

We flew to Jaipur, the pink city, and saw the 16th C. astronomical observatory, used to get accurate planetary orbit information, about the same time that Kepler was figuring out elliptical orbits in Poland. All to support better data for …astrology.

Women there wear very colorful deep red saris that work well with their dark, smooth skin. Onward then, in grinding bus trips to Agra and the Taj — indescribably beautiful, so we won’t. It still seems odd to Greg, despite two earlier, month-long trips to India (22 and 10 years ago, when it was even worse), that the most beautiful building in the world is a tomb. Ethereal in its grace, hanging in the sky like a vision. Yet it’s about death, and the perpetual wish for eternal life. There’s even a cremation ghat nearby on the river.

Everywhere springs a colorful profusion of temples, religious icons and symbolism. The opiate of India is indeed religion. It and China alone have religions with reincarnation, the cycle of time supposedly going back infinitely far. Buddhism came from India and caught on better in China. These two vast, ancient societies withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation, so life was much the same from one millennium to the next. Centuries slid by with little to mark them beyond the feuding of maharajahs. The Chinese by 1400 had already sailed to Africa in ships four times bigger than the Columbus expedition, had gunpowder and the compass, and fielded the world’s largest naval fleet by far. Yet they gave up exploration and burned the big ships, to lessen the rate of change in their own land. Maybe that’s key to why the wheel of life idea works so well there. Notably, one of the few diehards supporting the Steady State theory in cosmology is Wickramsingh, a Brahmin; maybe he feels a cultural resonance.

The air was thick with mortality. Tombs of emperors loom over traffic roundabouts, abandoned forts of red sandstone stand ready to defend shopping malls, street names reflect dynasties that lasted centuries. You see in passing turbaned Sikhs and sleek Bengalis, dark and beautiful Tamil women from the moist south, Rajputs ablaze with jewelry, raw Kashmiris smelling of untanned leather, uniformed soldiers clumping by, black-cloaked Muslim women, peasants hauling bullock-drawn freight from the scorched Punjab plains.

Beggar children know to murmur key words—“mummy,” “hungry,” “please,” “baby”—in soft despairing tones to snare the hurrying stranger. They and the hawkers throng the tour buses and sites, earning their keep with lifted palms, to live in the shantytowns of packing cases and rusty tin that line bustling avenues. Gandhi said the voice of the people was the voice of God, but it was hard to see a divine element in the grinding poverty.

At an ordinary town’s edge is the usual rubble—vacant-eyed children, vivid plastic trash, sagging shacks that shade listless adults, dogs bent or crippled, scrawny chickens pecking through litter, ugly sweet smells from stagnant ditches, brown fruit peelings awaiting a passing pig, cow patties drying on a wall. Some women seemed at ease as they squatted to soap themselves and then their clothes in rain puddles. Misery hung in the air. One sees stories drifting by in a single glimpse: a sick dog eating withered grass, a twisted leg, an ancient brown woman squatting so that she could lift her matted sari away from the road, to relieve herself while she watched traffic with glittering eyes.

Yet there was beauty, too. Pied wagtail birds flitting, their eager grace somehow heartening.

India’s socialist beginnings served them poorly as population swelled. Delhi started in their 1947 independence with 250,000; now it has 14 million, thanks to the huge bureaucracy, and a flood of immigrants fleeing Pakistan after partition. Their constitution wrote in ‘preferences’ (job quotas) for the lower castes, rules which were slated to go away in a generation, but now seem permanent. Political pressure expands them steadily, recently adding “tribes” (ethnicities)—and many political parties based on these favors want to do more. A useful lesson on affirmative action taken to extremes.

The many newspapers in English have a curiously vague tone. They say “communal disturbances” for the incessant Muslim-Hindu strife. Most news is written in passive voice—as Orwell observed a half century ago, to evade responsibility. Criticism of the US is common. One whole page advocated taking the Internet’s basic controls away from the US, which makes access free to all, and handing it to the UN or some other body. The subtext seems to be to first internationalize, then tax it.

Delhi is a powerhouse. Our hotel faced the large forest embedded by the Brits in the new southern half of town (so-called “New” Delhi), with its broad avenues, open green lawns, and large buildings of state. The Victorian houses have arched doorways twelve feet high, as if awaiting a family of acrobats who would need to walk between rooms while still stacked on each others’ shoulders. Indeed, India’s survival is acrobatic at times. They have come through the hard decades of socialist poverty and, since the early 1990s, are finally emerging, using market forces to get jobs and decent conditions throughout the land. There is still an ocean of poverty, and nothing will work if family size doesn’t drop; over half of the country is under 25 years old.

India views technological problems quite differently. They import 60% of their energy needs and 90% of their oil. The Energy Minister announced while we were there that India will quadruple its coal burning by 2030, shrugging off the entire idea of carbon restriction as a method to restrain climate change—even though, in the tropics, they have the most at risk. Greg tries to explain this to climate scientists here who hold with the prohibition-only stance, but they cannot grasp how differently the developing nations see the problem. Basically, those countries think it’s up to the prosperous nations to fix it. Similarly, the Indian space program sees itself as a rival to China, not to the US or Europe. It will be amusing if audacious moves in space come from Asia as a regional competition, just as the US-USSR contest drove the first decades.

In Delhi one easily gets the point of Kenneth Galbraith’s remark, that India is ‘a functioning anarchy’. Mahasweta Devi’s more literary take is that India walks “hand in hand with the new millennium, whistling a tune from the dawn of time.” So the nation of Gandhi has nuclear weapons.

The dusty Delhi airport is like a Mexican one of 30 years ago. Crowds massed at the entrances to canyons of barren, bare concrete, without even any shops. In comparison, our few days in Singapore were dramatic—clean, prosperous, orderly. The trip had run 25 days and we were ready to go home, after a stop in Singapore for business. Another Brit colony, rich in history. For $22 US Greg had a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel -- mahogany, teak, fans flapping from the ceiling --which boasts a museum about its own history. The botanical gardens were our high point—lush tropical zones, a wonderful orchid garden, exotic birds.

Greg looked into moving to Singapore an intellectual property biotech company he co-owns, because it’s far easier to defend property there than in lawyer-plagued USA. The Singapore government even gives grants to get high tech into the country. He had explored this in India, only to learn that, realistically, it would take a year of bureaucratic delay, to be dodged only by generous baksheesh. Sobering.

Singapore is known for its tough-minded policies; the sign in the airport says that the penalty for illegal drug smuggling is death. Though they’ve repealed the strict laws against littering, spitting etc., it’s nothing like free-wheeling Hong Kong, where sari-clad Indian prostitutes accosted me outside our hotel, offering services that fell in price within seconds as Greg brushed them off. In a supposedly communist country! But Singapore is culturally diverse, with an educated population. Try having a cogent conversation about local economics with a taxi driver anyplace else!

After 28 days, we headed home. This glance into four very different former British colonies had revealed much, seen from the American angle. Everywhere the press of crowds reminds that the US is a rather under-populated land – and the price of letting that change. Passing through a village, thousands of faces stare back—people just sitting, with nothing much to do.

Of them, Singapore and Hong Kong are far more polished and prosperous, perhaps because they blend Chinese and other cultures well. Sri Lanka is a beautiful land, but India promises the most for the future. Dusty, disorderly, corrupt, yes—but vast and powerful, when it can decide what to do. These nations are the newest addition to what Greg calls the Anglo Saxon Empire—one of culture, not class or race—and could become the true leader of all Asia. Greg hopes they do; Elisabeth thinks they are hag-ridden with superstition, astrology, religion, and a staggering population, and are not ready for a great leap forward.



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