Yesterday I went to an interesting debate in the Safari Bar of the Maharaja’s Express. The debate was moderated by a suave Anglo- Indian and attended by a motley crew of travellers from Britain, the US, India and Australia.
I use the word debate, but it has been billed as a lecture. Trevor, an Australian businessman put a stop to that when he asked “why is Indian so corrupt?”
There are 52 of us guests and about the same number of staff on this train, that’s about half the number in a carriage of a standard Indian State Railways train.
India claims to have done away with the caste system, but it has not done away with hierarchies, everyone has his or her place on the train and off it. Social mobility is much talked about – but very little of it appears to be going on.
As we pass through stations, grubby urchins “the slumdogs” press their noses to the tinted windows hoping to see the opulence within, we – inches from them – are quite invisible. So the mud-huts show tantalising images of luxury to people denied the amenities we take for granted.
And yet the ruling caste are returned to Congress in truly democratic elections and the enormous divides between rich and poor are justified in terms of benevolent paternalism. Our guides praise the maharajas as good and just.
I wonder at the tolerance. It has not always been thus and the violence following partitioning is much talked of. The religious diversity (India has no state religion) is also commented on. Managing the different religious sects, like managing the hierarchies of class, wealth and caste seems a delicate operation.
Yesterday India announced its Q3 GDP growth at 7%pa, the country is the most populous in the world, it is a massive bread basket – our biggest food producer and it seems to be growing without constraint.
Although the debate focussed on the negatives – corruption -sanitation – social inequality and Government hypocrisy, I get the impression that India is rather proud of itself at the moment. Its jet hopping prime minister is at last showing India some leadership on the world stage and everyone you talk to (from tuk-tuk driver to our lecturer) is expecting great things.
We left our two-hour long debate arguing with each other and with our Indian friends as to whether this is fool’s optimism. Travelling through central India I am aware only of India, vast- populous – funny – sexy and spiritual. The temples are adorned with statues of athletic lovers on what our guide referred to as “mission impossible” – unbelievably- the Karma Sutra was taught to youngsters to get them to appreciate sex not just as a procreative activity but as a way to enjoy life.
And so this holiday is turning out, a way for us to enjoy India, laugh at India and be enveloped by India in its craziness.
I feel very privileged to be on this train and visiting the places we are going. I’m scratching at the outside layer of the great thing that this place is and realising that I know as little as those I watch. The tinted glass keeps my comfort in and their enquiries out.
Maybe next time I’ll get a little closer to the action, as even what I see from my luxury cocoon tells me that I can ignore this place no longer