India: fire and ashes
They are 700 million-strong, nearly one-sixth of humanity, living in a kaleidoscope of contradictions that stuns their visitors and onlookers.Skip to next paragraph
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Their culture is ancient, their nationhood new. Underneath a thin layer of the educated and elite, planning for the 21st century, are millions still waiting a chance to get into the 19th.
They are Indians, citizens of the second most populous nation on earth, who have doubled their numbers in a mere 35 years. They are a people so diverse that almost anything said about them could be contradicted by an opposite equally true.
In their homeland, cow dung and atomic energy coexist as energy sources, and satellites twinkle in the skies above villages that have yet to be wired for light bulbs. Like the multiheaded gods of Hindu lore, India presents many faces. Which one is the real India? They all are.
Not surprisingly, Indians live in and around these contradictions. They are familiar. But they are also cause for concern - for they signal deep divisions between rich and poor. Increasingly, Indians are asking how long they can keep up this two-track society.
One by one, the contrasts come tumbling:
* As the leaders of India's freedom struggle saw it, centuries of foreign domination had kept the people poor. They set out to make India an industrial power, and did. Today the nation ranks among the world's top 10 industrial producers. But it is also the world's 15th-poorest country. Its quality-of-life indicators trail most of the third world's.
* India claims the world's third-largest pool of scientifically and technically trained manpower. But two-thirds of the nation cannot read or write. Half the world's illiterates are Indians.
* Thanks to the green revolution, India now grows enough to feed itself. Yet by the Indian government's own count, 48 percent of the people fall below a poverty line so abjectly low that it is measured in calorie consumption rather than cash.
* Two years ago India sent its home-built satellite into space atop its own launch vehicle. It was the seventh nation to do so. In rural India, where 70 percent of the population lives, only 43 percent of the 576,000 villages have electricity. More than one-third have no clean drinking water.
* A bath is a key daily ritual, and even the meanest slum huts are normally kept spotlessly clean. But public streets, buildings, walls, and open space are another matter, fair game for Indians who toss their trash and use the streets as public toilets. Poor sanitation is a major factor in India's infant mortality rate of 125 per thousand, one of the highest in the world.
* From Mahatma Gandhi on down, Indian leaders have railed against the caste system, which orders Hindu society into rigid strata and relegates 100 million Indians - 15 percent of the population - to the dustbin of untouchability.
Outlawed on paper, under attempted correction in the world's largest affirmative-action program, the practice of untouchability persists. A handful of untouchables occupy prominent roles in public life.
In rural India untouchables cannot use public wells, temples, or restaurants or move above the lowliest, dirtiest occupations. Reports of massacres of entire villages of untouchables are common fare in the Indian press.
To Indians, these contradictions are part of the nation's fabric. To Western visitors, they hit like a ton of bricks.
Arrive in Bombay on an Air India jumbo jet - then drive past miles of squalid slums, seemingly sinking in ponds of black sewage, to a luxury five-star hotel. Walk through the graceful arcades of New Delhi's Connaught Place - but hold your nose in the corners and dodge the emaciated babies thrust by beggars before tourists' eyes.
Sorry, no sightseeing in Old Delhi this July day - Hindus and Muslims are waging their second communal clash of the month.
Admire exquisite handicrafts that reflect the proud traditions and workmanship of centuries; then puzzle at shoddy consumer goods whose eye-popping prices are carefully protected by government controls from quality and price competition by foreign goods.
Thrill to the cool beauty and symmetry of the Taj Mahal, a grieving 17 th-century emperor's monument of love to his cherished dead empress. Then see, if you can take it, a 20th-century monument of love founded and run by the woman Calcutta hails as its ''saint of the gutters.''