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The road winds slowly down the hillside, not lazily as winding roads are usually described, but with a vengeance, a tightly compressed series of hairpin turns descending to the river with an almost military efficiency. It crosses a narrow steel suspension bridge, wanders alongside the river, finally turning and cutting through the deep and wooded gorge, full of shadowy green and the sounds of rushing water, threaded by sunlight only during the early afternoons.
Someone with Western sensibilities might think the gorge was carved out of the mountains by the river to cater to the needs of the men who traverse it. But to the generations of pilgrims who have travelled through, the gorge and the road are an illusion. Reality is the height and the rarefied air that surrounds the mountains, and the road is just a path to the summit.
I was to hear alot about Western sensibilities during the summer in India. Along the same hillside, I stooped and effortlessly uprooted a knee-high plant, turned around and asked my companions if they knew what it was. They paid little attention until I told them it was marijuana. The four boys huddled and asked me if I was sure, and how I knew. Then, one was bold enough to ask if I had ever tried it, evidently eager to hear whether I had been tainted by the contamination that was American culture to
"Do you have mountains like these in America? American writers--all they are concerned about is India's poverty. Why doesn't somebody write something about how glorious the Himalayas are and make us look a little bit better to the rest of the world?" To these college students from Calcutta, all of India was in these mountains. They described a country that was eternal, that could never perish as civilizations have elsewhere in the world. The Himalayas and the Ganges that flows from their northern slopes inspire a tranquility and stoic contentment that come from a lack of ambition and a harmonious coexistence with nature. Poverty is just an illusion fixed in the imagination of visitors to the country, and other social problems the result of the impurities imported by the nation's conquerers. I couldn't understand this, they told me, at least until I had read the oldest Hindu scriptures.
The river that runs through that shady gorge joins another further downstream, and many more before it descends from the mountains near the city of Rishikesh in Northern India. It is the holy river Ganges, which flows more than a thousand miles south to Calcutta, where the boys are from. A visitor would recognize no similarity between the impossibly quiet life of the mountain landscape and the bustle of a city that has become synonymous for unimaginable squalor and degradation. Its reputation transcends differences among cultures and continents but serves as a worst-case scenario for the human condition. For the rest of the world, it is only an abstract image of crowded and dirty nothingness--"New York subways are nearly as crowded as the streets of Calcutta," a recent article read--but for the people of the city, the world outside is equally foreign and abstract. "Calcutta might be poor, but there's no other city to live in. Live here for six months, and you'll feel it in your veins," an affluent and highly educated aunt told me. The sight of grown men sharing their food with dogs and little kids using the streets as a toilet evokes disgust, and even more sickening is the ubiquitous stench of the stagnant and deadly rain water that never evaporates from the gutters. The word "poverty" loses its meaning because there is so much of it. The people somehow lead stable lives in these worst possible conditions, and the life of the city never idles. The chatter of hawkers, the stylistic craft of fruit vendors, the music of both the faithful and the impious, and the imprecations of beggars never cease.
Even more depressing than the plodding lives of the city's pavement-dwellers are the lives and frustrations of those who, like my aunt and the bluejean-clad students I travelled with, have grown up with privilege, the opportunity for education, and the responsibility to improve conditions for the people who do not share their privilege. They live in the brightly painted, concrete homes of the city. Few, if any, neighborhoods are segregated from the shortage of food and living space that pervades the city, but some "nicer" areas stand out. In one of these residential neighborhoods, I had dinner with a professor at a Calcutta institute for managerial studies. He talked of the frustrations of working to improve health and sanitation conditions, the impracticability of any attempts at concerted policies, and the tight pinch of a runaway inflation rate on all but the wealthiest members of the country's industrial establishment. "When we graduated from college, we thought that our purpose was to do something worthwhile for out nation," he told me. "Now, I would just tell my son to try to support and take care of himself."
Living and eating well amidst surrounding poverty is easy only if one justifies it with a belief that he is doing something to deserve it, something that makes privilege worthwhile. But Calcutta's intelligentsia seem out of touch with the people they see around them, and they feel their estrangement. There's a joke about the economists charged with increasing India's food production and improving distribution: none of them have ever seen a grainfield in their lives, or even bought their own groceries.
Where was the eternal India of the Upanishads in the midst of the poverty of the body and spirit that existed side by side in the city? Was the tranquility and contentment of a purely Indian civilization to be found only in the rarefied precincts of the upper Himalayas, where people rarely go? The streets of Calcutta feature one predominant conflict, a clash between cultures and the attitudes that have grown from the divergent educations and living conditions of its people. The college students who preached of eternal India were possibly as removed from it as I was, themselves contaminated by the impurities of affluence and bourgeois ambition; and they were characteristic of a group easily visible in the city. Girls walking through bazaars in tight jeans and blouses, society women shopping at expensive boutiques, businessmen and doctors being driven to the airports that most natives of the city will never visit. The large majority of the city's inhabitant's cannot know this other world of modern styles they see all around them. A driver asked me what people in America eat, chapattis or rice, and I couldn't answer.
Moments of solitude and tranquility are possible despite the noise of the city: A frail urcnin stands outside a music shop situated on a posh street corner. She looks in the open-air store and gazes solemnly at the disco posters that cover the back wall, her eyes moving from one to another, surveying all their details. But the music playing in the shop is not disco; it is the sad and beautiful voice of a woman singing a classical Indian ballad. The young girl stares blankly for more than 15 minutes. She slowly lowers her head and walks back out into the sunlight.
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