Back to India: Some General Observations by Peter Luce
Many people have asked for comments on what has changed in India. Here are some brief observations from the perspective of a two week visit. The Elderhostel program Sue and I attended was South India - History and Culture and we both recommend it highly.
Peter and Sue Luce
First, just a quick overview of where we went:
In Tamil Nadu:
Thrikunnapuzha Island (Mid-way between Alleppy and Kollam)
Kumbla (our village)
So what has changed?
Much has changed in the last 37 years and much has not.
All of you have read about macro-level changes in India in recent years. The country has a robust economy growing at 7%+ each year. It has enjoyed significant development in industry and manufacturing. Annual income from information technology businesses and software exports exceeds $6 billion. India is self-sufficient in food production and in fact now exports food to other countries in South Asia. Economic development has allowed for significant growth in the Indian middle class.
Despite these notable changes, if you were to be transported right now to almost any spot in India and you looked around, it would probably look exactly as it did in 1967. Our 2-week stay, while brief, did allow us to look beyond the superficial and to see some more micro-level changes that have occurred in everyday life.
When we were living in Kumbla there was one telephone in the village at the post office. Today, many people in Kumbla, as in the rest of India, carry cell phones. No panoramic view anywhere in South India is without cell phone towers. You see them everywhere including rising up out of paddy fields. There are more land lines as well. The house of our former landlord in Kumbla has 3 telephone lines. Perhaps this is a practical necessity of the extended family.
Making international calls is much easier today and can be done from almost anywhere in India, big city or small town through privately owned STD/ISD call booths.
Most hotels offer Internet access through computers in their “executive centers” and some have broadband connections in each room. There are many “Internet browsing centers” and “Internet cafes.” For example, the one I used in Thanjavur was a second floor walk-up called The Net Café Internet Zone. It actually was an Internet hole-in-the-wall with one room about 5 feet wide and about 7 feet deep and 6 old computers filling up almost all the space. However, the computers were reasonably fast for e-mail and the price was certainly right at Rs. 20/hr (46 cents).
Advertisement seen in Kerala – “Broadband, Rs. 199/month” (That’s $4.60)
It is no surprise that there are many more private cars and motorcycles than there were in the 1960s. Gas stations seem to take up broad expanses of land (one is reminded of photos of gas stations in the southwest during the 1950s). Each gas station is staffed by young men wearing unique uniforms.
There are many more auto-rickshaws. Most are owner-operated and are operated 16 hours or more each day driven by 2 or more family members. These 3-wheel vehicles are much as you remember them. One innovation, however, is something I call the “stretch” rickshaw. Most rickshaws have a single bench behind the driver. The new “stretch” rickshaws still have 3 wheels, but they have 3 benches behind the driver.
The newly arrived "stretch rickshaw"
The bicycle rickshaw has almost disappeared. We saw less than a handful in our 2-weeks of travel.
Most Indian roads are 2 lane and in very poor condition. These roads are shared by a wide variety of motorized and non-motorized vehicles-men pushing carts, auto-rickshaws, bullock carts, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses. Sharing the road by this motley assortment has developed into a high art captured in two words, “Sound Horn.” When a faster vehicle overtakes a slower vehicle the horn is sounded and the message, in effect, is “lookout, I am coming by.” This system works reasonably well, except that when one vehicle pulls out to pass there is usually another vehicle in the opposite lane that has pulled out at the same time to pass a slow moving vehicle in its lane. For the uninitiated riding on Indian roads can be quite harrowing. The only thing that prevents more crashes is that the speed of most vehicles is relatively slow thus allowing a passing driver to get back in his lane just before crashing into oncoming traffic.
The Ambassador car is still being made in India and some very old ones are still running. It is interesting to note that air conditioning was added to the Ambassador before turn signals. As a result, you see the following message painted on the back of some of these cars:
“AC – No Hand Signals” (Translation: I’ve got air conditioning so don’t think for a minute that I’m going to roll down my window to signal my turns.)
As economic conditions in India improve, traffic problems will only increase. I fear the day when people now riding motorcycles buy cars and when people now riding bicycles move up to motorcycles.
More motor vehicles of course creates more pollution. The worst we experienced was in Madurai. We went for a short walk one afternoon and returned to our air conditioned hotel with burning eyes and sore throats. As we walked back, we noticed young children on their way home from a nearby school and the many people in open air shops and markets along the road - no escape for them.
Our stop at this Madurai snack bar was quick due to polluted air.
Trains: The romance (and grit) of the steam engine are gone, diesel engines have replaced almost all steam engines on the Indian railway system.
Much of India continues to appear to have been built up over a giant solid-waste disposal site. It is worse now because of “advances” in consumer consumption. Most trash piles now consist of plastic bags and plastic water bottles, items natural scavengers such as cows, goats, crows and wild pigs do not, as yet, enjoy eating.
Cities and towns have cable TV. Along with many Indian channels, these systems also offer CNN, BBC, Animal Planet, MTV, ESPN and more. Our village Kumbla used to feel like the end of the world (remember getting Time Magazine a month late), now you can watch North Carolina vs. Duke in real time.
I do not know the extent of cable’s reach into rural India. I did notice satellite dishes and also yogi antennas (directional antennas to pick-up TV broadcasts) in small villages in Tamil Nadu.
You will remember that India’s population passed 500 million during our stay. You will also recall the press of people then and long discussions on how India could possibly survive unless it controlled its population growth. Well, during the past 37 years, India’s population has doubled. The population is now at 1.2 billion! The country survives.
A notable change in dress has occurred with the adoption of the North Indian salwar keemez by young women in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. And I must say that these young ladies look great in those outfits.
A very positive change is that the current generation of young Muslim women in Kerala and Tamil Nadu has escaped purda. As part of the Elderhostel program we visited with a middle class Muslim family in Trichy. The head of this extended family, Abdul Basheer, worked on the railway as did his father. Basheer’s sons have received technical educations and two work in the Gulf. But, the most interesting story is that his daughters have also been educated and work outside the household as teachers. While the previous generation of women in the family would have followed the rules of Purda, these young women go out wearing a sari or salwar keemez. They only wear burkas for weddings or special social events. However, these burkas are high fashion. They are made of beautiful material and are long and very elegant looking. A head scarf is worn, but the face is uncovered. The designer burka, what a great idea!
Our visit with this Muslim family made me wonder about changes in our home village of Kumbla. We lived in the compound of the K. Mohamed Kuni family. In the 60s, all the women in this family over the age of 13 wore a full burka when they went out of the house. After living in close proximity to them for almost 2 years, it was not until we took some photos on our last day in Kumbla that the women would appear in my presence uncovered. I wondered if this practice had changed in that small village. When we finally got to Kumbla, I was delighted to see that the women in the family had indeed adopted a more modern practice. The tent is gone!
Economic Conditions in Kerala
Compared with Tamil Nadu, Kerala appears much cleaner and much more affluent. As we drove through the Ghats into Kerala and on to Alleppy and Cochin/Ernakulam, we saw many new homes, office buildings and several new and very large Catholic churches.
(Note: Construction sites in India continue to look like they have been abandoned for at least the last 30 years!!)
The North/South coastal road in Kerala was the best road we rode on during our entire trip. It is well constructed, wider and very smooth. In some sections, this road is also 4 lanes with grass dividers.
Ernakulam is very impressive. It is very much a modern city with tall buildings, attractive retail shops and nice homes. It is starting to look like a small Mumbai (Bombay). I would have liked to have spent more time here to absorb some of the changes.
A toy store in Ernakulam
Many Muslim families in Kerala are enjoying economic prosperity as a result of family members working in the Gulf region, primarily in Dubai. This is true for the Kuni family in Kumbla. Currently four of the men in the family are working in Dubai. (During our visit, calls were made to the Middle East so Sue and I could talk with the family members working there.)
Almost every state in India is working to attract Western tourists. This is especially true for Kerala; its tag line is God’s Own Country. While high-end hotels have been built, many little things get neglected which would make the country more attractive to tourists.
The Coir Village Resort a high-end hotel in Kerala built in recent years
For example, clean and adequate public facilities, inconsistent hot water, difficult to control air conditioning systems and even the consistent lack of hand towels and wash cloths.
The Sealord Hotel in Ernakulam holds a special place in the hearts of the Kerala volunteers. It was a place of refuge, cold beer and camaraderie. People have wanted to know if The Sealord was still open and if so how it has survived the past 37 years. Before leaving for India, I found The Sealord web site confirming, at least, its existence. The hotel is listed in Lonely Planet’s South India and notes that is starting to look a little seedy. We could not spend much time in Ernakulam. It was a transit point for us between bus and train travel. I did have our driver go by the hotel so that we could at least take a look. We stopped briefly and took a couple of pictures of the outside. I have to admit that compared with the many new buildings in Ernakulam, The Sealord looks a little run-down. I would have liked to have gone inside, but there just wasn’t time.
One other thing about The Sealord, it is no longer near the water. In front of the hotel is a very busy 4-lane divided highway. Between the highway and the water is a string of high-rise office buildings. I doubt that many guests of The Sealord have much of a view of the water.
Some years ago the Government of India passed some very strict laws banning smoking in public places as well as limits on advertising and where tobacco could be sold. Now one would expect that laws such as these would have very little effect in a county like India. Surprise – the laws seem to have worked, we observed very few people smoking during our stay.
Almost every young child (age 12 and under) we encountered in both Tamil Nadu and Kerala asked if we would give them a pen. No adult we asked could explain why. One person thought that since Indian pens go dry quickly, the kids wanted an American pen which would last longer. Another person said that it wasn’t an American pen the kids wanted, but any pen. How did children in small villages spread across two states learn to ask for a pen? Nobody knows.