Passage to India

Running a bit behind schedule, but posting nonetheless, greetings to you CASI! My name is Alex Polyak, and I am a rising junior at Penn studying South Asia studies. Now I am still in the process of studying South Asia, but I am doing it from the subcontinent itself!

I got interested in Indian history and literature through friends and reading. My town and neighborhood both had large South Asian populations and I grew up eating samosas at friend’s houses and seeing a lot of their holiday celebrations like Diwali and Navratri. More than that, I really was an avid reader of British classics and I fell in love with India after reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which details the adventures of a young boy as he travels through northern India with a Buddhist monk. All this combined presented a picture of a great land of colors and diversity, old as any civilization, with a storied history and a rich culture that in my eyes, was unlike any ever known. A good friend got me a book called India After Gandhi which is a magnificently entertaining and fascinating book about the history of contemporary India. People often deride India in the west and are quick to point out its many failings, but to me, India is a major success story of the 20th century. The 2nd largest nation in the world, composed of dozens of hitherto unaligned and distinct states, languages, ethnic groups, caste groups, classes, etc., came into existence in 1947 with no historical basis except that of a shared history of British imperial domination. This nation, despite major deficits in infrastructure and wealth, crafted the world’s largest democracy and has attempted to address not only globally shared issues such as poverty and economic development in a globalized world, but centuries old issues of caste and religious discrimination. It is for me the world’s most inspirational story. This is the reason why I got into South Asia studies at UPenn and why I so badly wanted to go to India.

Lend-A-Hand India offered me this internship through CASI and I leapt at the opportunity. Lend-A-Hand is a fantastic organization that attempts to empower rural high schoolers in India by teaching them vocational skills with which they can benefit their community, their family, and ultimately their future economic situation. It is headquartered in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra, about three hours’ drive from Mumbai. Pune is a city with a long historical past, colloquially labeled the Oxford of the East due to its reputation as the educational capital of India. Today it is home to many universities and major firms in the IT business. In this first blog entry, I’d like to just relate to you some of my first impressions of India. It has been a remarkable 10 days. India is an emotional rollercoaster for me, but always with a positive outcome. It is unlike any place I have ever known: India inspires and overwhelms, only to inspire again.

There was a Russian poet, Tyutchev, who in one of his poems said, “Russian cannot be comprehended by the mind; in Russia, one can only believe.” I feel much the same way about India, ironic though it may be for a South Asia studies major to do so, for in a sense I must concede that all the hours of lecture, lines of notes, and pages of reading that I have undertaken over these past two years are as nothing when presented alongside ten minutes in an auto-rickshaw. For nothing past the actual experience of it can ever prepare the visitor for this strange land we know as India: it is at once an unbearable cacophony and a majestic symphony, a horrific stench and a seductive aroma. Ten minutes in an auto rickshaw can change your outlook on India in ten different ways and in ten different directions. At first I thought that I would blow out my brains at the nearest convenient stop if I heard one more car honk in our direction. Now I think that rush hour in India is humanity’s most uplifting comedy, as bicyclist, cow, horse, motorbike, dilapidated truck, Ford 18-wheeler, Porsche and/ or BMW and/ or Mercedes Benz, 50 year old Ambassador Classic, five-day old Tata, and of course the humble auto-rickshaw, vie for control of roads that are too small, too congested, too rutted and gutted, and all too ravaged for the fleet of vehicles that mercilessly seek to utilize them.

Everyone honks in India, it is perhaps the weapon of choice, and in a sense the comedy is only heightened by the wonderful futility of the action: I know that there’s no use in honking, the driver next to me knows there’s no use in honking, the driver next to me knows that I know that there’s no use in honking, and I know that he knows that I know there’s no use in honking, EVERYONE IN INDIA KNOWS THAT THE WALLS OF JERICHO WILL SELF-RECONSTRUCT AND THEN BE TUMBLED BY THE BLAST OF A THOUSAND AUTO-RICKSHAW’S HORNS BEFORE THE TRAFFIC ACTUALLY MOVES, and yet everyone toots their horn. In an odd way, its uplifting for it only serves to emphasize the unassailable purpose with which people in India go about their lives.

There is a sense in India unlike anywhere else where I have traveled of a nation on the move; it is indisputable. One of the first pieces of advice I was given (and continue to be given time and again) in India was that when I cross the street, I must always cross it with purpose “as though I own the street.” Moscow does not believe in tears, the saying goes, and India does not believe in vacillation. When you set out to cross the street, you must show determination or else the car’s will not slow down, they will not swerve. I am convinced that oncoming traffic smells weakness, and if the pedestrian wants the right of way, he has to take the right of way.

The Indias of Kipling and Forster which brought me to this subcontinent in the first place are now the things of vestigial memory and crumbling edifices as the cantonment area of Pune and its many London-themed bars serve as testament to. Their India’s were embedded in an aura of exotic mystique and charming obsolescence, the fallen remains of an ancient civilization and culture playing host to modernizing influences and self-named, white-skinned Samaritans whose work inevitably seemed to be lost in a whirlpool of poverty, ignorance, and ever-lasting decay. Yet, there remains one constant. The India of Kipling nevertheless betrayed an invigorating river of humanity, of thousands of classes and castes, religions and creeds, which surged forth with an abandon that seemed almost calculated, ironic though that sounds. This India remains, transformed but still pulsing with that manic energy that Kipling so brilliantly captured in his novels. I have not yet traveled the Great Trunk Road of Kipling’s Kim, but I travel the Mumbai-Pune highway every day to work, and on it flows the same stream of humanity, transported over a dozen decades, from Kipling to me. The sight, smell, and feel of it is extraordinary, it is like putting one’s finger to the artery of humanity right at the jugular, and as you feel the blood coursing past, you become one with it, and then hopefully part of it. Whether I understand India remains to be seen, but I believe that India cannot be comprehended with the mind alone: it must be seen by the eyes, it must be smelled by the nose, and above all, it must be felt by the heart, before it can be comprehended.

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