“India is a land of contradictions,” was the insight I received from a previous intern a few weeks before I departed on my own internship abroad. I acknowledged this as a superficial warning about the classic head nod implying ‘no’ but really indicating ‘yes’ — I was already aware of this phenomenon! However, this observation has begun to take shape at many more levels as I experience more of India’s daily life. I chuckle as people speak with sighs of relief of the cool down accompanying the monsoon rains as they refer to temperatures below 100°F. Everyone eagerly anticipates above normal downpours to boost agricultural production and ease acute drinking water shortages. A good monsoon season sustains economic growth and contains food costs. However, these same heavy rains lash out causing sudden flooding and ensuing property damage, rise in infectious disease, and increasingly evident pollution. I personally resent this rainy season for interfering with plans to visit the western coast of Kerala. I had hopes of touring the Periyar Tiger Reserve and trekking the tea gardens of Munnar…but these are now ‘washed’ away (my sense of humor has only increased to the umpteenth degree while here). Fortunately, this opened opportunities to visit other places like Bangalore and Goa.
The contradictions of India permeate more than just the weather, extending to people living here and the landscape they share. Pondicherry has a double culture with its inescapable French heritage juxtaposed to its spirituality with Sri Aurobindo ashram. This mixing of cultures emulates two time periods clashing into harmonic balance. Even groups of people you wouldn’t expect to interact see each other on a daily basis. There is a single highway in Pondicherry where, for 10 rupees, foreigners, professionals such as doctors and suit-wearing businessmen, villagers, and various day workers, all take the same bus from one end of the city to the other. These contradictions mark how modernity and antiquity coexist in India, a country that finds itself on the cusp of culture change.
It is fascinating to watch the traditional, “old” country mix with modern, “new” perspectives. Progress and novelty are slowly creeping their way into life even in the most remote parts of India. An ancient, historic, beautiful temple with painted mythological stories illustrated on its walls stands adjacent to a modern, steel 5-story department stores.
A typical South Indian “tiffin” stand hawking its traditional fare sits in front of a French/Indian fusion restaurant flaunting its TripAdvisor certificate of excellence. In Infinite Vision, the story of how Aravind Eye Systems was founded, the authors describe this dichotomy:
“hay-stacked bullock carts halt at traffic lights with digital displays, and first-time escalator riders wander barefoot through the city’s brand new mall. Domino’s Pizza delivers where hawkers still carry vegetable baskets on their heads; and at the doorsteps of coffee bars serving frothy cappuccinos, coconut-water vendors split their hard green fruit with scythes.”
I was prepared for the double standard in the market place where, I was warned, just my appearance would raise the price of any item in which I showed interest. However, I was surprised at how much people in this simple town were aware of Western culture and luxuries. Aravind prides itself for conducting eye surgeries for 1000 Rp. ($15) and still needs are unmet due to limited resources and lack of health education, yet stores easily lure people in with items like Levi’s jeans costing upwards of 2500 Rp. ($40).
During a free weekend, I took a bike tour through the city and got a new appreciation of this place I call home for the summer. I am getting more comfortable navigating the streets which echo the French influence, ‘Rue du Bazaar’ and places like the cathedral of Notre Dame.
The French left in 1954 but it wasn’t until 2006 that the territory name was reverted to Puducherry, its Tamil name aptly meaning “New City”. Despite this, the residents lovingly still refer to their town as Pondi.
Across the canal and away from the sea the Tamil Quarter is rather more typical of a small south Indian city. Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry draws devotees of this Indian sage who lived in the city for the latter part of his life. Auroville, just outside the city, combines elements of spirituality, philosophy and sustainability into a working international community.
Though Pondi isn’t as urban as the bigger cities like Delhi or Bangalore, it has it’s own hustle and bustle. Fishermen wake up early in the morning and head out to sea, rickshaw drivers crowd the bus stands from dawn until dusk, and the doctors at Aravind are in the OT
(Operation Theater), scrubbed and ready to cut at 6:50am. All this happens even though many of these same people enjoy fireworks going off in the city well past midnight.
The Indian economy opened its doors to the global market and even Pondicherry has seen exponential economic growth, but infrastructure has changed at a snail’s pace. While many hold religion and morality close to their hearts, corruption runs rampant in all political and business facets of life. Extreme poverty can be witnessed at the steps of opulent buildings from which the rich emerge unphased by what they pass. It’s completely different living here and recognizing these differences as opposed to just visiting as a tourist and hearing about them.
Yes, India is full of contradictions.