Two India’s

I’ve now been in India for a week. Three days at the big Bollywood Conference (Frames 2013) in Mumbai, followed by three days in the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. The two worlds are so far apart that I could have been on different planets. This is my first experience of India, so what follows is a sort of stream of consciousness post.

Mumbai is a big confident city with some of the wealthiest men in India building houses that would have embarrassed the Maharajas for their opulence. I heard that there are more than 100 members of Parliament worth over $1 billion. This may of course be an urban myth,but the perception that the powerful live in a different world seems well founded. Of course this is no different than the U.S., but what does stand out is the understanding that India is a very young democracy. From the point of view of the film makers I met in Mumbai, basic notions of freedom of speech are constantly trumped by the anger felt from certain (often religious) groups who feel offended by the new sensibilities flowing from young secular voices. Every state in India seems to have a different political make up and the politics reminds one of Israel, in which small right wing religious parties have outsized influence. Thus a film may be censored in one state and a hit in another. As a young former student of mine remarked, it’s quite easy for a populist firebrand to get a thousand people riled up about some rather trivial outrage.
By contrast, the life on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi seems not to have changed much from the first millennium. Every night the fires of the funeral pires burn until daybreak. The smell of sandalwood drifts out over the water and there are no tears from the relatives who come to say goodbye. My amazing guide Aman Choudhary says that is because life and Moksha live side by side in this pace he calls Kashi. Moksha could perhaps be compared to the Buddhist notion of Nirvana. If your life in this world ends in ashes on the banks of the Ganges, you don’t have to return. I guess what got to me most was the joy in the faces of the pilgrims as they plunged themselves in the Ganges for the first time in their life. Some of them had journeyed for three days by train and had little more than the clothes on their backs. But their faith was still strong.


I don’t know how India is going to resolve the worlds of Mumbai and Kashi. Perhaps they never will. But close to the banks of the river was a Mosque and the Muslims and the Hindus seemed to coexist with ease. I know there are many battles elsewhere in the country, but in this religous city, there is peace. Farther outside of town was the Stupa commemorating the place where Buddha preached his first sermon. Thirty monks from Thailand stood before a magnificent 5th Century Buddha and chanted. I fixed my eyes on the gentle smile of the Buddha, and was pulled by the chants back in time. The worlds of reality TV, Internet Privacy and dystopian fears faded away.

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18 Responses to Two India’s

  1. Joanna Staudinger says:

    Thank you for bringing me, for a short breath, into the world you are visiting. As I read,
    I could feel.

    Go well.
    Come back with more.

  2. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Jon it’s selfish but whenever I think of you in Asia it’s to-or-fro’ Singapore because of my regard for Mrs. Anwar and for what Y’all are innovating with a bullet. Other than that, if you wouldn’t mind I’d prefer not to envision you eely!

  3. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Would somebody tell, because this is the opportunity, to what extent should the Unied Stats, on ground that it’s a nominal Democracy, favor India because it also is more manifestly democratic than Pakistan? And should it matter that Buddhism is so congruent with Western traditions, especially with Christianity? Because I can’t discern very well, anymore, but the man deserves an actual answer even if it’s just rhetorical.

  4. Jeff Stein says:

    Jon. Thanks for the update. I doesn’t sound like the “connected” India is really very different from any other major country with small right wing groups be they religious (Shia’s, Christian evangelicals, etc.) or nationalist-anti-immigrant (cossacks, skinheads, tea partiers, etc.,) probably small in numbers but big in voice and influence beyond their numbers, causing anxiety, stress and heartache on their world. And then there’s that zen spot you were able to locate which is closer to what some people call God. It’s really a place of simplicity, a place where we’re truely connected….to ourselves. I love it. Continue having what sounds like a great trip.

  5. len says:

    Not to break up the epiphany but…

    We have forged our own chains. Slavery works because no one cares when caring still counts. There is too much money to be made selling locks.

    Open systems; closed loops.

  6. Hugo St. Victor says:

    That first post is scary, Len, but scary-weird. Bad enough that they think they’re on the threshold of each person’s thought crimes forever, but worse that they suppose they’re competent to find the Posse Commode. Harry Truman asked this, just after President Kennedy was killed: What in hell is wrong with CIA? Now you tell me that they’re both traipsing on FBI territory as well as aping NSA. What is wrong with these people? Like we really need another Hunt in Langley.

    I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t care. They’re fantasists, and Keystone.

    Just don’t jeopardize your clearances now. I find that they’re a last refuge, so try not to vomit. That agency’s always been into media manipulation anyway, a good portion of it run as a Goebbels shop. You can’t find truth in those professional dissemblers. My guess is that they’re bragging for donuts again.

    Besides, they’re too small to pull it off, and you know it.

  7. Hugo St. Victor says:

    The person to ask is Paul B. Fitzgerald, the great Endocrinologist. Paul is a Humanist. @len

  8. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Apples & artichokes, the unit of analysis being books chosen for publication by shifting transcontinental vulgarizations. It doesn’t matter. ARS VICTRIX

  9. JTMcPhee says:

    Not to throw bricks at our host and his career path, but there’s only one all-purpose, neutral-import word for all of this: “innovation.” Which starts with the same couple of letters as “incredible.” And “insidious.” And “indefensible.” And apparently “inevitable.” And of course “insane.”

    Making possible all the worst of all the nightmare wet dreams of every slick, riding-crop-swishing control freak who wears leather harness and jackboots and net panty hose in the privacy (!) of his (or her, let’s not forget that the impulse to dominate is independent of Xs and Ys) boudoir…

    So is there general agreement? We are Fucked? With an Imperial Capital “F”?

    Or maybe some of the Innovators have the seeds of destruction of the Matrix woven into their DNA and coding skill set?… Naw, they all want those nice secure jobs, with all the perks and career opportunities, warmed in the belly of Moloch too… do not do anything to make the neoGod angry. It’s not nice when it’s angry…

    len, any good personal news from your personal neighborhood?

  10. len says:

    len, any good personal news from your personal neighborhood?

    Afraid not, JTMc. My world is pretty well screwed. Daughter will be home from college tomorrow and I’ll have to tell her unless something changes fast, the odds she’s going back next fall are slim and none. My wife looks at me and says “you know all these important people. why won’t they help you?” and all I can do is get a bit more depressed. The furlough letters for the government types go out tomorrow so a lot of them will get a 20% cut (four day work week). The contractors simply get “reduced in force”. To get a severance check we had to sign papers swearing we would say nothing negative about our former employers for the rest of our lives. I’d never seen a letter like that but that’s what they do now.

    I went to a job interview that consisted of being told by yet another large and in charge how important she is and how her team is all the cream of the crop. What I saw while being asked questions that were a sort of psych eval were yet another group of mousy scared to death kids. The interviewer said I was very qualified. “Cultural fit” was at issue. Some of them still have their Romney stickers prominently displayed in their offices. They hired someone else. I hate to admit it but I was relieved. The last two years of working inside the war machine leave me not just a little ready to upchuck. The whole culture there is not just a little insane.

    It’s a cold cold spring. On the other hand, trust God and keep breathing, write some new songs and play for church on Sunday morning.

  11. JTMcPhee says:

    One of C.S. Lewis’s fascinating insights, as expressed in “The Screwtape Letters” and of course “That Hideous Strength,”, is that Hell is actually a vast bureaucracy. Miss your quota of despoiled souls to feed the Demonarchy, and you too become food for those who create noting and destroy everything in the single-minded pursuit of power and sensation.

    The say that to the mouse, the eyes of the cobra are also fascinating…

  12. Hugo St. Victor says:

    Len, that’s an awful story about the large being smaller than social radar signatures. It happened to me too, and I don’t know which devasted me more, who foresook, who piled on, or the crusty half-cracked denials long afterward. Tomorrow after church I’ll catch you on the flip.

  13. Hugo St. Victor says:

    …and JTM, I too see it in your discouraged, angry context. Very much so. It’s hard to express how radicalisms converge, over the course of these past one thousand years, speculative of the previous hundred centuries. Enough said.

  14. Hi Jon, I am in Kolkata at the moment. I am so pleased you took the time to get a glimpse of India. Take care, Sally

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