Kerala: The Unexpected India

IMG_2429And the last of my India posts. This one was written during our visit to Kerala:

Approximately sixty percent of India is literate. The literacy level among women and in many poorer states is much lower. The literacy level of women in Bihar (the poorest state on India) is about thirty percent. Which is why, when I learned that Kerala, the Indian state that hugs the West coast of the bottom tip of India, was ninety-nine percent literate, I added Kerala to our itinerary. I wanted to understand the impact of literacy on a culture and society. I wondered if the differences would be subtle or obvious. In fact, it is remarkably easy to see and experience the impact—and Kerala defies the stereotypes that Westerners have of India.

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Fifty percent of the economy of Kerala is derived from tourism–due to the backwaters and the mountain areas known for their peaceful beauty, as well as Kochin and the beaches. IMG_2311While there are significant agricultural enterprises In Kerala, most of the population aspires to middle class, urban lifestyles.

Kerala is governed at any given time by either the Congress or the Communist Party–both parties committed to minimizing the inequality gap and ensuring education for all. It is strange, as an American, to see the communist flag flying in a fully democratic state–and to recognize that the commitment of the party to ideals of greater equality and literacy are largely the cause of Kerala’s uniqueness.

IMG_1758Keralans are proud of their state. Every person we met spoke about education, literacy, deep religious tolerance and economic equality. The caste system has been routed to a larger degree than anywhere else in India and women’s empowerment is a sources of local pride. We saw nothing even approaching a slum. Villlages reminded me of Mexico or Costa Rica rather than Rajasthan or Bihar. English is spoken widely and the local language, Malayalam, is typically one of three or four that Keralans speak, read and write. Keralans are known for their political engagement– the percentage of the population that reads papers is high and people pride themselves at being able to speak with intelligence about politics. IMG_1711Kerala will never, according to several people we asked, vote for a reactionary party. The explanation we heard is that people are not easily bribed and manipulated because they are literate and tolerance runs too deep. Also noticeable in Kerala are the cleanliness, the quality of the roads, a strong middle class population and the ubiquity of modern looking schools.

Much about Kerala remains traditional. Women and men wear traditional dress– sarees and salwars for women, dhotis (sarongs) for men. Sixty percent of marriages among Kerala’s Hindus, Muslims and Christians are arranged.

IMG_2070 As I write this I am sitting at our hotel on the backwaters in Alleppey, listening to the sounds of women doing the laundry by beating it against the rock and cleaning it in the river. Bathing is done in the same river. We have limited running water and the small refrigerator that serves the kitchen seems to work only occasionally. The boats that pass include snake boats (long wooden boats) with motors,  non-motorized versions and woven baskets holding two occupants.IMG_0299

I am absolutely sure that what I know about Kerala is inadequate to understand its complexity. I also fear that I am seeing things through rose-colored glasses–sensing that our guides, drivers and hosts are anxious for us to see their state in a certain way. At the same time, I am also sure that literacy IS something of a panacea. IMG_1688Shashi Tharoor is a progressive politician and writer, whose collection of essays, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone, sheds light on India from an insider’s perspective. He claims that education, and specifically the education of women, is the single biggest leverage point for change in India—that educated women have the greatest power to influence their families—and through their families, society as a whole. Kerala would seem to be evidence of this theory at work. And, most surprisingly, it appears that it is possible to effect this change without completely eliminating corruption. When I asked people whether corruption was less prevalent in Kerala than in other parts of India, the consistent answer was “not really.” My suspicion is that there is quite a bit less corruption and that Keralans themselves don’t realize this.

IMG_2403I am not sure why Kerala evolved so differently than most other Indian states. There seems to have been a tradition of strong, empowered women in the region. The history is less bloody than many parts of India (Muslims came as traders not warriors,) At the same time there are profound challenges.

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Employment that fits the capacities of a more educated populace is not as plentiful as it needs to be. Increasing tourism is seen as a key to keeping its youth from leaving–so the emphasis on growing the industry is strong. Environmental issues abound. I wonder why there is not a greater influx of high tech–or if we just didn’t see where that is happening.IMG_2272 Like everything else about India, I have more questions than answers. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the beauty and do my part in contributing to the local economy.IMG_2406

Ledgers and Other Oddities

IMG_2622Sharing another post from my January journey to Southern India—this one focused on the bureaucracy of the second largest country in the world.

In the course of our first two weeks in India, we ran into only a handful of Americans. The few we have seen are here for a specific purpose—a wedding, visiting their daughter’s fiancee’s family, a tag-on to a business trip. The number of international tourists is small, even among those for whom the journey to India is shorter. My sense is that the combination of Western perceptions of India combined with some of the odd barriers that India creates for tourists are factors.

One begins to realize that India will be different when beginning the Visa process. The agency that works with the Indian consulates in the US to process visas changed hands last year. It is now an Indian company with offices in the states, rather than the American company I worked with a year ago. The result is that, in addition to the insanely long visa application, there is an array of additional forms required by the agency. There were many points in the process of deciphering the odd questions, written in a language not quite my own, that I began to wonder whether India really wanted me to visit and that perhaps this was simply a means of deterrence. I have never seen such a masterful job of turning a lengthy and bureaucracy-laden offline process into an equally lengthy and bureaucracy-laden online process. I use the term “online” judiciously as everything must be printed and mailed in a very particular manner. I persevered—proudly figuring out solutions to some seemingly intractable catch-22 steps of the process and deciding not to feel offended or concerned at the request for my deceased parents’ birthplaces, birthdates and professions.

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A woman I met in Munnar told me that she went to the consul to pick up her Visa in person, given that she lived in New York and had waited too long to use the mail-in option. The experience of arriving at 5 p.m., after having been told the office would be open for pick-ups between 5 and 6 and then watching the door shut at 6 when she was next in line, was enough for her to question the wisdom of her travel plans. She also shared that the first time she went to the consulate to drop off the forms, she asked a guard how long a wait it would be. After being asked her profession and telling them she was a doctor, she was ushered to the front of the line immediately. She refused to play the doctor card twice.

Once in India, you can’t help but be struck by the strange uses of high and low technologies everywhere—not least in the tourism industry. I signed more unwieldy ledgers asking for more detailed and personal information than one can imagine (my wedding anniversary, my birthday, the next place on our itinerary.) We made it a habit to take pictures of the ledgers as they never cease to amuse us. Often a hotel will have a two to three ledger sign-in process. My personal favorite was the special ledger used at one hotel to record your use of wireless. It isn’t just hotels. A physical ledger “guest book” sat at the counter of an Apple store in Mumbai.

When we commented on these processes (which were almost always redundant to a computerized process) we get blank stares. How could it be done any other way? The two hotels without ledgers were a wonderful retreat lodge in Munnar, where the owner, who lived in Tokyo for twelve years and worked in IT, actually realized that the ledger was expendable. The other was the hotel in Madurai, which is a Taj hotel—the top of the line Indian hotel chain. Rather than a ledger there is a two page contract for a one night stay and another couple of pages of receipts at checkout.

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Last year, in the small town of Bundi, in Rajasthan, we observed clerks who sat in their small open air shops doing work that required writing in a variety of ledgers all day long. I have seen the same scene since and witnessed a small industry of ledger production and sales and xerox machines for recopying all kinds of paperwork. An entire section of shops in Mumbai is all ledgers, all the time.

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I have vague memories of this kind of paper intensive way of operating from my early years in Israel in the mid-seventies–and assume this is the legacy of the British. We bought tunics and scarves in an old “department store” in Mumbai with British furnishings and a four-step purchase process including choosing the item, receiving the bottom portion of a carbon paper form (a separate one from each department,) taking it to the cashier and then taking the form and a receipt to the delivery person, who stapled all three pieces of paper together and handed you a perfect package. Why these methods were abandoned in Tel Aviv but retained in Mumbai–and show few signs of abating is beyond my comprehension. And how this reliance on ledgers and paper fits in a country at the forefront of IT, further boggles the mind. Shashi Tharoor describes India as a country that “manages to live in several centuries at the same time.” That one phrase captures so much of what is both wonderful and challenging in India—and is exemplified in the ledger.

Globalization: A View From Mumbai

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In January I spent three weeks in Southern India. This post was written at the end of our stay in Mumbai. I hope you enjoy it!

Before my first trip to India last winter, I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s acclaimed non-fiction narrative about her three years of exploring a Mumbai slum. In addition to painting a portrait of slum life, it also provided a lens from which to examine my experience of India and tremendous insights into issues of corruption, caste, economy and poverty, all elements of any journey to India (along with the amazing sights, sounds, smells and tastes.) So, when I decided that two weeks wasn’t anywhere near enough to even begin to grasp this complex country and decided to visit again, this time in the south and for a longer period of time, I wanted to go deeper into the country and better understand its social and economic fabric.
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We arrived in Mumbai last Wednesday and were immediately struck by this city’s juxtapositions. Wealth and extreme poverty live side by side. Vast tracts of slums border the most expensive home in the world. Exactly what I had expected, and shocking nonetheless. I was equally struck—and perhaps more surprised—by just how much I liked Mumbai—beautiful old British buildings, artsy areas, restaurants to die for, amazingly open and friendly people.

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On our last day in the city, after we had seen many of the conventional sites, we journeyed deeper into the belly of Mumbai. We began our day at the Sassoon docks, where descendants of the earliest people of Mumbai fish and sell their fish. We then went to the Dhobi Ghat where much of Mumbai’s laundry is processed. The fact that a city still does its laundry with virtually no electricity—manually rubbing, beating, and spinning the laundry—and that so many piles of laundry are brought in, cleaned, dried, ironed and returned in perfect condition to their rightful owners–including massive loads from hotels and public facilities—took my breath away.

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We explored the Matunga market with its stalls of fruits, vegetables, spices, beans and flowers strung for decorations at weddings and other festivities—and its gorgeous colors and amazing smells. The people, in their colorful clothes, added to the richness and sensuality of the experience.

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Finally, we headed to meet our student guide, Farzan, who, for the next couple of hours, would take us on a tour of Dharavi, a city within a city. While classified as a slum, we were told and our experience was evidence that, the word slum was a poor fit. In Dharavi, one million people live and work in a space barely occupying a single square mile. The combined industries of Dharavi produce a billion dollars in revenue (impressive despite the fact that dividing revenue number by the number of residents results in an annual per capita income of just $100.) It is a city of working poor. Crime and drugs are not pervasive issues, there is no prostitution, there is relative harmony (not unique in India) among the myriad religious sects, children are educated and, like our guide, can end up with college degrees and middle-class professions. There are even wealthy residents who chose to remain in Dharavi when it wasn’t economically required, because of the sense of community and connectedness.

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We moved quickly through narrow and narrower streets, visiting residential, industrial, and commercial areas within Dharavi. Seventy percent of Mumbai’s trash (and some percentage of American trash) makes its way to Dharavi where it is processed: cardboard is made from recyclables, used inner tubes are made into rubber piping, and scrap metal is melted and crafted into items such as the base of blenders. An enormous amount of plastic is sorted, melted, and shipped out. Local industries serve other local industries by creating the tools and machinery they need—typically from recyclables. In addition to recycling, Dharavi’s industries include embroidery, leather (75% of India’s leather goods spends some portion of its life cycle in Dharavi) and pottery.

Dharavi was, for me, a lesson in the mind bending complexity of globalization. American trash making its way to an Indian under city, where it provides a means for the very poor to make a living and use that to fund the possibilities for a next generation to emerge from profound poverty—paints an inspirational picture. More complicated is that the plastics factory is an environmental disaster (as is the leather industry), living conditions for much of Dharavi are unfathomable for a Westerner, income inequality in India is extreme, and the pervasive corruption makes solving any of these problems unusually challenging.

I am often asked why I choose to visit India. The answers are many. And one of the most important reasons for me is the imperative of understanding what it means to live in a globally interdependent world. Our few hours in Dharavi were perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the complexity of that interdependence that I have witnessed. I am enormously grateful to have had this opportunity and recognize that it is extreme privilege that allows me to make this trip.