THE LAST WORD

My Secret India

If every Indian and Chinese in the world

were to achieve the standard of living of an

average American, how long would the earth's air, water, and soil last?

Every now and then I travel to my secret India. It is a land of wide open spaces, with toddy palms dotting a black, fertile landscape, with peasant women carrying earthenware pots over their heads, silhouetted against a bright orange horizon. On hot summer nights, we lie on coconut rope cots in the courtyard, watching a sky full of constellations, and lis­ tening to the cry of the wolves.

It is an India I can only visit in my dreams. It is an . India I left behind when I first came to America 20 years ago.

The surprising fact is, I didn't grow up in a remote hamlet, but on the edge of a big city, populated by a million people. It wasn't so much a town then as a big village. The tallest high-rise was a six-story hotel, and taxis were cycle-rickshaws, pedaled by men. From the Nagpur railway station, you could catch a tanga, a horse-driven buggy, home.

We had five year plans then, and socialism wasn't a dirty word. Our first prime minister, Nehru, used it often during his annual In­ dependence Day address deliv­ ered from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

It was an era of fervent nation­ alism, when a newly independent India was evading colonization at the hands of Coca Cola and IBM, and the West was courting Gand­ hi's philosophy of "Small is Beau­ tiful." Solar power and ocean-agri­ culture were the hope of a hungry

world and Governor Moonbeam

ruled California. _

The world has changed since then. Today, India boasts of its own Silicon Valley. Every middle class household now has a refrigerator, a television, even a vacuum cleaner. Streets are clogged with Maruti mini­ vans. At fashionable cocktail parties, men and women quote stocks on the Bombay Exchange and American businessmen worry about the fate of their dollar invest-

ments past the elections. .

It is an India I have no desire to go back to.

The India I knew was a mellow place. A spiritual calm exuded from the very molecules of its air. People­ had time for you because they were not engaged in the pursuit of money.

It is ironic that in recent weeks, newspaper colum­ nists have been analyzing the fate of "development" in India under .a right-wing Hindu government. "Devel­ opment," I suppose, is a relative term. It is very much in the eye of the beholder.

My city of Nagpur, is "developing" at a rapid pace.

Nowadays, its air is thick with auto exhaust; on balmy summer nights, you can no longer watch American satellites traversing the Big Dipper. No one sleeps out-

doors in any case; people have air conditioning now, powered by electricity from plants that cannot be built fast enough. My niece and nephew do not ride bicycles to school; the streets are crowded with vehicles. All around my parents' little concrete bungalow, the hous­ es my friends grew up in are being torn down to make room for multi-story apartments.

That's development all right.

During the monsoon festival,

girls do not go from house to house singing songs of rejuvenation; American television and rock music have taken their place. To eat petha, crystallized sugar and squash, you once had to travel all the way to Agra. Now you can eat at McDonalds anywhere. A diverse culture is fast dissipating and its place is being taken by a global, corporate life-style, bland and mo­ notonous. That's development all right. Pundits from such prestigious institutions as the London School of Economics and the World Bank are lauding this progress. The trouble is, masses of hu-

manity living in utter poverty have not reduced in num­ bers. In my home town of Nagpur, colonies of hutment dwellers are cropping up everywhere, in any available plot of land, even if it belongs to someone else.

And there is another, more sobering thought. If every Indian and Chinese in the world were to achieve the standard of living of an average American, how long would the earth's air, water, and soil last? How long before the planet is drained of all of its natural re­ sources, and the world begins to look like one big, crowded Peoria?

But the economic experts aren't talking about these matters. And after tasting the sweet fruits of Western capitalism, it is unlikely that the Indian middle class will allow any government, right wing or left, to abandon it. I am afraid capitalism has come to stay in India, and it is nudging out a whole host of micro-cultures that had coexisted for thousands of years.

The elections in India, and the prospects for future development, should be considered in this broader global context. But we are too busy watching CNN to think of it.