In the last 30 years, whenever I went back to India, one of two moods invariably overcame me: a feeling of total relaxation or that of total despair. For the first decade and a half after I arrived on these shores, my native country seemed to be in a time warp; it held for me the comfort of familiarity and the quaintness of nostalgia. I would go home to Nagpur and soon fall into life’s old, lethargic rhythms. Relatives and friends would come to visit because they would have nothing better to do.
Then, in the late ’80s and ’90s, India seemed to combine the worst of my two worlds. There was chaotic traffic on the streets; modernity seemed a pretense; bureaucracy and red tape thrived; relatives were so preoccupied with the pursuit of consumerism that they had no time for me.
But during my last visit on New Year’s Eve 2008, India seemed animated and dynamic. Exactly 60 years after independence, India had freed itself of the specter of colonialism to fashion its own brand of modernization.
Nagpur, a mid-size city of about two million, an educational center amid the fertile agricultural region of Vidarbha, is where the emergence of this new India is most palpable. So what better way to feel its pulse than to travel through its newly paved streets?
Surprisingly, even as the San Francisco Bay Area remains enmeshed in disputes over freeway expansions, the municipal government of Nagpur has razed old buildings to widen roads and construct flyovers. Open garbage piles of my youth are gone; instead trucks make weekly rounds to pick up waste.
In the inner city of Nagpur, where my first memories began, and where children once routinely used the roadside as a toilet, a metamorphosis is in progress. Mud plastered homes have given way to modern flats, in the midst of which nest temples and shrines nominated as “heritage sites.”
If a country’s youth is the barometer of its prospects, India will one day lead the world. Dressed in uniforms of brown kameezes and white churidars or blue jeans and white shirts, young women and men of Nagpur ride their scooters daily to technical and science colleges, making long treks across town on their way back to attend extra tuitions. It is a generation determined to succeed, no matter how hard the competition. Every girl aspires to be a doctor or an engineer now, if not an astronaut. Family life is not to be sacrificed, however, nor is there any reason to do so. If America relies on borrowed Mexican labor, India has a readymade supply of workers to provide childcare, home healthcare, gardening, driving, laundering, and other services for the urban middle class.
This is not the illiterate, exploited working class of my youth, however. Thanks to American TV, India’s masses now have new aspirations. In a televised debate, social workers, government officials, and homeless citizens argued over a housing project in Mumbai created for the residents of illegal shantytowns displaced by highway projects. Even as officials quibbled over the legitimacy of people’s claims, a social worker asked, “Are these folks not entitled to human treatment?” perhaps capturing the sentiment of a new, more fiercely democratic India. Rent control has come to stay in Nagpur; successful lawsuits over squatters’ rights have provided political ammunition to the dispossessed.
Shantytowns are disappearing in any case, because the working class can now afford to house itself properly, thanks to the higher wages it can now fetch.
Companies like car-maker Mahindra and Mahindra, my nephew’s employer, which had been vying with Tata to purchase the Jaguar Company, are testaments to the economic powerhouse that India is today. These new industrialists have respect for the environment, however, demonstrated in the rising popularity of bird watching. On my morning walk through the sprawling engineering campus, I came across a group of birders peering into the Lucaena trees for orioles and bulbuls and learned that January 6 had been reserved as a bird count day for the area.
The younger generation is creating its own brand of religiosity as well, reflected in the op-ed pieces in the Hitavada on such topics as power of positive thinking and the mind body connection. While, during the Independence struggle and its aftermath, my father’s and my own generation had abandoned Hindu orthodoxy, today’s new age spirituality takes the best from Hindu philosophy while abandoning its superstition and dogma.
Vedic sciences are experiencing a revival, too, as evidenced by the week-long yoga camp in Nagpur’s arena attended by thousands and culminating in a debate between Guru Ram Baba and Nagpur’s medical professionals on the pros and cons of allopathic vis-Ã -vis alternative treatments.
This is not to say that serious problems do not face the country. Farmers of Vidarbha are still committing suicide as a result of back-breaking loans and inability to compete in the global market; during my visit, three farmers petitioned the Supreme Court for euthanasia. But the Indian press has not let go of the story, and, as a result, my cousin, who works for the opposition leader of the State Assembly of Maharashtra, recently embarked on a farmer’s march with noted leaders to listen to the stories of victims’ families.
India is busy coining a new political paradigm as well, thanks to George Bush, whose ill-conceived policies for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and the resulting destruction of human rights have so alienated Indians that they no longer look to the West for solving regional problems. Instead, India would much rather fashion its own peace with Pakistan, provided the U.S. leaves the two nations alone.
This last change so heartened me that for the first time in 30 years, I wondered if I could go back to India to solve its problems with energy, which happens to be my profession. And in that moment I realized that if America is a country in decline, India is a rising giant.