What do you notice above all when spending a month travelling through much of Rajasthan? Yes, you notice the colours adorning the people and buildings, bombarding your senses in a way that almost overloads them; how could you not? Then there is the poverty of the villagers, manifested in the simple structures and their building materials (even when made of bricks, the bricks are often handmade) and the visibly skeletal appearance of the animals that are left to roam freely in the alleyways; animals from the holy cow to goats, pigs and their offspring, and dogs sleeping in the shade, litter the streets. And of course, from the moment you arrive, you notice the other clichés: cars endlessly hooting, the friendly and warm hospitality of the locals who trip over themselves to help you, along with all the other elements of the sights and sounds that led to this illusion of a mystical orient that so enraptured the British imagination and led to so many coming here. It wasn’t just trade that made India the Jewel in the Crown of Empire.
But, and especially in the case of Rajasthan, what you really notice is the dust – the dry dust particles of mud that cover everything. Not that this will surprise you; after all, we’ve all seen pictures and all know that, outside of monsoon season, much of India is a hot, dry place. But on reflection you realise that it is this dust that has shaped India as much as the peoples that have occupied it. The vibrant colours of the country are reflected in the vibrancy and taste of the food, the focus of the following articles in this column. After all, just as the minerals for colour exist in abundance in India, so do the spices for flavour, so why not use them as you do the minerals? The colours and the other clichés are all a consequence of the dust and the harsh environment it creates.
When you have such a land, hospitality makes life more tolerable and, when you have access to the resources needed to create such vibrant colours, wouldn’t you use them as much as possible to bring a break to the brown? After all, what is life without a little colour? The brown is punctuated only by the green and grey of the parched trees (often Acacia trees) that break up the countryside and at times have taken over. They came from Australia when a Maharaja who liked to fly planes was flying over the Rajasthan desert, and thought it looked bare – something I’d have thought you might expect from a desert – deciding to scatter the seeds from his plane. The problem now is that they’ve taken over and use up most of what little ground water there is, so it’s difficult to farm large tracts of the region, and they are hard to remove due to the sprawling knot like roots.
You can’t fail to recognise that, while India is a country of great industrialists, Napoleon’s famous epithet that Britain is a nation of shop keepers could just as easily have been applied to India instead, and perhaps would have been had he not been prevented in 1798 from reaching the country by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon was tasked with taking an army to India to team up with an anti-British Maharaja in an attempt to distract the British with the possible loss of India, thereby requiring them to divert resources from their involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars then underway in mainland Europe. An entrepreneurial spirit flows through this country and has given rise to some world beating industrialists and, increasingly, its development, although there have been hiccups along the way for a few of the previous years.
No matter the size of a village, its main road is lined with shops, all brick and cement rendered structures that are open at the front revealing a space, often only a few square meters big, with goods stacked high. The shops tend to specialise in one product and can be dedicated to all manner of things: sweets, grain, car oil, toilet bowls (the seat and water tank no doubt coming from two different stores), plastic U bends, fruits and veg, a sewing shop where old Singer sewing machines are still going strong and, to my pleasure, barbers. Almost each small town or larger that I passed through had at least one and often two, in which case interestingly one was placed at each end of the main road through the town. The more rural and smaller villages appear to specialise in a single trade, usually red stone slabs or red bricks made from the earth.
Charming, if strange, local customs continue in these towns and villages, with people’s links to their birthplace remaining strong even when they move away. And, when they do move, they either return frequently to see their families or the whole family moves with them. Such is the importance they place on family and its bond. Traditions are waning in places though, and have been for a long time. Forty years ago all the cows belonging to those in a single village would be kept in one place, with an individual charged to take them to the fields and back each day. Why this tradition died out I can’t imagine, given it seems perfectly sensible and far preferable to the system today of letting them wonder about freely in the villages and find their own way to the fields.
While the dowry system has died out, the process of parents setting up their children with marriage partners remains, with the matches and wedding dates being determined by each child’s horoscope. What one would imagine to be a more modern, yet amusing, feature that some villages have, and I experienced when traveling by road, is that women or young teens block the road into their villages to extract small sums of money as the price for getting out of the way. As my guide said, it’s a kind of toll for passing through, and they often use the money for village fetes or the alcohol consumed at them. They do it in such a cheerful way with wide smiles that it’s just seen as part of life and a toll rather than extortion or corruption, which would be the case in more hostile parts of the world.
Of course Indian life is not all so bright and colourful. Corruption is widely expected and known, so people are making their way through life and business despite it. And the government, which is the main source of it in their eyes (along with the contractors of public works), is generally seen as brazen with its criminality. All that the populace wants is a state that does a few basic things and stays out of its way, as this makes it more tolerable. Unsurprisingly, the people tend to be pessimistic about government. Education, on the other hand, is generally seen as highly important, (no good job can be obtained without a degree and/or the ability to speak English), but so important is it that the quality has dropped and cheating is rampant, and indeed a cheating scandal broke while I was in India. As a result, companies are having trouble finding enough qualified staff as the skill levels of prospective employees don’t correspond to what employers expect of the qualifications they have on paper.
My guide had a degree in engineering, was learning French to complement his English, and planning postgraduate education in tourism, possibly in the UK. However, while at the rural hotels staff were often from the local villages and had learnt English to work at them, given that jobs in tourism are so highly paid by Indian standards, in rural villages education still isn’t always seen as worth it. Far better to remain in the country and toil for a subsistence living in the traditional manner seems to be the view. Literacy rates in such places are often in single figures percentage-wise. Crime, especially rape, is a huge problem, and one that has been receiving global attention lately. And politically motivated attacks and assassinations, even at the village level, are not unknown. My guide’s uncle was assassinated due to a disagreement when he headed up the council of five villages, the lowest level of government in India.
Then there is the stagnant green water used for washing people and clothes, with the filth of the dwellings and the animals at times being washed into it; in one instance a short distance from an industrial site the water was luminous! There’s the fly tipping, which has led to a nationwide clean and green campaign in the cities. Whole fields and roadsides where rubbish has been dumped have become the hunting ground of animals looking for scraps to eat, with cows munching on plastic bottles for sustenance being a common sight. These tipping sites, where the animals eat and defecate, at times are also the site of the village water pump. Much of the land has been given over to farming but, with the walls of buildings effectively forming the hedgerows, many fields are no bigger than a plot of land for a small house in the UK, no doubt slowing economic growth and providing for many only a subsistence living.
Something evident, often even in the most expensive of surroundings, is that much is battered around the edges, and either made by hand or recycled, leaving one with the distinct impression that there’s a sort of “this is good enough” outlook. On the other hand, there are environmental benefits to this strong recycling mentality amongst the people, with everything being reused and traded for other goods and then turned into something of use to the new owner.
But India is changing. There’s clearly a renewed optimism and confidence with Modi in place. There’s a belief that he will deal with the corruption and also the bureaucracy with its immense inefficiencies that create a drag on development rather than a helping hand. And now, with India about to declare that it has eradicated polio, there is a basis that can be used for wider ongoing improvement, thanks to the good will and trust built up. For this success has been achieved through a huge government vaccination scheme that worked hand in hand with and educated the rural populations, given their suspicions of government and western medicine. Hopefully this new trust can be used to rapidly advance other development programmes.
Ultimately, all this builds to create a country that it’s hard not to love despite its problems, and the notion of the romance of India and its mysticism, even when understood, is hard to escape, no matter how rational and hard-headed one tends to be