As my wife and I were leaving India last week, gunfire broke out in the New Delhi airport. Luckily, by that time, we were 40,000 feet in the air.
Janet and I were on a speaking tour in India when the terrorist attacks hit Mumbai where life virtually ground to a halt, just as it did in the United States after September 11, 2001. Most terror events hit suddenly and end just as suddenly in India; this last one in Mumbai dragged on for 60 hours.
Every other night, we stayed in a tourist-style hotel, the very kind targeted by terrorists in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). But when we arrived in Mumbai, we stayed with a local doctor who runs a large hospital for the poor and an AIDS hospital.
Every day, the Indian papers recounted stories of the ongoing drama. A well-known female journalist text-messaged a half-page article about being held hostage in her hotel room, describing the gunshots and grenade blasts from battles fought in hotel corridors, and the smoke licking under the doors. Her last message was, "Terrorist is in the bathroom, I'm under the bed. …" Commandos found her body there hours later.
A Muslim couple heard a noise that sounded like firecrackers. They went to the window overlooking a popular café and were killed in a hail of bullets as their young son watched.
Rumors spread like weeds of scores of bodies floating in the hotel swimming pool, of explosives set to destroy entire buildings.
Just as in 9/11, tales of luck and heroism also surfaced. The manager of the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel was helping hide guests in a basement food locker even as his wife and two children burned to death in their executive suite several floors above. The Indian nanny caring for the two-year-old son of a rabbi smuggled him out of the Jewish center, saving him from the torture and death that awaited his parents. (Israel has named her a "righteous Gentile" and offered her citizenship.)
As for the Taj Hotel, one Indian told me, "You cannot imagine what the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel means to the Indian people. It's a great source of national pride, an icon, like the Statue of Liberty is to you." No doubt you have seen photos of the magnificent building, constructed in 1903 by a wealthy Indian who had been refused entrance to a "whites-only" British hotel.
We were scheduled to hold a meeting that night in an auditorium not far away from the action, but of course that was canceled. I felt bad for the organizers who had worked for months planning a program, designing banners, and stocking books. Instead, we held an impromptu meeting in Thane, a city 20 miles away. With only a few hours notice, more than 200 people showed up.
I began by telling them what happened in the emergency room the day I broke my neck in an automobile accident. The doctor poked me with a straight pin here and there, asking, "Does this hurt?" Each time I responded, "Yes!" and he smiled and said, "Good!" A physical body is only healthy when it feels pain from all its parts. The barrage of e-mails I had received during that day in New Delhi showed that people all over the world were deeply concerned about what was transpiring in India, sharing in its pain.
A first-time visitor to India is usually shocked by the seeming chaos of a billion people, many of whom live in poverty unimaginable to the West. Yet under the surface, you find many signs of compassion, and come away amazed by India's endurance, graciousness, and boundless hospitality.
During our trip, we visited a remarkable hospital founded by Stephen Alfred, an Indian doctor who gave up his lucrative practice in England to return to serve poor people who have no access to medical care. The old, 80-bed hospital will be used by the HIV/AIDS branch, now operating out of a small clinic.
On our last day, in New Delhi, we met with some remarkable people working among the 500 million members of "Other Backward Castes." Sunil Sardar, who has lived in the U.S. and is married to an American woman, spearheads this effort with an organization known as Truthseekers. He provides a home and center for various leaders of castes from all faiths. We shared lunch with the leader of the Shepherds' Caste, leader of 60 million, as well as the head of the two-million-strong Farmers' Union, a renowned author, and other leaders in the struggle. One scholar told us, "You Americans are celebrating the election of a black man only 250 years after slavery. We are still waiting for liberation after 4,000 years of living under caste."
You hear about "the new India," and indeed, India has changed much in the two decades since I last visited. But in India, nothing goes away; the layers simply accumulate. Electric wires crisscross the major cities, and monkeys now use them as highways. Exotic cars now crowd the highways, but they too have to share them with animals, including an occasional elephant or camel. Every conqueror has left a mark: The Aryans brought the Hindu caste system; the Moghuls brought Islam (India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, next to Indonesia); and the Syrians, Portuguese, and then the British introduced Christianity. There are also millions of Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains (who cover their mouths with cloths to avoid inadvertently killing any living thing, even insects).
The statistics in India boggle the mind. There are 160 million Dalits, at the bottom of the caste ladder. Though nominally Hindu, they are not even allowed in Hindu temples, and in recent years have increasingly turned to Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. Just above them are the Other Backward Castes, which comprise more than half of India's population: 500 million people. Some of the activists coming out of these castes see Hinduism as an oppressive social structure, designed to keep them "in their place." And, of course, any sign of agitation prompts an outburst from fundamentalist Hindus who want to keep things as they are. That partly explains the recent outbreak of violence in Orissa in the northeast of India, where in August alone, 50,000 Christians were chased out of their homes and dozens were killed.
Everyone talks of "the new India," and, of course, when you call for help with your computer or software, many times you end up talking to a whiz kid in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Leave the cities, though, and the old India surges back. Women walking along the road with piles of straw, water buckets, or pots and pans balanced precariously on their heads. Water buffalo pulling hand-hewn plows to till the ground. Irrigation systems run by men who stand all day dipping water from one channel to another. Bent-over old women sweeping the streets with handmade brooms of straw with no handles. More Indians have a mobile phone, we are told, than have access to clean water.In the center of the city, as one Indian told me, "There's no room even to die."
In Hyderabad, we spent a day touring some of the work being done by our hosts here, OM Books. In addition to publishing, they run many social action programs, including 80 schools targeting the Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables. These kids are the first generation of Dalits in 4,000 years to get an education; moreover, they are getting it in English, assuring them of decent employment. They return to their homes with pride, elevating the spirit of the whole community.
We also visited a clothing workshop that makes high-fashion clothes for an outlet in Colorado organized by a friend. We met six beautiful, young Dalit women cutting out patterns and sewing silk jackets by hand, little guessing the tragic lives they had already lived. Our guide later filled us in: One was raped three times before she turned 14, another was kicked out of her home when she delivered a girl baby.
I must admit, it seemed surreal to drive in from the airport here and see all the cars proceeding in an orderly fashion in their respective lanes, with no cows, goats, or water buffalo wandering through traffic. The air is so clean. And the atmosphere so quiet: many trucks in India have a notice, "Okay, Honk Horn Please," painted on the back, the one traffic rule all Indian drivers unfailingly obey.
Ah, India. Longsuffering, magical, baffling, mysterious, chaotic — any adjective you can think of applies.
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