Monday, April 20, 2009

Slumblog Extraordinaire!

   I had the incredible opportunity to travel to India recently, Mumbai specifically (henceforth called Bombay – the preferred name among the locals). The firm where I work has a client that recently launched a natural mineral water product, bottled at the foothills of the Himalayas. I am on the team helping to brand “QUA.” 

We were there for a week, and stayed in the Churchgate neighborhood in the southern part of Bombay, on a street parallel to the beach...The Intercontinental Hotel on Marine Drive.

Basically, it takes about 60-90 minutes of driving to get from southern Mumbai to mid-city Mumbai. The city is a long strip of an island divided by north and south, and surrounded by the Arabian Sea. It is a huge, sprawling and traffic-jammed metropolis. Though you’ll find some towering skyscrapers, they are scattered about without much pre-determination, as far as I could tell. Most of the buildings share their worn-out facades and open wounds quite plainly.

India left a deep impression on me. Before I left on the trip, everyone asked me if I had seen “Slumdog Millionaire.” I hadn’t. I wanted to see it, just never got around to it. I’ve always been keen on the Bollywood film movement. The way they play out serious dramatic genres by employing the same tricks you’d find in The Sound of Music is a cinematic feat. First there is a conflict, then they break out into song, dance a jig, touch each other’s cheek, then conflict’s resolved. The whole cast lines up – like the way our robot-troopers do in Star Wars – to dance in synchrony an elegantly choreographed routine.

That’s my vision of Bollywood. Not to say I was expecting to see dance routines on the streets of Bombay – in between stalls of “homes” in the slums – but maybe part of me would have welcomed that sight.

I’ll be blunt and honest now in how I describe one of my impressions of India. It’s not easy, but the most important lesson Denmark has taught me is to rise up and be honest. Even if it means hurting feelings or being un-P.C. Here goes. India has a lot of poor people. They have even more weak and deprived beggars who, through no fault of their own, had the unfortunate experience of being born outside a caste. This group of people used to be called “untouchables”, but today, the term is dalits. I didn’t know this until I got there, but there are about 180 million people (in a country of 1.1 billion) who are below poor. That is, they are so poor and under-privileged they don’t even qualify to fit into one of the 4 levels in the caste-pyramid that rises above them.

The caste system was outlawed in India sometime in the 1950s, but it seems, in too many ways, to be alive and well still. According to the Hindu religion – to rudely reduce it to a pithy upshot  – those “lowest” people were likely bad-ass sinners in their previous lives, so they got what they deserved in this one.

But while I launch into a ‘poverty tirade’ as my first descriptor of India, I should add that Bombay is a vibrant, hopping, fantastic city that is in no way awash in misery. I saw more smiles, hearty laughing, jumping, dancing and hand-holding in Bombay in one week than I have seen in Denmark in two-and-a-half years. 

The citizens of Bombay enjoy life and living, and they treat their fellow brothers and sisters (laterally, across caste) like gold. 

In some ways, I feel like I may have more in common with a middle-class, educated, city-dwelling Indian woman my own age than I do with a Danish person of similar qualifications. Those Indian kids also grew up speaking English; they also watched Sesame Street in their youth; they know what pineapple sorbet from Baskin-Robbins tastes like and their Hindu values are more chaste and puritanical like my own (Catholic) ones, than the all-secular, hyper-hippie, anti-religion, “me-centered, blended-family” values that I see informing Danish youth. So in some ways, I feel akin more to them.

But not entirely.

On Friday, India began its month-long election process to elect a new government. Mostly likely, they will wind up with another coalition government. One of the candidates spoke out against the middle class, accusing them of being the true perpetrators victimizing the poorer classes.  Hmmm. Food for thought. I’ll let him say it, but I’ll add that I agree. There is a huge population of citizens who benefit to startling heights by having 180 million massively deprived poor people who can provide them with cheap labor. There are no minimum wage laws in India, so quite a few middle class, Indian 22-year-old blokes in college have a 1) chauffeur to drive them to parties, 2) dishwasher, to clean up the mess  3) a personal cook to make sure they never get their hands dirty. They may not be full-time employees, but this kind of ‘cheap labor support’ is easily accessible and comes delivered.

Now, as an American, I would be careless to not admit that in the good ol’ US of A we have far too many poor people too. Phil Donahue once called it the “Mal-distribution of wealth.” As if wealth should be doled out and distributed. But all I can say — and this isn’t a game of one-up-man-ship, because I love India— but all I can say is that America doesn’t treat its poor and weak like that. We don’t think it’s okay that certain people have lesser opportunities. Certain people do, but it’s not okay. We search for ways to rectify these injustices; we elect leaders who campaign on platforms that speak eloquently for the charitable, hard-working middle and working class. We protect vulnerable children, and we dispense healthcare to anyone who stumbles into an emergency room (it’s the law). The very core of America are freedom and opportunity – and most Americans agree that without those at our foundation, we have nothing.

I get peeved when I hear Earth-loving, open-minded Europhiles describe the poor of America and India in the same breath. Some of these people embrace India for its rich culture, lovely people, its beautiful cotton textiles, Darjeeling tea and its spiritual zen/yoga-side, while speaking derisively about America’s mistreatment of the weak. Without paying proper heed to the systemic corruption, neglect, and malfeasance that ensures certain Indian-born babies grow into penniless, uneducated beggars. Or servants, if they’re lucky.

All I ask is that we all be honest. Every country needs to improve, not just America. And not just Denmark, though I tend to pick on her more than what may be deserved. And if I am my own island-nation, navigating the tricky waters of Scandinavia, I am 100% red-blooded and in desperate need of improvement too. And some diplomacy.

On the plane ride back to Copenhagen, I finally watched Slumdog. What a lovely little film – it’s the Mumbai I saw and loved, from Juhu Beach to Bandra West. The film may be a bit more polished around the edges, but the visuals rang true. And apparently, the most beautiful little kids are born in India.

Now, I offer some fun facts about India:

  • India has the largest English-speaking population in the world.
  • Most people speak both English and Hindi, but in the southern parts, it may just be English.
  • Only 2% of the population pays taxes. 
  • Religious life is a secular experience in India. While there are tensions like in any country, people in Bombay typically get along across religions or creeds.
  • Half the population is under the age of 25. 
  • One-third of the population is under the age of 14.
  • While the majority are Hindu, with a population of 1.1 billion and 12% Muslim...India has the largest Muslim population in the world.
  • Within 25 years, India will have the 6th biggest consumer economy in the world.
  • India is poised to do incredible things on the world stage. A real sleeping giant.


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