What is India?: "I Says I's Seen It Awl"

July 03, 2006

Just as I had pushed those troubling, needless-thought-causing ideas to the back of my head, they hit me forcefully, unexpectedly, unwittingly. Besides, it had been a long workday, and I wanted nothing more than to get home and perform my nightly routine of vegetating in front of the TV and unwinding before I hit the sack. But there he was, with his toothy smile, his easy laugh, and his astonishing sense-making. The Black & Gold taxicab driver.

I hopped into the front seat with him, hoping to lean my head back and close my eyes - an obvious indication that I'm in no mood for conversation. I thought about sitting in the back seat, but I had done that earlier that day, while being driven to the office, and it had seemed a very classist thing to do. And also, the afternoon driver (I think) had seemed surprised at my choice (to sit at the back) but also, accepting perhaps, because he had been more than 15 minutes late.

Funny though, how the class issue struck me for the first time. Riding in the backseat of cabs in India never seemed strange, or classist, or rude. Here (in the U.S.), I had been uncomfortable, and my only saving face was the driver's own admission that he had made me late to office. Was the discomfort because he was white, and/ or had a Master's degree (in divinity), was doing this "only to get by temporarily" and/ or looked well-dressed and at least middle class? I am not sure.

My redemption would be the night ride. My night driver moved his writing pad from the front seat as I got on, again, making me wonder if I was expected to sit at the back. Never mind, I told myself, stop worrying incessantly.

And the cab rolled. And the questions began.

"What route you takes everyday?"

"Umm. I'm not sure - Kirkwood street I think, I'm not very familiar with street names yet. Just moved here a month ago."

"Where's you moved from?"


"Where's you come from before that?"

Black hair and eyes, brown skin ... how on earth can I claim to be native?


"What is India like? Is it like here? I hears there's McDonald's in India."

"Yeah, there are McDonald's in India. Especially in the city where I come from. Tons of them."

"What kind of food is McDonald's serves in India"?

(I assumed he was refering to the beef controversy.)

"Well, I think they don't serve beef in their food anymore. Other than that, everything that they serve here."

"I likes cars. What kind of cars do they has in India?"

"Hmm, many kinds. Especially in urban areas, a lot like the ones they have here. The rich drive everything from Mercs and Lexuses to Hondas and Lancers. The (upper) middle classes drive Indian makes - Marutis, Zens etc. The poor don't have homes, forget cars."


"I once sees on television that an Indian woman marries to a snake. I wonders why, and she says on TV because she finds no one else to marry. (Laughing) People does that in India?"

(I say to myself: Jeezus Christ!)

"Erm, I really don't know. I know that there are snake worshippers, snake tamers and snake charmers but I haven't heard of anyone marrying a snake. Maybe it was some ritual, not a real 'marriage' y'know?"

"Yeah, maybe. (Laughing) I sees this stuff on TV, and I says I's seen it awl."

With that, he dropped me off. He got his fare, his tip and his amusement for the night. I was left struggling with my thoughts. One of my biggest worries in a foreign country is misrepresenting India, or Indians, or Indian-ness. And there, we had spoken of McDonald's, Mercedes and Marriage to Snakes in the same conversation. What idea must he have taken with him? Did I reinforce his ideas of India being 'weird'/ 'exotic' or did I help him consolidate his belief that having seen women marry snakes, 'he's seen it all"? Seen it all of India, or seen it all of everything unusual? I guess I will never know.

I also guess contradictions are inevitable. The oxymoronic nature of India, and the oft-celebrated and mystical notion that one finds billionaires and starving millions, slums and high-rises, IT engineers and suicide-committing farmers in the same land, is a reality. I hate to think of it as something "special" or "unique", as is often portrayed in the media, and mentioned in individual narratives, made public or not. (Also read "Here comes the elephant - dancing, rumbling, awakening" dated June 21, 2006, on ellypsis.blogspot.com for another 'Indian' perspective.)

The reality of the (cliched) "gap between the haves and have-nots", I feel, has been so overused that it doesn't strike as real anymore. Or, if it does, it is so much a part of our reality that we barely notice it anymore. It's not recently that I have noticed "news from India" on the Associated Press wires that feature the "good" and the "bad" news at the same time, making me struggle all the more with a sensemaking that can only bring to the fore more, and miserable, contradictions.

Take a look:

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HIV positive children, from left, Saravanan, 2, Arun, 3, and Thahira, 3, eat their meal at the Community Health Education Society (CHES) orphanage in Madras, India, Monday, May 29, 2006. India is now home to the world's largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS with an estimated 5.7 million infections. (AP Photo/M. Lakshman)

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A model poses with a Haier Z-7 GSM concept mobile phone at an event in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, May 31, 2006. Haier Mobile was launched Wednesday in India and would present a range of handsets priced from Rupees 2,000 (USD 45) to Rupees 20,000 (USD 450) in both CDMA and GSM. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)

Consider also the following viewpoint regarding Indian priorities and ''national' interests':

Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill, President, Barbour Griffith & Rogers International, spoke at an event entitled "India as a Global Power: An Action Agenda for the United States". According to a a report detailing the event,

Ambassador Blackwill began his introduction by asking audience members to imagine India as a European country. Similar to European countries, India shares common democratic values and national interests with the United States. But India's rapidly growing economy and military, and proximity to the Persian Gulf set it apart from all European states in terms of power. Moreover, India's four most vital national interests mirror those of the United States: winning the war on terrorism, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, managing the rise of China, and maintaining energy security in the Persian Gulf.

Now contrast that with this excerpt from P. Sainath's article, 'Falling farm incomes, growing inequities,':

First the good news. Well, good news for someone, anyway. The collective net worth of 311 Indian billionaires is now Rs.3.64 trillion. This is up 71 per cent from last year, when it was a paltry Rs.2.13 trillion. The tribe has also grown. It now includes 133 new entrants who just months ago were merely millionaires. The daily newspaper that tracks this elite club (Business Standard, November 9, 2005) puts it simply: "India's billionaires have never had it so good."

Some hundreds of millions might never have had it so bad either. So just before we pop the corks on those bottles, have a look at the news from the nation's farm households. There are millions of those, not 311. The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India was Rs.503 in 2003. That is just about Rs.75 above the rural poverty line. And it is an average across regions and classes and income groups. So even this dismal figure hides huge inequities.

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July 3, 2006
06:15 AM

S, thoughtful post. The fact is after having lived in the US for more than a decade, I still have the same questions. Our American friends ask well-meaning questions, but you always wonder what kind of an image you are reinforcing or introducing in their minds when you explain certain aspects of this country to them. And of course, the American media latches on to the weird stuff from the developing nations and you are left answering the questions the next day at the office or at school or wherever.

July 3, 2006
12:47 PM

Hi, a good comparison between haves and have-nots. My brit friends also are amazed on what they hear from me and things they watch on TV. They actually are forced to ask if those 2 are in the same country. Very reflective post.

July 3, 2006
05:17 PM


the children's pic made me uncomfortable...

welcome to DC...hope to read more of you here

July 3, 2006
05:22 PM

Hi temporal,
Yes, the picture is miserable but that's reality. we gotta face it. more importantly, we have to do s'thg abt it within our own little spaces, our own little ways.
thanx for the comment, and the welcome. :)

July 4, 2006
12:25 PM


left ... a'hem....hints and suggestions...translated that would mean at least two articles here...

August 23, 2006
12:17 PM

I thought its just Indians who are always curious and poke in others business. Here we go with the cab driver, who wanna know if India does have this/that (inquisitive). Poor no wonder he took a ride in a plane to see ther is a wrold out ther other than united states.
If he had known how to do programming, he won't ask such queries.

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