Midnight’s Children Turn Sixty

Edward B. Rackley

Celebrate India. On second thought, maybe not. Such is the dilemma for many Indians as the country braces for its sixtieth anniversary this month. Politicos in New Delhi warn of extremist attacks. For August 15, Independence Day, workers are staying home, shops are closed and circulation is discouraged. India’s 1.12 billion citizens—one sixth of the world’s population—along with its far-flung global diaspora, are wondering what exactly the nation has made of itself in sixty years of freedom.

Profiles of famous Indians born in 1947 abound in the newspapers as Independence Day approaches. These are India’s “Midnight’s Children,” a notion made famous by Salman Rushdie’s 1981 bestseller and since anchored into the national psyche. Newspaper pundits speculate on the causes for the different fates of India and Pakistan, the latter born of partition with India sixty years ago. [1]

143pxswastik4_svg Still a young nation by any standard, India’s youth belies its age as an ancient cultural manifold, claiming more than 5000 years of continuous existence. An effervescent, song-and-dance present cohabits with the deep humming of millennia past. As a modern state, cultural and political pluralism is the primary success story of the world’s largest democracy comprising more than two thousand ethnic groups. Every major religion is represented, with a bewildering number of religious sects and spiritual leaders, gurus and “god men.”

India-US relations are complex, and India is a steadfast member of the Non-Aligned Group. Western culture is particularly suspect. A recent national poll showed a majority of Indians blame “western influence for making sex and crime acceptable.” Like most westerners, Indians are gleeful consumers. To a foreign visitor, however, the presence of dreaded western culture is imperceptible; a fierce attachment to local traditions and culture prevails. I see very little to no western media, for instance, and nothing “western” is for sale (well, Pepsi in some big cities).

OK Tata Horn Please

Fifteen years have passed since my last visit. The information technology sector and the all-consuming Bollywood juggernaut (other cinematic forms have all but perished) have achieved global reach and recognition. A clutch of family-owned companies, now closely-guarded dynasties, continue to dominate entire sectors (Tata motors, Mittal steel, etc.) thanks to protectionist market policies aimed at nurturing a robust national economy. Hence the ubiquitous “OK Tata” stencil on the rear of every commercial carrier, inevitably followed by “Horn Please.” No one uses rear or side view mirrors, making the horn the sole means of communication in a throng of rabid lane-jockeys and oncoming daredevils.

India’s chaos is one that never ceases to surprise, seduce, unsettle. The road traffic, one confluence of noise, aggression and cooperation, coheres into flowing function—with regular tragedy, to be sure. The number of pedestrians and pilgrims killed on the roadside, for instance, figures prominently in newspaper headlines. With such wide shoulders on the roads, one asks, why do so many insist on walking in the middle of traffic? In a recent send-up of Indian mannerisms, one journalist solved the riddle: “This is why no one ever walks on the [sidewalks], even when there are no chai stalls or beggar families taking up the space. We walk in the middle of the road because that’s where all the other people are.” [2]

“Shit on your shoe, Sir!”

Caca Cola, Nike, Starbuck’s and McDonald’s do not haunt this place as they do in, say, mainland China. With manufactured goods mostly domestic, there is little globalized branding here. It’s all Durga’s Veg and Tiffin, Anand Vests and Briefs, the Bell Brand Umbrella Shop, the Raj Lucky Metal Store. Sounds quaint, but the Lords of Indian Industry have enjoyed market control by huge family-owned Indian brands in the absence of external competition. Naturally their political allies who perpetuate these lucrative regulations eat equally well, sleeping the slumber of giants.

“India the software superpower” is a source of pride to all Indians, but who acknowledges the staggering development challenges the country faces? The economy is firing all pistons, but nothing trickles down to the urban and rural poor. Eighty-hundred-and-fifty million Indians, or 70% of the country, survive on nine to twenty rupees per day (25 to 50 cents). [3]

Large-scale famines were common right up to the end of the Raj, and India has not produced a major famine since initiating multi-party democracy in 1947. Still, extreme suffering is on naked display here, as is the hand of human cruelty. Bigger child beggars beating up smaller child beggars in the midst of an indifferent traffic jam. A maimed, mangy puppy tied to a stake to die. A rogue shoe shine boy in New Delhi who surreptitiously flicked feces onto my sandals, then demanded to clean them for money, drove home the desperation of street survival. It’s in everyone’s face but no one seems to notice.

In New Delhi and Mumbai, basic municipal infrastructure is crumbling and many tax-funded public services are functionally inert—open sewers ferry human waste; no trash removal service exists. A half day of rain leaves the largest cities inundated and paralyzed. Drainage ditches are clogged by discarded plastic bags and mounds of garbage dumped at curbsides. Colonial building facades continue their path of poetic decay, determined to defy their final collapse into mute rubble.

The makeshift shelters of sticks and plastic bags densely clustered in camps outside the ubiquitous mountains of rubbish on the outskirts of towns and cities resemble the sprawling patchwork of African refugee camps. I’m told these are Dawit communities, outcasts, who scavenge and sift through mile-high mounds of human waste for re-sellable or edible goods, competing with goat herds and packs of wild dogs. Colleagues who’ve worked in India’s devastating floods of recent years tell of government officials refusing to allow helicopters to evacuate affected populations (they were Dawit), instead directing international monies to save local cows.

Holiness still has its virtues on this earth. Who decides who lives or which objects are holy, dignified and thus worth preserving? The decision seems arbitrary to an outsider. There is nothing rational about the blind force of faith and tradition. Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith is much on my mind here.

Houses of the Holy

As India turns sixty its social problems and poverty are mounting in direct correlation to the wealth amassed by its tiny elite. Fascinating perhaps, but that’s not why we came. We’re here for a quick sprint through India’s most famous temples and pilgrimage sites. We began in Varanasi, considered the most auspicious pilgrimage site for practicing Hindus. Many bring the bodies of loved ones to the banks of the Ganges for cremation. Varanasi claims to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, a center of Hindu learning and culture for over 2000 years. On a speaking tour in Varanasi before the end of British rule, Mark Twain captured the agelessness of the place, joking to a crowd that “[Varanasi] is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

We arrived during a Shiva festival, the deity presiding over the city. Fire ritual, hymns and incantations, or puja, were performed at sunset every evening at the bathing ghats, near where funeral pyres burned. One tourist we met had brought her father’s ashes from the US to be set afloat on a bed of candles and flowers, following a ceremony of prayers and chanting with a local Brahmin priest.

In infrastructural terms Varanasi is barely hanging on. No renewal or renovation projects are visible. One exception was the lodge/temple where we stayed, owned by a Brahmin priest. Tiny shrines to various deities could be found in corners throughout the house. He hired local temple craftsmen, particularly painters, to decorate the old house with murals from the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabarata. With no new temples being built and no old ones being renovated, the skills of these unique craftsmen are no longer in demand. The art of tempura mural and fresco painting in Varanasi is dying out.

Img_0193_2In contrast to Varanasi, centers of Buddhist learning and culture in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are in good repair, supported by large monastic communities from as far as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. A steady stream of international tourists and cash from other Buddhist countries in the region keeps them afloat. Just off the Grand Trunk Road in Bihar, a sixteenth century highway running from Amritsar on the Pakistan border to Kolkata—often just a marathon of bone-shattering potholes, becoming a giant dustbowl or an open lake depending on time of year—lies Bodhgaya, site of the ancient Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

A Mecca of sorts, Bodhgaya is also the wintering station for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile. The serene grounds around the tree are filled with stupas of various shapes and sizes. Hundreds of pilgrims and monks visit daily to do prostrations, meditate and offer prayers.

Bodghaya_012_2But because it is in India, Bodhgaya is still a chaotic place. Outdoor eateries are ideal for taking in the passing parade of barefoot pilgrims. (See also: swerving rickshaws, lumbering horse-drawn passenger wagons, overloaded oxcarts, Tata trucks and battered buses with horns blaring, wayward cows and darting dogs). Stay too long in this tableau vivant of the entire Indian animal kingdom on the move and suffer industrial-strength deafness.

In a remote wooded valley sixty km north of Udaipur in Rajasthan stands the Chaumukha temple, one of the largest and most important Jain temples in the country. Built in 1439, it houses 29 halls supported by 1444 massive, intricately carved marble pillars; no two are alike. Only one in this “city of pillars,” according to our guide, is imperfectly crafted. Its maker “suffered from hubris” and thus failed to achieve perfection.

Female visitors were reminded that during their “moon cycle” they were not to enter the temple. Besides shoes, any leather belongings were left at the door. As I entered the inner sanctum of the breezy marble labyrinth, a small group of “maidens” were singing bhajans to Jain deities.

A suit of silver meditation armor lay against a column beside the chanting girls. I gathered its symbolic purpose (it would suffocate or crush an actual wearer) was to ward off evil temptations of the flesh while meditating in hot pursuit of the divine. As I wandered the sprawling marble edifice I listened for some whisper of divinity. Crows cackled outside. I’d have settled for a cosmic brain thud, but none was offered. Jainism is famous for its deliberate lack of exegesis, and this temple’s secrets were the most impenetrable of any we visited.

A few kilometers north of Kanniyakumari, the southernmost tip of the subcontinent, stands the famous Hindu temple of Suchindram, built in the southern Dravidian style. It is dedicated to a representation of the combined forces of Siva, Vishnu and Brahman, the Hindu holy trinity. Like the Jain temple in Rajasthan, this was another stone labyrinth, though without reflective white marble or sufficient sunlight to illuminate its interior grottos. Thousands of tiny oil lamps glowed dimly in every stone recess, along every wall, before every stone carving of a deity. Bare-chested priests were scurrying about, performing ablutions of idols large and small carved from the stone walls, taking offerings from devout visitors, or chanting alone to themselves. Children laughed and played. The overall effect was not unlike a county fair minus the corndogs and sno-cones.

The air inside was cool, still and humid, much like a deep earth cave. Oil lamps illuminated the temple’s darker recesses. Highlights included a cluster of musical pillars (each with a different tone) played ably by our priest-guide, and a twenty foot stone statue of Hanuman, the monkey god and servant of Lord Ram. Ram is Vishnu’s most famous incarnation (along with Krishna) and the protagonist of the Mahabarata, a Hindu epic. With a muscular human frame and monkey’s head, Hanuman is typically worshipped by athletes (he often holds an iron dumbell), service industry folks and fanatics of Ram.

Hinduism gets a bad rap because devotees ritualistically clothe, bathe and make offerings to their idols as if they were Barbie dolls or voodoo effigies. Superstition is a problem among lay practitioners, and worship is aimed at “getting something” (fertility, worldly goods, liberation from the cycle of rebirth, etc.). Hinduism also lacks a succinct set of instructions to direct right action (as does Buddhism, for instance), although the lives of Ram and Krishna serve this purpose to some extent. Except for Catholicism, Hinduism is unique in accepting living deities, holy men and gurus to guide and counsel worshippers, ascetic monks and pilgrims. This seems to liberate the practice of Hinduism from reliance on a given holy text (“The Word of God”), which could explain why it feels more vibrant and alive to me, given my Christian background with its intensely scriptural orientation.

I finally got my encounter with divinity. I wandered too close to the giant grinning Hanuman just as a priest dumped a bucket of ghee and jasmine flowers over his head high above. I was splattered with the fragrant goo of warm ghee, the purified butter used in Indian food and as fuel in votive lamps. It certainly wasn’t shit on the shoe, nor was it a whisper from a deity frozen in stone. Did it mean anything at all? Sure, I realized as I picked up my shoes leaving the temple. At the very least, it showed the force of gravity was alive and well here in the frenzied midst of religious fervor. Some things are above the vagaries of human faith. That’s cosmic indeed.


[1] When asked whether Pakistan and India can reunite, 34% said ‘never’, 22% said ‘probably’, and 16% said ‘yes’ (28% ‘can’t say’). In a similar vein, 43% perceive Pakistan as the major block in the peace process, 24% think it is the US. Only 13% blame India. The Week, Aug. 19, 2007: www.the-week.com 

[2] Scroll through the filter blog India Uncut www.indiauncut.com for a quick apercu into the cultural and political banter of Delhi’s chattering classes.

[3] States with the least amount of extreme poverty (e.g., where the majority are literate and employed but functionally poor, like Kerala) attribute their success not to the IT boom but to remittances sent home by migrant workers in Gulf countries like Dubai. In Kerala, unskilled labor is done by Indians from poor states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They can earn 75 rupees or two dollars a day in Kerala, 2000 miles from home, where they make 15-20 a day (40-50 cents).