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A Visit to India is Hard to Leave Behind

What Separates New Delhi From the Everglades?

by ALAN FARAGO

At two in the morning, the sleek, modern airport at New Delhi hummed with activity. Most travelers pointed westbound to European capitals and from there, mid morning connections to the Americas.

What piqued my curiosity at that ungodly hour: airport security worked at half pace while the crowds piled behind. For the most part, India’s bureaucratic indifference was far from sight during a three-week visit.

Here at the moment of departure, anxious lines pushed and security responded with its own laws of gravity, and I felt the curious pull of the familiar, something that reminded me of home. You know what they say about Schenectady: it’s not hell but you can see it from there?

The places that hold us, whether in Uttar Pradesh or New York, have their tell tales. For example, in Florida –my home–, the sign of the eternal, damning wheel is the predisposition of bureaucrats to work hand-in-glove with politicians and lobbyists to destroy the Everglades.

In her new novel, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo describes the lives of urban poor living hard by the Mumbai International Airport. She reminds us that it is not what you see that drives a nation, but what you don’t: “… for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”

Indeed. In Florida, the economic crash was fueled by housing speculators exploiting cheap swamp land. Corruption in the zoning, permitting and financing of crappy subdivisions fed the Wall Street derivatives machine.

At face value it may not seem fair to compare the jostling poverty of hundreds of millions of Indians—whose cultural chasms span thousands of years— to decomposing ghost suburbs and those sliding off the economic ladder in the former Everglades. On the other hand, as the pie shrinks in the United States, scarcity breeds contempt even among the right-thinking. Here is one example.

Twenty years ago when I moved to Miami, Florida International University was at the furthest developed edge of western Dade County. Sprawl grew around it. Today, its campus holds an office of policy and science staff funded by the federal government to restore the Everglades. The $16 billion restoration is the most complex and large scale ever undertaken. Recently the university went to the Florida legislature and buried in a long budget bill for water management a provision that would have swapped land on its campus for state-owned wetlands even closer to the Everglades where it hoped to kill two birds with one stone: move a county theme park now on its property into wetlands, inevitably attracting gas stations, restaurants and housing while clearing space on its own campus.

The emigration functionary in his cardigan vest at New Delhi international airport is not so different from the Miami Dade county official in his guayabera, who makes a performance of weighing the costs and benefits of rezoning wetlands that protect the Everglades while he does at the end what comes naturally: stamp the approval and move the line forward.

On the day of our departure, we visited the home of Mahatma Gandhi. A modest residence and serene grounds celebrate one of India’s saints. On a poster inside the house, Ghandi is quoted: “I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl on earth, I want, if I don’t give you a shock, to realize identity with even the crawling things upon the earth, because we claim descent from the same God, and that being so, all life in whatever form it appears must be essentially one.”

As Candide concluded, “Let us cultivate our own gardens.” But gardens, to whom? Tend our gardens, and we tend ourselves. But gardens, for whom? In the U.S., one man’s public commons is another man’s private garden. India makes mincemeat of that distinction.

From the air conditioned comfort of a Toyota SUV marked tourist with white cloth covers on the seats, we spied a farmer astride a cart and ox circling a water wheel. As we sped by, I imagined if that farmer doesn’t resent the idea of gardens, surely his children will.

On a stretch of road to Jaipur, coal fired kilns attached to smokestacks dotted the landscape where workers stacked bricks made by hand in long, thick walls. Who will tell them they cannot use coal or only with expensive cleansers to fire their work?

One night at dinner, I asked a fellow traveler: how do we go on? What do we tell generations to come? She reminded me of a Bill Moyers interview with the late Joseph Campbell.

JC: There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Bodhisattva…the Bodhisattva, the one whose being, “sattva”, is illumination, “bodhi”…who realizes his identity with eternity and at the same time his participation in time.  And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder…and come back…and participate in it.  All life is sorrowful is the first Buddhist saying, and it is! It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow, loss…loss…loss.

BM: That’s a pessimistic note.

JC: Well, I mean you gotta say yes to it and say it’s great this way, I mean this is the way God intended it …

BM: You don’t really believe that?

JC: But this is the way it is.  And I don’t believe anybody intended it but this is the way it is.  And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid (sic) … all of this, as it is…is as it has to be… it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world.  The end of things always is painful… pain is part of there being a world at all.

BM: But if one accepted that, isn’t the ultimate conclusion to say that I won’t try to form any laws or fight any battles, or…

JC: I didn’t say that…

BM: Isn’t the logical conclusion…couldn’t one draw that though?  The philosophy of nihilism?

JC: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw…you could say that “I will participate in this row and I will join the army and I will go to war…”

BM: “…I’ll do the best I can…”

JC: “I will participate in the game.”  It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera…except that it hurts.  And that wonderful Irish saying you know, “Is this a private fight or can anybody get into it?”  This is the way life is.  And the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.

Homeward bound, I opened an April 2010 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, “India’s Urban Awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth”.

The McKinsey report wets the appetite for profit to be made from the inevitable explosion of population and growth of India’s current and future urban cities. In the next 20 years, India’s GDP will multiply 5 times. 590 million people will live in cities, nearly twice the population of the U.S. today, the fastest addition to an urban population in history outside of China.

Nature is playing havoc with India as it is. New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Varanasi, Orissa,– wherever I traveled in India the landscape was covered with a gauzy blanket of smog. On an otherwise sunny day the sundials at the magnificent World temples of Karnack, more than 1300 years old, could not cast a shadow because of the smog. This metric of measurement never made it into the McKinsey Global Management report. “Despite the fact that India’s urbanization is already under way and will continue unabated, and that it offers undoubted economic benefits, India as not fully engaged with the reality of its urban future.”

It is our nature to advance our fortunes. How do we do that, when the monsoons no longer support crops cycles or intermittently provide runoff from the Himalayas?

In a NPR interview, Katherine Boo said that what troubled her most about Mumbai was, first, witnessing the level of ordinary, every day corruption and second, as a result, watching how corruption wears away and “abrades” moral and ethical behavior.

A few days before leaving, we took a long walk on a beach fronting the Bay of Bengal. In the middle of the beach, the remains of a highway abutment rose from the sands like an ancient ruin. It had been attached to a road that ran the length of the coast parallel to the beach until it was all washed away. The sea reclaimed it all. The road was only fifty years old.

The bridge abutment and its remains rising from the sands seemed a visible, present symbol of our ruined claims of progress. Then I came upon the turtle. The beach at Orissa is known as one of the most prolific turtle nesting sites on the planet.

I have always taken the sound and sight of a turtle raising its head in the Florida Straits—breathing in a startling exhale, perhaps in contemplation of us—to be a miracle connecting to hundreds of millions of years of evolution, long before mankind’s race to the top of the food chain.

A few hundred yards from the bridge abutment I spotted the turtle bobbing in the shore break. On closer inspection; it was indeed a massive turtle—dead as my father used to say as a door nail. Part of the carapace was gone. Its eye sockets were alabaster white. The mottled flesh of its limbs were still soft, life-like to the touch and pressure of lapping waves.

In Hindu cosmography, the turtle has a sacred place. He is the second incarnation of the great God Vishnu. Once, in the distant past—before passport control officials gazed at sighing travelers and yawned, before commissioners in Florida stamped rezoning of Everglades wetlands with the laconic efficiency of transit officials viewing hand baggage through airport Xray machines, in Hindu myth the turtle carried the earth on its back to save it from being swallowed by angry seas.

Speeding over the Atlantic, on the way home to Florida, it is hard to imagine such parallel worlds exist. Billions of Indians and Asians struggle to elevate from poverty at the same time as the West reels from serial financial crises tied to speculation; an insane response to the sudden “flattened” globalized economy that turns out to be more like an ice skating rink than a cricket pitch.

According to McKinsey, Europe has 35 cities with population over 1 million. India has 42 and by 2030 will have 68. Mumbai and New Delhi will be two of the five largest cities in the world. “We estimate that India needs to invest $1.2 trillion just in capital expenditure in its cities over the 20 years… that’s almost eight times the level of spending today in per capita terms.”

On the beach at Orissa with a pall of smog concealing the ostensibly blue sky with a thick haze, I kept company with the dead turtle casting its bits into the sea, flesh parting, remains to be scavenged by the vigilant. I wouldn’t linger to witness that market efficiency.

I would be gone, flying above Afghanistan and Iran, above the drones, above the wounded and the terrified, unwrapping silverware from its cloth sleeve. Bound for the next market efficiency: Everglades wetlands converted to whatever makes the fastest buck for the Great Destroyers. Where is home? Isn’t home, here? Doesn’t one do for a home, as one would do for one’s garden?

India has not been party to international agreements to limit the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants; agreements that appear to have collapsed in a heap under various strains of nationalism including the American conception of the United States as the city shining on a hill, sea level rise be damned.

Maybe McKinsey Global, with its neutral, business school-polished prose, is right. India will master its internal distances and schisms. State governments will gain control over coal-fired kilns and their operators. The ox and the driver will keep turning the water wheel. Cell phones and satellite TV will proliferate. Mega-cities will blossom and all gardens will grow.

The racing sun soon overtakes us, westbound. One of these days, we will experience compassion and humility at the heart of this dance between cultures and civilizations in the midst of climate change. Moments of kindness will be lit, and extremism will be refused on the planet we set afire. We will lay down our swords to feed who is left. I don’t know when that moment will come, but I foresee turtles finning where we walked, first.

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net