Sunday, 6 September 2009

India trip 2009

I have just returned from a short holiday in India. It was an enjoyable and interesting trip in many ways. The last time I visited the country was in 2006, so this holiday enabled me to take stock of changes that have happened since then. This time I was determined to see some places other than my relatives’ houses because having a young daughter, who was born in the UK but has no knowledge of India, I wanted her to come away with a reasonably good impression of the country.

We landed in Mumbai on 14 August 2009, just one day before Independence Day. Mumbai was in a state of panic about swine flu. After disembarking, all passengers on my flight from London were screened for the illness. The screening process was largely a paperwork exercise, which wasted half an hour and left me wondering: was targeting foreigners the best way of tackling the virus given that it had already spread to India?

Despite warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the run-up to Independence Day, I did go out and see some of the major landmarks in the city of Mumbai including Nariman Point, the Gateway of India, the Taj Hotel, Malabar Hills, and Juhu Beach. The Taj Hotel has been largely restored to its erstwhile glory following the terror attacks in November 2008. It is a majestic building, as is the Gateway of India, just a stone throw away. I didn’t like Juhu Beach, which makes much derided Blackpool Beach seem clean. The many new shopping malls in Mumbai are very popular with the middle classes.

Mumbai is a city of striking contrasts. Here you find people from all walks of life, and all parts of India, and their differences are bewildering. The poor are very poor, and the rich are very rich. In Mumbai, people from just about every state in India rub shoulders with each other. The dilapidated buildings of Dharavi contrast with the tall, modern skyscrapers in the heart of the city. It is a bustling, noisy cosmopolitan that never sleeps. Unfortunately the traffic can be a nightmare, due to the burgeoning population, but that is a fact of life in every major town or city of India today.

After spending a couple of days in Mumbai, we flew down to Kochi and headed to Thrissur in the centre of Kerala. Thrissur is Kerala’s cultural capital, having a number of Hindu temples and Christian churches. Every year the Thrissur Pooram festival, held near Vadakkumnathan Temple in the centre of the city, is celebrated with much gusto by thousands of people, featuring caparisoned elephants and fireworks. The city is also famous for gold jewellery, producing 70% of Kerala’s ornaments. A number of new hotels have come up in Thrissur in recent years.

After visiting my in-laws and my mother’s family in Thrissur, we travelled north to Kozhikode by train. Train travel in India is much more comfortable, and less hazardous, than travelling by car. The passenger compartments are not always tidy, the food can be dodgy, but train travel in India is cheap; it is the best way to see the country. Now more of the tracks are becoming electrified, reducing the dependence on that polluting fossil fuel, diesel.

Situated on the Malabar Coast, Kozhikode is a bustling, multiethnic and muilti-religious city. Although Hindus form the largest community there is a substantial Muslim population here, and a smaller Christian community. The city played an important role in the spice trade during the Middle Ages, and even today there is a strong mercantile character about it. The shopping centre has expanded in recent years, with a wide variety of shops selling anything from Halwa to sarees.

We spent a couple of days in Kozhikode, visiting some of my paternal aunties, and then we travelled south to Alleppey. At Alleppey station, our tour operator from Indian Panorama met us and took us to the houseboat jetty. Alleppey is a small town where the main business is fishing, and more recently tourism. I was impressed with the facilities on board our houseboat including an area at the front for sightseeing and dining, an air-conditioned bedroom and en-suite bathroom, and a kitchen at the back for preparing food. The boat was manned by three crew members including the cook.

As our houseboat gently navigated the lotus-filled backwaters around Alleppey and headed toward Kumarakom via River Pampa, we sat and watched the beautiful green Kerala countryside. This was surely the best way to see Kerala, away from the maddening traffic on the roads, unhurried and relaxed. The palm trees arched over the banks of the waterways, their canopies hanging high over the water. The scenary was simply serene, composed of different shades of green, each shade owing to a different kind of crop. As we passed small villages and paddy fields, we saw people going about their daily lives. Women washed their clothes while fisherman ferried their catches in their skiffs.

We passed many other houseboats in the opposite direction, some occupied by foreign tourists, as well as other types of boats and small ships transporting goods to various trading centres in Kerala. The food we ate on board was fresh and tasty. We docked at a quiet spot not far from Kumarakom for the night, and completed the journey the next morning. It was truly a wonderful experience which I will not forget for a long time, and my five year old daughter particularly enjoyed it.

After a visit to St Mary’s Forane Church at Bharananganam, where Kerala’s first Christian saint, St Alphonsa, is buried, we travelled to Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, in our pre-arranged taxi. The traffic in Kochi was the worst of all the cities I visited in Kerala. Although many new businesses and people had moved into the city, the transport infrastructure had failed to keep up with the change. The result was heavy congestion especially during the morning and evening rush hours. We just spent a day in Kochi, visiting the homes of two uncles, before heading back to Thrissur where we spent the remainder of our holiday.

This was a most enjoyable holiday and I am very grateful to my relatives for all their hospitality. I have seen a lot of change in the country. Just about every consumer good that you get in the west can now be purchased in India. There is a new confidence among the middle classes with their increased opportunities and affluence. More people seem to know English, the language which enables Indians to communicate with the rest of the world. However, not all change has been for the better. As more and more people flock to the urban areas to get a share of the money pie, the transport infrastructure is struggling to cope. Due to bumbling bureaucracy, appreciating land prices, lack of planning and corruption the infrastructure, particularly the roads, is creaking at the seams.

Climate change is also adding to people’s woes in India. This year’s monsoon wasn’t heavy, especially in northern India, adversely affecting crop production and pushing prices up. India will have to improve its irrigation facilities if it wants to help its agriculture sector. The population continues to grow, putting further pressures on its limited resources, and there are still many areas where illiteracy and poverty are rife. Sectarian violence occasionally flares up in some trouble spots, and caste discrimination is still oppressive in various places, especially in some of the backward northern states. The threat of terrorism, motivated by internal and external elements, is ever present.

The challenges the country faces are indeed huge. Talk of it becoming a superpower, I think, is highly optimistic given India’s current social, political and cultural environment. India will continue to make economic progress, even if that growth is a little lopsided, but it probably won’t be much more than the regional power it currently is. Its success shouldn’t just be measured in pure economic terms. Despite its obvious flaws, what I find heartening is that the majority of its large and diverse population are tolerant of one another’s differences and get along fine. Long may that unity in diversity continue.

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