Saturday, February 7, 2009

Urban India

There was something we read about Hyderabad that encouraged us to visit. One of the great Mughal cities on the Deccan plateau. Home to India's largest population of Muslims after Partition. A collection of interesting old Mughal architecture. Well, whatever. These days the story is Hi-Tech. It's now competing with Bangalore to be at the heart of the IT industry here. This roughly translates to the visiting tourist as a large fast-growing city with a burgeoning upper middle class (i.e. relatively wealthy) population. Oh and all the shopping malls and fast food joints and cars that go with it. But we get over our disappointment quickly and spend a few days looking around different areas and enjoying the expresso coffee and ice cream in air-conditioned comfort. We are happy to make the most of it. One night we meet two fellas who'd lived in Britain for a while. They ask us what we think of India and for once we feel we can be totally honest. The street which our hotel is on is used as a toilet constantly, despite the fact that a public toilet (2 rupees) is at one end. The men laugh and say it's funny, in Britain it's okay to kiss in the street but not to piss in the street. But in India it's the other way round.
We also enjoy the chance to see Slumdog Millionaire - the film that has raised so many hackles in the Indian press despite or because of its Oscar nominations. The film might be flawed (the lead character, a slum kid, speaks English) but what drives the critics mad is that the film, with a big international profile, is not particularly nice about India. There has been no discussion or comment about why such conditions still exist here....(The UK's Foreign Secretary, Milliband, also caused everyone to get excited when he asked to see a rural village on a recent visit. He was slated for this "poverty tourism" (the same phrase used to describe
Slumdog's depiction of the Bombay slums), but what amazes us is that you can't escape it - it's there everywhere you look, day in and day out. So we assume these critics are blind to it. Milliband might not be the most diplomatic of politicians, but he might have wanted to see for what the UK has given over a billion pounds in aid to India in the last six years. This wasn't remarked upon in the press here.) Ironically, we watch the film in English along with many locals in a pricey multiplex cinema.
Our onward train journey is uneventful until the man opposite us lies down to sleep. He tosses and turns and can't get comfortable and eventually pulls out from under the covers what looks like a pocket hairdryer to me. He puts it under his pillow and goes straight to sleep. Gayle looks a little alarmed and mimes shooting a gun at me.
Sure enough, when he awakens, he fits the gun back on his waistband. He is a flour-mill owner. It must be a rough business.Bhopal is a charmless as we expect - but this is okay. We have come to visit the Buddhist stupas of nearby Sanchi. These were the first built by Ashoka, founder of India's first great empire, after his conversion and they sit atop a hill in the countryside. (Ashoka's children later took Buddhism to Sri Lanka.) The largest has great carved portals. Back in Bhopal our bus passes close to the Union Carbide plant that leaked the heavy gas that killed thousands here 25 years ago. The death toll at the time was more than 20,000 and hundreds of thousands have had related illnesses since. It puts 9/11 into perspective. The Indian Government has not pursued the outstanding damages claims, allegedly for fear of putting off foreign investors.
Our third big city on the trot is Gwalior. The noise and pollution is dreadful but the huge fort that overlooks the city is magnificent. We miraculously manage to walk around without getting run-over by the hundreds of vehicles that drive in both directions on both sides of the main road. We meet an old Italian man who has no idea where to go before his flight home from Mumbai in 3 weeks' time. He looks worn out by the city. I think that there are three phases to travelling in India. The first is the excitement at the thought of going to India. The second is the excitement of being here. The third is the excitement at the thought of leaving. I might be with the old man on this one, as I'm already thinking about the mountains of Nepal. This is an ongoing problem with travelling - always looking forward to the next country - but there are still a few more places to see first.

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