As several readers have pointed out, my blog posts over the past few weeks have portrayed India in a very negative light. They’ve emphasized the country’s least flattering aspects—misogyny, corruption, and bureaucratic nonsense. So I wanted to write this post on something upbeat, something that highlighted the best parts of the country, the stuff that makes it worthwhile living here. But then fate got in the way.
On a completely unspectacular weekday evening, I stepped out of my office and went to the spot where I had parked my bicycle. Indian bikes have a lock built directly over the back tire, with a little key that you need to insert and turn in order to unclamp the wheel. It’s a neat feature that makes it unnecessary to use a stronger lock in safe areas like a gated driveway or office. Or so I thought. On this particular evening, my bike was gone. It had vanished without a trace. Most likely, someone came in through the office gate and pried open the lock, although it’s also possible that someone simply carried the bike away and broke the lock later. Either way, the bike was stolen, despite being in a gated yard on a quiet backstreet.
At first, I was astonished. Why would someone steal a well-worn bicycle from such an inconspicuous location? One of my co-workers thinks the culprit was someone in the neighborhood who saw a foreigner on the bike and assumed there must have been something special about it. Otherwise, I would travel by auto-rickshaw or private car, like most foreigners who visit the city. That would explain why, of the three bikes outside the office that day, only mine was taken. To be fair, the other bikes were tucked off to the side, so maybe it was just a random act of theft. But whatever the case, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like it.
I had no interest in dealing with the police, not after the never-ending saga of my stolen camera several months earlier, which brings me to the other unfortunate experience that dogged my plans to write a positive blog post. Two days ago, I arrived at my desk to find a notice stamped by local police station. It was in Hindi, so I had one of my co-workers translate. He told me it was a summons from the Magistrate at the High Court related to the First Information Report I filed about my camera. What was this all about? Had the police actually found the thief? Were they pursuing justice in a timely and effective manner?
No, of course not. This is India. My co-worker explained that the police wanted to officially close the case, and in order for them to do so, I needed to be present at a hearing in front of the Magistrate.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I said. The police from the station down the road wanted me to travel all the way across town so that they could officially give up. Couldn’t they just call me? Didn’t the Magistrate have better things to do? Why hold a trial for an unsolved crime?
The hearing is today, and I have absolutely no intention of going. I don’t mind that they want to close the file, but they can do it on their own time. I’m done with the police, and I’m done with the High Court.
So what’s the silver lining here? Based on some of the things I’ve written, it’s easy to conclude that India is a filthy, corrupt, crime-ridden country that’s unsafe and unfair for women and contains a brutally poor majority lagging ever further behind the wealthy minority. Is that really the case?
Yes, it is. India is all of those things. However, it’s also a lot more. It would be unreasonable to limit any account of India solely to the negative aspects. That’s what the American journalist Katherine Mayo did in her muckraking 1927 book Mother India, and her work was met with justified outrage. Gandhi likened Mayo to a drain inspector who waded exclusively through the country’s grimiest settings and then proclaimed, with knowingly limited perspective, “The drains are India.”
The drains exist, and they’re definitely revolting, but they’re not India. Like many countries, especially those with colonial pasts and burgeoning populations, India has severe and deep-seated flaws. Yet it also benefits from undeniable strengths, including millions of kind-hearted and hard-working people, a tradition of religious tolerance extending from the distant past to the present day, and a vibrant, alluring culture that draws people, like me, from all over the world.
Contrary to what some of my posts may suggest, I don’t bear any wide-ranging resentment towards this country, and I don’t aim to write a modern Mother India. While flaws are often the most engaging and entertaining topics to write about, I recognize that they don’t tell the whole story. The key is to strike a fair balance and between criticism, humor, and admiration, and that’s what I strive to do, although unfortunate and ridiculous circumstances tend to steal the focus. The antics of Indian authorities are too amusing to ignore.