This is the second installment of my blog series Tales From India. To read the first post, click here.
The cows in the middle of the street are cliché but true. So are the beggars and tragic poverty. This is India.
But there is so much I was not aware I would feel.
From the day I arrived in India, whenever someone learned I was an American, I was immediately told, “Obama is coming for Republic Day on January 28.” I knew neither that President Obama planned to visit Delhi nor that India’s version of Independence Day is January 28. My first thought was, “Thank God we are leaving on January 26.” I didn’t expect the president’s trip to affect mine, but it seemed to mean something to the Indian people that the American president was coming.
Everywhere we went, capitalism was obvious. People were selling everything you can imagine. Endless shops. Food vendors. Young men and boys who pounced on us with their trinkets when we got off the bus. If you buy something, then 10 more salesmen appear out of nowhere.
Very early in our trip my wife, Mary, was taken with a street musician in Jaipur, an historic town in the northwest part of the country. He was playing a stand-up stringed instrument that resembled a string bass. Soon she found a vendor selling a similar instrument, and after negotiating she bought one for about 10 dollars. She was very pleased with her prize and carried it all over the country on trains, in buses, and through four airports. Our group laughed at her as she carefully kept it from damage.
When we went to Calcutta, it was surprising to learn that the state of West Bengal democratically elected the Communist Party as their leaders for over 25 years in a row. They were defeated three years ago, but red flags with the hammer and sickle are still all over the city. I suspect Obama would see that as what a true democracy does.
The newspapers were full of front-page news about Obama’s trip. The US State Department had requested a no-fly zone for those areas he would visit for the entire time he was there. India refused.
Then the papers reported that 1,600 people would be traveling with the president. Oh my. That seemed like a lot, but a week earlier we had been near the Pakistani border. It was a desert. We rode camels for fun, but it looked like everything I have seen on TV or in movies about the Taliban. Security is reasonable—or so my Western mind says.
Eventually our itinerary took us to the south, far away from where President Obama would be. But to get there we had to fly through Delhi. As we prepared to board the plane, security officials pulled out the instrument Mary had toted around the country.
Of all things, they considered it a potential weapon.
I began to argue, but Mary stopped me. Our friends who speak Hindi tried to intervene, as well as our guide, but to no avail. Obama’s visit to India cost us our most treasured souvenir.
By this point, two and a half weeks into the trip, I had learned that while capitalism abounds, religion rules the country. On Tuesdays, the Hindu equivalent of the christian Sunday, going to worship was on everyone’s mind. Yes, they sell things incessantly, but finding a path to God is what matters most. Modi, the new aggressive, capitalist prime minister, must develop the country fully aware that faith governs the country far more than love of money.
Or so it seemed to me.
I couldn’t help speculating whether that had been made clear to President Obama. The instrument Mary lost is used mostly to sing songs about and to God. I understand why they took it, but I hope that the president was not coming just to talk about aid and wars.
We can learn much from the Indians about the richness of life itself.