September, 2008, Bucharest. I’m checking email when I see a newsflash in the corner of my laptop screen: 5 bombs in Delhi. 20 dead, 90 injured. Quickly I click the link, fearful for my friends in India’s capital. Bloody images swim before me and I read the details, gawp at photos of carnage amid plumes of smoke. As it clears, I’m drifting back in time, trying to remember something that an Indian colleague told me when I was in New Delhi, five months ago. Some sort of warning. Is there a connection, to what just happened?
It’s April 2008, Delhi. I’m in India for two months, advising academics and training journalists. I’m sitting in a cab with Raj, a colleague from a local TV station. He’s tall and wiry with pressed shirts and shiny shoes. He’s helpful and witty, speaks fast, caffeine coursing through his veins, 24/7.
The scorched streets are jammed with traffic, horns blasting. Skinny guys pedal rickshaws through impossible gaps. Hawkers sell glossy magazines, phone chargers and plastic toys. Beggars swamp our car in threadbare clothes and worn out flip-flops. Some are old and blind led by kids with messy hair. Some are middle-aged amputees. But most are young and quick, eager to charm us. It’s bedlam out there, a daily fight for survival. So much for the Indian economic miracle. Raj catches my eye and shrugs.
“When you see this every day, you become hardened. Soon, you don’t see them anymore. Or, you see them as subhuman.”
The sweet smell of sandalwood incense hangs in the humid air. Florists spread dazzling bouquets on their stalls. A beautiful young cow ambles past, glassy eyed and chewing. For all the mayhem, India is weaving some ancient spell on me. And subhuman doesn’t sound good.
I’m wondering how to reply but Raj changes tack. Now he’s talking context, bigger picture and complaining about capitalism:
“It fractured our middle class. The top half jumped to the upper class. But the lower half is sliding into the slums. And we’re part of the problem, you and me. We feed this inequality.”
He may be right. But the more he squirms in our hot car, the less he convinces me. It’s a familiar campus mantra: Left is good, right is bad. I offer the only solution I can think of:
“Stop beating yourself up, Raj. We’re not shoving toxic dust down the throats of migrant child workers. We’re training journalists. That’s our professional contribution and media calls politicians to account. But if you want to get personal, just give these guys some change.”
I poke a few tatty banknotes through the window. Fingers snatch them, gone in a flash. Mucky kids press for more, their dark gaze drilling me: Where’s mine, firang?
Raj seems vaguely amused, perhaps by my naivete? Then he tells me that he and his flatmate employ a maid. She came to Delhi from a dusty village, seeking a better life. She scrubs their clothes, cooks their food and cleans up.
“We pay her 400 Rupees per month,” he adds.
Conversion: €6. If that’s a better life, her village must be hell on earth.
“It’s peanuts,” admits Raj, “But if we pay more, people in our block will say we’re lunatics.”
“So what?” I ask. “A little extra would mean a lot. Can’t you give her a rise?”
“I could,” Raj admits, “But… my flatmate gives her old clothes and stuff. Payment in kind.”
“And what do you do?” I ask.
“I watch,” says Raj, looking out at the bustling street. He asks the driver to boost the AC and shakes his head: “Such traffic, every day.”
The memories fade and I’m back in Bucharest, scanning the Internet, focusing again.
The Delhi bombs were downtown in Connaught Place, a busy spot. And as shrapnel does not discriminate, it seems the victims ranged from underclass urchins to upper class shoppers. I remember Raj saying he couldn’t afford to buy stuff there. So he’s probably safe.
But the stats make grim reading: more than 400 people have been killed in a series of bombings across India since October 2005. Some people blame Hindu extremists, some blame a Bangladesh-based militant group, Harkat-u-Jihad-al-Ismlami. But this time, a group named Indian Mujahideen emailed local news media before the blasts, apparently to claim responsibility. Stop us if you can.
Less than a month ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said terrorism, extremism, communalism and fundamentalism would be the major threats to India’s unity. I can’t help thinking that whichever ‘–ism’ was responsible this time, someone has underlined his point.
Chetan Bhagat, a popular author in India, reckons the country is controlled by greedy septuagenarian megalomaniacs who forget the average Indian is 25 and has different needs.
I finish browsing, dazed. Near my laptop sits a small statue of Ganesh the Hindu deity, the boy with an elephant’s head. A goodbye gift from a friend who said: “He will protect you.”
Finally, I remember. Something else Raj told me after a long silence in our slow taxi, in a city of 14 million people, in a country where some 260 million live below the poverty line:
“One day, this place will explode. Real violence. I’m surprised it hasn’t already.”
I turn Ganesh in my hands, wondering if Raj is right. And hoping he is wrong.
(First published in FHM, November 2008, three weeks before the Mumbai attacks, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL, Photo by Salman Usmani).