Excerpted from the book
Spectacular India


Changing India

by Mallika Sarabhai

Victoria Memorial
The Victoria Memorial, Calcutta. The epitome of
colonial architecture under British rule.
A young woman is a cleaner in a beauty parlor. This lowly job is reserved for only the "untouchables," She dreams of learning the beautician's trade and running a business herself. Over the years, as she climbs the ladder to become a beautician's helper and, later, a senior beautician, she has another idea. Why not start a home beauty business in which she could visit the homes of clients and treat them at their convenience? Today, twenty years later, with a loyal client base of forty women, she has earned enough to make the jump to India's middle class. Both of her children have finished college, and both are working.

Giri, an Adivasi woman, lives in a tiny village. The witch doctor has decreed that she has been possessed and is responsible for the death of a neighbor's cow. Giri is resigned to her fate. Tomorrow she will be hung upside down from a tree. Chilies will be rubbed into her eyes and she will be branded to warn people of her witchery.

A hundred miles away, outside the official Magistrate's court, a group of women sit under an ancient peepul tree. This is the nari adalat, the women's court. The women "judges" are illiterate but hold a moral authority that no one in the nearby villages questions. A woman wishes for a divorce because of the aggression and brutality of her drunken husband. He sits there, eyes lowered, uttering not even a whimper. After questioning husband and wife, the judges decide that a divorce is the only solution. The couple return home in a bullock cart with two of the women judges. The division of property is fair and instant. As is the divorce.

Across the wire fence, a graying man sits resignedly on the steps of the Magistrate's Court. He is a familiar sight, for he has been waiting for his case to be heard for nine years.

A young child serves in a tea stall. He should be in school but his family can't afford not to have him work. However, the tea-stall owner is kind and teaches him to read and write on an old slate. The child takes this as a temporary phase of his life. He wants to learn computers. There is a man in his village who has acquired a computer, and, whenever there is electricity, he runs computer classes. The child will go there once he has learned to read. He has heard of Bill Gates, and wants to be like him.

A young laborer toils in the fields of his master's vast property in the 113-degree-Fahrenheit heat. He thinks India is still ruled by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whom he assumes is the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi. He is not aware that bonded labor is illegal in his country. He was sold to his master to pay a ten-rupi debt that his father incurred, which grew to over 100,000 rupi under the usurous rates of interest charged in many parts of the country. He can't calculate what this sum means. All he knows is that this is his life and that his master can use his wife.

All of these are real happenings from a country caught in a time warp and a time spin--a country that lives simultaneously in the first and the twenty-first centuries; a country that is changing and changeless; a country in which villagers hanker after city life, and most newly urbanized people spend their days in a hovel or a slum.

Fire Twirler
Kalaripayettu, Kerala. A martial art that involves both armed and unarmed combat,
it was originally intended to frighten off wild beasts in the jungles.

India recorded one of the highest growth rates of any country at the end of the millennium. Its influential technicians and software engineers are making billions across the Western world. Multinationals are vying with each other for a piece of the pie and such generally "anti-immigration" countries as Germany are announcing special visa allocations to lure Indian engineers. At the same time, in India's rural and semi-urban areas, hundreds of girls drop out of school at puberty because the schools have no toilets. Hatred toward female children has lead to such a spate of abortions that the ratio of girls to boys is becoming significantly skewed. Despite many a fancy car and the burgeoning stock markets, most of India is at the mercy of the rain gods, and most of its people do not have regular access to drinking water or food. Whilst non-governmental and grassroots organizations accelerate progress, a frighteningly high number of politicians are criminals, and deaths by shootouts in broad daylight are too common even to raise eyebrows.

Yes, the country is in transition, but it is not a transition that affects everyone equally, nor a generally positive and beneficial one. In pre television times, many of the deprived were resigned to their fates; today, exposure of the country through satellite channels has lead to a great dissatisfaction and anger among the poor, which sometimes turns to crime, hatred, and violence. It also leads to fundamentalism, as religious groups fan the fires of bigotry by blaming all ills on certain castes or religions. On a positive note, television has allowed many who never dreamt to dream, and to achieve previously unimagined wealth and status.

Constitutional changes have also helped accelerate the pace of change. A few years ago, an amendment reserving 33% of all local elected officials' positions for women brought one million women into the political arena. Attempts are also being made to introduce similar bills for state and national politics. Otherwise disempowered or marginalized groups are stirring--with the disabled demanding a census and amenities, and the Dalits finding a strident voice.

Perhaps the one common thread that runs through the change and tumult of the last decades is the increasing availability of knowledge. Today, with television and the internet, knowledge cannot be kept away from the traditional "have-nots." Anyone can ask a question and find the means to have it answered. Respect for the teacher, and the teacher's kindness and generosity, are no longer factors in getting educated or finding information. And the realization that knowledge is available is spreading like wildfire.

The future is wide open. India has the possibility of becoming a rich and industrialized country. It also has the alternative of becoming a rich and developed country that remains spiritually and morally rich. Which path it chooses, or is forced to choose, only time will tell.

Return to Spectacular India (the book),
or to the HLLA Reference Library.

Text © Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.