India is the land of paradox and contradictions: ostentatious wealth and extreme poverty, deep-rooted tradition and modernity, religion and secular consumerism. Although this isn’t quite related to Bollywood, I wanted to comment on this conflict that I found omnipresent in Mumbai and around the nation. Every time I am impressed by how progressive Mumbai seems to have become, I am reminded just how much this modernity does not permeate the whole of the city and of the nation. It is still very much a country still learning how to straddle its classes and its worlds. It is common for people in Mumbai to have a daily maid who does the cleaning, cooking, washing etc. The standard monthly rate the maids charge is 1500 rupees, roughly $30. It is also common to possess a driver that can navigate the mean streets of Mumbai. He is always on call, and can work late in the night and early in the morning for hours on end. His standard monthly rate is about 7000 rupees, or $155. Then I think of the top restaurants and nightclubs in the city, where a standard drink can cost $20 and entry $60. Lakme Fashion Week draws international designers and the Indian Premier League draws international cricket stars in a nation where baby-throwing festivals still exist in the rural villages. People sleep in the streets outside of Shilpa Shetty’s new club named, unpretentiously, “Royalty,” and Fashion Week spends 10 million rupees on alcohol alone for the Grey Goose Lounge.
India prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, yet many lawmakers are still stuck to traditional and archaic ways to achieve their objectives. Recently, K Chandrasekara Rao, the leader of regional party Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) embarked upon a protest fast to achieve separate state status for the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India. Mr. Rao began his hunger strike on November 29 2009, and, as reported by the BBC, said “either a victory procession will come out or my funeral procession will come out. The decision will have to be taken by the government.” In support of Rao and a separate Telangana state, TRS workers have attacked public transport, government offices and private property in the region. University students have also aligned themselves with the cause, showing their support of Rao through protests and suicides, leaving notes saying they were killing themselves, as their “dream” of a Telangana state had not materialized. After 11 days of the hunger strike, the federal government agreed to give in, ending the fast of the senior politician. The government’s decision to create a new state has since led to counter protests however, and the issue still remains with riots in both directions. This situation has been in the newspaper pretty much every day, and the fear is that the government’s accession to Mr. Rao will continue to fuel hunger strikes and protests in this manner for other issues, hardly standard protocol for a modern democracy.
I also see India as a nation continuously oscillating and rather stuck between its religious tradition and modern consumerism. Shree SiddhiVinayak Temple in Mumbai is visited by millions of pilgrims all over India who worship Lord Ganesh, the remover of all obstacles. It is considered one of the holiest temples in India rooted in deep tradition, yet you can book Poojas online and even purchase a VIP pass that puts you at the front of the line before all of the other pilgrims to pray.
Recently, my mom visited India and we journeyed to the Holy Shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi. Her Great Pilgrimage is supposed to be one of the holiest pilgrimages of our time, a 14-hour trek. My mother went as a child with her parents, and she promised that she would take her own children there one day. Although I’ve never been very religious, I knew it was important to my mom and I knew it would certainly be an experience.
Indian spiritual tradition has promulgated four objectives of a human life: Righteousness, Material Pursuits, Contentment and Enlightenment. Shri Mata Vaishno Devi is believed to grant all four to those who visit her Holy Shrine and to “fulfill whatever her children wish for in life.” The pilgrimage is a journey of the places where Mata Vaishnavi had observed spiritual disciplines and penances, the culmination of which is the Holy Cave where she shed her human form and merged with the astral form of her creators, the three Supreme Energies of Mata Saraswati who represents knowledge, Mata Maha Lakshmi who represents wealth, and Mata Maha Kali who represents time, change, and dissolution. The idea is that all human beings contain attributes of these qualities and their behavior is determined by which is predominate in their nature. In order to lead a meaningful life, proper balance among these three is necessary. The Holy Shrine is said to be charged with such energy that it helps in creating this vital but rare balance in a person.
When my mom made the journey many years ago with her family, the route was completely undeveloped and serene. They made their way through the winding path of the mountain, surrounded by similarly devoted yatras, valley, and sky. They were undisturbed except for the exchange of the jovial “Jai Mata Di!” between other travelers. I looked forward to this kind of peace in the mountains after the frenzied nature of Mumbai, and I wondered if perhaps it would change my own spiritual perceptions and outlook. A lot had changed since then, however, and my mom couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw how different this journey had become. This spiritual trek resembled more like a chaotic consumer carnival than any sort of pilgrimage. The path was completely developed and lined with shops selling snacks and souveniers that depicted the Holy Shrine on everything from key chains to coins to t-shirts. Vendors shouted for attention and loud music blared from speakers that played Bollywood and Bhangra. Most disturbingly, a Café Coffee Day (India’s version of Starbucks), was in the middle of the trail, perched upon on the mountain so religious pilgrims could have a soy vanilla latte before they went to pray. At the top, there was again a VIP Pass that could be purchased that allowed one to glide past the herds of people for priority entry into the Shrine. I’m happy I made the trek, for my mom, but I was really disappointed at how consumer oriented the experience had become. Forget religion, history, tradition, righteousness. It seemed like it was all about making a buck.
After Vaishno Devi, my mom and I visited Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees. We were greeted by a quaint town nestled high in the mountains with a gorgeous view of the snow capped Himalayas. These Tibetan refugees have set up a sort of community and family here, as the Chinese took away their religion and their culture and everything they were once proud of. In short, they took away their very identity. Now, these religious monks and refugees are bound together to slowly build it back in a place that can still never quite be their homeland. With the influx of backpackers and tourism, this region is now filled with cafes and restaurants. It is normal to see Buddhist monks in maroon robes sipping chai lattes and chatting in free wi-fi cafes.
Now, I hope I don’t sound too critical of this vast nation. I think about these inherent conflicts because I see and hear it every day on the streets and in the papers, and it makes me wonder about these constant struggles that you don’t necessarily see in the Western World. India is a relatively young democracy with a huge and very ethnically and religiously diverse population. It also possesses the greatest monument to love the world has ever seen. It is a nation filled with so much beauty and true spirit that I am moved every single day that I am here.