We are in Delhi — acclimating, running some errands, meeting friends… and following the increasingly depressing news about the last week’s devastating floods in the state of Uttarakhand, where we will be heading tomorrow.
I’ve spent years in India, and still its contradictions never cease to baffle me. There is much that I feel completely at ease with at this point, it all comes back as soon as I step off the plane — Hindi turns of phrases, how to navigate a crowd, how to cross the street without getting hit, how to avoid unwanted attention. But there are other aspects of life here that I can’t walk through unfazed the way Indians seem to. Beggars with missing limbs in front of sleek boutiques, the filth surrounding a temple, an encounter with shameless rogues followed by an act of inexplicable kindness from a stranger, the way the air can be filled at once with the most intoxicating scent of jasmine and the stench of urine.
I suppose the problem is my own tendency to want to categorize things, rather than anything having to do with India itself.
On this visit, it’s the contradictions inherent in the question of sustainability in India that have made me aware of the limitations of my conceptual boxes. I grumble in my usual way about the fact that people here simply throw thrash on the street, expecting sweepers and rag-pickers to clean up the mess later. Then again, the total amount of waste in any Indian city is surely less than in your average American city. When we met with a Delhiite friend who is doing nonprofit work to advocate dry toilets that would save India’s scarce resources and provide free organic fertilizer, the stories he told again challenged my notion that Indians are much more common-sense and less fussy about their waste than what I’m used to. Before coming here, I had investigated the availability of organic food in Delhi — but as soon as I got here and had enjoyed the overpriced though satisfying snack at the Navdanya Cafe, I began to feel uncomfortable about the fact that my organic obsession is clearly a luxury most people here couldn’t afford. I’ve been happy to be able to take cycle rikshas rather than the horribly polluting auto-rikshas to get around, but am I really supporting a life-giving economy when it’s another person’s physical effort and even strain that’s taking me where I need to go?
And lastly, just when I had spent a morning observing the almost village-like simplicity of the food economy in the lower-income level neighborhood where we are staying — one-room dairies making their own yogurt in enormous vats, sugar-cane and lime juice pressers making fresh drinks, fruit and vegetable sellers presenting their fresh (and likely quite local) fare on their carts, small family shops throughout and no chain supermarket in sight — another friend insisted that we meet at the new Ambience mall south from Delhi, and I witnessed The Other Indian Economy. This was by far the largest mall I have ever seen: over 1 km in length, with an 867,000 square feet footprint and of course multiple levels. Inside the mall, along with over 300 brand retail stores and restaurant, were multiplex cinemas, an amusement park, skating rink etc. This is the New India that many of its inhabitants want to see. I found it disgusting in its excess. There really is no way to make a general statement about whether Indians live comparatively more sustainably than, say, North Americans. I guess I should just give up on that effort — it’s a country of a billion people, after all — and start asking different questions.