Kerala: God's Own Country & Farewell To India
I am now in Male, capital of Republic of Maldives. I have just flown here yesterday from Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandum), capital of Kerala State, one of India's two southernmost states. It has been almost 2 months since I began my journey and 1 ½ months since I arrived in India.
During the last 2 months, I have travelled across Bangladesh, Nepal and ten Indian states; 14,200 km on roads and waterways, and on 12 flights via 9 airlines. I have visited numerous palaces and forts, attended colourful festivals such as the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan, Nagaland's Hornbill Festival and Goa's Feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated Deepavali/Diwali in Kathmandu and New Delhi, and saw a tiger, many rhinoceros, wild elephants, wild buffalos and deer in Assam's Kaziranga National Park.
Regrettably, I have not travelled on the legendary Indian Railways, but this also showed how India has transformed beyond the Rail of the old British Raj. The nation's rapidly growing aviation industry powered by what has become Asia's most vibrant budget airline industry, together with a growing and continuously upgraded road network meant that I was able to get quickly between far corners of this vast country.
Kerala, one of India's two southernmost states (the other is Tamil Nadu which owns Cape Comorin, the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent), calls itself God's Own Country, after the beautiful, idyllic scenery, tranquility of its many waterways, fine sandy beaches, lush green mountain resorts, amazing wildlife and colourful festivals. What made this seemingly extravagant nickname less blasphemous was that the Maharaja of Tranvancore, an old princely state which made up most of Kerala's territory today, was supposedly ruling the state on behalf of Lord Padmanabha, a manifestation of the Hindu God Vishnu, and hence, the land was the God's own country.
There are other reasons why Kerala sees itself as India's paradise on Earth. The state, as its tourism brochures proudly declares, is "India's most advanced society: A hundred per cent literate people. World-class health care systems. India's lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy rates. The highest physical quality of life in India. Peaceful and pristine, Kerala is also India's cleanest state".
Indeed, I have not seen many beggars or any slums in Kerala. Neither have I experienced the annoying touting and harassment which I did in the north of India. Bookshops abound in Kerala which is an indication of literacy and they stock mainly books of the Malayalam language (official language of Kerala), although I have also come across a few good English bookshops. In states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, where literacy is low, the few bookshops I came across stock English books meant for tourists, as the locals probably do not read alot.
Long run by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Kerala has trained a large number of doctors, not unlike Cuba which is also Communist-ruled. Many Kerala doctors work abroad. A Kerala surgeon told me that more than half of his batch in medical school worked overseas. He also said that, it has been reported that one quarter of Britain's doctors were of Keralan origin and if they all left the UK together, the UK National Health Service would collapse within a week.
Some pointed to these impressive statistics and the state's generally clean and pristine environment, which they regarded as evidence of success of Kerala's sustainable development efforts. They argued that there was no need for rapid industrialization East-Asian style and for the same kind of growth rates for a people to live a long life, enjoy good health services, and lead a simple fulfilling life.
Short of more thorough research, the fact remains that large numbers of Keralites have to work overseas to support their families at home which may seem to indicate that Kerala's "sustainable growth" since independence in 1947 was simply not adequate. However, this could also be because Keralites were better educated that they could seek job opportunities overseas, especially in professional and administrative positions.
As I travelled around Kerala, it does seem that Kerala is doing fairly well and is poised to ride on India's rapid growth in coming years. New developments, whether industrial, commercial or residential, are being advertised on huge billboards along the roads. The beautiful island-scattered waterfront of Kochi (better known by its old name Cochin), the state's largest city and one of India's historically most important trading ports, is full of new glass towers-in-progress. "We will be the new Bangalore," a confident Keralite told me.
In Kerala, shopping malls, new flats and new commercial/industrial projects are actually been built in existing cities, whereas in many parts of India, bureaucracy and outdated, investor-unfriendly laws have forced businessmen and progressive government planners to construct new developments in green field cities such as Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Navi Mumbai, or in the many Special Economic Zones (SEZs) proposed. The problem with constructing new cities is that it does not resolve the problems with traffic, infrastructure and civil amenities that the old cities face, or change the old investor-unfriendly labour laws that have retarded the nation's progress for many years. In fact, so much new business would be channeled to the new cities that the same old problems would emerge in the new cities and plague them as well.
I have also seen a number of supermarkets and smallish shopping centres in Kerala city centres, whereas there were few in the parts of India I have gone to so far. Not that I am crazy over shopping but it is in a mall with transparency of fixed price shops that one often discovers the real price of merchandise (rather than the tourist price). A modern shopping mall and supermarket run efficiently is, to many developing countries, as much a lesson into modern logistics and supply chain management as well as how honest, transparent and fair business should be conducted. Kerala seems to have gone ahead with this, whereas a not-so-progressive state like Uttar Pradesh (also India's most populous) have banned supermarkets because they are seen as overly competitive and damaging to the prospects of small neighbourhood shops.
History has shown that any move to retard progress and efficiency would surely fail and bring more suffering when the axe eventually falls. Remember the English weavers who burned down new cotton mills in Lancashire at the onset of the 18th century Industrial Revolution, or the Indian civil servants who protested against computerization in government departments in the early 1990s?
Many people in India speak English, but as a percentage of the total population, the number is probably small. Many people I come across on the street could hardly manager more than a few basic sentences. Even shocking were a few MBA students I met in Pushkar, who were studying in nearby Ajmer – they could not manage anything more than Hello, Thank you, Where are you from? I could understand if a street hawker could not speak English but could not forgive MBA students who couldn't.
I flew from Goa to Kochi, the largest city of Kerala. Old Kochi was a renowned trading port with strong links to both the Middle East and China. Marco Polo also visited Kochi and its neighbouring ports, and commented on the cosmopolitan nature of the city and the traders, as well as on the wealth of the city. Marco Polo said that the ports were very wealthy and their inhabitants were almost naked apart from a loin cloth. The rulers were as naked as their people, except for the expensive loin cloth that they wore.
The Portuguese under Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut (now Kozhikode) to the north of Kochi in 1498 which marked the beginning of European incursion into Asia. He received a hostile reception in Calicut and went on to Kochi where he was allowed to establish a base. Kochi became the first base of Portuguese expansion were they set up fortresses, trading emporiums and churches, from where they later expanded to Goa, Melaka in Malaysia and Macau in China.
I visited the slander peninsula that forms Fort Kochi-Mattancherry areas of Kochi, and the old palace of the Maharaja of Cochin and many Portuguese churches located there. I walked along the narrow lanes as well as the seaside road, from where fishermen continued to net their fishes using the amazing primeval looking cheena vala, or "Chinese fishing nets", supposedly introduced by Chinese traders of the Yuan Dynasty more than 800 years ago though I have never seen them in use anywhere in China. These were huge structures which operated through the use of raw human force coupled with counter-weights of huge stones. I could not help but reminded of the cartoon series "Flintstones" and the stone age man.
I visited Jew Town in Mattancherry – this was the old Jewish Quarter of Kochi. Jews arrived in Kerala after the Roman destruction of the Temple, and one of them was later awarded a mini kingdom by the Chera Emperor of Kerala. After many generations, however, the kingdom of the so-called Malabar Jews was weakened by civil war, and eventually destroyed by the Arabs. The last king and other Jewish survivors took refuge in Kochi where they were allowed by the Raja to settle, although at one stage they were persecuted by the Portuguese who occupied Kochi.
These Jews, also known as Cochin Jews or Black Jews, were almost so completely assimilated with multi-ethnic and multi-religious Keralites at one stage that they spoke a hybrid tongue called Judeo-Malayalam, and adopted from Hinduism their own version of the caste system. I visited one of their old synagogues. Like other ancient Jewish communities in the Middle East and Asia, Kerala's Jewish community has disappeared as well, when the community migrated wholesale to Israel, leaving behind memories and remnants of their past presence as tourist attractions and fact trivia among travelers and historians.
From Kochi, I proceeded to Alappuzha (Alleppey), a small town on the backwaters of Kerala. Kerala is famous for its backwaters - coconut and palm-fringed rivers and canals that connect a series of lakes and lagoons in its coastal plains. I got onto a boat and cruised 8 hours to Kollam, through the idyllic backwaters, which looked like a blue thread through the lush greenery of Kerala's rainforests, amidst shiny softness of rice paddy fields and occasional small villages with their Hindu temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques, the latter symbolic of Kerala's many faiths and myriad denominations.
Kollam, also once a trading port Marco Polo visited and wrote about in his journal, is today a district centre and a minor Catholic pilgrimage town where the shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni has its own share of devotes. Not too far away is Kottayam, the spiritual heart of Kerala's original Christian church, known as the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Thomas. Sometimes known as Mar Thoma Christians, these were Indians whose ancestors were converted by St Thomas, one of Jesus' twelve apostles, who went east to India after Jesus' death. St Thomas reached India in 52 AD and later died a martyr's death near Madras (now Chennai), while his followers flourished in Kerala.
Ironically, the Kerala Christians, whose Syrian Orthodox heritage and rites introduced by St Thomas were almost one thousand years older than Roman Catholicism, came under the greatest pressure when fellow Christian Portuguese arrived and tried to impose Portuguese Catholicism on them. This led to the split of the Kerala church and persecution of those who did not want to follow Portuguese Catholicism. Further schisms occurred with the arrival of the British whose Protestant missionaries persuaded some Christians to switch to the new colonial masters' faith, thus the confusing multitudes of Christian denominations in Kerala today.
Roman Catholics number about 4.5 million believers in Kerala today, and they belong to two major churches that differ in their rites: Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the latter being a group of Orthodox Christians who moved to the Roman church only in 1926 and kept their Syrian Orthodox rites. There are two Orthodox denominations in Kerala with 2.5 million worshippers: Malankara Orthodox Church (also known as the Indian Orthodox Church) and the rival Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church, the latter being the faction that subordinated itself to the Orthodox Church of Syria. Then there is the million-strong Mar Thoma Church, which is the so-called "Reformed Orthodox Church", i.e., Protestants who practise St Thomas' Orthodox rites. And the Malabar Independent Syrian Church, which practices St Thomas rites but associated with neither the Catholic, Orthodox nor Protestant churches. Sounds complicated? I haven't spoken about the caste system among the local Christians, who adopted the system from the Hindus.
Multi-cuisine restaurant – this is a term one comes across in most restaurants in India. Normally, four cuisines would be quoted: Indian, Chinese, Western and whatever local cuisine that exists, be it Goan, Mughal (the case in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), Kerala, Bengali or Naga. The dishes for Chinese and Western cuisines in such restaurants are invariably similar. Chinese cuisine would mean the following:
- a whole series of dishes called "Manchurian" (which to this day I had no idea what it was that I ate);
- several types of noodles (sometimes "Hakka noodles" whatever that was supposed to mean, but they looked and tasted differently every location I ordered it) and fried rice with permutations of different types of meat, vegetables or egg; and
- chop suey (sometimes "American chop suey"),
But don't expect them to taste like what you have tasted in authentic Chinese restaurants in East Asia, Southeast Asia, London, Sydney or Vancouver. What you would often find is Indian style pseudo-Chinese food liberally laced with heavy tomato-based sauces and spices, so as to suit the Indian taste bud. With most restaurants serving pseudo-Chinese food that suits the Indian taste bud, authentic Chinese restaurants run by ethnic Chinese – not necessarily popular with the Indians - can be found only with some effort, in major cities like New Delhi or Kolkata.
Traditionally, Indians do not eat out much. It was the small Kolkata Chinese community that introduced Chinese food and the concept of eating out to the Indians, so much so that the Bengali term for eating out literally means "eat Chinese". As a footnote, the Kolkata Chinese first settled in India in the 18th century but later dispersed worldwide after anti-Chinese riots occurred on the aftermath of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. It has been reported in the Singapore press that new Indian immigrants to Singapore, mostly IT professionals, missed this type of "Chinese food" so much that at least five Indian style Chinese restaurants have opened in Singapore to serve this market.
The cow is a sacred animal for the Hindus and beef is not served in most restaurants in the "Cow Belt", i.e., northern India which is the Hindu, Hindi-speaking heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. In fact, many Hindus are vegetarian, especially in the north. I have come across a report that said that many Brahmin Hindus in the south are eating more meat now, even though Brahmins are traditionally very strict in maintaining a vegetarian diet. One finds beef in Kerala, where there is a mixed population of Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Pork is not generally available as the meat is forbidden for Muslims and not customary for Hindus (although not forbidden), except for in Nagaland where it is the most common meat found (and possibly in other Christian majority states in the Northeast such as Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram).
Given India's religious diversity and the many types of meat which are forbidden for consumption by individual communities, many wild animals have survived in India, especially those in nature reserves once established by the princely states as private hunting reserves of the maharajas. However, the long term survival of many wild animals in India is in doubt, as poaching is on the rise due to increased demand for "exotic game food" in a more affluent China. Tigers, lions, rhinoceros and antelope, among others, have been seriously threatened. Let's hope more measures be put in place before extinction of major species occurs.
The Gandhi-Nehru family (i.e., descendants of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, whose daughter Indira married a Mr Gandhi, who is no relation of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi) is the post-independent Indian equivalent of a royal family whose family had contributed three prime ministers two of whom were assassinated in office. Apart from the president, prime minister, cabinet ministers and Supreme Court judges, members of the Gandhi family were on the VVIP list, which entitles them to free 1st class air tickets and the right not to be examined at Indian airports, something not even the chief commanders of the three armed forces enjoyed.
Recently, it was reported in local papers that an Air India jet was apparently diverted to Hong Kong so that Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and currently party president of India's ruling party, the Nationalist Congress Party, could return to India on first class seats. Existing planes flying the route only have business and economy seats.
9 December was the birthday of Sonia Gandhi. An Indian newspaper reported: "One of the first to greet the party president was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who drove to her house early in the morning. President Pratibha Patil sent in a bouquet with greetings…Nearby, a troupe of tribal artistes from Karnataka with drums and blow-horns and large colourful masks sang and danced to entertain the audience, hoping the party president would give them an audience and allow them to perform before her…They were brought by Congress MP and former union minister Ambareesh, who is also a well-known Telugu film star…The entrance at the head of the lane leading to Sonia's residence was heavily barricaded. That did not deter Youth Congress activists, who stood on the barricades and raised slogans 'Sonia Gandhi zindabad, Youth Congress zindabad (Long Live Sonia Gandhi, Long Live Youth Congress)'…Not to be left behind, Congress Seva Dal volunteers marched up and down a stretch of Akbar Road, which was bedecked with large portraits of Sonia Gandhi right down from one end roundabout to the other…Congress workers in other parts of the country too celebrated the party chief's birthday in their own way. In Puducherry, Congress men pulled a golden chariot at Sri Manakala Vinayakar temple to seek the lord's blessings for Gandhi."
I recalled my visit to North Korea in 2005 during the birthday of long dead Comrade Kim Il Sung.
The Congress Party's archrival is the Hindu revivalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose members swore by the principles of Hindutva, or Hinduness. Basically, BJP advocates for an India for the Hindus, one where every other religion must know their subordinated role in Indian society. The BJP was instrumental in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. It's election time in Gujarat and Gujarat's controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi who belongs to BJP is stirring his Hindutva credentials. "The Congress Party under Catholic Sonia Gandhi is in power, and so the 2-rupee coin's map of India motif has been replaced with a cross," he said.
Today's Indian government is unique. The ruling party is headed by a Catholic, the president up till recently was Muslim and the prime minister is Sikh. PM Manmohan Singh was credited to have begun India's economic reform programme in 1991 when he was finance minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet, and finance minister P. Chidambaram was then governor of the Reserve Bank of India. In summary, the current government is not only very diverse and reflective of India's complex human landscape, but also a dream team in terms of having technocrats who have a proven record of delivering the many tough reforms the country needs.
Even then, I have met people who disagree. It was the BJP, they argued, who drew up many of the more concrete reforms when they came to power in 1998 and heralded the current euphoria of the New India. These reforms are now being continued by the weird coalition between the Congress Party and the "Left Movement", i.e., various communist and left wing parties who are generally anti-reform but got into bed with the Congress Party to join government. Who will win the Gujarat elections? Will the Congress-Left coalition survive? Whatever it is, politics in India is always exciting, complex and unpredictable.
Enough of politics. It's sex time again. Extracts of a column by Abhishek Singhvi, Congress MP, in The Hindustan Times (14 November 2007), one of India's major newspapers, about how open-minded and sex-oriented traditional India was, judging from the text of the great Indian classical epic, Mahabharata:
THE PERMISSIVENESS of ancient Indian society and their ultra-liberal view on sexual relationships is breathtaking. Nowhere is this better depicted than in the Mahabharata, the greatest epic ever written…
The preface starts with Queen Girika asking King Uparichara to make love. The king leaves without doing so, but is so consumed by passion that he ejaculates on a leaf in the forest, which he then sends to his queen through a falcon. The seed drops mid-flight and impregnates apsara fish Adrika, who gives birth to a son and a daughter. The king keeps the son and a fisherman keeps the daughter, Satyavati. The celibate Parashara is so besotted with Satyavati that he makes love to her in a boat, and of the union is born Ved Vyasa. Parashara blesses Satyavati, saying that that her son would be the "greatest poet the world has ever known".
Shantanu, the 14th Kuru king, is mesmerised by Ganga, whom he marries, but undertakes never to question. Their physical love is so overpowering that Ganga becomes pregnant seven times in seven years. But she drowns each of her children. Shantanu is distraught but does not question her. When he finally does, she tells him of the curse on her and leaves Shantanu, taking with her their eighth child, Vasu Prabhasa. She promises him that Prabhasa would return after 16 years to rule the Kurus. It's again Shantanu's uncontrollable sexual urge that leads him to marry Satyavati. His "old and mighty illness, love" leads him to promise Satyavati that only her children would rule the empire. This is fulfilled by his son, Devvrata, who takes a vow that not only would he not claim the kingdom, but he would also never marry and remain celibate all his life. It's this sacrifice that makes Devvrata Bheeshma.
Abduction of princesses from swayamvaras is frequently practised and accepted as 'gandharva vivah'. Bheeshma abducts Amba, Ambika and Ambalika for Satyavati's son. Amba, unable to marry her beloved, seeks union with Bheeshma and her rage at being spurned leads to her rebirth as Shikhandin. Then, in the first sex-change of the ancient ages, she is converted into the male Shikhandin by a yaksha. There are graphic depictions of group love-making between Satyavati's son and his two queens. When he dies issueless, both Satyavati and Bheeshma openly apply the apparently established "ancient custom, allowing a brahmana to be called to sire sons" from the two young widows to ensure continuity of the family line. Satyavati en trusts this task to her son, Veda Vyasa. Mahabharata describes in minute detail hours of love making on successive nights between Vyasa and the queens. Since Ambika closes her eyes in fright, blind Dhritrashtra is her offspring and since Ambalika is ashen-faced at the sight of Vyasa, pale albino Pandu is born of her. Vyasa also has a sexual encounter with an unnamed maid, which leads to the wise Vidur's birth.
The concept of immaculate conception and giving birth without a nine-month pregnancy is typified by Kunti. A rishi and his wife decide to copulate in an open forest and turn into a stag and a hind for the purpose. Pandu kills them while they are in the act and is cursed that he would die the moment he made love to anyone. So, Pandu lets his wife Kunti practise "immaculate conception" with the gods, giving rise to Yudhishthir (with Dharmaraja), Bheema (Vayu) and Arjuna (Indra). Polygamy is common and Pandu's second wife, Madri, seeks the same benefits.
Vyasa created Gandhari's 100 sons from the foetal pulp disgorged by her. Pandu died because he could not control his libido on seeing Madri naked. Masturbation, as practised by Muni Gautam's celibate son Sharadwan, leads to the birth of the twins Kripa and Kripi. Having been won by Arjuna in an archery contest, all five Pandava brothers share Draupadi, since Kunti had unknowingly said "all of you share the alms you have got". But Mahabharata describes in detail how all five brothers desired Draupadi and how she desired each of them. Polyandry was thus equally acceptable.
Arjuna's escapades while away from Draupadi included passionate lovemaking with the snake woman Ulupi, who practised pre-marital sex, and his active pursuit and eventual elopement with Krishna's half-sister and his own cousin, Subhadra. After her initial anger, Draupadi welcomes them both and even makes love to Arjuna. Incidentally , this also recognises marriage between cousins.
Such examples are endless. The approach to these issues 5,000 years ago is truly mind-boggling.
I am confused and awed. Are you?
From Kollam, I got onto a bus for Thiruvananthapuram, City of the Sacred Serpent. What a mouthful! Up till recently, it was known as Trivandrum, and reverted to its Malayalam name a few years ago. I could imagine how the British who first came here ended up calling it Trivandrum. "What's the name of this place?" the British trader asked. "Thiruvananthapuram." "What Trivana what?" "Thiruvananthapuram." "What the hell! Let's call it Trivandrum. Cut off the last tricky bit!"
Thiruvananthapuram is Kerala's capital. Many tourists come here and then move on to Kovallam, the nearby beach resort. I visited Kovallam but since I'm not the sun-sea sort of person, I stayed put in Thiruvananthapuram. Thiruvananthapuram was also the old capital of the princely state of Tranvancore, one of the richest of the over 500 princely states that existed during the era of the British Raj. Ruled by the Varma Maharajas, Tranvancore was one of the most reformist and economically advanced princely states.
Even during those days, the Varma Maharajas had encouraged education and industrialization, and the first Legislative Council in a princely state was set up here in 1888. As early as the 1930s, 40% of state revenue was spent on education. Ironically, this also led to political consciousness and the aspiration not only for republicanism but also for union with an India independent from the British Empire. The last maharaja was reluctant to join India and contemplated independence as a separate state. However, this led to revolts, mass action and strikes. Eventually, after a failed assassination on his prime minister, the maharaja relented and Tranvancore joined the Indian Union.
I visited the palace of the maharajas in Thiruvananthapuram. Whilst it has beautiful wood carvings and sculptures in many areas, it is nowhere near the palaces and forts of Rajasthan in grandeur. In fact, it looked somewhat small and cramped up next to the sacred temple complex devoted to Lord Padmanabha, the manifestation of Lord Vishnu that is often shown lying on a five headed sacred serpent. Perhaps more like the rural mansion of a wealthy country gentleman, certainly not an absolute monarch who ruled over a few million people of a prosperous trading city.
The same could be said about the equally smallish Mattancherry Palace of the Kochi Maharajas, who were also known to be reformist and progressive. (The Kochi Maharajas were patriotic towards India compared to the Tranvancore Maharajas. The last Kochi ruler was not only among the first maharajas to accede to the Indian Union, but was the first to allow free elections for a responsible government and soon after independence abdicated the throne his dynasty had ruled for more than one thousand years.)
I wonder if the grandeur of the palace was inversely proportional to the progressiveness of a state. The palaces of Rajasthan might be grand and pompous, in particular those owned by the Maharajas of Udaipur/Mewar and Jodhpur/Marwar, but their states, or the Rajasthan of today for that matter, is a rather poor state with low literacy rate (60% vs Kerala's 91% and India national average of 65% in 2001). The palaces and forts of Udaipur might be a display of wealth, opulence and good taste, and those of Jodhpur pure raw power and martial spirit of its rulers, but it was the simplicity of Kerala's palaces that manifested the progressive spirit of its ex-rulers.
Interestingly, the palaces I had visited of the old Kochi and Tranvancore kingdoms all highlighted the old trading relationships they had with China, be in Chinese pottery, "Chinese thrones" in the case of Tranvancore palaces (which looked more like the usual classical Chinese chairs one finds in many furniture shops in Singapore) or unusual carvings of Indo-Chinese hybrid mythological creatures that had features of the dragon, elephant or peacock, plus the "China nets" I wrote about earlier.
I passed by a wax museum near Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) which claimed to be India's first and only wax museum. This rudimentary museum had only 18 figures, which was a strange choice of well known and lesser known Indian and local (i.e., of Tamil Nadu and Kerala) personalities in politics, arts and public affairs, including Dr Manmohan Singh and Mother Theresa. The 18th figure near the exit was unlabelled but no doubt one of the most infamous figures of recent times – Saddam Hussein. He was also the only non-Indian featured here. I could only conclude what I already observed in many parts of the world, that Saddam Hussein, despite been seen as a bloodthirsty monster in the West and international mainstream circles, continues to be regarded by many in the Third World as a charismatic man brave enough to take on the United States. Sad observation but probably true.
Watching to the local TV news over a recent 48 hour period, the headlines included the following:
- Student shooting incident in an exclusive private school in Gurgaon near Delhi;
- Train-bus collision in Punjab, with many deaths;
- 5 killed in train-bombing in Assam;
- Impending famine in Mizoram due to the once-in-48-years flowering of a particular bamboo species that has led to the explosion in rat numbers and their devastation of rice crops;
- Wild election rhetoric in Gujarat bordering on open justification of extra-judicial killing; and
- Many died in a Mumbai building collapse.
It all sounded like an irredeemable disaster scenario, but one should not forget this is the world's second most populous country and it would not be surprising that it would have its proportionate share of the world's mishaps. Besides, it is a democracy with a free press, which means news of disasters could not be suppressed, as in China or Russia. Amartya Sen, prominent economist and Nobel laureate argued that famines had been adverted in India since independence because the country is democratic and hence news of impending famine would have spurned the government to action, something that could not occur in China.
India's democracy and weak government have been seen by some as obstacles to growth. However, there are others that argue that India is too diverse in terms of geography, religion and ethnicity – even more so than China - and only a democratic system can give everyone, especially the poor and the weak their voice. Democracy acts as a safety valve for emotions, tensions and frustrations of the weak and dissatisfied, thus preventing the nation from imploding suddenly, which is a mechanism that China need for the enormous inequality generated by its rapid growth but does not possess due to its political system.
The debate goes on. India is no doubt a very fascinating country and one that I hope to visit again before too long. I watched sunset by the shores of Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), also the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, which as the Indians called it, "the meeting place of three oceans – Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal". Mahatma Gandhi once mediated here and said, "there are no ports of call here where the three oceans meet. The waters are, like a goddess, totally virgin". In the foreground, the silhouette of temples, a giant statue of an Indian philosopher-poet and gothic spires of a Catholic cathedral bathing in the final sun rays. The following day, I proceeded westwards where the sun sets, to Maldives in the Indian Ocean and then subsequently to Yemen in the Middle East.
Good bye and take care, and Merry Christmas to everybody.