It is difficult to describe the experience of urban India. Streets and shops are teeming with people, vendors crowd the sidewalks, and houses and apartment buildings are small and tightly bound into the concrete fabric of the inner city. And while a recent census reports that seventy percent of households in Pune have televisions, there are of course many, many people who have no home, and very little to hold on to.
Life in the slum tenements, though we have only observed it from a distance, is harsh. It is dirty and dusty, there is no privacy, and people are living in spaces no larger than the excessive interior of a large American automobile. Over forty percent of the city’s population lives in the slums—densely packed stone and metal-walled mazes of human habitation. These households have no toilets, and the residents use firewood for cooking. The lives of the people who live in the slums are striking in contrast to the smaller and older apartment buildings of Pune (where we are living) as well as the newer high rise apartments (where more and more people are living).
Apartment dwellers have the privilege of stepping out of the constant dirt and noise and smell of the street. There is a striking recollection in Naipaul who, in describing his visit to Calcutta in 1962, tells how he was both overpowered by his own wretchedness (the undrinkable water, the exhaust fumes, the dirt, the broken pavement, and the crowds) and unable to accept the conclusion that in a city as poor as India the aesthetic side of things didn’t matter. “In richer countries,” he writes, “where people could create reasonably pleasant home surroundings for themselves, perhaps, after all, public squalor was bearable. In India, where most people lived in such poor conditions, the combination of private squalor and an encompassing squalor was quite stupefying. It would have given people not only a low idea of their needs—air, water, space for stretching out—but it must also have given people a low idea of their possibilities, as makers or doers.” My question is whether the conditions of post-independence India have any bearing on what Shashi Tharoor has, more recently, called the “lack of civic culture” in India today? Does it explain, to any degree, the dirt and trash, open sewers, and perpetually ripped up streets and sidewalks? For despite the astonishingly intimate and indeed beautiful allegiances to family members, village and caste one experiences in India, I simply can’t make sense of how well kept the better off people’s private spaces (and bodies) happen to be at the same time there is an astonishing tolerance for virtually no reliable public services and a readily apparent lack of interest in the condition of public space. Tharoor puts it this way: “An acute consciousness of personal hygiene coexists with an astonishing disregard for public sanitation.” My queries have led to various explanations, none fully convincing. That care for shared space and the environment is a luxury, that one can only do so much, that corrupt public officials make it next to impossible to maintain basic public services. Meanwhile, outside, the nerve-jangling chaos of the street, the air quality so bad that respiratory disease is common, water unfit to drink, and life expectancy deeply compromised. Though I am told it has been (and is, elsewhere) much worse—and that this is the “natural” condition of a developing city—the noise is constant and the air barely tolerable. Every day we walk dirty streets through open spaces littered with trash and excrement. And, for reasons I am trying to understand in writing this post, people throw trash everywhere without an apparent second thought—from gum wrappers to overstuffed bags of household waste. Hundreds of colorful plastic bags catch in street drains, against stone walls, and hang tangled in the wire of metal fence.
Yesterday morning I walked again through Koregaon Park, home of the Osho International Mediation Commune (founded by Rajneesh), passing the lush gardens tucked behind concrete walls, with peaceful Westerners in their flowing saffron robes. I’ve come over on foot from Kalyani Nagar, across the river and through the tent communities on the side of the road. I’m feeling the same as I did a few weeks ago when Ellinore and I walked a part of this route. On that day, we passed suddenly from the tents along the river into the high rise mall culture of Kalyani Nagar. The packaged lifestyle experience of the commune—however enlightened it may be, or consider itself—and the all-too-familiar trappings of Western-style materialism—utterly familiar and alluring—were too much in the heat of that afternoon. Ellinore gagging at the smell of urine and feces, passing tents with toothless old women asking for rupees and little children in rags playing in the dirt. Here, acutely, the contrast between squalor and leisure, the struggling to survive and the all-too-familiar feelings of guilt that arise when one has more than one needs. Still, the artful fiction of peacefulness cultivated in the meditation resort, and the techno-buzz of the middle-class mall are, of course, one part in a large and difficult story in which all of us are playing a part. But acknowledging that does not make it any easier.