Page last updated at 15:03 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009

A tale of two Indias

River Ganges
Hindus believe that by washing in the River Ganges their sins are purified

India is often described as the land of extremes, rich and poor, hot and cold, forward and backward. Chris Morris reflects on what it is like to live in a country which has 'two faces'.

In the fading light of a Himalayan sunset, men strip down to their underwear and plunge headlong into the icy waters of Mother Ganga.

It is late October, winter is coming, and this is Gangotri - the place where millions of devout Hindus believe the River Ganges descends to earth from heaven. It is a place of pilgrimage high in the mountains, just a few miles from the source of the river.

A visitor takes a photograph of a temple shrine from the wrong place and is sworn at enthusiastically in earthy Hindi

The Gangotri temple is dedicated to the goddess of the Ganges.

People believe that by washing in this freezing holy water, they are purifying their sins. But this is extreme devotion.

The last afterglow of the sun is reflecting off the snow-capped peak of Sudarshan - a perfect cone-shaped mountain.

Bells are ringing in the temple, incense drifts through the chilly air, and prayers to the goddess are being chanted.

A visitor takes a photograph of a temple shrine from the wrong place and is sworn at enthusiastically in earthy Hindi. Offence is taken and curses mingle with the incense.

India is always an interesting mix of the sacred and the profane.

Cheap souvenirs

Just outside the temple gates groups of men are crouched around small fires, trying to keep warm.

And from a long line of makeshift shacks, locals are selling plastic bottles in which to collect holy water, along with cheap souvenirs and other bits of plastic tat.

I am offered a postcard with a photograph of a mountain which is so out of focus that it is hard to tell whether it really is a mountain or just a white blob.

"Very nice picture," the man says. "No it is not," I think to myself, "it is rubbish."

Railway slum
Many people in India are living in poverty and lack opportunity

So what sticks more firmly in my mind? The devotion of the devout, or the tattiness of the tat? It is honestly hard to tell because India's always a bit like that - as an outsider it does not give you much middle ground, on anything.

There is so much here that is wrong, that is cruel, and that is unjust. Poverty, caste violence… and for many millions a chronic lack of opportunity.

There is shocking treatment of women, who are killed for providing insufficient dowry, or for making the fatal mistake of falling in love with the wrong man.

There is shocking treatment of children, who are trafficked, abused or forced to work 16 hours a day in sweatshop factories.

Optimism

But for many millions of other Indians, there is also something else - a sense of looking upwards, a sense that things are getting better, that the horizon is widening, that in this young society, with the oldest of cultures, this is their time.

Hundreds of millions of people still survive on very little in this country and as they watch the new buoyant India flourish around them, there is bound to be a reaction

Wherever I travel in the world, I tend to keep a mental barometer in my head - an optimism index if you will.

In India, certainly in urban India, it just feels like the mercury is rising. Compare that to parts of Europe, my previous posting, where many people have plenty of everything. They are not pre-occupied with the hope of moving up, but with the fear of losing what they already have.

India, of course, could get it all wrong. The have-nots could remain stuck in their rut, increasingly angry and marginalised.

Hundreds of millions of people still survive on very little in this country and as they watch the new buoyant India flourish around them, there is bound to be a reaction.

A peasant-based rebellion, taking inspiration from the revolutionary teachings of Chairman Mao, is fermenting dangerously across a vast swathe of Indian territory. Unchecked, it could well spread fast. "That," a senior security official once told me, "is what really keeps me awake at night."

Commonwealth Games

But middle class urban India will party on - Mumbai obsessed with Bollywood, Delhi increasingly obsessed with traffic jams, flyovers and next year's Commonwealth Games.

The Games are supposed to showcase the new India, and announce Delhi as a 'world city'. But there has been mounting concern that it will not be ready in time.

Commonwealth Games site
Work on many sports venues are running behind schedule

I suspect the event will end up being a triumph. A combination of last minute panic, natural charm, and maybe a few prayers to whichever god or goddess is most appropriate to a major sporting event will see the city through.

The runners will run, and the drummers will drum. And the slums will be screened off behind bamboo fencing. People will see what they want to see.

So back down in Delhi, I wonder whether I too should not have broken the ice by the bank and plunged into the freezing currents of the River Ganges. It might have given me a sense of perspective, which India's assault on the senses often does not allow.

Love it or hate it? I feel like I am being battered from both sides.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: India
31 Mar 11 |  Country profiles


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