Thursday, 6 February 2014

First impressions of India.

I have been here in Bengaluru (though it took a few goes before I got out of the habit of saying Bangalore) for just over a week now. Obviously it's been a bit of a hectic time making the move from England, and now that I've got a moments peace as littlun sleeps I figured I'd write up my initial impressions. To begin with i'll include particulars for the benefit of friends and family, but after that I wanted to just put to words some of the more deeper impressions that have already laid themselves upon me.

The area in which we are to live is called Jayanagar, and it is about 8kms or so south from the centre of Bengaluru (not the 22km a certain tuc-tuc driver tried to convince me it was). It seems a really nice, pleasant neighbourhood to live, though like almost all of Bengaluru there is building going on. Lots of building going on. Everywhere you look, entire families are apparently living on site, building from dawn till dusk - kids and grandparents alike carrying breeze blocks or mixing cement (incidentally, building regulations have presented themselves as a surprising area for philosophical inquiry, but more on that in a later blog). Within walking distance, but around 25p for a tuc-tuc if it's hot, is a large shopping mall that sells about 10'000 kinds of jeans but no children's underwear, and opposite is a more budget version with a small supermarket. In between that and the area we are staying is a really large, well equipped kids park, complete with an old, tired looking security guard.

Noise is a major factor here. No more than two seconds go by without the honk of a vehicle's horn; the horn seems to be used for every reason (and none, for what I can ascertain) but primarily replaces the functions of whatever road laws are routinely ignored. It is in no useful way correlated with anger, which is only displayed in cases of extreme stupidity. Surprisingly, it works. It reminds me of a rolling game of Tetris where vehicles will simply slot into whatever available space presents itself. The most I have seen abreast each other so far is seven across a two lane road (at least I assume it was meant to be two lanes - actual lines are reserved for near the centre of Bengaluru, though they also may as well be absent). The freedom gifted by the lack of adherence to rules (I assume they do exist) actually means that traffic behaves as a complex system, each unit working to the simple rules of a) point in the direction you want to go, and b) keep at least 2cms from any other vehicle. It makes for an exhilarating ride, as well as a beautiful example of self-organisation, which nevertheless still seems relatively safe since you rarely go above 30mph. Before I wrote this, I did look up the figures and yes, India IS the vehicle accident capital of the world. But, as I suspected, the vast majority of serious consequences fall on pedestrians and so, given their open and comfortable (and plentiful) convenience, tuc-tucs are the way to go here. Besides, it's just too much fun watching the drivers face fall upon hearing that I live here, having offered me a vastly inflated price (happens at least 30% of the time, to me anyway). Besides the obvious noise like construction and traffic, the stand-out winner of surprise so far has been the squirrels. Yes, the squirrels, that manage to outmatch every other bird around with their incessant... well, it can only be called chirping. I refused to belief it at first, my mind preffering to think that that squirrel was simply miming. But no, they really are noisy buggers, the result I presume of an evolutionary effort to communicate above the human-induced cacophony.

The apartment we are due to move into in the coming week ticks every box we wanted - security, ceiling fans, balcony - and looked every bit the abandoned 1970's western apartment I'd seen on rental websites. Strip lighting can work well, stick scarves over them and you can effectively repaint your room in an instant, and after lengthy negotiation between me, Guru (the co-director of the NGO that Angela now works for), and the apartments' owner, we agreed to commit, upon the place being cleaned, new bathroom unit installed, a working window in the toilet, and one window of each room having mosquito mesh placed across. One of Angela's co-workers, and the parents of Guru, both live in the same block of apartments, which also includes some swings within its gated walls. Will need a fridge stat; we are currently buying a small bag of milk each morning and evening since we don't have one in this top-floor apartment above Guru and Anita's house (Anita also being a co-founder of the NGO). Where we are now opens out onto a huge top-floor covered terrace, from where I write this now (pictures soon family and friends, honest!)

Yet despite the noise, the midday heat (gonna get much worse come april), the constant attempts at conning me (actually, I quite like this game..), the dust, the sight of toddlers navigating building sites, the numerous, though very submissive, stray dogs... I bloody love this place. People smile at you. People talk to you. Yes, I know that I am experiencing something very different from the norm, especially when I have Sen-might-as-well-be-a-movie-star-Anna with me, but I also see it all around me. Community. Mutual-aid. People actually *talking* to one another, to strangers; it is an utterly necessary and indispensable function in an environment that is so heavily infused by the informal economy (the definition of which will also be subject to a future blog). The tuc-tuc drivers have been the most visible and accessible example of sub-community I've encountered, since they are simply indispensable for getting around. The drivers clearly do not have 'the knowledge' of London taxi-drivers; instead, the flow of traffic and the openness of the vehicle allows for them to share information and get directions - something I have yet to see another tuc-tuc driver deny. You also never see just one driver at the side of the road, trying to fix his (yes, all male) tuc-tuc, the average being I would guess 3-4.

But all of this observation and interaction pales into insignificance when compared to what India has taught me most about so far. England. I wouldn't deign to suggest I have deep insights about India; that would take years. But England, and by extension much of Western culture? Mind blown. Already. I knew, deep-down... actually, no. Scratch-that. It wasn't so much 'deep-down' as a very-much-conscious and rationally-derived conclusion of mine that my complexity-based beliefs would feel more at home here. I just hadn't conceived that it would feel so damned immediate and comprehensive. Having removed myself from the environment that has kept me in an ever-increasing state of dissonance, I suddenly see so clearly the absolute folly of the West, but from a deeply personal perspective. In attempting to regulate and control every facet of life on the precept of safety, the West is driving its citizens mad. We are complex beings. The societies we create are both emergent properties of that complexity, and complex systems in-and-of themselves. By creating and enforcing literally thousands of laws that constrain individual autonomy, *and populations conditioned to obey them*, the West is trying to create an ever-more homogenous society *and* self out of beings that cannot and should not function like that. Every man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains; this has never been so true (excepting valid feminist contentions at the wording) in such a subtle and all-consuming way as it is today in the West. Of course, I would not be so naive as to think India is 'more free' than the UK in the 'official' sense; governance here is no doubt worse than the West. But civil society *knows it*. Here, there is a clear cultural divide between the bottom and the top. The word corruption is everywhere. By comparison, the citizens of the West are submissive slaves to the influence of top-down cultural production, all-too-ready to advocate for or ignore the world-destroying externalities that come with the West's incessant (manufacturing of the) craving for cleanliness, convenience, and perfection.

Well, Sen's up now, so I'll wrap up. Bengaluru is awesome, we're gonna love it here, and the West is conducting a startling and unprecedented experiment in 'self'-organisation that to me resembles nothing more than a conceptual battery-farm demanding nothing less than the future of the world in order to keep collecting the eggs. Minds be damned.

More soon. Watch this space...