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Tools and Turnips: Twin Indias and Two Thanksgivings

Indian contrasts on the street: electronics and idols, Adidas and excrement, harvest and hunger, gratitude and guilt.

This weekend was the Ayudha Pooja festival, when Hindus worship their work tools and give thanks to their means of livelihood.  As in most festivals here, florists make a killing.  Shop fronts, market stalls, buses, trucks, tractors and bikes were all decorated with banana leaf branches; chunky yellow, orange, purple, white flower garlands; glistening tinsel or dangling tassels.  I heard drumming: tractors were pulling wagons through the street, carrying idols buried under bulky floral wreaths.  I saw a man circling an oil lamp and making offerings to his car – candles burning before the front bumper – as to a temple idol.  I spotted a garlanded transformer in a power substation, and was told that office PCs are also praised in ancient rituals.

It’s another taste of Indian contrasts.  Our first lecturer on the course said there are really two Indias: first world “India” and third world “Bharat” (the Hindu name for India).  There’s the educated 40% of middle-upper class Indians who enjoy Western comforts, and the struggling, often illiterate 60% who seem lost in the dark ages.  I’ve experienced this myself on a half-hour walk in Bangalore or Pondicherry:

Behind plate-glass in air-con cool, yuppies patronise Nokia and Adidas outlets, alongside a blaze of sari fabrics and then a superette: Colgate toothpaste, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Cadbury chocolate; electric toasters and cordless kettles; shelves of idolettes and incense holders, mangoes and milky sweets.   A 21st-century Western city spiced with an exotic tinge.

In front of the glass is a dirt-cum-concrete footpath with missing slabs that expose the aromatic drain a foot or more below.  Stray dogs pick at melons rotting in the heat.  A small boy tugs at your sleeve, a wizened old lady begs for a cent, a young woman moves hand up to mouth and back, entreating food for her baby.  And all around you the civic band is tuning: buses, motorbikes, rickshaws trumpet their sluggish frustration; truck horns blare stuck-record tunes; people cry out in strange tongues.

On a block of narrow shop fronts, chemist counters are packed with bottles and vials and boxes; medical clinics advertise x-rays and tests for stool, urine, blood, sputum; tailors sew trousers; cobblers mend shoes; mechanics fix motorbikes or radios or watches; astropalmists predict your future; flies crawl over skinned chickens beside tottering piles of dodgy DVDs.  All the life of the city is on display like a row of booths in a fair.

Saunter for a minute down a small side street, and you’re in a rural village.  Goats pick over a garbage heap and cows tied under a thatched roof supply the farmyard aroma.  A man urinates, a child defecates, a woman sweeps with a twig broom.  It could be the Middle Ages, if you don’t look up at the drooping tangle of wires.  Around the corner is a religious bazaar.  Through a multicoloured, poly-statued gate, worshippers glimpse a bronze deity by the flickering light of a priest’s oil lamp.  A mosque minaret wails the prayer call.  Turbaned Sikhs gather in a gurudwara, or Christians pray in church.

We attended a different sort of thanksgiving celebration today.  The local Whitefield Memorial Church (founded 1886) celebrated the goodness of God’s creation and the earth’s produce in its annual Harvest Festival Service.  Cauliflowers, marrows, coconuts, pineapples, carrots and corn coloured the windowsills, and a huge pumpkin rested before the altar.  The congregation belted out classic English hymns with gusto.  A salt-cellar, pitcher of water, bunch of flowers, winnow of rice, basket of fruit, unleavened loaf and a decanter of wine were paraded in with matching prayers.  ECC director Dr Chacko preached on the ten lepers healed by Jesus, of whom only one returned with gratitude – “were not ten made clean, but where are the other nine?”

Then was the annual church fete, which also had an English feel with a jumble sale, lucky dip, skittles, and guessing a cake’s weight competitions.  The scrum at the Indian food stalls showed less Anglo-Saxon reserve.  It was a pleasantly fun and festive scene.  As I left, however, I ran the guilty gauntlet of beggars seated outside and I recalled another gospel story: poor, starving Lazarus at the feasting, rich man’s gate.  I made eye contact and smiled at one beggar-lady, who then followed me plaintively down the lane.  Is it better to stride coldly, unseeingly past as many locals do?

I’m recovering from the initial shock of Indian streets and sometimes wonder what my problem was at first – walking around isn’t that terrifying!  Now the tension between the two Indias is starting to emerge in more troubling ways, which may not so easily go away.