2 Weeks, Many Centuries: My Trip to India - My Family Travels

Over the past few years, books such as India Unbound and The World is Flat have flown of the shelves in open glorification of India’s might as the ‘world’s new economic superpower’ and the ‘world’s largest democracy.’ On a daily basis, newspapers across the world, transcending the political spectrum, herald India’s inevitable march towards 1st world status. As a casual observer, it is far too easy to be swept into the ‘Indian Superpower’ fervor and disregard the harsh truths that afflict hundreds of millions of struggling Indians. For me, it took a trip to South India this July to find the true meaning in these larger-than-life claims.

This summer, I went on a two-week trip with my father to Bangalore for an inter-faith youth conference and then spent several days sightseeing. Holistically, South India is considered far more prosperous than the agriculturally challenged North. In fact, Bangalore is the darling of western business and is commonly referred to as the ‘Information and Technology’ (IT) center of the world.

According to 2007 figures from, The Economist, India is enjoying 7.8% GDP growth and millions are moving into the middle class. Indeed, Indian entrepreneurs have been prowling the global market impacting Wall-Street with billion dollar acquisitions. Indian businessmen such as Tata, Birla and Mittal are becoming as well-known as Gates, Murdoch and Buffet.

In spite of an extraordinary growth forecast in 2008, my experiences in 2007 India show major impediments to well-balanced development. Through my travels, I experienced the debilitating and crumbling Indian infrastructure, the deeply embedded caste divides, and the disconnect between average village life and the bustling city atmosphere of progress. I had realized, sadly, the unforgiving juxtapositions and paradoxes in modern India.

As I disembarked from my Lufthansa jumbo at 1 AM, I was thrust into the massive, bustling crowds inching through the dilapidated and dimly lit Bangalore airport. At baggage claim, soaked suitcases were falling over each other on ripped conveyor belts that were twenty years past their prime. It was clear that my first encounter with the Indian transportation behemoth would be representative of a failed government policy in providing a modern infrastructure for the growing nation.

After a one-hour, 15 km car ride to our conference center, I was not surprised to find the power switch non-responsive and a wax candle lit on my nightstand. Our 5 day stay at the conference center stood witness to over 25 power outages, a scarcity of hot water, and one faulty landline to contact our family 10,000 miles away. Driving to the other cities such as Mysore, a rapidly developing city steeped in history, and Ooty, a former British hill-station, revealed India’s greatest infrastructure problem- roads.

The average highway was around 10-12 ft wide with no lane markers. Dotting every road were huge potholes, a plethora of motorcycles, black-smoke spewing trucks, 8 year old salesmen, shepherds with their flocks, and perhaps millions of cows. India’s fledgling infrastructure is immensely detrimental as the country competes in an increasingly competitive, ‘flat’ world.

The most important aspect of India I observed was the stubborn existence of the caste system and a lack of social mobility. Flexible class boundaries are key prerequisites to true economic development. Modern law has officially abolished the creation of sub-human classes such as the untouchables.

However, I still witnessed this societal stratification. At our conference center in Bangalore, the untouchables or the ‘dalits’ (the oppressed) were hired as cooks, cleaners and groundskeepers. All of the attendees were respectful and grateful. Yet, centuries of systematic subjugation had decimated the dalits sense of human worth. These hard-working people would never smile, look you in the eye and would always jump off the path when encountered. For generations, the untouchables had been treated like vermin and most, even today, feel and act invisible.

This is the paradox of 21st century India: a country striving for modernity but failing to relinquish the vices of history. The ruthless juxtapositions are evident. In downtown Bangalore, I walked into a mall but felt that I had walked into America. I saw the brand new IPhone at the Apple Store, Lebron’s jerseys at Adidas and a Frappachino at Starbucks. However, just outside those doors of progressiveness were the ancient bazaars with 25 cent bootleg DVD’s, 4 year old beggars, cows tied to parking meters and a suffocating layer of smog.

From my trip, I learned that no country can be described in one sentence as western newspapers try to illustrate this new India. The geopolitical boundaries that define India are insufficient to describe this land where I experienced many countries and centuries.

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