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Enduring India
By Evelyn - 4 Dec, 1999

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I am working my way down a typically congested Indian street, mindful of stepping over fresh dung without stepping into moving traffic. I contemplate India's future--the street a metaphor for this nation of a billion. Implosion feels imminent; there is not enough physical space to accommodate all the activities that go on. One day the systems will break down, succumbing to the stresses, chaos and neglect they endure.

This street is host to a million near misses each day. An old man plods along, the shoulder strap of his bag nearly catches the chipped horn of a stray cow, turning its head to avoid collision by a motorist. A rickshaw brushes a bicycle harnessed with butane tanks, maneuvering around a schoolgirl who has stepped into the flow of traffic to get past the fruit vendor. Off to the side an emaciated dog steps lightly on a pile of trash, foraging for something within the rot.

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I notice these things, but I also notice that everyone else is going about their business as usual. The sweet shop has a fresh batch of rasmullahs in the display case. Metal-smiths bang out crenellated copper jugs. The latest weaves are displayed in the window of the sari shop; across the way, the spice merchant grooms his mound of tumeric powder. The latest movie hit soundtrack blares from distorted speakers of the cassette stall; next door the chai wallah serves another round of sweet milky chai, while a boy rinses dirtied glasses onto the street. The miracle of each day is actually the ordinary everyday for millions of Indians. Aspects of Indian culture have endured for thousands of years—there's no reason to think it will disappear anytime soon.

Years in India are not enough time to make any conclusive observations—a month into it and I'm barely skimming the surface. India's facets are many, each with deep complex layers. India is said to be a society rooted in traditions of diversity and tolerance. How has this tolerance lasted when resources seem inadequate to nourish the vast population?

That India is so diverse today is testament to her past. India's past witnessed foreign invasions by the Aryans, Muslims, Europeans, to name only a few. Many of the beliefs and ideas these intruders introduced to dominate and control ultimately became 'Indianized', forcing a more culturally diverse society in which people had to learn to live with each other. 'Indianization' of foreign culture continues today. While not impervious, India is far more resistant to the same mass American culture imported wholesale by other societies. Ask any young Indian --Bollywood is still better than Hollywood, masala dosas to McDonalds. It is a matter of picking and choosing what they like of Western culture, and modifying it to better suit their tastes.

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Within her national boundaries exist all the major religions of the world— Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism—and a slew of minor ones—notably Sikhism, Jainism, and Zorastrianism. 18 languages are constitutionally recognized, another 1600 minor languages active (!). The caste system, which applies to the 80% Hindu population, consists of five main castes and some claim 5000 sub-castes. At last count there were some 300 political parties to represent the billion citizens that make up India. And despite such wide-varying differences, there is positively an Indian national consciousness.

Understandably proud of their diversity, Indians will be the first to tell you that their country is the world's largest democracy. Though this didn't mean much to me before I arrived, it must be the single most profound aspect of India that I am continually reminded of. In spite of India's unnatural birth as a modern nation, its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the foresight to lay the foundations of a secular government that embraced tolerance and diversity. Nehru was wise enough to know that for India to survive, its national ideals had to transcend as much as possible religious, social, and cultural differences. Contrast that with neighboring Pakistan, currently 'temporarily' governed by its third military dictatorship over the same period of time.



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