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Wednesday, April 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Vibrant India keeps a traveler on his toes

Most of urban India is a slum, but it is a slum on the move. It swirls with dust, fumes, flies and the buzzings of three-wheeled autorickshaws. The food is pungent and the colors bold. It is insistent, aggressive, alive. Only the dogs are asleep.

For an independent tourist, which I recently was, the most remarkable thing is the culture of the Indian tourist industry. Among those who bring home the mutton by serving foreign travelers, it seemed that all the rules of commercial morality were suspended.

A travel agent in my Delhi hotel, for example, insisted that if I hired her car and driver for my Indian excursions I would pay less than if I took the government's train. It was a lie, by $320.

A tout at Connaught Circus suggested I go to a certain emporium because the bazaar I was aiming for was closed for a Sikh holiday. It was not closed, but his emporium would have paid him a commission on my business.

Another case was the merchant in Jodhpur who warned me that the spices I had bought from his competitor were tainted, and would put me in the hospital.

"Go back immediately and demand a refund," he insisted, looking me right in the eye. "Tell him you will call police. He will do it."

Nobody's spices were tainted. "All are good," said the man a few stalls down who was selling a fresh-squeezed juice from sugar cane and limes.

All of commercial morality is not suspended in India, else business could not function. One rule is absent. In India, a salesman may lie about his competitors. He may not commit violence, theft or fraudulent misrepresentation of his own goods, but about the competition slander is allowed. The effect is to transform an ordinary transaction into a game — which, to a traveler seeking amusement, may not be all bad. Losing such a contest may deflate the ego, but winning pumps it up delightfully.

I had been to India 19 years ago, and this aspect had not changed. Other things had. India is less desperately poor than it was. It has more cars, motorbikes, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws and fewer bicycle rickshaws and bullock carts. Probably, the air is worse, but sanitation is better. Bottled water is cheap, and more people drink it. My family did not get sick.

Nineteen years ago, India was walled off from foreign trade, on the silly recommendation of Mohandas Gandhi. All Indian cars, for example, were of two local brands, one of them a knockoff of a 1954 English Morris.

That was then. Now India has Hyundais, Toyotas and Fords. Coke and Pepsi are everywhere. The average Indian now drinks 11 Cokes a year, and marketing spreads from the cities to the villages.

Nineteen years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev, premier of the Soviet Union, was India's big international visitor. The government put pictures of him on the light poles, looking very Stalinist. This time the visitor was Wen Jiabao, premier of China. There were no political placards.

Wen came in a business suit, visited the Indian computer industry, and suggested that India and China have a free-trade agreement. The reaction of Indian industry in general, once the world's most protectionist, was that if free trade came gradually it might be OK.

That is a significant change. Think of what China has done to world commerce. Add India on top of it.

Indians have a lively politics, and I expected some questions about George Bush and the Iraq war. I heard none. The one political question I was asked, by a young shopkeeper, was what Americans thought about India and Pakistan — meaning the dispute over Kashmir. I told him most Americans didn't think anything about India and Pakistan.

The thing for Americans to think on is the emergence of India as a political power. One of the matters India brought up with China was India having a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. That is coming.

Meanwhile, India is an adventure to visit. Seattle readers should be warned that the coffee is Nescafé instant, which is to say, execrable. The tea is delicious. At the train stations they serve milk-and-sugar chai in disposable cups of red clay, like little handmade flower pots.

Next time I visit India, I expect those will be gone.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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