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Britain through Indian eyes

Kirsty Hughes
21 December 2005

The bus from Heathrow joins the M40 heading towards Oxford in the morning traffic. Gazing out the window, bleary-eyed from the overnight flight from Delhi, the traffic looks strange: the vehicles all look more or less the same, they drive in orderly lanes, and it's curiously quiet.

And I realise, though I hated it when I was there, I'm missing the colourful, noisy, anarchic, dangerous, dirty, polluting Indian traffic: where are the yellow-green auto-rickshaws honking and making rough hand signals, the large buses with rusty framed, glassless windows barging through, the vans, cars and motorbikes weaving in and out, the beggars suddenly tapping your arm, or hawkers with books, magazines, flowers, the bicycles and rickshaws out in the third lane, pedestrians nervously dashing across, cows of course lording it even over the buses, chewing the cud in the central reservation. And absolutely everyone hooting and honking – one billion Indians who all think they have the right of way.

I'd been in India for the best part of a year, travelling and interviewing from the slums of Mumbai to the tribal conflicts in Assam in the northeast, and the tsunami-hit villages of Tamil Nadu – and beyond to Nepal, Tibet, Xinjiang. And now, I'm feeling disconnected being “here” again, wondering if perhaps I should have stayed “there” longer.

And I expect, after seeing so many people in poverty, living with conflict, with so few life opportunities but grabbing at anything positive that comes up – to be unimpressed at western neuroticism and our excessive wealth. And so I am.

East, west

Yet, when I see the people on the streets of Oxford, and then London, they look mostly just a mess – poor posture, a grey pallor in their faces, scruffy clothes lacking colour or style. And most don't look happy – they look tired, fed up, stressed, uneasy. Oxford city centre (I dump myself on family for a few days) seems to be populated with the ranks of the dispossessed, untidy, flabby, very white. Are we perhaps the least comfortable in our bodies of the whole planet: gangly, stooping, shuffling along shoulders forward, just plain awkward?

I notice too back here, there's a lot of flesh on display. Indian women expose a lot of skin in their saris but more the stomach than the breasts and certainly not the exposure of the part-pubic area beloved of British jeans-wearers, nor the top of the bum that still appears in fashion in the UK.

Not that I much liked Indian attire: the ubiquitous sari or salwar kameez for women, with hair in long black ponytail or plait, while most Indian men sport an apparent uniform, deeply unsexy, of browny-grey cheap trousers and blue-grey tatty shirt, though the occasional lunghi wrap or traditional shirts add to the interest. But I now detest the stiff formality without ease of the jacket on both men and women, the look alikes on the international news. Neither here nor there, what to wear now?

Back home in Islington, north London, I see more new “indulgence” shops – home furnishings, expensive fish restaurants. The studied sleek minimalism of the window displays accurately conveys the excessive high prices within. 300 million Indians live on less than $1 a day, but now I can feel the consumerism in the air as I walk London's streets. The beggars on London's streets look fitter, less desperate than the Indian ones but why, I wonder, are they there at all?

I call my friends, email work contacts. But there's a lack of interest in my time away, a different reality, too far for most people. I feel I missed nothing while my friends act like I was never gone – a trip to another world. They're into the latest restaurant, their health problems, their work hassles, their kids' exam results, daily living. They shrug at the domestic news.

I decide to get back into things with a bounce – time to move flat perhaps. Three estate agents come round one after another. They all look the same – early 30s, identical grey suits, light brown hair, an easy smile – I bite my lip not to ask the second if he's sure he hasn't been round already. My flat will get a good price they say, but any buyer will rip out the kitchen and bathroom and spend £20,000 on new ones. And the move will cost me around £25,000 or more just in lawyers, agents and tax.

And I realise I can't do it now. I can't relate – to the vast sums of money involved, to the spending on ever more luxurious surroundings presented as entirely routine, the slight embarrassment of the charming agents that my flat has not yet been so lavishly upgraded. Consumerism gone mad. Money, money, money. I'm still more “there” than “here.”

But then there are odd unexpected links: the London taxi-driver who grew up in Calcutta, who tells me the hand-pulled rickshaw wallahs should go indeed (disastrous health-destroying work, but how will they earn a living when hand-pulled rickshaws are banned at the end of the year?). A few nights later, and it's a Bangladeshi minicab driver; “no” he says with pride, “I'm not from Dhaka but yes it is our capital”. Small world? Or two worlds?

Men, women

Return is not all bad. Wow, at least there are women on the streets here. My first Indian impression, as I walked to the decaying Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi, was to wonder where on earth are all the women? It's good to walk down the street and not feel the aggressive staring from so many men, no longer sticking out white, privileged and foreign.

It's good also to see the easy mixing of the sexes here, women out on their own, with each other, with men, holding their own in conversation – not free from violence but writing about it. I wonder, do we know, despite the problems, how far we've come, how far the rest of the world has not? Do we know or care about female foeticide in India (highest in the richest, best-educated areas – in parts of south Delhi about eighty girl babies are born to 100 boys), and its significant impact on the gender ratio?

But it's strange being back too. I'd begun to adapt to get used to it, to walk past the stares, to be my own person there as much as here. And here I find it quite strange at first to see people holding hands (such physical contact is just not on in India), arms round each other. I pass a couple in my street passionately embracing, kissing leant against a lorry – through my half-Indian eyes it looks close to sex and very public.

Media, no news

I turn to politics and the media as a route to reconnect. But the news coverage in the British press seems to me now quite bizarre. International news is very limited, it's mostly on the United States (Bush, the White House, hurricanes, scandals) Iraq, al-Qaida, a bit on Iran, occasional bits on Europe if something big like a German election or Turkey negotiating with the European Union happens, perhaps a famine story from Africa. Then there's the domestic news: Blair versus Brown, the medieval jousting for leadership still treated as central to our politics, followed by the strange over-coverage of the latest Tory figurehead, plus celebs, drugs and sport.

And the comment sections – how mothers should stay home to look after their children (still, again), fat and flab, what to eat, what to wear, where to travel, how to have fun, who's in, who’s out, property prices, growth rates, British Muslims – we apparently don't know who they are, anti-racism – we're not sure what it is any more, multiculturalism seems to have become a dirty word since I left. And the outside world is watching – the Indian media responded with scornful angry editorials to reports of the Metropolitan police's crude ethnic typecasting of who to stop and search as likely bombers.

We think we are so cosmopolitan, debating the most important global issues. But what do we know of how India sees the world? The “war on terror,” and the Iraq mess, gets rather little attention in the Indian media while the EU is more or less nowhere – they barely know that the UK is in it (fair enough), and they tend to see the 21st century as being about them, the Chinese and the US.

We start to worry that India is the new China – it isn't. There are more poor people in India than Africa, and the world's largest democracy is a very partial, corrupt, inept one. But it can embarrass us into the ground on turnout at least, illiterate though vast numbers still are. So much to debate – if it ever gets on the news agendas.

But so little does seem to get through. I'd spent August in Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, currently suffering under a military backed royal coup, with Maoist rebels mostly in control in the countryside. The British government is still inviting the top generals of the torturing Royal Nepalese Army to military training seminars. I pitch a Nepal story to the foreign editor at the Daily Mirror, he says it's more an Independent or Guardian story: I try, they don't reply. Normal freelance blues or a more fundamental lack of interest? Is Nepal too poor to be of interest, too small – or geopolitically uninteresting though squeezed between the two giants of India and China?

I return to a UK obsessed with security. Blair, Iraq and London bombs have not helped but do we have any idea of our overall security, health and wealth compared to most people on our planet? Yet we are still so nervous…terrorists, bombers, diabetes, obesity, breast cancer, car crashes, railways, bad doctors, what food to eat, what pills and potions and exercise to take, the air to breathe, how to deal with bad behaviour on the streets, how to build a world that is safe and sound and suburban so that we live for ever? Do we ever wonder why we end up a bit bored, a bit defensive, a lot neurotic?

Indians, not the seceded elites but most Indians, live with risk, uncertainty and vulnerability. And instead of saying how can we help India to develop, to change, Blair and Brown tell us that India and China are our big competitors and threat for the future: we must work harder, deregulate our labour markets more or, horror of horrors, they may catch up with us.

Blair, I find on return, is using our insecurity and the London bombs to be ever more authoritarian – shoot-to-kill has arrived in London. Back in India there is shoot-to-kill too, most notably in its seven conflict-ridden northeastern states, including Assam, where the army acts with a disturbing and controversial impunity. An activist from a local Assamese NGO asks about the London bombs. “It must,” she says somewhat world-weary, “be a shock for you, but we are used to it, we have lots of bombings and deaths every year.”

And confusion reigns in the debate over religion and secularism – both here and in India. Politicians ask if the answer is French uniformity (well no, not after the Paris riots). India failed too, one Indian newspaper editor tells me, arguing that Muslims vote for politicians who can guarantee their basic security, i.e. their lives, before jobs or food. No clear answers, here or there.

Two worlds

The reporting of the long aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, as of the Kashmir earthquake, is striking. The aid agencies and the media leap into action with great intensity when a disaster occurs, but I wonder how much we “here” understand the reality of lives “there.”

Behind the emergency aid and the development debates lies in part some idea that “they” – the poor, the dispossessed – can catch up some day, that they can have what we have, despite the vast, grotesque inequality that is part of the non-global village we are in. But watching poor lives – from the edges of the Indian ocean to the plains of Gujarat via the foothills of the Himalayas – it does not look to me as if they will catch up: they are on another track, struggling in another world to us.

And so globalisation, I think now, is perhaps more myth than reality. We are so secluded and privileged, we never begin to know it: fairer trade is barely scratching at the surface, and for sure will not make poverty history.

I went away to see the world through non-western eyes. Now I'm reluctant to readjust to what seems a profoundly askew western view of the world. Perhaps, I say to myself, I will go back and spend more time there, before I can begin to find a new way to reconcile myself with being here again.

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