an online showcase curated by Maya Kóvskaya


Why India Works Despite Itself
and What We Can Learn from Its Example

by David Kirby
photos by Barbara Hamby



When Barbara says she wants to go to India, the first thing I say is, “I’m not driving in that cockamamie country.” When it comes to driving in other countries, mine is a checkered history. I still don’t know what the traffic signs mean in France and Italy, and I’ve got a stack of unpaid tickets to prove it. In England, at least, I can ask what the circle with the slash means, but you have to drive on the left. And the roundabouts! Even in the States, roundabouts baffle me—what’s wrong with a four-way stop?—and in England, you’re not only trying to pass someone while racing around a circle but doing it on the left as well. As part of the Raj’s dubious legacy, drivers in India have to deal with all these issues as well as one more aspect of Indian traffic I’ll mention below. (Hint: This one has four legs and moos.)

Still, “cockamamie”? I feel bad about my knee-jerk reaction, my high-speed labeling of an ancient, complex, and highly nuanced culture with a ‘30s slang word, and not a complimentary one, either.

And then I open the December 3, 2013, New York Times and see the profile of Ramesh Kumar Lili, the eunuch running for state assembly whose slogans include “Long live Lili the Eunuch,” “Put your stamp on Lili the Eunuch,” and “You’ve tried men, you’ve tried women, now it’s Lili’s turn!”

We’ve got a Green Party here in the U.S., more than one socialist party, even the American Nazi Party. But eunuchs? At least Lili makes the same claim the others do: “Morally, eunuchs are better than other people.”

Maybe “cockamamie” isn’t off-base, after all.

More seriously, there’s the rape epidemic, the primitive gay-bashing that other developed societies have long since gotten past, child killing, rampant corruption, a soaring income gap, and the inefficiency of the police and military that recently allowed a handful of Pakistani terrorists to kill at will for three days in Mumbai.

Yet public intellectuals like Thomas L. Friedman say that “this teeming, multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual country is one of the world's great wonders—a miracle with message. And the message is that democracy matters.” So which is the real India: the miracle of democratic triumphalism or a cockamamie criminal cesspool in which eunuchs run for public office and everyone drives on the wrong side of the road?


The day we arrived, we battled for a place in New Delhi streets filled with rickshaws, scooters, vendors of every kind, monkeys, and schoolchildren who mocked us roundly. A group of men wrangled two flocks of pigeons in a clear blue sky, calling them with whoops and cries as they laid their bets We muscled our way to a Sikh temple and the spice market, where we felt silly as we coughed and sneezed until we realized the spice sellers, too, were coughing and sneezing—everybody coughed and sneezed except a dog who was sleeping on a sack of peppers.

We walked down alleys that I would have never ventured down on my own and saw forgotten “havelis” or private mansions with the pentimenti of their former beauty under the grime of the present. We ate fiery street food, watched a “deed maker” ply his ancient trade with pen and paper, saw a girl press a shirt using a coal-fired iron. That night we had dinner with an Indian family, and even though I ate four helpings of everything, the wife threatened to “show me the beating stick” if I did not have more; afterward, we shot off fireworks on the roof of their house. On the way home, we got lost and found ourselves in the middle of a wedding, the groom on a white horse surrounded by drummers, dancers, a band, and more fireworks.

It was a day filled with laughter and turmeric. And cows: when I got home and people asked, “How was India?” the first thing I said was, “There are cows everywhere.” And not just in the rural parts: in New Delhi or Mumbai, you might be waiting to cross a street and bump against something warm and think it another human being, though when you turn to say, “Sorry,” to your surprise, you find that it is a cow you are talking to and not a human being at all.

Now if you had bumped into that same cow in Spokane, say, or Eau Claire, you would have shouted, “A cow, a cow!” and looked at its ear to see if it had a tag or its haunches to see if it were branded. You would have rushed up to other people and shouted, “Is this your cow? Whose cow is this?” You would have pulled out your phone and called someone—who, though? 911? The SPCA? The American Cattlemen’s Association?

Not in Aurangabad or Agra or Varanasi or any of the cities we visited, though. The cows were just there, and no one paid attention to them, and they paid no attention to us or each other. They just walked around, looked at things the way humans do, nibbled a little alfalfa if anyone offered some, and lay down in the street when it was time to rest. At night, they walked home to their stables; often I’d see a cow heading home at eleven p.m. like a guy leaving a pub, weaving in and out among the merrymakers. It was like living in a cartoon where the different species didn’t seem to know they were different and didn’t care.

Cows are sacred to Hinduism, of course—one thing you’re told again and again is that a single cow contains 300,000 gods—and, after that, are very fortunate in having as their spokesman the Mahatma, the Great Soul known to the world as Gandhi.

Here are just a few choice Gandhi-isms regarding the cow’s place in the world:

  • The cow is a poem of pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal....Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God....The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless. 
  • The cow…seems to speak to us through her eyes: “You are not appointed over us to kill us and eat our flesh or otherwise ill-treat us, but to be our friend and guardian.”
  • Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill….Our mother, when she dies, means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body

It comes as no surprise, then, when Gandhiji says that “the central fact of Hinduism is cow protection.” Not non-violence, not right living, not meditation or simplicity or abolition of the caste system, but cow protection. No wonder the cow is safer in every city in India than you or I would be in any city in our own country.


Besides rallying around the cow, the people of India have a number of ways to help them find a place for themselves and others in a country so large and diverse. First of all, there are fifteen official languages to choose from, from Assamese to Urdu, although most educated people speak and write the sixteenth: English. A number of sources suggest that there may be as many as 30 different languages and around 2,000 dialects in India.

Secondly, religious-minded Indians can opt for Hinduism or Islam, sure, but also Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and various tribal religions. One thing you hear everywhere you go is that Hinduism alone has thirty-three million gods—thirty-three million!—although a more accurate way to translate that might be something like “the thirty-three million faces of God,” meaning the devout. And it’s hard not to be devout: everyday life is saturated with shrines, incense sticks, and pictures everywhere of Ganesh, Shiva, and Krishna. Whether you want to or not, you drink in a hazy religiosity with your morning chai.

Thirdly, there is the caste system. Originally, it was pretty basic. There were just four castes: the Brahmins or priests; soldiers and nobles; merchants, farmers, and craftsmen; and servants and laborers. After that, though, and as with everything else in India, it gets complicated. Indians have always had a lot of time on their hands—where do you think all those acrobatic positions in the Kama Sutra came from?—and whenever a system comes along, what follows is a refinement of that system, an endless hairsplitting until the system’s simple surface is covered with lines so fine that the original all but disappears.

It’s probably because of the culture’s age and complexity, but another thing I found consistent in Indian life is that, if you ask ten Indians a question, you might not get ten different answers, but you’re going to get seven. So I was told that there were from 2,000 to 3,000 castes total, with ten times as many subcastes. Another thing I was told is that no one cares about castes any more—this from a woman who then lowered her voice and said, “But I am descended from number two, the nobles.”

The one area in which the caste system is alive and well is, of course, the billion-dollar Indian wedding industry. You haven’t been to a wedding until you’ve been through the whole full-blown, multi-day, bank account-draining hullabaloo that makes a three-ring circus look like a man out walking his dog. Naturally, with all that’s at stake, the caste system lingers significantly in wedding planning: extended families want to know who they’re getting involved with.

Otherwise, the caste system in India is like the class system in England, that is, important still but not what it once was. Again, no one seems to know exactly what happened. One person told me the system got too complicated with all the subcastes and collapsed under its own weight. A second pointed to what seems to make more sense, namely, that caste is a victim of capitalism. To succeed in an entrepreneurial world, you’ve got to step beyond your hereditary limits. If you’re making money, who cares who you’re working with?

In addition to the importance of caste distinctions to marital arrangements, it’s also very important that horoscopes be drawn up for both bride and groom. One woman told me an astrologer looked at thirty-six points of compatibility, of which eighteen had to overlap. “My husband and I matched on just eighteen,” she said with a look of relief.

And if you and your mister don’t have enough astrological overlap? I did hear of one case where the astrologer could find no points of contact at all between the betrothed, but he thought about the matter and came back the next day to say he’d learned that the couple had been married in an earlier life. There, it turns out, their charts matched up just fine.


When the British arrived in force in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they imposed their own systems of order, most of which remain intact in one form or another. In Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, David Cannadine goes beyond the conventional notions that British Imperial rule brought railroads, the judiciary, a modern education system, and democracy itself and instead places his emphasis on another element dear to the hearts of Indians then and now, namely, pageantry. Knighthoods, coronations, spectacles of every kind: the heart of an eight year-old still beats in each of us, and while you may be an untouchable whose job is to dispose of night soil or perform other tasks that exclude you from the rest of society, you can still swing your turban in the air and cheer when the parade goes past

If you look at paintings from the three-hundred year Mughal Empire, you’ll see that pageantry was already in place when the British arrived, but they took it to the next level. You see pageantry in the troop of horseback bodyguards trotting to the President’s palace in early morning hours; they’re all over six feet and have mustaches, for which they receive an upkeep allowance. You see pageantry when you’re having breakfast on the veranda of your hotel and watch hotel staff in bright red and yellow uniforms and peaked turbans swing their arms as they march repeatedly to a viewing platform, rehearsing endlessly for some show to come.

But nowhere do you see the Indian love of pageantry more than in the annual Republic Day Parade on January 26. When I told the desk clerk at the Delhi hotel we were going to the parade, she jumped up and down and clapped her hands and said, ”So many wows!”

And sure enough, there were mounted columns, mechanized columns, a T-72 full width mine plough, a motorcycle corps including one man who sipped a cup of tea as he sat sidesaddle on his ride and another reading the newspaper while perching nonchalantly on the back of his. There were helicopters, jets, camels, elephants, folk dancers, festival floats, and tanks.

Now this is India, of course, so there were plenty of obstacles, starting with conflicting directions on how to get to the parade site, traffic jams both automative and pedestrian, and an insufficient number of water vendors which, come to think of it, may have been a good thing since there was also an insufficient number of portable toilets. Most alarming of all on an otherwise very pleasant day, there was an insufficient effort to keep the crowd from stampeding, which it did often with enthusiasm, much hilarity, and as far as I know, no casualties.

Yet nothing stirred me so much as the music: the skirling pipes, the trumpet fanfares, the drumbeats so loud you feel as though it is you who is being pounded, not the drum. James Boswell told Dr. Johnson that martial music produced in him such daring resolution that he was inclined to rush into “the thickest part of the battle,” which is exactly how I felt when the bands marched past in the Republic Day Parade. ”Sir,” said Dr. Johnson in reply, ” I should never hear it, if it made me such a fool.”

Okay, but sign me up, sergeant!

So in a culture so immeasurably diverse, it seems almost necessary to be able to say that you are a Jain, that you speak Gujarati as well as English, that you are descended from the warrior caste, and that you and your husband share thirty areas of compatibility—and, like everyone else, you’re both going to the Republic Day Parade his year.

In addition, there are many other ways of bringing order out of the chaos that is India. Hindu scriptures brim with numbers, some pertaining to the cycle of death and rebirth, others designating distances (from the sun to the earth), duration (the length of a life), and other measurements typically left to science (the number of species).

Nowhere, of course, is the Indian love of order seen better than in its love of cows. No counting is involved: you just fill the streets with these gentle traffic slowers, and a calm steadiness rules the day. More cows, more calm.


After “chai,” “cow,” and “cricket,” the word I heard most in India was “corruption.” It’s tossed around in Indian newspapers the way “Democrat” and “Republican” are here, like a fact everyone takes for granted. You see “corrupt” or “corruption” on billboards and magazine covers; cars have tags in their windows that read, “Don’t cheat! The government hates competition.”

Politicians, judges, police: they’re all corrupt, and everyone will tell you so. Corruption isn’t easily verified by the casual reporter, but one day we saw five policemen drunk on fury as they ripped down the fruit that hung over a vendor’s stall and tore his flimsy structure to pieces. I asked a passerby why, and he looked at me with worldly sadness as he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign that means “money.”

I was told that many businesses and agencies prefer to keep files on paper rather than computerize them because, when corruption is charged, the quickest and easiest way to hide the evidence is to start a fire.

Corruption is so widespread as to be tolerated to a large degree, the way the monsoon rains are in the summer months. “We don’t mind politicians taking something for themselves,” said one man I spoke to, “as long as they give something to us.”

Where there is corruption, there is inequality. In every city in India, it seems there are three distinct communities: the cabal that runs the city as a private racket, a middle class which thought it would prosper in the new India but found that its aspirations outpaced its income, and then everyone else: the multitude, the nameless poor.

It’s easy to think you’re being hustled in India; you come out of a train station and before you know it, three men have tossed your luggage atop a cab that’s already rolling slowly toward your hotel. A version of this happened a number of times, yet nothing ever went wrong: the men were honest, just rapacious for the pennies you might give them.

Sooner or later, any tour you take in Mumbai goes past a private residence called Antilla, which is valued at a cool billion dollars and billed as the world's most expensive home. It measures twenty-seven stories high, has 400,000 square feet, and employs a staff of 600, including a fearsome security staff.

And for good reason. The home of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, Antilla looks down on the sixty percent of Mumbai’s population who live in its slums. Forbes identifies Ambani as the fourth richest man in the world, while others simply slam him for building this monument to inequality, this insult to the people on the ground who are likely to go to bed hungry that night yet live daily in the shadow of a single-family dwelling that has nine cocktail lounges and three helipads.


To see the crisp security detail that keeps the Ambani family safe is to be reminded of another stark indicator of dysfunction: India’s lax police and military forces. In 2008, a handful of terrorists from Pakistan landed on a beach in Mumbai and, for the next three days, owned the city, killing thirty-one and injuring scores more while the authorities delayed action or sent in underarmed personnel. The definitive book on the raid, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, details how a nearby elite commando unit was not deployed until hours after the first shots were fired; meanwhile, policemen with World War II-vintage bolt action rifles were pitted against killers with automatic weapons. It was mainly the courageous actions of hotel guests and staff, say the authors, that kept the toll of dead and wounded from being much higher.

In a cartoonish reminder of this debacle, I noticed that the guard at one of our hotels carried a nickel-plated twelve gauge shotgun that looked as though it had been used on a tiger hunt decades ago, one the tiger came out on the winning end of. It was scratched and worn; mainly, though, it was a double-barrel gun, putting it in the lowest category of defensive weapons. (A two-shot weapon is for people who don’t have time to go to the range and stay familiar with more complex weaponry; you put two shells in a double-barrel and prop it in the corner, hoping you never have to use it.)

One night we came in to find the guard leaning on the shotgun the way a dandy would lean on his walking stick; the butt was on the ground, and his hand was resting on the barrels. I winced and hoped the safety was on as heavy trucks rumbled past and ground-shaking work on the new metro line went on, as it did twenty-four hours a day; any gun, especially one as beat-up as this one, could be triggered easily by such jolting.

At Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, one of the sites where the terrorists struck, metal-detecting security gates had been installed in the entrances, but there were gaps on either side you could drive a Jeep through, and most people walked through the gaps rather than risk setting off an alarm. They probably didn’t have much to worry about. As I watched, a dog walked through one gate and paused to lift his leg; neither his body mass nor the spray of urine activated a buzzer. And if it had, probably not much would have happened. At a nearby table, five police officers lounged with their backs to the crowd, chatting among themselves and checking their cell phones.

Then there are all the other problems India has. If you read the New York Times daily, the evidence in the headlines begins to pile up: “A Fight to Save Baby Girls in India,” “Gang Rape, Routine and Invisible,” “Child Sex Abuse Shielded by Silence and Neglect,” “Children Toil in India’s Mines, Depite Legal Ban.”

Sure, Indian children are supposed to go to school the way children do everywhere, but someone needs to make them go. We took a boat down the Ganges one day, and girls from Varanasi jumped on and off our boat, selling souvenirs, their school on the bank behind them. Then again, if you were eight years old and had the choice, would you sit at a desk all day filling out worksheets or spend it playing with your friends, making strangers laugh, and pocketing a few rupees with the bargain? There were adults on the river bank as well, but they were more interested in selling snacks and souvenirs; when they were kids, nobody made them go to school, either.

There’s also the violence between Hindus and Muslims. In 1992, for example, the Babri Masjid, a mosque built during the reign of the Mughal emperor Babur, was destroyed by a mob of Hindus who believed the site was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. The demolition sparked deadly riots between Muslims and Hindus across India.

That day on the Ganges, I asked our guide what relations were like between the two warring groups today. He smiled, waved his hand toward the water, and said, “On the surface, the river is calm. But inside, the crocodiles are hiding.”


India’s biggest cheerleader in the West is Thomas L. Friedman, a regular contributor to the New York Times editorial pages and the author of The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century and other commonsensical, occasionally misguided, always provocative books. (He enraged my Marxist colleagues in 1996 when he said that no two countries with McDonald’s outlets have ever gone to war with each other, noting that people who live in such places ”don't like to fight wars. They like to wait in line for burgers.”)

India he calls simply “one of the world's great wonders—a miracle with message. And the message is that democracy matters.” The dateline for this October 9, 2002, piece in the Times is Bangalore, where he admires the energy and hustle of the new techie generation, many of whom come from lower social classes but who now have jobs, apartments, and motorbikes.

“50 years of Indian democracy and secular education and 15 years of economic liberalization produced all this positive energy,” says Friedman, whereas just across the border in Pakistan, what do you find? “Madrassahs—Islamic schools which have replaced a collapsed public school system and churn out Pakistani youth who know only the Koran and hostility toward non-Muslims.”

In a later Times article entitled “India vs. China vs. Egypt” (February 5, 2013), Friedman widens his focus and differentiates between the three countries this way: “India has a weak central government but a really strong civil society, bubbling with elections and associations at every level. China has a muscular central government but a weak civil society, yet one that is clearly straining to express itself more. Egypt, alas, has a weak government and a very weak civil society.” Every country needs a strong state and a strong society—the first to provide for its citizens and do for them what they can’t do for themselves, the second because only a strong society can keep a strong state accountable.

The strength of India’s civil society is captured, not in a Pledge of Allegiance, but in India’s National Pledge, as it is called. Here it is:

India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters.

I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage.

I shall always strive to be worthy of it.

I shall give my parents, teachers and all elders respect and treat everyone with courtesy.

To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well-being and prosperity alone lies my happiness.

Notice the ownership implicit in those words: “I” and “my” appear thirteen times as opposed to the single “I” that begins our own pledge. Too, the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance is passive. It’s a promise to be loyal to a republic that promises to provide liberty and justice to one-hundred percent of its citizens. But in India, the National Pledge is active; whoever recites it vows repeatedly to “love,” to “strive,” to “give,” to “respect,” and so on—to seek happiness, yes, as do the citizens of America and every other country, but to find it only in the “well-being and prosperity” of others.

Perhaps if India were smaller and its culture less diverse, its problems would be worse and its social fabric under greater threat of tearing. Perhaps the point of all those languages and religions and other systems is that, with so many possibilities for individual identity, it’s harder for any single one to stand out. If you can campaign for public office as a eunuch, that’s because there are so many other and equally diverting labels to be distracted by that, in the end, nobody really cares what you call yourself.

Until the racial balance in the U.S. tips, there will always be a vocal minority which says there is only one genuine American identity, and it’s white, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian, the way the Founders meant it to be. I never got a sense of a “real India,” though. It was more of a matter of many Indias, all of which come together under the same name.

Yes, the crocodiles do rise to the surface and snap at each other occasionally. But if India works, as Thomas L. Friedman says, perhaps it is because Indians think that, down deep, we are all good. They think we are all the same, as Gandhi said in his attack on the caste system. Those are lessons any country can learn.

Oh, and don’t forget the cows. “Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives,” says Gandhi. That’s one more thing he’s right about.

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Author’s note: The books and articles I’ve quoted in this article are identified in it by title and author. The most informative recent book I consulted is An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean DrPze and Amartya Sen. I also drew from Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes, and Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda’s A Traveller's History of India. I got a visceral sense of daily Indian life from Padma Viswanathan’s splendid novel The Toss of a Lemon. Additional background information was provided by Amish Sheth.



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