TII: This is India


In Korba, a coal mining town in Chhattisgarh, India the colors and energy of a vital and perplexing nation are ever vivid. Photo/Keith Schneider

RAIPUR, Chhattisgarh, India — This striking nation, with cities full to the brim with people, and a lavish countryside wired together by kidney-jostling roads lined with mango trees, is a treasure of surprises and paradoxes all its own. In nearly a month of travel here, to India’s capital New Delhi, its prime grain-growing states in Punjab and Haryana, and to its second largest coal-producing state in Chhattisgarh, my colleagues and I encountered all sorts of interactions unique to India.

India, for instance, is in the midst of a persuasive transportation infrastructure modernization campaign. It is opening new airports, including one of the newest in this city of 1.2 million people. Most aren’t terribly busy, though. Air travel is affordable just to the upper middle class and wealthy so the modern glass and steel buildings often have nearly as many security, airline, and food service personnel in them as passengers. The consequence is that the process of arrival, security clearance and boarding operates on India time.

This morning, 80 minutes before the scheduled boarding time for our flight to New Delhi, I arrived at the brand new concrete-is-still-setting Raipur airport with Aubrey Parker, my Circle of Blue colleague. Entering the terminal, past armed military guards, requires a print copy of our online tickets. The counter to secure the printout, though, did not open until 7:30 a.m. for an 8:25 boarding time.

No problem. Nobody was in the terminal so once we gained the printout there were no lines at the airline counter for the actual boarding pass, or to clear baggage security. But one more surprise awaited. We were stopped at the entrance to the gate area, where carry-on baggage is searched and passengers are frisked. The guard at the gate said the gate area didn’t open until 8:00 a.m., and directed us to a semi-circle of seats where, we noticed, a couple of dozen other passengers also waited. We giggled.

TII: This is India:

— Cows and dogs. Cows are sacred in India, and so, it very clearly appears, are stray dogs. Both roam freely everywhere. They take up space on city sidewalks, in parks, along rural roads, in gardens and fields and empty lots. Cows and dogs drink from the same polluted streams, eat at the same garbage piles. They slowly amble across the same city boulevards and rutted rural highways. They even lie together, often side by side, in curled clumps. There are so many cows and dogs that after a while you just don’t notice them, unless a cow nudges you out of the way on a street corner, or a dog gets set to pee on your duffel. TII: This is India.

— Women not nearly so sacred. India’s view of women is odd to an American. In cities, men occupy most of the visible workplace positions. Men are the supervisors, the managers, the academics, bureaucrats, hotel housekeepers, waiters, secretaries, cooks, shopkeepers, drivers, police officers, gas station attendants. The rare sectors that feature women are the airline industry, where women serve as flight attendants and ticket agents, the military, where women are very visible among the troops, and in hotels where we saw women at the front desks. In the countryside, women are laborers, mixing cement for road projects, bearing cement and bricks and water on their heads for new buildings. Where we saw women, but talked to very few, were in Indian homes where women ran their households, raised children, and dutifully executed the role of gracious hosts.

— Female babies and young women not sacred at all. The most disturbing facet of Indian culture is the dangerous contempt that the culture holds for baby girls and young women. Almost every day that we were here Indian newspapers published articles of parents murdering or injuring their little girls. The motive is said to be the cost of raising girls or of outlawed dowries in a patriarchal society that prizes male children. In one terrible crime parents in a northern state strangled their handicapped girl, incinerated her body, and buried the remains. In another, parents killed a young woman because, they said, she dishonored them for choosing her own fiancee, not the one they had picked for her arranged marriage. Yesterday a father, engaged in a furious quarrel with his wife aboard a moving bus, threw his two-year-old daughter out the window out of spite. The little girl survived with no injuries, said the report, and the police declined to bring charges.

Delhi, meanwhile, is engulfed in an epidemic of rape that citizens blame on lackadaisical police patrols and lazy rape investigations. This week a 23-year-old medical student was raped by six men aboard a moving bus in Delhi. The suspects have been arrested, and two of them confessed to their participation. The rape prompted a powerful civic pushback, principally by women, who called for a more urgent and credible police response. The protestors noted that nearly 600 rapes have been reported this year in India’s capital. The number of sexual assaults is rising, the streets are unsafe, they said, and that rapists feel empowered because arrests are not made, and courts are lenient.

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Rice, Wheat, and Water Serve Up Equal Helpings of Punjab’s Wealth and Risk


Haryana, in northeast India, has one of the highest per capita incomes among India’s 28 states. Neighboring Punjab also ranks at the top. The most important reason: the huge wheat and rice harvests, the latter processed and stored in this mill in Naraingarh. Photo/Keith Schneider

NARAINGARH, Haryana, India — The first rain in six months, and a stout and cold wind whipped at the black plastic covering stacks of grain Thursday morning at the Shivshakti Rice Mill, one of 13 mills surrounding this roadside village about 70 kilometers west of Chandigarh. Inside, the mill was quiet, dark, and stocked to the ceiling with more burlap bags heavy with rice, a fortress of stacked grain, like sandbags tiered for a flood.

Naraingarh is a place of tiers — levels of social standing and economic well-being formed by the productivity of irrigated clay soils that produce some of the richest crops of wheat and rice in India — and, for that matter, the world. The small roadside village is one of hundreds of farming communities in northwest India that since the green revolution of the 1960s have consistently produced ever larger grain harvests.

The joining of high-yield seeds with fertilizer, chemicals, and unlimited amounts of water led to India’s food self-sufficiency. Those same farm practices put Haryana, and neighboring Punjab, at the very top of the per capita income pyramid among India’s 28 states.

Hard work and ample harvests, of course, reflect the abundant opportunities for those sufficiently entrepreneurial to seize them, like Ashoka Gupta, 50, and his brother Vinod Gupta, 54, who built the Shivshakti Rice Mill into a respected business. The brothers started their careers as teenagers in a grain trading business owned and managed by their father. Both men live in handsome homes in town and send their children to college.

The mill, meanwhile, employs 35 people. All of them, a number with wives and children, live in dark and unheated rooms at the mill, putting their backs and hands to work to dry, husk, and bag 2,000 to 2,500 metric tons of rice a year. The jobs pay enough, and are year-round, so they stick around.

Still, the building blocks of soil, seed, and water also are yielding a kind of triple threat to India’s farm economy, environment, and food security.

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Haverford and Shabbat Service in New Delhi


Abigail Wacker, a Fulbright scholar and fellow Haverford alum, class of 2010, with me at the Judah Hyam Shabbat evening service in New Delhi. Photo/J. Carl Ganter

NEW DELHI — Abigail Wacker’s red Haverford College sweatshirt was the second thing I noticed early Friday evening at the Judah Hyam Synagogue here in India’s capital city. The first was the group of students sitting next to her earnestly listening to Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, the congregation’s spiritual leader.

“Haverford College?” I asked, after Ezekiel invited me into the temple sanctuary, a room snug enough to sit 75 or so congregants. “You’re from Haverford College? I went to Haverford College.”

Abigail looked at me. She looked down at the black and white lettering across her chest — HAVERFORD. She smiled and nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Haverford College.”

You learn over the years that if you’re fortunate you’ll build a select few circles of intimacy and connection. Family. Friends. Those, very plainly, are the first two. And one or two more.

My Jewish heritage and faith connects me to other Jews. That’s what led me to the Judah Hyam Synagogue, the only Jewish temple in New Delhi. I knew there would be instant kinship and there was. Ezekiel Malekar directs an all-Hebrew service full of song and love. Friday night he asked me to join him on the bihmah, where I read and chanted more Hebrew than any time since my Bar Mitzvah, and that was in April 1969. My Circle of Blue colleagues J. Carl Ganter and Aubrey Parker joined me for their first-ever Jewish temple service.

My fourth circle of intimacy and connection is Haverford College. I graduated from Haverford in 1978. Both of my brothers graduated from Haverford — Reed Schneider in 1974 and Grant Schneider in 1980. I met dear friends at Haverford who are rooted in my life. And I learned at Haverford to love knowledge and how to put it to use to make a difference for people and the planet.

Haverford, founded on Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line, is small, academically rigorous, distinctive for its commitments to integrity and exploration, and amply fortified today by wonderfully gifted students and recent graduates who are smarter and more talented than we were in our day. I know this because in the late 1990s the Michigan Land Use Institute, with the help of a group of Haverford alumni that funded the project, launched a paid writing and reporting internship that recruited Haverford students to our office in northern Michigan. Every one of those students was first-rate in every way.

So I wasn’t surprised, even in the few minutes that we talked, at how impressive Abigail Wacker is. She’s from Maryland, majored in English, spent time as an undergraduate in India, won a Fulbright scholarship, and now volunteers with Manzil, a learning center for Delhi youth. Abigail told me she teaches after school programs and helps with administration. I’ll learn more when I return to Delhi on December 21. Abigail invited me to talk to her students about Circle of Blue’s work here and around the world. After all, one Ford to another.

— Keith Schneider


With me is Ezekiel Malekar, the congregation’s spiritual leader, and a gracious man continuing a history of Jewish worship in India that stretches back to the Inquisition. Photo/J. Carl Ganter

Teeming Life in New Delhi’s Slum Hut Neighborhoods


Bribery, payoffs, cuts of the action, under the table — the steady flow of cash to get things done in India, big and small, is itself an economy of opportunity for the rich and the poor. Corruption is a social and political issue rising in priority, as this sign in East Delhi shows. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW DELHI — Across the street from the dirt entrance to Vasant Kunj men and boys worked the many hoses of the blue water tanker, and filled their plastic jugs to the brim. Inside the community of brick-walled huts the smell of spices and breakfast hung in the air. Men and women stood at doorfronts brushing their teeth. Children were everywhere.

Vasant Kunj is one of the hundreds of squatter communities that Delhi authorities define as “temporary.” But the stout walls of the huts, the hard-packed dirt alleys, the numerous tiny stores, the public toilet, even the steady gaze of the adults greeting visitors seemed to defy any notion that anything about this community was temporary.

A Michigan suburban neighborhood sporting real estate sign after real estate sign. That’s a temporary community. There wasn’t a single empty hut among the nearly 1,000 huts that stand in Vasant Kunj, which was built starting in the late 1990s. Residents said 5,000 to 6,000 people lived here.

In fact, Vasant Kunj, like so many other slum hut neighborhoods, exhibits many of the same features — busy streets, well-stocked tiny stores, a makeshift school, barber shops and car repair bays — of Delhi’s middle class and wealthy neighborhoods.

Except slum hut neighborhoods don’t have running water. That’s why twice a day, once in the morning before noon, and again after three in the afternoon, women dispatch their sons and husbands and men friends to fetch water from the water truck.

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Delhi’s Jews


Next to the Judah Hyam Synagogue, New Delhi’s only Jewish temple, lies an 80-year-old cemetery. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW DELHI — When I was a kid growing up in White Plains, New York it seemed my whole world was Jewish. At the time there were about 5 million Jews in the United States (there are 6.5 million today) and about half lived in and around New York City. Most of my friends were Jewish. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were public school holidays in White Plains.

As an adult, I also learned something about being a lone Jew. Where I live, in northern Michigan’s Benzie County, there are a handful of Jews among the county’s 17,000 residents. A year ago I went to Passover Seder with a group of young friends interested in the Jewish celebration of freedom and I was the only Jew at the table.

So I understand a little about the strength and unity of purpose, the adherence to tradition and principles, and the Jewish values and way of life that sustain members of the Judah Hyam Synagogue, the only Jewish congregation in India’s capital city of more than 20 million residents. On Friday night I plan to join Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, the congregation’s religious leader, for Sabbath evening services.

In 1956, when the Judah Hyam Synagogue was built, there were about 35,000 Jews in India. Most descended from Jewish settlers who arrived in India during two eras: the Inquisition of the 12th century, and during the British Colonial era of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, after a large number of families migrated to Israel, there are 5,000 Jews in India, most of whom live in and around Mumbai. The Judah Hyam congregation has less than 10 member families. The synagogue, though, attracts its share of attention and visitors — travelers like me and staffers in various embassies and foreign offices. Some 10,000 people visit the synagogue each year. In 1995, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres dropped by.

And last month, Mazel Tov!, the congregation celebrated its first wedding in half a century.

— Keith Schneider



Shulamith Ezekiel Malekar weds Sharon Pinhas Phalkar on November 18, 2012, the first Jewish wedding in New Delhi in 50 years. Photo courtesy of Ezekiel Isaac Malekar.