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.