Greetings from Hindustan
Part Two: The Communists of Kerala
by Ben Laycock
In which your intrepid wayfarer stays in a Raja’s palace then communes with the Communists of Kerala …
After the crowded slums of Mumbai we felt so much more comfortable at our next stop, a palace in Rajasthan. It was built by the Mughals, who were actually descendants of Genghis Khan, along with almost the entire population of Afghanistan. Apparently Genghis was a randy old womanizer who always got his way.
The entire palace was made of marble: marble floors, marble walls, marble tables, marble salt and peppershakers. The ceiling was made of huge slabs of the stuff. Even the windows were made of exquisitely delicate marble filigree. I guess they are more worried about termites than earthquakes around these parts.
I could definitely get used to this lifestyle: being waited on hand and foot, obsequious servants at my beck and call. So how do humble Ozy battlers get to live such a life of kings? We can thank Mahatma Gandhi.
The Mughuls and Rajas had been living off the fat of the lamb since Methuselah was a lad, but after Independence Mahatma told them in no uncertain terms to stop bludging off the poor, and cancelled their pocket money, forcing them to rent out their sumptuous homes to commoners while they made do in the game keeper’s cottage.
After the usual elephant rides and tiger shoots we head off down to Kerala. It is a long and soporific journey, punctured by the occasional near death experience. ‘Holyday’ is an Indian word and l can see why. India is quite possibly the most culturally diverse nation on earth. For every day of the year there seems to be a deity and each deity demands a birthday procession down the middle of the road. Add a herd of goats, a phalanx of rickshaws, a few chauffer driven BMWs, and a Brahmin bull directing traffic, and it’s starting to look a little chaotic.
At one stage we did find ourselves zooming along a freeway … on the wrong side of the road. Dodging three lanes of oncoming traffic. This went on for at least a kilometre, just so we could access a japarti stall on the other side of the road. As you can well imagine, it was a welcome relief to find ourselves at the end of our perilous journey on a sumptuous house boat in the middle of a tranquil lake, ensconced once more in the luxury to which we had become accustomed, waited on hand and foot by hovering lackeys, sipping G&Ts and admiring the happy peasants with their dug out canoes and perfect bodies. I pretended to catch fish for our amusement.
Meanwhile there were other not so happy peasants toiling away from dawn till dusk, eking out a megre existence collecting sand. Employing the age-old method of diving into the shallows and dredging up a basket full at a time. I felt exhausted just watching them. When the boat was full they returned to the shore to sieve it and bag it for making concrete.
Why didn’t they just dig up the sand on the beach with a front-end loader? Well, the beach was for tourists to sunbake on, and besides, that just isn’t the way things are done over here. You see, India has about 1.4 billion inhabitants. It is now the most populous nation on earth, streaking ahead of the Chinese who thought one billion was probably quite enough.
So how do they keep all those people alive? By making sure everyone has just enough work to survive. The bureaucracy has four times the public servants they need, the wealthy have four times the servants they need, the streets are crowded with beggars and hawkers gathering just enough to buy some dahl and a japati. Why use a wheelbarrow when three people can replace it? Why use a bulldozer that will throw a hundred workers out of a job? In Kerala even the gravel for the roads is broken down by wizened old women with little hammers.
India is a very poor country, but nobody actually starves to death. It’s crazy, but it works.
In the next exciting episode: your intrepid wayfarer visits a Jaine temple and a Bihar temple, meets a Sadhu, sees the burning of the ghats, and finally gets to that big, fat Indian wedding.