Places – 4

This is from a time seventeen years ago when I was rather green, or certainly a darker shade of green than I am now.  My opinions were unformed; like formless clay.  Perhaps they are now taking some sort of a discernible shape at the metaphysical potter’s wheel but back then they were like clay being softened for some future ceramic project (a project that is way past any scheduled completion).

I had started a new job then, one that promised an annual week long visit to some place that wasn’t in United States and was often in Europe.  The location of choice the year I started this job was Marrakesh.

I remember being beyond a normal state of excitement.  Oh I was not going around saying how much I had always wanted to go to Morocco or how awesome it was, how exotic…none of that.  It was just a destination that filled me with curiosity and a sense of awe that names like Casablanca and Marrakesh have the power to inspire.  But I was rather surprised at how underwhelmed my coworkers were at the prospect of this trip.  There were constant moans and groans and whining along the lines of, “Why couldn’t it have been Venice, Monaco, Rome or Cannes?”

I used to ask them, “Marrakesh is exciting! Why are you guys so bummed about it?”

I don’t know if I ever got an answer that made sense to me at that time.  The answers indicated the following notions and/or perceptions:

a) Poverty
b) Squalor
c) Poor facilities and amenities
d) Bad food
e) Bad water
f) Poor transportation
g) Getting sick
h) Getting robbed

None of these concerns diminished my enthusiasm about the trip.  I hailed from a country where these things were commonplace.  After all it couldn’t possibly be as bad as sidestepping all kinds of feces on the roadside en route a bus stop or seeing people urinating against a wall or spitting and expectorating in stairwells and alleys and walls etc.  Gold chains were often snatched in buses and trains, women were scared of traveling alone or traveling in crowded Delhi Transportation Corporation buses for fear of being molested.  So how bad could Marrakesh really be?

But the moans and groans continued until we left on Royal Air Maroc.  The airline made them even whinier, they seemed to forget that all airlines experience turbulence and that this wasn’t a RAM specialty.

It was as if my co-workers and co-travelers were closed to any possibilities.  They didn’t even want to give this destination a chance.  I decided to ignore their negativity and see things for myself.

I had a wonderful trip.  How could one not in a place as culturally rich as Morocco? Our hotel was palatial, the services, the rooms were all extraordinary.  The locales chosen for the evening events, the dinner functions were all amazing in their splendor.  Everything was rich, exotic and wearing a sheen of textured brilliance.  I was very pleased to be there.

When people from other countries indicate that they are big fans of Hindi film actors and Hindi film music I am always pleased, it always makes me smile and in Morocco this happened with some frequency.  They all wanted to know if I knew and could sing the song, “I am a disco dancer”, for them.  There were also the carpet salesmen who were eager to show me a flying carpet.  They had me sit on one then they lifted up the edges and swung me around on it.  It was all so much fun.

But that’s a digression from what I had really been thinking of writing about.

Feelings of shock, shame and general disgust have passed through me in waves over the last few days as I’ve seen India stumbling and fumbling with the preparations for the Commonwealth Games.  There are.graphic pictures of squalor at the accommodations for the athletes, there are reports of rampant corruption and substandard construction, it appears as though every ugliness hidden under the “India shining” rhetoric of the past is suddenly out there for the world to see.

These reports don’t seem inaccurate and they are building perceptions, adding to stereotypes, further fastening the third world tag that India has been eager to shake off and burn in the recent years in a bid to be recognized as a powerful player on the global stage.  Perceptions are quite a force.

Ages ago when the dream of coming back to the US was just a glimmer in my eye, Indian news magazines were reporting the “dot-busters” incidents in New Jersey.  It was frightening to read about this and it led to us jumping to the conclusion that America had turned into a place where Indians were routinely shot and killed.  That’s how powerful perceptions are.  The perceived intensity of a real event is always amplified and magnified. 

At Marrakesh, my American colleagues got into various debates with the European visitors when we got together at the end of the day for cocktails or dinner.  The Americans continued to whine and express their dismay at the signs of poverty all around.  When we visited the souks they failed to take any pleasure from the local color, the hustle and bustle, the various arts, crafts, textiles, tapestry, rugs, pottery etc. on display.  They were always too busy wrinkling up their noses and complaining about the smell, the dirt, the squalor.  They said it depressed them to see how people lived here, so on top of each other in such congestion.  They thought it was all very sad and the conference should not have been organized at this venue.

The European viewpoint, which was always offered to contradict the American one, was about how irrelevant the poverty and the squalor were and how shallow it was for Americans to not see how happy people were, how at ease with their situation, how accepting of life as it was for them.  The Americans were bashed for their desire to change everything, to drive things to a place where the rest of the world was better off not going.  The Europeans relished Moroccan cuisine, the Americans kept asking the waiters to make spaghetti with meat sauce for them if it didn’t exist on the menu.  I just kept glancing from one group to another thinking about the deeper undercurrents that flashed through the behavior of both sides.

I wasn’t able to form an opinion about whether things in the world needed to be spic and span and up to snuff by American standards.  I couldn’t find fault with the American spirit of driving change, of changing your circumstances, these are the things this world is built on – a desire to make things better.  But isn’t “better” relative? The Europeans’ attitude was extreme as well.  It seemed strangely snobbish, as if the scenes they were witnessing were in a museum or a zoo, as if they were walking around saying, “how utterly quaint!”

In my mind there is some tenuous association between the reluctance that athletes from countries like Scotland, New Zealand and Canada are showing in wanting to attend the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and how my colleagues felt about going to Marrakesh.

Yes things may be bad in India, bad enough to make the Indian diaspora cringe because the reality of how things are is clashing once again with the pride Indians can so easily be roused to feel because they threw the British out, because things get outsourced to India, because it is the largest democracy in the world, because publications like The Economist sometimes call India an Asian super power.  A pride that is so easily bruised when a satirical article in Time magazine jokingly refers to the city where Thomas Edison was born taking on a third world tinge because of an overwhelming presence of Indians.  Why take offense to the truth? I have seen enough betel juice stains on Edison streets to be more saddened and despairing than offended by that article. There has been immense pride and what we are now witnessing is the fall that was inevitable.

The real India still has a large percentage of people living below the poverty line, the real India needs a Right to Food campaign because obviously many people are denied this basic right.  The problems go much deeper than anyone can fathom.  The media gloss about a rosy, shining India should be taken with as much of a pinch of salt as is the current media condemnation.  A flat perception is not how one can see and understand a country like India.

As for the whiny athletes from first world nations, why not go with an open mind, play the best game you can, win all the medals you can and return to your plush lives? You might even emerge as enlightened citizens of the world contemplating future courses of action toward shaping a better world.

1 Comment

  1. One of the few intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive and balanced commentaries on the CWG mess.

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