Bombay, Delhi, Agra, and Singapore

William Kent
December 1991

India is poor. Bombay is crowded, though they say Calcutta is worse. Delhi has smog. Agra has the Taj. Singapore is rich.

Hordes and swarms of poor people mill about idly. Not like a New York crowd, rushing to work or shop or dine or be entertained; those people will be gone in a moment. In Bombay they're just there, in a dense passive swarm. Everywhere. They go on relentlessly, block after block, mile after mile.

They're not threatening. A few of them might pick your pocket (actually, many, even though they're a very small fraction), but they won't mug you. Powerless poverty hasn't enraged or frustrated them, their outlook resting somewhere between peace and resignation. What keeps me out of their crowds is not fear but guilt. Their eyes are not malevolent but reproachful, accusing me (or reflecting my projected guilt) if I snap their picture with a camera whose price would feed their family for a year.

They live in shacks, shanties, huts, lean-tos everywhere. Row on row of mud hovels, thatched, papered, patched with cardboard, tin, and plastic, like rows of swallow's nests, but ugly. Family groups squat on mats on the median strip in the road, playing cards – it's their parlour. Hovel hives spring up at every road repair and construction site. They simply live on the job. Except for a bit of primitive machinery, the work is labor intensive. Rows of women carry sand, gravel, cement, and bricks to the construction point in baskets on their heads. Men do the more skilled cement and brick work, but there are hordes of children tamping stuff down.

So many of them try to survive by selling. Everywhere there are rows of people with trays and carts of fruits, trinkets, peanuts, foodstuffs, and I don't remember what else. Everywhere there are rows of retail establishments in shacks and stalls of all descriptions, often more shabby than abandoned outhouses. I don't know who's buying, but they're all out there selling.

Sanitation is abominable. People urinate and defecate in the open, not so blatantly in the middle of town, but it's still around. It's routine to see a man pointed at a wall or ditch, and people of both sexes squatting by a fence or in a field. Many people were squatting on one stretch of beach dotted with their droppings below the high-water mark. (Is that good news or bad?) A row of fishing boats were pulled up on the same beach, and fishermen tended their nets. I wonder where they fish.

Beggars pose a persistent moral dilemma, often reaching through the car window at a traffic signal. We can't all be Mother Theresa. Where to draw the line?

This picture's distorted. There's a thriving city in the midst of all this, and in some respects things are worse on the outskirts than in town. But this is what sticks in the mind, and it keeps cropping up over and over and over again everywhere.

Traffic is an endless game of chicken, but disciplined. Vehicles routinely pass within an inch of each other, buffered by an invisible cushion. Drivers drive with their horns, but it's a statement of intent, not a challenge. You honk to announce you're going to pass, so the other guy lets you by. It just keeps happening continuously. Fortunately the horns seem to be muted, so it's not ear splitting or mind shattering.

"Vehicles" is a generous term. What we have in an endlessly interweaving passing pattern wandering back and forth across the breadth of the road are cars, trucks of all sizes, single- and double-decked buses, taxis, motorized and pedaled rickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, tractors, bicycles, oxen, and pedestrians, as well as carts of all shapes and sizes being pushed or pulled by almost every one of the above. Read that list again. Your field of vision really does include most of these things at any moment on a heavily traveled road. They are all weaving around each other, passing on both sides of the road as well as the shoulder. Your worst nightmare about passing on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic is the steady state here, even at night with many vehicles unlighted.

Reverse your mental image. They drive British style, on the left. And replace all the shiny vehicles in your mind's eye with dilapidated things you'd expect of beatniks and junkyards. Even the newer cars and bicycles look like museum pieces, though the trucks have incongruously bright decorations.

And forget about American-style under-utilization. Picture eight or ten people in the back of a small jeep. Picture many a bicycle and scooter with a wife (or elderly mother!) perched side-saddle behind the driver and a child balanced on the cross-bar or gas tank in front. Picture people hanging out the doors of buses. Picture several people sitting beside a tractor driver, and several more sitting on the hood. Picture a bike laden with goods a yard out on either side and a yard above the bicyclist's head. Picture a cart loaded to a height four times its width.

And picture everything in dusty muted tones, punctuated by the hallucinogenic truck and bus decor, and flashes of red and orange clothing. How do they keep their clothes so white?

The miracle is that it all works. It feels like a nightmare in which heinous things are danced out gracefully. The melange on the road moves slowly of necessity; it takes an hour to drive twenty kilometers across Bombay. I've driven in New York, Boston, London, Madrid, and Barcelona, but I'm not good enough for India. These people are skilled, they know what they're doing, they understand the tolerances and timings perfectly – and they're not competing, they're not angry. If someone passes you or crosses in front of you, it's not an insult to your manhood. They're just doing what they have to, and you're about to do it yourself, so it's all okay. But that doesn't keep them from leaning on their horns anyhow, just to keep establishing their intentions.

Once my driver nicked the heel of a cart-pusher in dense market traffic. Tempers flared for a moment, then settled. I never did see the slightest collision of any sort in some twenty hours of this road rat race.

Oxen are everywhere, part of the traffic, in the towns lounging on sidewalks and medians. But no droppings anywhere! On the road to Agra from Delhi there were huge stacks of cow-pies neatly arranged in decorative piles. Somebody must be collecting them everywhere.

On the way in from the airport to Delhi, my driver looked blank when I asked about all the smoke, and I don't think it was a language problem. They just don't notice – or acknowledge – that it looks like they live next to a perpetual forest fire. The air really is thick with gray smoky stuff all the time, though it seems to lighten up in the afternoon. It doesn't burn the eyes or smell very strong, though my chest was tightening up on the road to Agra. And the gray wall does extend at least to Agra, 200 kilometers southeast of Delhi. Along that road there's a major refinery as well as some other industries spewing their junk into the air, turning the sun blood red.

Both cities have both problems, but Bombay is more crowded and Delhi more clouded. Getting pictures of street life was tough. It's often hard to stop where I want, so many of the pictures were grabbed from a moving car or bus.

So what's the good news?

The spirit of peace, if it isn't fatal resignation. The promise of the Himalayas for a future trip. The Taj Mahal.

Most over-hyped wonders disappoint because they only meet my raised expectations; there's no wonder or surprise left. But the Taj works. Its grace and symmetry transcend mere grace and symmetry. There's something magical about the proportions, the arrangement of forms and textures, that reaches out with a sense of peace and beauty and perfection. Much has undoubtedly been said about the esthetics of the domes and spires and decorations, but it really does go beyond that sort of analysis. It just is, perfectly. I hope I haven't spoiled the discovery for you.

For the record, the rest was business and sight-seeing. In Bombay, the COMAD Conference, where I presented Peter's paper; the meeting with Tata Consulting Services; Elephanta Caves; and a half-day with a hired driver to gather my impressions. In Delhi, a five-hour ride each way to Agra in an old tour bus, and a day with a hired driver to see the Qtab Minar, striking Sikh and Hindu temples, some other monuments, and a son-et-lumiere at the Red Fort, where Nehru made his first speech as President.

It's eerie to realize that these should have been Peter's experiences, not mine. Perhaps there's some Indian wisdom that suggests it was meant to be.

Singapore's Changi Airport is surprisingly graceful, like the city itself. Singapore thrives on money, but makes up for that with good taste. Tiger Balm Gardens is now Haw Par Villa, but its spirit survives the modernization. Chinese myths and legends still come alive in fantastically colored playful dioramas, a Disneyland inspired by three thousand years of wise and witty mythology. It ranks in the pantheon of my special one-of-a-kind places in the world: the American Pavilion at the Metropolitan Museum, the history of prosaic technology at London's Science Museum, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, Delicate Arch, and Astoria.