Happy New Year. The new year was greeted with a monstrous blizzard and record low temperatures in New England. It will be hard over the next few weeks to write anything about global warming. My wife and I spent a delightful few weeks in India touring the southern parts. We did not visit much of the India that is rapidly industrializing and growing wealthy. We spent most of the time in small villages still living of of farming and cottage trades. I was reinforced in my beliefs that technology both giveth and taketh away, providing uniformity and economy, but dimming connections between us and the world.
We wandered by accident into a tiny dwelling in the back-quarters of Madurai, a moderately sized city in Tamil Nadu, and found a woman weaving a sari on a very old handmade loom. The rollers at the ends were made of carefully smoothed logs. But it had a rustic, but modern, Jacquard mechanism installed so it could weave very intricate patterns. I asked how the punched cards that provide the information to the Jacquard mechanism were made. Somebody makes them for her using a computer, resulting in a wondrous admixture of old and new. The quality of the silk saris she made was fabulous.. Our guide said they could not be matched by machine made goods. I believe it. A machine cannot connect the weaver to the woven in the way her loom can.
She is one of thousands of similar weavers all over India. Her house was certainly what would be called humble. She and her husband slept underneath the loom, and used the other room for everything else. She, after few moments of shyness, spoke openly to us about her work and her life. She is proud of what she does. She is an example of many others we spoke to in that she represents a generation of cottage craftsmen and farmers who are sending their children to college. This creation of upward mobility is enabled by strong government support of education right from the get go. We spoke to many small children along the way, who, on one hand, might be called waifs, but, on the other, replied to us in excellent English. English is taught everywhere to create a second national language to Hindi.
We, in the US, are currently experiencing the breakdown of many institutions from the federal government to local school systems. Differences among us are creating ever widening breaches in the social fabric. Inequality is growing at both ends; the rich are getting richer as the poor become poorer for lack of work. India, is a country of vastly more differences than the US, but somehow it seems to work. It certainly has its problems as it tries to become more like the industrialized West, but they are quite different. Inequality is growing, but as I see it, primarily due to growth at the top without associated decline at the bottom. Inflation does hurt the bottom tiers, but most remain employed if only at subsistence levels.
We may have been influenced by traveling in Kerala, the most socially advanced state of the 28 that make up India. We visited a food distribution center where poor families can come and get monthly allotments of basic commodities for very small, highly subsidized cost–their version of food stamps. We were amazed at one such center when one of the woman coming to the place walked away with 20 kilos (44 pounds) of rice carefully balanced on her head.
In the opposite vein, we unexpectedly were invited to the birthday party of the Maharana of Udaipur at his enormous palace. Although he and all other such princely rulers were deprived of their political power by the British, they were allowed to keep their properties and wealth. Sriji, as he is called, was charming to us and the other 800 or so guests. Before visiting the South, we had gone to Udaipur to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of some dear Indian friends. who were in turn friendly with Sriji and were invited with all their guests to the party.
Late in the trip, while staying at our hotel, we were invited by the groom’s uncle who we met coincidentally in the hotel to a wedding to be held later in the day. We did go and saw another side of Indian affluence, but also an old custom. The ceremony went on for a couple of hours. We were invited to go on stage and bless the couple by dropping a few grain of rice on their heads, a manifestation of the hospitality of Indian traditions. We saw many golden patterned saris that must have been woven by weavers like the one we visited.
We visited many Hindu and other religious variety temples over the two plus weeks. While many of the traditions they represent are very foreign to us and contradictory to our mores and cultural values, people tend to hold all of the world as sacred. The caste system, not a good idea, arose within Hinduism and although no longer legal is only slowly disappearing.
One cultural value that stood out everywhere we went is the strong role of the family at all economic levels. Some of the family rules are foreign to us and antithetical to our values, but the centrality of family ties is evident everywhere. Except for their driving habits, Indians seem to exhibit more explicit care that we do. Driving is a white=knuckle experience, both in the cities and villages and on the highway, if a narrow two-lane intercity road can be called a highway. The first thing Indian drivers would seem to have learned is to beep the horn as a way to magically clear the way between cars to allow them to through spaces that seem to be half the width of the vehicle.
We returned with a myriad of images, smells, and tastes. There are a number of things I would like to see here in the US. The idea of family here seems to becoming more of an economic notion rather than one of special, tradional relationships. We could learn much from them here. Conversely, they are trying very hard to emulate the West, particularly the US. They will inevitably lose some of their older traditions along the way, especially the idea of relationship or connections to the whole world. Although I would hesitate deeming the weaver lady we visited as flourishing, she and her family appear to be much better off than people here with equivalent incomes. She has a craft to follow of which she is proud and gives her satisfaction. She will not go hungry. She has a micro-culture nearby that takes care of her and her family. She has available to her children an opportunity to change their life style and economic class if they so desire even as she is mired in her circumstances.
It was a trip to remember, but I am back and have to return to my routines. I will pick up again on this blog, but maybe not so faithfully. I have been thinking about flourishing a lot and will continue to hone my thinking about it. I collected a number of opinion and other pieces while I was gone and will respond to them in the next few weeks.