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Oct 14, 2002 :: Another road-trip

A drive through rural India is always an educational experience, if you are looking for signs of positive change. The traveller must learn to see the implied in the obvious. For example, the crowding, squalor and noise of the small town may seem to have worsened. But they may in fact be transitory symptoms of growing prosperity. Likewise the stridency of a political debate may in fact indicate a quarrel for a larger share of a desirable pie. In both, the implications are positive. Admittedly, things may seem ‘bad’ and may even get worse—but you need to believe that they will eventually get better. If you do, then much of your despondency may be because things may not get ‘better’ in your lifetime. But then you are less than a blip in a 5000 year continuum.

I drove between Sep 22 and Oct 7, 2002, some 2000km through Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I was chasing stories for GoodNewsIndia and I had often to drive an average of 40km on country roads to reach the subjects of my stories. These were always more pleasurable than the smart National Highways. It constantly amazed me to have been told by main media about poverty, conflict, insecurity and backwardness reigning everywhere. I have rarely been happier or more reassured than in these remote parts. Of course I was driving through ‘better’ states of India, but even here the picture is better than you are told to believe.

What an impatient, quick-to-judge traveller must learn is that change is always incremental and rarely by quantum leaps. So what we need to ascertain is whether the direction is right and leave the issue of speed to another breath. My judgment is that India is unfolding as it should. And my evidence for that claim are: the massive army of well dressed children going to or returning from schools everywhere—even the remotest village; the general standard of health and dress of adults; the number of young ladies at work in very visible jobs that need interaction with strangers; the crowds on buses and trains that don’t come cheap; the number of small mechanised farm implements everywhere and finally - and most importantly—a sense everywhere of belonging to ‘India’ brought about largely by the ubiquitous cable TV!

For me the defining image was this: I was driving through interior Tamil Nadu. I had deliberately chosen this detour --as I often do-- to relax and observe. I guess I must have been about 20km away in any direction from a highway. The road was narrow but paved. On either side was paddy far into the distance. Electric pylons traversed them. The small hamlets were of thatched huts yes, but were sparkling clean and bristled with TV antennas. Peace reigned the vast silent spaces. Suddenly, at a turn, from a school, I heard a chorus of energetic voices repeating a lesson. Nearby I came upon 3 young boys—all under ten-- racing each other on bicycles. Obvious truants! When I passed them one of them decided to race my car! I let the race go on for a while. The boy could barley reach the pedals but he was furiously cycling away. When I saw he was tiring, I said, “You are really fast.” He retorted in a flash: “You call this fast? This is nothing! I didn’t have the money to pump air into the tyres. If I had, you can’t touch me!”

For me that little boy pedalling away cheerfully sums up what the other India is doing—and his comment, what it will.

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