Two Indias

I’m sitting on a bunk in the 2AC class (one of the higher classes on standard trains–not fancy, but not the cheapest) on the train to Aurangbad. Sharing the berth with me is a family that, to my mind, perfectly captures the “second India” that I’ve become more and more aware of.

Across from me are the mother and son, dressed in modern fashions–the mother in a maroon kurta, the son in jeans and a collared shirt. The mother talks on the phone while the son plays on his handheld game console (I saw the SEGA logo as he was booting it up–that takes me back). To my left, across the aisle, the father, in a cream colored polo and slate trousers, is reading a copy of the bible in what I can only assume is Tamil.

The son reaches for his shoes–bumblebee colored DC skateboard shoes that fit in well with his wardrobe. He asks to get by me (my legs are across the way). He is quite polite.

Earlier, as I walked down the train looking for my car, I saw countless Indian families gathered around bowls of dal and rice, sharing piles of roti. The women are clad in a rainbow of colors, the men dressed in their muted fashions. As I arrived in my compartment, I see my 2AC family polishing off a dinner of McDonalds and Pepsi.

I’m struck by the shapes that wealth takes in India. The cultural divide is striking–the upper middle class are fiercely, overwhelmingly, perhaps unknowingly, westernized. The lower classes remain embedded in tradition.

In India, a glass of fruit juice can be hand for $0.20, or $0.50, or $1.50, depending on where and what. A cappucino will cost $1.50 to $2.50, also depending. A cup of coffee at Starbucks will set you back about $2.50 (drip coffee is expensive abroad, but frapuccinos are scarcely $0.50 more). Pizza with a view of the water will cost you $8, while a beer will cost $1.20 in Goa, $4 in a mid-range bar, and $8 in a classy place. Cheap domestic rum (Old Monk), however, will get four people drunk for the same price. However, a meal of samosas and chai can be had for $0.50, a vegetarian thali feast can be head for $1, and a breakfast of aloo puri (fried dough with spiced potatoes) can be had for as little as $0.20.

At first I found the price disparities stunning. A meal could cost either $.50 or $5, depending on whether I ate at a restaurant or at the stall just outside (I recognize that similar price disparities exist in the west as well–I could dine for $6 as easily as for $60–but I hold that nowhere could I dine for $.060). My western purchasing power meant that I could eat virtually anywhere I wanted and still consider myself living quite cheaply, but I recognize that for some people, one of these two worlds might as well not even exist. There is the India which spends in dimes, and the India which spends in dollars, right on top of each other, yet like water and oil I doubt they interact very much at all.


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