Jonathan: Current Events & Travels Across North India

May 5, 2011

The world is a changed place from when I left America on 1 January 2011, and while I’ve worked to keep up with current events, the reality is that it has proven to be incredibly difficult.  Indian news sources in general, but especially the English-language Times of India, are notoriously biased, inaccurate, and sensationalist.  (There are too many examples to count, and we’ve lost track of all the ridiculous headlines, but they typically involve disparaging remarks about those deemed immoral or ‘bad’ by Indian society, including by not limited to Pakistan, people who are accused of committing crimes—but before the case has even reached court, and anyone engaging in activities which flout social conservative norms).  Their international coverage is embarrassingly brief, and often composed of a brief update on Libya, Pakistan, and an American celebrity (Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Lindsey Lohan are favorites).  And yet, the changes of the last few days will have a dramatic effect on both my exit from India and my entrance into the United States.  

Osama bin Laden is, of course, dead, although one wouldn’t have known it here in Shimla, the quaint tourist town in Himachalal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himilaya.  Here, where middle class and wealthy Indians come to escape it all, life seems to go on largely uninterrupted.  However the Indian news network tells a dramatically different story happening in the halls of New Delhi government buildings.  From before partition, India and what would become Pakistan have long existed in a field of tension.  Since 1947, when they were split and soon thereafter given full independence from the British, they have fought wars, slung slurs, and generally been volatile neighbors. In our post 9/11 world, but pre-Osama’s death, the Indian government had accused Pakistan of harboring international terrorists (a claim rooted the tense Line of Control in north India between Pakistan and the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir).  Today, with the news of bin Laden’s death so close to a Pakistani military outpost, a depressingly self-congratulatory “I told you so” game is emerging with all the rhetoric and vitriol one can expect from feuding nations.  It is, of course, impossible to say how this will affect India, the world, Americans abroad, or Pakistan for that matter.  But I can say that we are following events closely, taking the situation seriously, and assessing what changes, if any, need to be made to our itinerary.  As of now, however, all seems stable and safe.

Before any of this had even happened, however, Claire (my travel partner) and I were traveling across the breadth of north India from Darjeeling to Shimla — both British Hill Stations meant as summer refuges from the sweltering heat and the tremendous chaos of urban India.  Located in upper West Bengal, in an area currently trying to gain independence as the State of Gohrkaland, Darjeeling and its surrounding villages could not be more different from the flat-lands below.  Cool, clear, and unpolluted, the foothills of the Himalaya are quiet and quaint.  Siliguri, the town situated at the base of the hills, is, by contrast, polluted, muggy, tropical, and busy.  It is here that after a short jeep ride, we began the journey.  Spending one overheated night in a strange and moldy hotel, we left for the airport in nearby Bagdoga and flew even father east into into the heart of India’s Northeastern States (the region wedged between Bangladesh and Bhutan) and looped back to Delhi.  If Silliguri had been muggy, Delhi was an oven, and the heat literally baked us as we walked off the plane onto the tarmac. From there we caught an overnight train, bunking under the din of fans and screaming children as we traveled north yet again to Kalka.  From there, we caught a second train into the mountains along a line deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Sight (the beautiful views confirmed its status), arriving in Shimla.  From there, we caught another taxi, rode an elevator up a cliff, and finally checked into a hotel around.  And thus, after 24.75 hours, Claire and I had finally arrived with a total of five modes of transportation (jeep, taxi, plane, train, elevator).  Six if you count our weary feet.

But it is not the mere act of traveling that I think is interesting, but rather the commentary it was on modern India.  We flew SpiceJet, a recently founded super low cost airline in India meant as an competitor to the Indian Railway network (the traditional heart of Indian public transit and a system first developed by the East India Company).  It has, along with the Indian airline industry in general, demonstrated not just the rise of Indian middle class but also the increasing interconnectivity of a vast country of over one billion.  A journey that would have otherwise taken 30 hours (West Bengal to Delhi by train) now takes just two hours.  In a land struggling with its sense of national identity after all, India is a land of many peoples, languages, religions, cultural-traditions, and landscapes, the plane has the power to revolutionize the way India perceives itself.  After all, we left the tropical West Bengal with its vividly different culture (and different language, Bengali), for the Hindi-speaking northern region.  More than that, however, is the reality that to reach the airport, we had to ride out of the mountains by jeep.  The airport in Bagdoga is the only aviation access point for upper-West Bengal and the whole of the state of Sikkim — yet another example of the schizoid nature of Indian capitalist expansionism. From there, we rode the train, India’s transit lifeblood, in Sleeper Class, the affordable option for most of the middle class.  Families, businessmen, college students, and two very exhausted American travelers all slept on sweaty vinyl mattresses, our hands jutting out of the barred windows for a semblance of cooling breeze.  From there, however, we transfered to the Kalka-Shimla line, a storied journey built by the British to escape the Delhi heat.  More spacious and luxurious than the average train, it is a poignant reminder of the British Raj and its complex relationship to modern India (and modern Indian infrastructure for that matter).  It was they who first envisioned the rail network, but it was Indians who built it and the state of India who has since expanded and maintained it.

If ever there was a journey to stimulate the brain!  For now we enjoy Shimla…


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