Sunday, March 27, 2005


Just got back from two weeks in India, first at an e-government conference in Delhi sponsored by the World Bank, then travelling to Agra and Jaipur. Here are some shards of experience:

The wonders of wi-fi: following up on newly acquired concepts from speakers in real-time as they continue to speak (via Google, Clusty, Wikipedia etc). Two important ideas come into view: absorptive capacity (the quality of the context within which development resources are applied) and the law of unintended consequences (the idea that any action has unforeseen consequences that themselves can be studied and measured – and perhaps even anticipated). Admiration for senior Indian e-government experts and their grasp of how technology, policy and politics interweave.

From the bus: glimpses of games of cricket on grass and on dusty land – no one playing football anywhere (respite from a more simple, brutal, teleological world). Deep cherry coloured bougainvillea trees decorate the roadside with fauvist intensity. Mandirs dotted across the shifting landscape: pale blue, light pink, turquoise – paying homage to a land with over 300 million gods. Swastikas painted on the side of autorickshaws, temples, on walls – the Aryan impulse that intoxicated Hitler at its source. Nicotiana and saffron coloured flowers in stalls, hanging from trees. Seeing the Taj Mahal at last – a blinding translucent marble monolith that appears to emanate light rather than simply reflect it. As they say, the Taj is a testimony to the power of love. As they don’t say, it’s also a testimony to the power of corruption – it was built by pilfering State coffers for 20 years. I turn the sound off in my head and listen to the ancestral reverberations humming in the walls, and hear the sound of a monumental sadness. Then, wandering around its precursor – the Humayan tomb in Delhi, in honour of the first great Mughal – beautiful trees, water channels serenely dividing space (Condoleeza Rice got there two days before – spreading hutzpah as only Americans can, the US wilting in the face of China and India rousing from bureaucratic slumbers). Everywhere, roads shared by humans and animals – in Delhi, cows on the verge of enlightenment meditate in the middle of the road. Elsewhere, elephants and donkeys plod their course as cars weave around them. New Delhi – blossoming, verdant – a city full of green lungs. The festival of Holi approaching: men daub their hair and faces with paint. On a thousand heads: bright orange hair dye. Hindu script everywhere, revealing a mature, scripted society. Cheap Western and Indian books brimming in Delhi bookshops – a literate society. When they put the bebop on, I fell forwards into heaven (why can’t this be in Nigeria too?) Following stories in the press: an Indian man beats a Russian a blind speed chess (confronting the humbling truth that some brains have more RAM and gigahertz than others); a woman attempts Sati exactly a century after another – the police intervene and stop fate in its tracks… Visiting the Amber Palace just outside Jaipur on elephant back – sparing a thought for the 12 wives in their 12 compartments set around the courtyard – women who could never leave or be seen in public. A rememory of their downcast eyes, looking through lattice screens at the events in the world below, yearning for the fleshy complexity of worldly existence (smelling the piss of others; glimpses of mountain tops across foreign distances) like angels with Wings of Desire. Thousands of mystics wander about: outside the Agra Fort, a fierce looking figure with a staff and two skulls stares out at the world with uncertain intent – does he want Rupies for a photograph? Is he fake for-tourists or real? Women on the back of motorbikes, always riding side-saddle with graceful poise (no matter how furious the traffic). Staying in sumptuous 5-star hotels: cool marble, tranquil shady spaces, heavenly spas, paradisical Asian cuisine. Everywhere, flowers floating in bowls. A vigorous ayurvedic massage courtesy of two men in Jaipur, hands travelling everywhere (a gayboy paradise). Bibi having hot oil poured on her fourhead. Going rug-buying in Jaipur, learning the gradations of fakery (silk, fake-silk, half-fake silk) and tests for fakery (get out a match, watch the thread burn) – which it occurred to me might also be fake.


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