Settling and unsettling in Rajasthan (as the lights come on)

I sit with one hour before I officially* begin my Divali holidays. For all of the non-Hindus (and non-Jains, non-Sihks, non-Indian Origin People), Divali is a Christmas-New Year-Easter but as only Indians could do it. It’s a good-defeats-evil holiday, with one of the most popular reasons being the return of the hero Ram (India’s answer to both Ulysses and Jesus) from 14 years of exile in THE ancient epic of India, the Ramayana.

*”Official” in most of India seems to be when a quorum finishes chai and stirs to take some action. While Friday is the official holiday, the office has the melancholy and eerie quiet of a Saturday evening**.

**Saturday in India is like Friday in the rest of the known world–Indians are the tortoise, not the hare. I will not miss the six-day week.

From my analysis (I read quite a few blogs while applying), the AIF fellowship blog has an annual narrative arc.

We have passed the period of handing out arbitrary numbers of photocopies of our passports, visas and every other identifying document to bureaucrats and shopkeepers, only to have to bring a 4th letter from our host NGO’s CEO (which we can’t get because the printer doesn’t work during the 2pm power cut), and to return to find that suddenly we need a vaccine card or secret decoder ring or need to return to Delhi for a special stamp or some such nonsense as per the most recent agency guidelines (read: the bureaucrat tilting back on his chair is on a power trip, and he wouldn’t mind a bribe).

The cows munching on burning piles of garbage while seated daintily in the center lane of psychotic traffic barely give us pause. Nor the double function of railroad tracks as the restroom of squatter slums. Nor the fact that the landlord who told us two days ago that s/he was extremely liberal and nonchalant is now telling us that we need to return home by 8:30pm to close the gate, that opposite sex visitors, alcohol, meat, any visitors without permission…is not allowed. Although since that’s not in the contract maybe just ask permission one month before having visitors for dinner. And you need to pay 200 rupees per month for the gardener and the sweeper who takes the garbage. And electricity costs more now, pay 180 rupees more.

We’re more or less over all that stuff.

I find myself evermore world-weary when I read of Miraculous!Booming!Awaked! India (see Friedman’s well known column here for a view from the penthouse of a five star hotel in Delhi with India’s English-speaking technology elites). Yet I am much less likely to rant aimlessly about the myopia of neoliberalism, growth without social development, corporate control of people’s lives, an environmental collapse, etc…Indian people that I talk to largely think that they’ve had too few opportunities to be what they want for too long, all for no good reason. And a CEO would beat a bureaucrat in a popularity contest anytime.

I think that we’re also enjoying the day-to-day a good bit more. We’re probably better at speaking Hindi/Telugu/Bengali/Tamil/etc. Or we have more reasonable goals, and we don’t mind confusion so much. It goes with the general atmosphere.

We wear lots of Indian clothes (I love my lungi. (click for link)

So Uncle Sridar (the AIF board member in charge of our fellowship, who doubles as our social chair and buddy) was right–India’s changing us somehow (I’ll speak for myself so that the rhetorical effect doesn’t get too presumptuous–India’s changing ME.

So (and I’m not very committed very much to fate or poetics) isn’t it a bit appropriate that we’re coming to see our place in India at the time when Indians celebrate a coming home, a new beginning, and an illumination against darkness? Things haven’t magically become simple or easy, but I feel as though there’s a path lit before me (even if I’m not heroic Ram).

Enjoy these mixed musings on a few photos that I’ve taken in the last month. They touch on development, the environment and natural resources, my experience in India, government institutions, and the whole question of trying to understand what’s going on in this world…

From October Blog Photos

Here is the local office of the revenue department, which is in charge of “revenue wasteland” (think of the Bureau of Land Management in the context of the USA), versus the forest department, which administers forestlands, except when the district has a minimum percentage of indigenous “adivasi” or tribal peoples (think Bureau of Indian Affairs or the administration of native peoples’ reserves in another context). This mix of bureaucracy and the dizzying number of laws creates incredible confusion and space for corruption that I have only begun to understand after two months. But remember those rosy news articles about the explosive innovation in Bangalore, Delhi, and Silicon Valley? Now look at these maps:

From October Blog Photos

The poorest, most marginalized tribal peoples and we land-use and environmental NGOs aren’t exactly using the latest topographical maps, remote images, and GPS technology. Joshi-ji (pictured above in the store room of maps and documents) is the key who unlocks the colonial-era record keeping for our research. Technology is not entering the Byzantine government structures of India.

Here’s an un-extraordinary bushy plant in the Euphorbiaceae family.

From October Blog Photos

But wait, it’s jatropha (Jatropha curcas (click for link to Wikipedia);, which Goldman Sachs has identified as one of the most promising species for biodiesel, leading to interest from “green technology” investors. The Indian government has set ambitious minimum targets for using jatropha in fuel, so NGOs and entrepreneurs have planted it heavily in wastelands, where it grows with little trouble. Incidentally, I was staying in a temporary housing situation where I shared premises with a retired Panjab gentleman, one Shri Bal Krishna Rajput, a retired Indian-Mexican businessman (and polyglot speaker of Panjabi, Hindi, Spanish, and English), who in his semi-retirement is working toward developing sustainable business enterprises (see the website here). Jatropha is in fact native to southern Mexico, bringing this odd global connection full-circle. The globalization connections are everywhere: a few days ago I rode south from Udaipur on a $250 million highway financed by the World Bank, to a village where we found Bt cotton, a genetically-modified variety of cotton patented by Monsanto, which produced an insecticidal toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis, which classifies the plant itself as a pesticide according to the US EPA. We’re in the middle of nowhere by most accounts, but Goldman Sachs, the World Bank, and Monsanto have a stronger impact on local lives than the government. What can we say about this?

From October Blog Photos

Dal being threshed and cleaned painstakingly slowly on a woman’s sari. Devali time is also harvest season in southern Rajasthan.

From October Blog Photos

Kyla, my fellow Clinton Fellow, and I came upon these nomadic pastoralists just outside Udaipur. Nice camels!

From October Blog Photos
From October Blog Photos

And interesting local varieties of goat. Livestock improvement in the undulating terrain of southern Rajasthan is difficult because fatter “improved” varieties aren’t strong enough to climb the steep hills in the extreme temperatures and sun of Rajasthan’s desert. Rajasthan is inappropriate for centralized ideas of planning for a variety of reasons. How to improve people’s capacity otherwise? It’s not the central government’s priority. It’s just not a great return on investment. Civil society needs to step in, and faster than it is currently doing, in my opinion.

From October Blog Photos

Badi Lake! A great respite from the honking cars and dust of busy Udaipur. It’s created by a dam, but Indians never miss the opportunity to create their beautiful domes and scalloped arches. You can see me below, with the obligatory company of local teenage boys, asking me the five stock questions that they know in English. Patience is a virtue. My Hindi has already surpassed the English of most locals (as it should–I live here for crying out loud), but the endless curiosity requires deft diplomacy where polite avoidance isn’t possible.

From October Blog Photos

Natural Resource Development (NRD) is definitely a department of dudes. Here’s my boy Mohsin looking on and laughing, as Ramchandra, the office clown, gives fellow Clinton Fellow Kishore an earful. Ramchandra is hard of hearing, but he’s the only one who hears silence, constantly cracking jokes around the constant rounds of chai. Kishore doesn’t know how to get out of this one. Just another day at the office at Seva Mandir…

From October Blog Photos

A beetle alights on the flowers of this plant (in Lamiaceae or the mint family…I’m an ecologist people, humor me). This is a beautiful place.

From October Blog Photos

No bug here! I’m just a LEAF! This is a bit what Clinton Fellows must look like in Indian clothing. We’re trying, but at least it looks cute, if nothing else.

Divali photos will follow!

What can we conclude from this:

!) Rajasthan is unquestionably affected by the globalization, 2) development is a difficult proposition for the marginal and degraded natural resource base of rural Rajasthanis, especially with a weak presence of government institutions, 3) I am becoming comfortable here; like this bug, I’m glad that I flew in and tried to disguise myself as an Indian (or leaf), although I’m not fooling anyone, and I’ll leave one day, 4) I have no doubt that I won’t be able to take the influence of India out of me. Warm wishes for Divali! Keep in touch everyone! Please give a word of feedback to my long rants! (Or I will continue to post on the things that I like and leave your simplest questions unanswered.)


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2 thoughts on “Settling and unsettling in Rajasthan (as the lights come on)

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Loved your edgy blog – just being there is making a difference! Amazing the various fingers in the honey pot of India.

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