New Delhi, India. I didn’t see any of the fabled maharajas during my three months in India, nor did I encounter any jewel-covered elephants or exotic dancers, though I’m sure somewhere, in some form, they’re on tourist offer. Instead, I was introduced to the crowded and dirty streets-cum-living rooms of Mumbai and Delhi, to aimless herds of revered cows, to countless children on the streets, begging, pleading, smiling, staring. The subcontinent slapped me on the back with a hearty welcome and knocked the legendary out of mind. The India of storybooks was replaced with a more callous reality, a place that seemed to be an exemplar of the raw human condition. "Now I understand Hobbes," I mused at the time. Yet despite first impressions, I slowly began to see India less as "state of nature," and more as a land of opportunity.
In Agra, an inquiry for the price of anything is met with the cryptic and annoyingly serene, “If you’re happy, I’m happy.” Well, 40 rupees ($.89) for a five minute cab ride would make me happy, I thought, but anything below 100 was met with quiet derision. I would attempt a compromise and offer 50, but such tactics were frowned upon and rewarded with a heart-rending look of dejection. And no matter how transparent their reason for rejecting your payment offer, it always served as sufficient persuasion and ensured that they left happy, and scandalously overpaid. But having dodged the bullet of moral remorse, I didn't actually mind. If you’re happy, I’m happy. How true it was.
In Varanasi persuasion took the form of karma. 1000 rupees to the curator of the funeral pyre would buy a plenitude of sandalwood and masses of karma. A prayer ritual and touch on the forehead by various holy men ended with deep, soul-searching eye contact, a waiting hand to gather rupees, and the promise of good karma. I was soon an exceedingly annoyed and begrudging bearer of immense karma, and yet when leaving India’s holiest city, I was also amused by the audacity and ingenuity of the Varanasians. Instead of oil and gold, they traded in the promise of a happy fate, and it paid off in spades.
With an exploding population of over a billion and counting, the subcontinent is still plagued by visible poverty and disease, but there is hardly an idle soul to be found. India’s citizens are busy with every trade imaginable, and with tourism, the film industry, and large-scale manufacture. In addition, the bureaucratic and legal infrastructure, a perpetual source of frustration and intrigue, is indicative of a nation that is growing, albeit slowly, under the auspices of law and accountability.
My first experience of India was exciting, but also a bit like too many mothballs in a tiny bathroom: absolutely overwhelming. The strongest memories from that trip, however, are the modern maharajas, India's emerging kings. They form a new voluntary caste of individuals, from "untouchables" to Brahmins, whose mark is prosperity and whose currency is innovation. They are the individuals who seize opportunities to improve their lives, who work tirelessly in conditions that repulse, who cherish openness, modernity, and democracy. These modern maharajas make India a land of incredible opportunity and hope.