Friday, July 25, 2008

Our First Days in Pune

Saturday, July 26. We all had a wonderful time at the rural Sevagram Ashram and the surrounding villages, as I reported in an earlier post, but we were also pretty elated to arrive at the Park Central Hotel in Pune, which is air conditioned, roomy, and just on the edge of being a little swanky. Our first afternoon we just enjoyed the hot showers and air conditioning (not to mention the free wireless internet, which, alas doesn’t work in my room so all posting is done in the lobby) and we treated ourselves to pretty competent pizza and red wine at an Italian restaurant not far from the hotel. I felt like I went back to the U.S. for a few hours to recharge.

Pune is very different from the other cities we’ve visited, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The fact that it has sidewalks, which I’ve been remarking to others seem totally absent in India, immediately caught my eye and has become for me a kind of symbol of the relative prosperity and sophistication here. Pune is known as the “Silicon Valley” of India, and you can see the effects of software industry money everywhere in the new buildings, fancy shopping districts, and the abundance of restaurants. This last adds to the city’s cosmopolitan feel. There’s a much wider range of cuisines here than we’ve seen elsewhere, and the city is full of, hip, sophisticated looking young people in western dress. Which is to say the effects of globalization with its general trend toward westernization and homogenization is pronounced. It’s a little too easy to romanticize India (women in flowing saris, orange clad wandering sadhus, cows in the middle of traffic, men in turbans and imams hurrying to mosques, makeshift Hindu temples and cobbled-together commercial districts right out of the 19th-century or earlier) but this India is a little harder to find in Pune, which is westernizing at what appears to be a pretty torrid pace. The city is also one of the intellectual centers of India, which helps account for some of the sophistication and cosmopolitanism I’ve noted. It has some of the feel of a large college or university town. Everywhere there are huge billboards advertising new, luxury condominium complexes marketed as resorts (swimming pools, golf courses, gyms, etc.). They seem indistinguishable from what we’d see back home and caught my attention for the way they underscore the rapidity of modernization here, and the huge gulf between the poor and the young, aspiring middle classes who are being seduced by a kind of globalized style of living that seems rather incongruous when experienced in the context of all the poverty we’ve seen. I suspect, too, that some of these are stand-alone complexes with their own water and power sources. Some even have their own schools. Organic farmers are finding ways to live “off the grid” but so too are these luxury complexes, which I can’t help thinking of as versions of the 21st-century village. But not the kind of village Gandhi had in mind, that’s for sure. Pune in this respect represents all of the changes the Gandhians (or most of them) we've met with on our trip despair over, for the economic effects of globalization in India (as elsewhere) are dramatically uneven, sap resources (and poepole) from the villages, contribute to environmental pollution, and undermine or erase traditional cultural forms and practices.

For a selection of pictures associated with this post, please click here.

Yesterday, our first full day in Pune, was pretty jam-packed, fascinating and moving. We began our day with a long visit to a substance abuse rehab center called Muktangan Mitra. It’s run by Dr. Anil Awachat, a noted writer and social activist. The facility incorporates elements of AA and the kind of programs you can find in U.S. rehab centers but with a Gandhian focus on promoting self-sufficiency (derived in part by Dr. Awachat’s devotion to Thoreau, who of course influenced Gandhi as well). Dr. Awachat, trained as a medical doctor, gave up his professional practice (and his early devotion to socialism) to help set up Muktangan with his wife, and he’s particularly interested in working with people living in villages to promote self-sufficiency along the lines Gandhi advocated. We had an informative meeting with him, and a very moving exchange with a group of around 75 male patients at the center. Some of them told us their own stories about how they became involved in substance abuse, and we were able to ask (and answer) questions in a wonderful give and take. Muktangan Mitra is another in a series of examples of institutions created by people influenced by Gandhi who opted out of mainstream careers to work on behalf of other who are marginalized, deprived, or suffering.

After our visit to the center we had a wonderful lunch at a Persian restaurant Madhuri recommended. It was wonderful, a huge open-air wood and bamboo structure in a kind of tropical setting that was part restaurant, part hookah bar (lots of young people sitting around smoking and just hanging out together), and part jazz club, with huge posters of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Billie Holiday, and others on the wall. The food was fabulous (I had an Iranian dish, cranberry rice with chicken), and the ambience great. After lunch we went by coach to one of the main tourist sites in Pune, Shaniwar Wada Palace, a huge 18th century fort and palace that became one of the last centers of resistance to the British. The vast array of wood-built structures that formed the palace burned down in 1828, but the grounds and foundations are intact and the huge fortified wall in the front with its beautiful rooms above were wonderful to visit. After I’d seen the fort I walked out to the street and around to the front to get a picture of the whole fort, but I got distracted by the array of sidewalk merchants who were running ingenious little businesses on blankets. There was a woman selling locks, another fellow selling keys who was repairing the lock on a suitcase, jewelry vendors, palm readers and fortune tellers, and, my favorite, a woman sitting on a chair who simply had a bathroom scale sitting in front of her. That was it. A business pared down to the bare minimum. She didn’t care if I weighed myself but she wanted me to take her picture and she whooped with delight when she saw her image on my LCD screen. For me she symbolizes Indian ingenuity and the drive to find a way to get by under difficult circumstances. Again, it's easy to idealize or sentimentalize people like her, but she impressed me, and she seemed just as happy as could be.

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