India Revisited

June 30, 2010 — Last Thursday I returned to Hong Kong after a two-week visit to India. This was my first time back in that country in over ten years (I last left India in June 2000 as a graduate student after ten months of dissertation research). This time I was there to conduct an educational consulting visit as a Fulbright scholar at a college in the city of Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. For weeks I had been looking forward to this trip. India has been the only Asian country on my itinerary this year that I have been to before. Yet my trip there did not feel much like a return visit. In fact, none of the places I visited in India this time were ones to which I had ever traveled previously. I didn’t have the chance to return to Delhi, Lucknow, or Udaipur nor did I reconnect with any of my Indian friends and colleagues. On top of that, my knowledge of Hindi proved virtually useless since Calcutta residents generally speak Bengali and in Tamil Nadu they insist upon Tamil. The latter group is particularly defensive about their language and resent deeply what they perceive as the North Indian majority forcing Hindi upon them (a language to them as alien as Danish or Korean). I didn’t score any points with Tamils when I instinctively spoke Hindi to them. Conversations quickly switched to English. Overall, while much of the feel of the country was familiar, the trip was filled with new experiences and observations.

My flight from HK to Chennai included a nine-hour stopover in Singapore; just enough time to for me to see a bit of that city. I was especially interested to see how this city-state—once a colony, fortress, and entrepôt of the British Empire—compares to Hong Kong with its similar past. Both places have much in common: a shared British colonial origin, strong roots in southern Chinese culture, an entrepreneurial population overseen by a competent and honest civil service, and a strategic location for commerce and for projecting political and military power. Where Hong Kong became a western gateway to China, Singapore remained the British link between South and East Asia.

From the airport I took the metro into the city center and began with lunch at the Raffles Hotel before hitting the streets. The Raffles is one of the oldest and best known landmarks in Singapore and is today considered among the most posh and exclusive hotels in the world. In its long and storied past the hotel has briefly been home to dozens of celebrities and statesmen as well as some of the greatest luminaries of British literature, among them Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, and Noel Coward. While I was there I had a wildly overpriced gin and tonic at the famous “long bar” inside the hotel. This space oozes character and history: every surface seems to be covered with polished wood and brass while hundreds of pieces of colonial memorabilia hang from the walls. These range from old P&O steamer posters and advertisements to regimental group photos and civil defense placards from World War II. The windows face onto a wrap-around colonial veranda filled with wicker furniture and potted palms. Slow turning ceiling fans and rattan shades help keep things cool in the noonday sun. The whole place seemed like the set to a movie.

After the Raffles I visited the “Battle Box” in nearby Fort Canning Park. This is the underground bunker complex used by the British and Australians to coordinate the defense of Singapore during World War II. The facility has been meticulously restored by Britain’s Imperial War Museum and is now a fascinating and very moving tourist attraction. It was here that General Percival made the decision to surrender to the Japanese in February 1942 and consigned over 100,000 British and imperial troops to becoming prisoners of war. The fall of Singapore was even more devastating to British morale than the fall of Hong Kong. Winston Churchill called it the worst capitulation in British history. Singapore was Britain’s Corregidor, and now that I have seen both places the similarity is even more striking. After the surrender, most of the POWs were housed at the notorious camp in Changi, near the site of the new airport. Hundreds were executed there by the Japanese and thousands more died from disease, starvation, and exposure. Many others were shipped into Southeast Asia and used as slave labor in building the “death railway” in Thailand and Burma. Most did not return. Singapore civilians fared no better than the POWs at Changi. Throughout the city there are numerous monuments to the victims of the war. The placards and engravings are in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.

With just a few hours remaining in my Singapore stopover, I headed to Chinatown and then onward to Little India and the Arab Quarter. The ethnic diversity of Singapore is really striking, much more so than Hong Kong. Indian, Malay, Chinese, and Arab Singaporeans mix freely and no one group seems to predominate. I liked Singapore, but I definitely prefer Hong Kong. The former is orderly, clean, and safe but the latter is by far more vibrant and interesting. And despite Hong Kong’s inclusion in the People’s Republic of China, Singapore has a much more autocratic and watchful government.

After leaving Singapore, I arrived in India. My first stop was Calcutta (Kolkata since 2001), a place I have for many years wanted to see. While the very name of this city conjures the worst possible images in the minds of many westerners, I found Calcutta to be a pleasant surprise. It is not a garden spot, by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it the hell on earth of poverty, overcrowding, and filth that it is often envisioned to be. Actually, it seemed relatively relaxed and friendly compared to other cities in India like Delhi and Varanasi in which I have lived and traveled. I stayed at a nicely appointed hotel near Chowringhee Road along the Maidan and spent four days walking around the city and taking in the sights—and in the process having many of my preconceptions about Calcutta corrected. The city traffic was dense but generally better managed than in New York or Washington and I was almost never approached by beggars or panhandlers (I should be so lucky in Portland). The streets were lined with wonderful examples of colonial neo-classical and Victorian architecture—in various states of preservation or decay—and there were several very nice parks throughout the city. I enjoyed most the grand Victoria Memorial (see below) built in the early twentieth century and the Park Street Cemetery with its eighteenth-century graves and mausoleums of British East India Company officials and their families. I also visited the Missionaries of Charity mother house, which contains Mother Teresa’s tomb and a museum about her life and works. A humbling experience indeed.

What was most surprisingly about Calcutta was how walkable a city it is. While it is a grungy town that lacks the grandeur of Delhi, it is also spared the latter’s sprawl and inconvenient distances between points of interest. In my entire time in Calcutta I never took a taxi except to and from the airport. It was really an enjoyable visit. I managed to see a lot of the city, find a few excellent Bengali restaurants and coffee houses, and meet some of the local residents, who were unfailingly friendly, helpful, and interesting.

My time in Tamil Nadu was equally enjoyable, however there I had to combine work with sightseeing. After flying from Calcutta to Chennai I took a train to the city of Tiruchirapalli (“Trichy” to most locals). I stayed at Bishop Heber College where I gave lectures in history to the students and faculty and delivered a presentation on the Fulbright program in India. I was also asked to give a lecture at the nearby Jesuit college, St. Joseph’s. Afterward I was invited to the Jesuit residence on campus to have coffee with the priests and scholastics (shades of a previous life). I really enjoyed my time at both colleges as well as the eye-opening conversations I had with the students and teachers. One thing I learned is that caste discrimination remains a problem even among Indian Christians. Many of them with low-caste origins feel alienated and rejected by the higher caste clergy and laity. Apparently caste sensibility is so firmly rooted in India, even among non-Hindus, that a religion whose doctrine holds that the first shall be last and the last shall be first cannot eradicate this practice. One of my hosts, a professor, is a low-caste Catholic who described to me his own difficult experience dealing with such attitudes in his own community that are so seemingly antithetical to their shared faith.

On Saturday, after two days of lecturing and meeting with faculty and administrators, I boarded a bus headed to the temple city of Madurai. The centerpiece of this city is the Sri Meenakski temple complex, a spectacular network of towers, courtyards, and shrines built in the sixteenth century. The temples are in a distinctively South Indian style and the towers rise above the city, not unlike Mayan pyramids. They are covered from top to bottom with hundreds of brightly painted sculptures of deities and other figures. Over the weekend I made three visits to the temples yet still felt like I was only able to take in a small portion of what was on view.

Two days later I finished my visit to India with a stop in Pondicherry, the former French colony and seaport on the Bay of Bengal. Throughout British rule in India, the French retained control of Pondicherry and maintained it as a tropical Gallic enclave up to the time of independence in 1947. Even now France maintains a consulate there. I enjoyed the chance to stroll along the tree-lined streets and admire the Indo-French maisons with their pastel colored walls and tile roofs. The churches, government buildings, parks, and the waterfront promenade were even more impressive. The best part of Pondicherry, to me at least, was the abundance of excellent French restaurants. I had a delicious steak au vin and a passable Bordeaux on my last night there (steak in India is usually taboo, but Pondicherry seems to be the lone exception to this rule). The next day I returned to Chennai and twelve hours later I was back in Hong Kong.

My return from India left me with just few hectic days to finish up work and finally to allow the realization to sink in that my year in Hong Kong is coming to an end. Last week was filled with farewell lunches and dinners. It was sad saying goodbye to my colleagues at the university and especially in the Fulbright program. The Fulbright General education cohort was a great team and I enjoyed working with them and getting to know Hong Kong with them and their families. I will miss them very much. On Wednesday I packed up my office and returned the key and my ID card. Yesterday was a public holiday so I headed out to Sai Kung for a final boat trip with my dive club. The weather was wonderful and we spent the day diving near one of the islands at Tsim Chau and lounging on the deck taking in the sun, the sea, and the mountain views. After we returned to Sai Kung our group had drinks along the waterfront and then Tricia and I went to the Hung Kee seafood restaurant, one of my favorites and yet another wonderful attraction of Hong Kong that I will sorely miss.

Not much else to tell. I have to sign off now since today is the day I move out of my flat and there is still much packing to do. Tomorrow Tricia and I head to Beijing and then onward to Mongolia. I’ll be back in HK in mid-July and then off to Southeast Asia for more travels. I leave Hong Kong for good in mid-August, but I don’t need to think about that just yet.

The Victoria Memorial, Calcutta; completed 1921, designed by Sir William Emerson