Elephant carving at Orissa, India

You either love it or you hate it, someone once said about Marmite. I have heard the same cliché applied to India. But it is untrue, whether you are talking about the salty black goo that Britons spread on their toast or the world’s largest democracy.

For Marmite, there must be people who neither adore it nor loathe it but find it rather so-so. For India, the cliché is wrong in a different way. Like many friends here (Indian and foreign) we realise this is not an either/or choice: we love it and hate it passionately at the same time.

So here — in my last column in this slot before the end of a south Asia posting — are four loves and four hates for the four years we have enjoyed and endured life in Delhi.

Hate: Pollution. I thought air pollution in Hong Kong was bad when we lived there a decade ago, but Delhi has been worse, more vile even than Beijing for carcinogenic particles. For five months last winter we barely saw blue sky through the pall of dust and smoke generated by the burning of wood, cattle dung, crop waste, coal and diesel in one of the world’s biggest megacities (25m inhabitants and rising). Rivers and groundwater are polluted too, but water filters work better than air filters.

Love: Animals. Paradoxically, India is also a refuge for wildlife in spite of competition for space from 1.3bn humans. It is not only the tame (the urban elephants, camels and cows) or the clever (like the swooping kites that snatch burgers from the hands of baseball spectators at the American school). You can see Sarus cranes, the world’s tallest birds, mincing along next to factories in Uttar Pradesh, or watch hornbills and ibises from our study window in New Delhi.

Hate: Trolls. In the internet age, it is the fate of journalists (and historians, politicians and academics) who write about India to be deluged with online abuse questioning their sanity and objectivity. Most of the attacks are ill-informed and many seem to come from Hindu nationalists based in the US and the Gulf. It would be nice if the critics read more than the headlines and engaged in a reasoned debate.

Love: Free speech. In some ways, India is the easiest country in the world to work as a journalist. An Indian — whether soldier, politician or farm labourer — is rarely lost for words or reluctant to speak to the press. Most Indian business leaders eschew the spin-doctors and corporate gobbledegook that make talking to US chief executives so painful. Indians just discuss what is going on. Long may it last.

Hate: Bureaucracy. Just two examples. First, babies born to foreigners in India must pay fines for overstaying their (non-existent) entry visas: true, I promise. Second, Arvind Subramanian, the government’s chief economic adviser, complained recently about the absurd multiplicity of electricity prices in India. In one state, which he politely did not name, there was a special rate for mushroom and rabbit farms. I looked it up, and it is Andhra Pradesh, which has 89 different prices, ranging from zero for small farmers to 11.58 rupees per unit for advertisement hoardings, all listed in a 39-page document and no doubt enforced by a large number of civil servants. (The rate for rabbit farms is Rs5.63). You can see why I admire those who do business in India.

Love: Flying. Just over a decade ago, you struggled through crowds of touts, fixers, agents and weeping families to get in and out of chaotic airports and had to arrive hours in advance to be sure of catching an international flight. Now new airports have been built, new airlines launched and order has been restored. New private entrants such as IndiGo are as efficient and cheap as EasyJet in Europe.

Hate: Bad roads, bad mobile phone connections, bad plumbing, dangerous electric wiring and shoddy brickwork. What happened to the Mughals, with their waterways and fine brickwork? (See below).

Love: Ancient civilisations. The remains of their rich art and architecture are everywhere from Orissa to Karnataka, and — with the exception of Rajasthan and the Mughals — surprisingly little known even among Indians.

In sum, that most famous of tourism advertising slogans, “Incredible India”, was perfect because it was true: India is incredibly frustrating — but also incredibly rewarding.


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