Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Spirit of India

ROYAL ORR

RATLAM, INDIA | It was our last day in India and we were starting out from a small town called Ratlam. We'd come to see a hospital founded by Canadian missionaries nearly a century ago. Unlike many Christian hospitals in India, this one was decrepit and falling apart.

Ratlam is on the main highway between Mumbai and Delhi. It's a major truck stop and was filled every night with big double-axeled flatbeds. All along its dusty streets were tiny shops dealing in retreaded tires and rewelded leaf springs. In the early morning darkness, the blue light of arc welders flashed on the sidewalk in front of our hotel.

A small, white Ambassador cab was waiting for us. These little cars are the backbone of the taxi industry in many Indian cities. They're modeled on British sedans from the early sixties and have a stately if retrained presence.

The four-hour trip back to the regional capital of Indore would cost us 1000 rupees, about 30 Canadian dollars. We paid half up front, because most cabs run practically on empty and the driver has to fill up before heading out on a trip of any distance. You withhold the rest as an incentive, I think, to the cabby to avoid the more hair-raising tactics that many drivers use on Indian highways.

We drove through the town square where a large bronze statue of a Rajput warrior astride a squat little horse dominated a traffic circle. A hero from the wars against the Moghul emperors, it was a not very subtle reminder of how deeply the tensions between Muslims and Hindus run in this country.

We headed out onto the plain that stretches over the 120 kilometres to city of Indore. This region has experienced near-drought conditions for three years and it's the dustiest place I've ever been. But anywhere with irrigation springs to verdant life and teams of workers are harvesting wheat, barley and mustard seed with sickles in many fields along the road.

There are large flocks of sheep grazing over the harvested land. The shepherds carry long, long bamboo staves and nudge their animals out of the way of the racing traffic. The families of the shepherds move slowly behind them, their tents and other belongings loaded on camels that browse the trees in the hedgerows.

All along this highway are gangs of men and women digging a trench. The men swing picks and mattocks and the women dig with metal and rattan baskets. There are thousands of workers stretched out over dozens of kilometers. At regular intervals along the trench's route are big party-colored rolls of fibre-optic cable, waiting for installation to link Ratlam with the world.

This image captured better than any other my experience of India. Millions of people scrabbling to survive in a land that's rushing to take its rightful place in a digital world. India was a hopeful place, I thought. Not because of the presence of advanced technology, but because the spirit of the people seemed as much on the rise as the dust clouds over the Ratlam to Indore highway.


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