The most famous story I know that has its origins in India is that of the blind men and the elephant. It’s a parable that in various forms and tellings has been claimed by Bahá’I, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Sufis.
This story was made famous in Europe when 19th-century American poet John Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem about it, one that has been put to music and animated for use in corporate training workshops dealing with conflict resolution and negotiation. Apparently it’s also found its way into physics classrooms where it’s used as an analogy for wave-particle duality, and into biology labs where it helps explain polyclonal B cell response. Not bad going at all.
Each variation on the same theme cautions us regarding subjective experience and its failure to take all truth into account. Each of the six blind men is asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a particular part of the animal; none touches the whole. Not surprisingly, they each come up with a different answer and then fight amongst themselves to determine who is right.
Differences between the various versions stem from how the parts of the elephant are described. For example, the elephant’s trunk is described as the branch of a tree (Jain), a plough (Buddhist) and a water spout (Sufi). The stories also differ with regard to the degree of conflict between the blind men and how they resolve (or fail to resolve) their arguments.
I was reminded of this when in Hyderabad recently. At lunch one day, conversation turned to the world’s view of India and how so much depends on personal experience. Unlike Ireland or Hungary, in my experience India evokes an either/or response. Either you love it, or you don’t. Many people love/like, hate/dislike or are completely indifferent to Hungary and Ireland. But not so with India.
Those travelling there to do business might return full of enthusiasm for the myriad electronic and technology hubs that are sprouting up in cities such as Bangalore and Greater Noida. They might tout the development the country is undergoing as a commendable sign of progress and growth.
Others might just see the extreme poverty and inequality that breed in the shadows of the high-rise apartments built to house the growing middle class and at the foot of the glass-walled skyscraper complexes built in homage to new industry. They might return with such talk that it would turn others off going at all.
More still might never see the outside of their hotels, tour buses and the routes planned by their guided-tour operators, shielded from anything deemed unsavoury and exposed only to handpicked tourist sites, five-star restaurants and government-approved vendors.
And, just as in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, to paraphrase Saxe, each one would be partly in the right but all would be in the wrong.
India is an elephant, a massive, glorious, multifaceted beast that takes the concept of extreme to a whole new level. A quick internet search reveals the village of Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra, a village that is so safe its houses have no doors, its bank has no locks and it has no need for a police station. The village of Pothanikkad in Kerala was the first in the country to reach 100% literacy. The village of Hiware Bazar, also in Maharashtra, boasts 60 millionaires. Imagine.
On the love/hate side, I’m definitely in love. Over the course of three separate visits in ten years, I’ve seen some massive changes and have come to appreciate the differences between north and south. My advice: give it a chance. See for yourself. Take an open mind and an open heart with you and you’ll come home all the richer. Go discover your truth about India.
First published in the Budapest Times 22 January 2016