The city of Allahabad lies in the heart of the vast North Indian plains, at the confluence of the two sacred rivers of Hinduism, the Ganges and the Yamuna. Flying across the plains on a clear day you can follow the rivers as they descend from the Himalayas and then meander through great expanses of flat cultivated land, past clusters of ancient cities and towns. Three millennia ago, their waters provided the basis for the civilization of the original Aryan settlers of North India. Each winter, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims still travel to Allahabad from all across India for a religious fair near the confluence.
Yet the place isn’t easy to get to. There are no commercial flights to it, and the hectic coming and going during the recent elections to the national parliament—India’s third in as many years, called after a temperamental film-star-turned-politician from the South withdrew her party’s support from the Hindu nationalist BJP- led coalition government in Delhi—made it impossible to get a seat on short notice on the overnight train from Delhi. To get to Allahabad in time for the early campaigning, I had to fly from Delhi to Benares, along with a tour group of Italians traveling to see the erotic temple sculpture at Khajuraho, and then drive eighty miles east to Allahabad.
The flight is operated by one of India’s new private airlines. The breakfast was freshly cooked and warm; the toilets were clean and generously supplied with cologne; and the courtesy and efficiency of the staff were marvels compared to the resolute badness of the state-owned Indian Airlines. Miles out of Delhi, moving deeper into a part of India still untouched by the entrepreneurial energy and foreign investments of recent years, the flight could seem part of the good things contact with the global economy had brought to India: higher standards of health and hygiene, a greater alertness to individual needs.
The long bone-rattling drive afterward to Allahabad on potholed roads flooded at places with calf-deep rainwater, past the tin-roofed shacks and rain-battered villages of mud and thatch—the cowering huts, so picturesque from the plane, now appearing frail, in danger of collapsing onto the sodden earth, low-caste women paving tiny courtyards with cow dung, the men spinning rope for the string cots, the sky low and gray over the flat fields and tiny huts and the buffaloes placid in muddy pools—the long drive through a world that belonged to itself as fixedly as it would have two centuries ago was a reminder of how far even the superficially good things of a globalized economy were from this heavily populated and impoverished part of India.
India, with its severe disparities of income, caste, and religion, is split into a great many separate worlds. You can live in one without knowing anything about the others; and no world seems to have a clear past until you make the effort to dredge it up. I didn’t …