Last October, I went sightseeing in Calcutta with a friend. We began with a short cycle rickshaw ride, took a local train to Sealdah, wandered near College St, boarded another train to the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar, caught a commuter boat across the Hooghly to Belur Math, went on a bus to BBD Bagh, hopped on the Metro to Park Street for a Kathi roll, and ended the jaunt with a taxi to my friend's home. In just a few hours, we had sampled six modes of transportation. Notable exclusions include the tram, the auto, and the hand-pulled rickshaw.
I wondered where else in the world are so many public transportation modes possible. Calcutta, like the rest of India, abounds with such diversity of experiences. They are integral to the claim I'm about to make now: India is perhaps the most diverse country on the planet.
Some will ask: How can this be? Can India, an old, conservative culture that has seen relatively little migration in recent centuries from outside the subcontinent, be more diverse than, say, the US? Others will readily agree, invoking the scores of languages and dialects of India, regional cuisines, prodigious variety of faiths and customs, folk music, dance, attire, art, architecture, and other aspects of diversity that adorn colorful tourist brochures. What, after all, do denizens of Ladakh or Mizoram have in common with natives of Kutch or Coorg? However, to buttress my claim further, I'll mention some other key aspects of Indian diversity beyond these routine invocations.
Let's return to Calcutta. Each day multitudes -- from eastern tribals seeking a toehold in the metropolis to Blackberry kids plotting vacations in Europe -- walk, sleep, cook, eat, bathe, buy, sell, help, hustle, beg, piss, and pray on its streets, amid bustling old markets, signs and sounds in many tongues, and migrants from neighboring countries. Poverty and beseeching voices compete with lifestyle ads and displays of the rich. Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, and Baha'i publicly practice their faiths and festivals, without fear or self-consciousness (when did that last happen in the US?). Its schools read literature and teach physics in several languages. Religious cult leaders, as well as some of the most rational minded Indians -- artists, scientists, philosophers -- have arisen and continue to arise from this milieu.
Political parties champion ideological visions across a wider political and economic spectrum: from socialist to right wing nationalism, from regulated to free markets (socialism is not a dirty word, as it is in the US). A great many group feelings and identities arise out of its castes and classes, as well as educational and economic disparities (from rocket scientists to illiterates, posh gated enclaves to slums). Day trips away from the city are ruins of ancient cities. Layers upon layers of history, stories upon stories, all add to the diversity of ideas on how to live. Unlike the melting pot that is the US, I see India as decidedly a salad bowl.
But what good is such riotous diversity that often impedes people coming together in common cause? The history of India shows that diversity has no causal relationship with material progress, rationalism, or social liberalism. In my mind, the primary benefit of diversity is in thwarting singular narratives of being. Diversity is a formidable bulwark against political and religious fundamentalism. It resists dogmatisms of various kind. It challenges and inspires, and helps create more vibrant art, music, and literature. As an ever present reminder of the fickle, malleable, and inscrutable human material, it perhaps even encourages awe and humility.
Update: Check out a related exchange on diversity that took place here.