Revisiting a Vast Majority: A Journal from India

Revisiting a Vast Majority: A Journal from India

In The Vast Majority, a book published thirty-one years ago, Michael Harrington wrote of a trip to India during the reign of Indira Gandhi. He mused on the chutzpah of reporting his impressions after only a few weeks in this enormous country. But, he noted, “To know a country from the inside, one must live there for years; to know it infinitely better than someone who has never been there, weeks will suffice.” With Harrington’s words in mind, we offer some perspectives gathered during a trip to India by Western sociologists that we co-led under the sponsorship of the People to People Foundation—a nongovernmental organization formed with the support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to bring American professionals face-to-face with counterparts in other regions of the world.

For one of us (CFE), it was a return visit to places mentioned by Harrington, because by chance both had attended the 1976 Fulbright conference in Gopalpur-on-Sea, Orissa State, a focus of his book. (CFE had been brought to India by the U.S. Information Agency as part of its contribution to activities marking International Women’s Year.)

The following account mixes memories of 1976 with the sociologists’ meetings of November 2007 and some informal research on the enormous changes in India during the past thirty years.

We landed at the airport in Delhi, now named in memory of Indira Gandhi, and no longer marked by the surge of humanity that greeted travelers in the 1970s. But the roadways to the city from the airport retained the old chaos, and en route by chartered bus to our hotel, we encountered the mayhem of cars, scooter taxis, packed city buses, motorcycles carrying several people on the seats and handlebars, the odd person walking amid the traffic, and the more-than-occasional cow and infrequent-but-by-no-means-rare camel or elephant. “Are there no traffic rules?” we asked the guide. “Oh yes,” he replied, laughing, but “they are no more than a ‘suggestion’!”

If the roads were disorderly, the roadside sights were more so. Even at midnight, work was underway for the new subway line being rushed to completion in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Encampments of people—workers and their families, we were to learn—were visible in the floodlights at the sides of the roadway and the open trenches. They lived in housing that moved as each section of the subway was constructed. These were not houses or trailers, but hovels under tarps and blankets, with laundry hanging on trees. Children darted in and out of the construction sites and the lean-tos. We suppose the workers are grateful for the jobs. (And jobs are a life-and-death issue for a poor country with a high rate of increase. The 600 million Indians referred to in Harrington’s book have nearly doubled in thirty years—to 1.15 billion—and in twenty more years India’s population may exceed that of China.)

The sights from the bus windows...