Reading Voltaire in Delhi

Source: IntoConnection

India is filthy.

An undergraduate degree in anthropology and many years of cross-cultural exchange work make the above statement both insensitive and undiplomatic, but no less true. There is trash on the streets, flowing in the water and floating in the air.

It is hard for most people to walk, wash or breathe in a healthy way in many of India’s urban centers. In the rural areas, lack of access to sanitation makes statistics about the country’s quickly rising economy seem petty, borderline insulting.

Almost 60% of the population must practice open defecation in a country whose GDP rose by 7% last year.

In order to avoid the filth, most of my neighbors stay inside. The Indian home, in stark contrast to the Indian street, is usually spotless. Clean floors, clean water (bought in large bottles) and cleanly wholesome entertainment options make it possible to sidestep what is dirty for a good part of the day if you have the means. I find myself inside more often, especially on days when the air quality index urges us to, giving me a chance to catch up on reading.

I had struggled through Voltaire in high school, with too little life experience to apply its content in any context. I remember throwing Candide across the room after one particularly brutal chapter. The main character, at the end of a life that started in comfort and ends, after a spectacular spree of misfortune, in misery, is resigned to a simple life of farming. The quote most hotly discussed in class by those who had read the crib notes, “il faut cultiver son jardin,” roughly translates to “tend your own garden.” According to my under-developed interpretation, this basically suggests that one should just worry about themselves. Crap advice for a teenager, and I didn’t pick up Voltaire again until yesterday, more than 20 years later.

In any country with a wide range of income disparity, political corruption and sense of fatalism, it’s attractive to turn inward, worrying only about affairs that are within one’s power to address. “Tending one’s own garden” is possible, tangible, and distracting. It is not, however, sustainably gratifying if one look over the fence shows the unsightly heaps and unsavory smells in which others must sow their own lives.

New government initiatives, like Swachh Bharat (Clean India) are trying to address the filth.

Celebrities with gloves and trash bags take photos picking up garbage. New toilets are being built in rural schools and communities over the next few years. Discussions are happening around municipal waste facilities. Posters and videos urging everyone to do their part are amplified by innovative apps and social media campaigning that hopes to make India more like its postcards. The efforts are aided by a generation that wants to step outside their own gardens (at least, metaphorically).

Recently, in a blog posted in the Times of India, author Chetan Bhagat points out the disparity between the cleanliness of the typical Indian home with the rubbish heap of communal spaces. As a writer with the ear (or eye) of Indian youth, he urges readers to stop delineating between their “own” space and “our” collective space. If everyone just tended the 10 meters outside their own home, then perhaps in a country with so many people, the trash will take care of itself.

Picking up Voltaire on a used book table, I puzzled over this garden metaphor. Put into the context of the long-suffering Candide and his futile quests around “the best of all possible worlds,” I wondered if I’d misinterpreted this perceived axiom. Maybe he and the withered Cunégonde weren’t advising us to tell the rest of the world to piss off, but to instead find satisfaction in cultivating what little change one is capable of.

I can keep 10 meters clean. So can you.

Part of the joy of gardening is transformation. To harvest the potential of small seeds requires time, patience and care. I look forward to seeing the Swachh Bharat movement grow. I worry that not everyone will like to get their hands dirty, but in the end, we all reap exactly what we sow.

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