By Alexander Vaughan
Arriving in Mumbai I was truly surprised. I had heard that Mumbai was a lively, cosmopolitan city, with disorganised traffic, Bollywood and ever-growing wealth disparities. But on exiting the bustling Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in the Fort district, I was surrounded by Victorian gothic architecture. I found it hard to believe I was in India and not wandering around Europe. I have a basic understanding of Indian history, and have read of the influence of the East India Company and the British Raj, but I did not expect to see the colonial influence in such an overt form.
Near to CST are the hustling markets which I had anticipated, with locals exchanging rupees for cheap and delicious pav bhaji, onion pakora, samosas, masala chai and a widespread selection of local fruits and vegetables. Around me buildings are crumbling, streets are chaotic and rubbish piles up. Temples, mosques and various national monuments rise tall. The call to prayer from the local mosque is a low hum. Vibrant Hindu and Islamic dress are in abundance.
But it is the influence of the British which really takes me aback. Having travelled briefly in the South of India I find the British influence in Mumbai stark by comparison. The architecture, the language, government and educational system, the transport infrastructure and cricket are all on display and tell the story of colonialism.
But India is not simply a cricketing nation and a democracy based on the British system undergoing rapid development. The Republic of India has only existed for 70 years and is a federation of States with different languages, customs and ways of life which lay within boundaries drawn up at Independence. Behind the visual façade I encountered when I exited CST lays a culture with deep rooted systems and customs, which have existed on the sub-continent for thousands of years.
In our classes so far we have been introduced to the intertwined structures of caste, class and religion and the role they play shaping Indian society. Progress is complicated. Women have less opportunities and face structural hardships. Adding to the intricacies of Indian culture and its many sub-cultures, is the sheer scale of India – how to manage 1.3 billion people?
I need to remember that India has a dynamic and contested history, and that the learning we are receiving inside and outside the class is embedded in this history. I expect the field school will peel away a few of the layers, make things clearer, and organise a few pieces in the greater puzzle that is India. There is so much to learn and consider. I am excited and everyone in the group is engaged.
By Alexander Vaughan