The Chaos and Richness of India: On Assignment with USAID

Verinag, Kashmir, India

Verinag, Kashmir, India | Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis via Flickr

by Al Hirshen

It is a testament to the unique visual and emotional richness of India that twenty-nine years after working there, everything is still vivid in my mind. The sheer number of people and the extreme poverty magnify each experience. Every type of person is found in India. They cover the full-color range from very dark, to tan, to white, and come in all shapes: not just the thin and tall Indians of travel books, but short and fat people as well. Bearded or not, hatless or wearing Turbans (pagri or pugree). Women wear saris and scarves of brilliant colors in different configurations. All the religions of the world are present, not just Hindu, but Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and so on. Other countries may have similar religious mixes, but nowhere are they in the same numbers or as spread out through the whole country. Temples, mosques, churches and even synagogues are everywhere.

During the month I spent in India as a consultant for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in 1988, I worked in five cities and visited another five as a tourist. As often was the case with my USAID assignments, the weather was at its worst. In Delhi and other places of dry climate, the temperature would reach 117 degrees, and in high humidity climates such as Bombay (Mumbai), it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

The purpose of the mission was to approve five local developers of moderate-income housing as recipients of financial aid from a newly created Housing Bank. The Bank was to receive the USAID funding and supervise its use (creating proper accounting procedures, etc.) by the five local housing development corporations.

The Chaos of India

Cow standing in the middle of Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Cow standing in the middle of Chandni Chowk, Delhi | Photograph by Dan via Flickr

When I arrived in India, the US government was concerned about new acts of terrorism in the aftermath of the 1985 Air India plane bombing. The US had recently released several Sikhs, who had been convicted for their role in the bombing, to the Indian Authorities. The government’s concern about retributive violence against US citizens and companies was well founded. On our first morning in Delhi, after a scheduled meeting in the Citibank building, we drove to the sprawling and enormous U.S. Embassy for a meeting with the Ambassador. He told us that over the next few days there was a real chance of terrorism on the part of Sikhs aimed at Americans.   We should leave Delhi as soon as possible and return after a few days. We rescheduled our appointments and immediately left for Ahmedabad. An hour later, at 12:15 p.m., a bomb went off in the lobby of the Citibank building. One person was killed and fourteen were wounded. We missed being harmed by three hours.

In Delhi, all the drivers of rickshaws (a three-wheeled, motorized taxi cart called tuk-tuk in Thailand) seemed to be Sikh. To counter the threats against Americans we told them we were Canadians. In retrospect, I chuckle at our silly ruse because the Sikh drivers would never be able to discern the difference between an American and Canadian accent.

Ahmedabad, Gujarat, is a city of approximately 5 million. The cotton textile center of the country, it is called the Manchester of India. Only in India will you see a city of 5 million people share the streets with the sacred Brahman cows. It is a testament to the power of religion that the hungry poor do not kill and eat the cows. I have a photo that captures these crowded streets, with the women’s multi-colored saris and pantsuits flashing brilliantly against the muddy brown and blacks of the animals and roads. I spotted a luscious outdoor fruit and vegetable market, but by the time I crossed the street to inspect the red-red tomatoes and deep orange carrots, I was overpowered by the smell of shit. The odor from burning cow paddies that are used for cooking and fuel, or from the excrement of animals walking the streets of largely populated cities can be unexpected and overwhelming. No fruits or vegetables for me!

Ahmedabad is also famous as the home of Gandhi. Gandhi was a Gujarati. After interviewing the CEO of the local housing development corporation, I visited Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, a flat dirt compound on the banks of the Sabarmati River. Its simple structures and the stillness that can be found inside (I spent several hours there) mirror the simple dignity of Gandhi himself. It is astonishing to comprehend that from such a humble place a revolution against a leading world power was started and changed the world.

We returned to Delhi to catch up with our rescheduled appointments. I was well aware of the absurdity of my having to determine the honesty and competence of the five development companies after only a two-or-three day interchange with their executives. I was comforted, however, by the fact that the newly developed Housing Bank would have the time, procedures and expertise to confirm or not confirm my judgment. As life would have it, my judgment proved correct, and the project was the most successful of the numerous USAID assignments I worked on over the.

In Delhi you acutely feel the chaos and poverty of India. It is crushing. No other place in my travels has come close (Cairo being the closest). Beggars are everywhere. When your car stops at a stoplight, a woman carrying a baby in her arms appears from nowhere and knocks on your window, pantomiming food for the baby. If you respond and open the window, within a second, hundreds of children and other women with babies in their arms materialize from nowhere. In all probability, the babies do not even belong to the women but are part of a sophisticated “begging gang”. Most beggars are taught not to take a polite no for an answer. For me, the toughest beggars to refuse were the lepers and the men without legs on roller platforms, both tugging at my pants.

I encountered the gulf between the rich and poor in India whenever I left my five-star, air-conditioned hotel. If my taxi turned right instead of left, I would find myself in the middle of a Delhi slum with cheek-by-jowl tin-roofed wooden or cardboard shanties. The density of the shelters and population was staggering. On the other hand, I enjoyed the exotic and charming nature of India when I arrived back at the same hotel to see an elephant eating a tree just before the car-drive entrance. The sterile government buildings and boulevards of New Delhi were a sharp contrast to the teeming street life of Delhi.

People react differently to the devastating poverty of India. To emotionally survive, either you don’t go, leave as fast as possible, or shut down all or part of your humanity. A friend, who was on his fifth trip to India, after landing in Delhi and showering at his five-star hotel, immediately drove back to the airport and flew home. The sights, sounds and smells of Delhi had simply crushed him. I understood that over-reacting to the misery would help no one. Nonetheless, I had to partly close down my emotional self in order to function. It was not easy to face the reality of India, but I felt it was important to look deeper and recognize that even in this wretchedness Indians retained the human capacity for love and the desire to make life better. In my conversations, after our business meetings were finished, I saw these qualities in some of the Indian men I was interviewing. They talked glowingly about their parents and children and their aspirations for the projects they wished to build. These projects would allow moderate-income tenants or owners to live much closer to their work and allow for more family time. They also talked about the caste system, the poor, and their hopes for change.

Indians Are Not Italians

Nevertheless, the impact of living daily with extreme poverty, a strict class structure, the difficulty of earning a living, and the holdover of the worst attitudes of the British aristocracy, made me feel that Indians are Italians without charm. Both are aggressive in getting what they want (a minor example is cutting to the head of the line), but Italians operate with a twinkle in their eye and laughter at the “dance of life.”

Three examples from Delhi will demonstrate my point. The first had to do with a taxi ride from our hotel to the shopping area of Delhi. We arranged the cost of the ride with the driver before leaving the hotel. On the way back we went through the same process, but this time the driver gave us a price 40% higher for the same ride. When I said we had just traversed the same distance for a 40% cheaper fare, he said, “Oh yes, but that was without the shopping bags you now have.” I still give him points for his agility, but he did not wink or smile. An Italian would have laughed at the situation together with you. A minor rip-off is tolerable if accompanied by charm.

Another time I asked a man for directions. He offered to take us there and I assumed he would lead us to our destination, as would be the case in Italy. Instead, he walked us to his taxi and demanded an outrageous fare to drive us one and a half blocks. He acted with a plain aggressive hustle and without any redeeming grace.

Lastly, when your flight is called at the airport, Indians will literally run you over to get to the gate and then run through you again to identify their luggage that has been set out on the tarmac before being loaded onto the plane. This procedure was put in place as a safety precaution after the 1985 Sikh-orchestrated Air India bombing. At least Italians would run you over smiling and saying “Scusi, scusi,” letting you know that it’s not ok, but they can’t help doing it anyway.

The airport stampede reminds me of the difficult logistics of doing business in India. First and foremost, although Indians speak English, our totally different pronunciation means we are really speaking different languages. I have no trouble understanding Brits or Aussies, but it took me awhile before I understood what I was being asked when someone inquired how I liked my “otel”? It was my hotel I was being asked about. In time, and with great difficulty, I was able to understand 90% of what was said at the moment it was said. Of course, it was impossible (too insulting) to have an interpreter.

Three other factors created difficulties for me in 1988: First, although I had no trouble calling DC or Berkeley from Delhi, it was impossible to call across town. This meant there was no way to confirm appointments. You had to go to the meeting at the prearranged time and hope your counterpart would be present. Many times the meeting was delayed a full hour. Usually, there was no air-conditioning and no waiting room. Your choice was to stay put and swelter, or go back to the comfort of the hotel and try again later. Also, you could neither call an airline to change flights nor see if your plane from Delhi to Bombay was on time. I waited a number of times at the non-air conditioned airport for my plane that was three or four hours late.

The whole process sapped your energy and was emotionally tiresome.

Driving safely anywhere in India was a matter of luck, maybe even a miracle. I would close my eyes the minute my driver turned on the engine. The professional drivers normally were exceptionally good at avoiding other cars or people crossing the street. But in order to avoid a bug on the highway, they would swerve wildly in the direction of people and animals walking on the side of the road. Amazingly, neither would react in panic and flee. The highways were too narrow for large trucks and cars going in opposite directions. As the drivers of the trucks never accommodated anyone, the approaching cars had to swerve off the road to avoid head-on-collisions. Would we, another person or an animal on the side of the road be killed as the truck merrily went on his way? Only fate would answer this question.

The Taj Mahal in Agra

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Taj Mahal, Agra, India | Photographer: Chetan Karkhanis in association with via Flickr

Whenever I work in a country I make time to explore and experience the street life, famous sites and the beautiful countryside it presents. In this regard, the Taj Mahal in the town of Agra was a must-see destination.

In order to access the train station and descend the stairs to the platform for the train to Agra, one had to literally enter the sidewalk “houses” (without ceilings or walls) of the poor. The dwellings in front of the station went on to my right and left as far as my eye could see. Uninvited, I strode through “kitchens,” “bathrooms” and “bedrooms.” Women were cooking over wood and cow-dung fires; senior citizens were still in their beds, consisting of very thin mattresses or just cardboard, and others were relieving themselves on the ground in a “bathroom” space.

While sitting in my first class, air-conditioned train, directly across from me on another track I saw a train bound for the Punjab, with as many people sitting on top of the cars as were crammed inside. These are the cheapest (free) and most dangerous seats. Many people die each year using this mode of transportation.

The Taj Mahal lived up to its billing although the drought that year had diminished the beauty of what once was a deep-green grass approach to the palace. I was lucky to get a tip to stay at the Sheraton hotel across the river from the Taj and see it bathed in moonlight from the window of my room. It was as advertised, very beautiful and truly romantic. I felt the deep loss and testament to love that inspired this architectural marvel.

As wonderful as the Taj was, the more amazing site for me was the UNESCO World Heritage Center of Fatehpur Sikri. The four hundred year-old, five-mile walled royal complex had embattlements on three sides and a vast artificial lake on the fourth. The lake was linked to the city by an elaborate water supply system. Fatehpur Sikri embraces a palace, courtyards, gazebos, and one of India’s largest mosques. The complex is unique for its open spaces and gates. Each gate is grand in size and most have elaborate carvings. The buildings and floors are made of local red sandstone. Among the seven gated entrances, Agra Gate is the most important as it was used for royal ceremonies.

Fatehpur Sikri was founded by the Mughal emperor Akaba in 1569. It was the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. The Mughals ruled mainly northern India from 1526-1707, after Babur (a direct descendant of Genghis Khan) defeated the Muslim rulers. Emperor Akaba personally supervised the planning, design and the work of the local artisans in the construction over a ten-year period. What fascinated me the most about the site was the inclusion of elements of Persian, Hindu, Jain and Islamic architecture. What a fantastic place! This respect for the major religious-ethnic populations was symbolic of how the Mughals ruled.

My trip to Agra taught me two lessons. First, even though you are in a first class car of the train, the cleanliness standards (especially with respect to dishwashing and drinking water) are not the same as in some of the first class hotels. Second, make sure your consultant contract with USAID contains a provision for use of the medical facilities at the Embassy. I had to go to a private doctor and then ride a rickshaw to the opposite end of town for lab work. The next morning I had to pick up the written report from the lab and return with it to the doctor’s office. Of course, the lab and doctor’s office were at opposite ends of town. A first-class train ticket had not saved me from picking up a bug from drinking my hot tea. Antibiotics stopped me from doubling over and continually running to a bathroom. Finding bathrooms you want to use outside of your hotel presented a major problem. Although this situation definitely had its comic elements, it just was not fun. With a smile, the doctor said: “Welcome to India”.

My next stop was visiting a housing development company in Bombay (Mumbai). When my taxi exited the airport, around 7 pm, we drove by what seemed to be fifteen square blocks of people sleeping on their beds under the sky and very close to each other. At the time I presumed that they preferred sleeping in the street, as their houses were not air-conditioned. But as I write this I am still not sure if this was the reason or if they had no houses to go to.

Bombay and the Glory of the Raj

Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace | Photograph by Marc Dalmulder via Flickr

Although Bombay is a modern city and the Indian center for finance, commerce and entertainment, I found myself one moment side by side with a Sadhu holy man with flowering white hair and a painted face in yellow, red and white, and the next witnessing a man defecating in front of the Indian “Federal Reserve Bank.”

From my window in the old section of the Taj Mahal hotel, I admired the Gateway of India that was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, in 1911. Its construction was completed in 1924. It was called the Taj Mahal of Bombay. Its arch-domed structure is eighty- three feet above ground at its highest point. The Gateway faces the Arabian Sea and became the ceremonial entrance of the Viceroys and Governors. Since the time of Queen Victoria (1858) until independence (1947), India was under the direct control of the British Crown. This period of time is called the Raj. To me, the Gateway symbolizes the over-the-top pomp and ceremony of the Raj, the British military control and wealth derived from India. Coupled with the British feelings of superiority, the “Indian Empire” created a negative and troubling legacy.

Bangalore (now Bengaluru) has a welcome “benevolent” climate (temperature was in the 90s) that attracted the elite of the Raj. I saw many examples of their expensive houses and gardens, demonstrates that the legacy of the Raj was still alive in Bangalore. The city was the home of the Kannada language film industry. The Kannada language has an unbroken history of over a thousand years and is spoken by over forty million Indians, yet I had never heard of it. Only in India could a language spoken by more people than those of many other countries fall off the radar.

Mysore, which is near Bangalore, houses the incredible Ambavilas Palace (Mysore Palace). It is another example of the extreme wealth that existed in many principalities during the Raj. The British could ignore the problem of the poor but not the status and power of the Indian princes. Ambavilas (built from 1892 to 1912) rivals Versailles for sheer size and may surpass it for its breathtaking beauty, especially when it is lit up at night. The east gate (front gate) is usually opened only once a year during the Dasara Festival in autumn, and then only for VVIPs. You could ride elephants through the gates and arches, and they did! The building is made of fine gray marble with deep pin marble dooms. Inside you find stained glass windows and ceilings, mosaic floors embellished with semi-precious stones, and a wooden elephant howdah (frame for carrying passengers) decorated with eighty-four kilograms of gold. The glory of India’s bygone days is on display in other places as well, for example in the Amber Palace, Jaipur with its phenomenal embossed, double–leaf silver doors of the Sila Devi temple. Realizing the staggering wealth that existed in India, especially when juxtaposed to the overwhelming poverty of the country, is helpful in understanding the paradoxes of present-day India.

A Trip to the Desert

The last of my interviews was with the CEO of the Madras housing development corporation. He was an example of the fact that there is always an exception to generalizations about people. Although he was a member of the upper class, he had a deep concern for affordable housing. We had a working lunch at his club that confirmed the city’s reputation for top-notch food. The irony of our eating at a British style club that only a short time ago, he could not have entered was not lost on me. We all have our contradictions.

After finishing my assignment I decided to stay on in India and visit Rajasthan. Rajasthan is in the desert and the temperature was 117 degrees, but I decided to go. To paraphrase an old saying: “Only mad dogs and Al go out in the noontime sun.” I hired a car and driver for the trip. The car was a classic Indian-made “Ambassador”. It had beautiful lines and plenty of room. It also had a problem: the air conditioning only worked when the car was stationary. I could go nowhere and be cool, or go somewhere and sit in a pool of sweat. We set off from Delhi on my desert adventure trip. I would go to Jaipur, Puskar, and Mandawa.

Jaipur is the capital of the Rajasthan province. It is known as the “pink city” due to its painted pink sandstone buildings.  For two nights, I stayed in the Rambagh Palace hotel with its beautiful gardens, joining the peacocks to roam through them. I was one of the six guests crazy enough to visit Jaipur in May.  I ate all my meals in a sometimes completely empty hotel restaurant. The meal was always eaten to the sound of sitar and drum music. Because of the searing heat, I only left my room in the early morning and late afternoon. Jaipur was a wonder to behold. The women’s clothing was made of deep and rich hues of red, pink, gold and blue, set against their ebony-colored skin. Their large, intricately designed silver and metal jewelry was a perfect addition. The juxtaposition of the colorful women with the browns of the desert hills and the light pinks of the buildings was striking.

It was 117 degrees in the early afternoon when I reached my hotel in Puskar, one of the top ten Hindu religious sites in the world. It is also the site of a famous Camel Festival that attracts many thousands of visitors every year. It is the home of the only major Brahma temple in India. Brahma is the Hindu God who created the world. The temple is close to a sacred lake, and my hotel suite overlooked the lake. The only other guests in the hotel were three young German hippies. After a shower, I set forth on a fifteen-minute walk to visit the temple. With every step, the calm of the lake setting gave way to the chaos of hordes of beggars and trinket sellers, none of whom would take no for an answer. It was an annoying, non-spiritual, mood changing experience. Once I entered the temple the beggars were replaced by numerous aggressive monkeys, swinging on tree branches from one part of the temple to another and running at me for food. In spite of this further irritating experience, the noise of the aggressive beggars and monkeys seemed to disappear for a short period of time and I was left with a magical, mystical feeling brought on by the sight of the beautifully carved stone statues adorned with orange carnation garlands and the trees with numerous tangled vines within the temple. But soon the monkeys rudely returned to my consciousness and I had to run the same gauntlet of beggars and trinket sellers back to the hotel. When I sat in my room I closed my eyes to conjure up the brief feelings of wonder I had in the temple. One minute of true peace was worth thirty minutes of hassle. I experienced this jarring juxtaposition again and again in India.

Around sunset I was sitting in the outdoor roof restaurant overlooking the sacred lake when the Hindu version of the Muslim “call to prayer’ exploded over the loudspeaker. As I listened to the “chanting” and watched people enter the sacred lake, suddenly a thousand white-wing bats flew over my head. The sound was deafening, as if I was about to be run over by a very loud train. All I could think was: “Holy moly Gunga Din” (I saw the faces of Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the movie of the same name). Ah India! A phrase I repeated often.

That night I awoke every two hours in a bed of sweat, and a cold shower allowed me to sleep for another two hours. The temperature had fallen to 103 degrees.

The next morning I set off for what should have been the three-hour ride to Mandawa, which was even deeper in the desert. After a six-hour non-air-conditioned ride that consisted of taking the wrong turn over and over again in the 117-degree heat, I arrived in Mandawa. The town is referred to as an “open art gallery.” It is dotted with fascinating mansions (havelis) that have lavishly painted frescoed walls outside and inside. There are numerous painted mammoth-elephants, in blue or brown, with dignitaries seated in a “chair” on top, in gold, red, and green. Different geometric design patterns of blue and white show up everywhere. Many of the frescoes, however, were badly in need of repair.

After the horrible night I spent in Pukar, I vowed not to repeat the experience. I would only stay in Mandawa if my room was air-conditioned. The manager said it was not, but he would supply fans. I was not having it. I told my driver we were returning to Delhi. He pleaded with me to stay in Mandawa, as he said he was too tired from the six-hour drive he just completed. I asserted myself and off we went to Delhi. But as the gods would have it, when we were about to hook up with the road to Delhi we were met by a blinding sandstorm. We had no choice but to return to Mandawa.

The manager was delighted to see me again. He offered me the largest Maharaja suite in the hotel and positioned large fans around my bed. After a shower, I returned to the lobby where the manager proposed a tour of the hotel. It was empty except for a couple I never saw. As we started, the electricity failed and all the lights in the hotel went out. The manager, who was resourceful, continued the tour with his flashlight illuminating our way. When we were outside the walls of the main hotel, the electricity returned to reveal a charming garden. The manager asked me where and when I would like to have dinner? I said, “If possible, right here and now in the garden?” He said, “Of course,” clapped his hands and a table and chair appeared from nowhere with a turban-clad waiter standing at the ready. As I sat down he clapped his hands again, and an exquisite young woman appeared and began to dance to the music of the sitar, played, as it turned out, by her father. Under a canopy of a million stars, with a waiter serving me in a garden, with the fortress wall of the hotel as a backdrop, I had my five-star dinner and watched a beautiful young woman dancing. I was Maharajah Al for a few hours.

On our way back from Mandawa to Delhi, we stopped at a railroad crossing where the gates were down, but people on foot and bicycle went around and under the gates and crossed the tracks. After waiting twenty minutes, I was getting impatient to be on our way, when suddenly the gates lifted. No train ever passed. Again, ah India!

Friends tell me that getting around and the logistics of doing business in India have much improved since 1988. They also tell me that the overwhelming poverty and class distinctions I encountered remain, but so do the magical experiences I discovered in India.

Al Hirshen is a former civil rights lawyer, member of the Carter Administration, and a development consultant in numerous countries. His book Stories from a Lifetime of Travel is forthcoming in 2018. You can keep up with him on Facebook here.


  1. Susan Tillett says:

    Thanks for sharing the vivid sensory experiences of India, both lavishly lovely and Shockley hot and crowded. I’ve always wanted to go…and always known it wasn’t for me, so I appreciated the detailed descriptions.

  2. Steve Zaidman says:

    Wonderful read. Should be required reading for those who plan to travel to India. I had worked with the Indian government in the late 80’s and early 90’s on aviation safety matters. I can vouch that wading through the bureaucracy there was indeed torturous. Hopefully, as you mention, it has improved since.

  3. Traversing India with Maharajah Al made me realize although it is often beautiful and fascinating, I’d rather read his colorful descriptions and analyses than experience them first hand. Another superbly written travel adventure.

  4. Bill Wigert says:

    I found this article well written, informative and fascinating. But I’ve never had a desire to travel in India and my mind has changed after reading this account!

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