After recovering from my bout of giardia, I finally boarded the overnight train heading southbound from Puri to Hyderabad. The long journey was considerably enlivened – as if it needed to be, considering the bubbling insanity of India's trains – by a bunch of young Indian zoology students from Andhra Pradesh, of which Hyderabad is the state capital. One of them, Kiran, was particularly interesting; he was that rarest of creatures, a non-proselytising Indian Christian.
'I have a beautiful steel guitar,' he said, 'made by a steel factory that was set up as a collaboration between the Germans and the Russians. When the factory closed down, they sold off many items cheaply, and I got a beautiful guitar for only 500 rupees. I was incredibly lucky; I believe it was a gift from God so I could make music and have a hobby.'
Having lost both parents at age five, he suffered from 'many troubles' for some time, but he discovered Jesus, and was telling me that he had read the Bible, right up to Mark's gospel, which he was tackling now. This isn't terribly unusual in the great scheme of things, but in India, becoming a Christian isn't just a case of crying 'hallelujah' and digging Jehovah instead of Siva; it's a case of voluntarily ostracising yourself from society. Hindus reject those of their faith who switch to another; after all, as far as they're concerned, you're born a Hindu and will die a Hindu, and that's all there is to it.
'The man in charge of the pilgrims in Puri, I was talking to him the other day,' said Kiran. 'He's been unhappy for nine years now and is not finding solace in his Hinduism, so I persuaded him to think about Jesus, if he can make the change. And this friend of mine, Jaganhadha, has an uncle who changed to Christianity, but he was thrown out by his family; the uncle is now prosperous and happy, but the family is in turmoil, and Jaganhadha is thinking of turning Christian too. But it's a hard decision, to discard your family for your beliefs. You must be sure.'
Kiran also had some interesting views on politics and colonialism, and they're worth mentioning. From such people as these you learn much about the country you are travelling in, but the only way to really understand the place is to be born here; it's so different from the West that it's practically another planet.
'We are very thankful for the British,' he said. 'They gave us an education system, the railways, a health system, and a democracy, even if it is very corrupt now. We have not really advanced these since the British left, so without the British, we would have nothing at all.
'Unfortunately, our big problem is that there is much corruption in the government. If the BJP party gets in, things will be very bad for the Christians. Consider the story of the Babri Masjid1. It's very difficult; I will have a Zoological degree soon, but I can only work with animals or in the wildlife service unless the government makes more jobs available in that field.'
This brings up two points: colonialism is regarded by some people as akin to philanthropy, and having a degree here restricts you to a specific career path, rather than opening up the job market as it does in the West. They're small differences, but they're important ones.
There is hope for India despite its problems with corruption, but it pays to be wary of policies that alienate specific groups. Politics has a way of becoming self-referential; if your party appeals to an unsavoury section of society, you should expect it to backfire on you, whether you're in India or the West. Consider this quote from a Queenslander about Pauline Hanson, the chip-shop owner and leader of the Australian party One Nation, whose policies are heavily anti-immigration and are essentially racist (and who therefore has a worryingly large following in rural Australia, a fact not lost on countries in Southeast Asia, who regard Hanson as the devil incarnate). 'That Pauline Hanson has a lot of good policies,' blurts our man from Queensland2. 'I reckon if she was a man, I would vote for her.' Thus we make the bed in which we lie...
1 A mosque in the small town of Ayodhya, in central Uttar Pradesh, the Babri Masjid was the centre of a huge controversy back in 1992. Hindus revere Ayodhya as the birthplace of Rama, the popular seventh incarnation of Vishnu, and the mosque was claimed to be standing on the site of the original Rama Temple. Hindu fundamentalists wanted to destroy the mosque and build a new Rama Temple, and the BJP, which is staunchly pro-Hindu and anti-non-Hindu, made it clear that it supported the fundamentalist viewpoint. Confrontation and rioting filled the headlines in 1992, and in the mosque was torn down by Hindus, which led to major riots and over 200 deaths. It's easy to see why non-Hindus fear a BJP government in the next elections.
2 Still, Queenslanders always were at the earthier end of Australia. As they say there, 'I have a simple deal with the croc. I don't swim near his home, and he doesn't drink in my pub.'