My first foreign posting was in Beijing, for the Hindu. This was from 2002 to 2009, when the city was remorseless in its embrace of a glass and chrome version of modernity. A steady stream of friends from India used to visit. I’d pick them up at the airport and take them by cab down the butter-smooth, six-lane highway that led to the city centre. They would be lost in admiration – at the road itself, but also at the discipline of Chinese drivers, their restrained use of the horn and the absence of stray cows. ‘These guys follow rules like robots,’ a friend once remarked as he stared out of our taxi window, drinking up what to his India-accustomed eyes was the impossible shininess of Beijing.

The tone was somewhere between awe and derision. None of my colleagues in Beijing’s foreign press corps ever shared it. Beijing’s ‘chaotic’ traffic was in fact a standard gripe that was much moaned about when we got together for drinks. Journalists rarely agreed on much, but there appeared to be unanimity in the belief that the Chinese were terrible drivers, so pig-headed that they preferred causing intractable traffic jams to simply giving way.

What my colleagues imagined as a normal driving experience derived from the regimented hush of German autobahns and American freeways. But my friends and I had grown up in India with a different idea of normal: potholed roads crammed with autorickshaws, bicycles, scooters, lorries, buses and cars, all fighting for space to a cacophony of horns, sputtering engines and the high-pitched warbling of Bollywood movie songs. In this, and myriad other ways, we couldn’t help but see China differently. This difference set me apart from most Western reporters in China, and later in Brussels and Jakarta, where I pursued my rather solitary career as a foreign correspondent: ‘solitary’ not because foreign correspondents are thin on the ground, though we have become a shrinking tribe; no, ‘solitary’ because I am Indian.

On moving to Beijing I discovered that I was only the second Indian correspondent covering China. My lone compatriot was a gentleman in the employ of India’s state-owned newswire, the Press Trust of India, who had spent a decade living in the city without managing to learn a word of Chinese, and who rarely left his apartment. This was a time when politicians on both sides of the Himalayas were prone to gabbling about the world dominance that could ensue were the 2.4 billion people of China and India, equal to a third of the world’s population, to join hands in a formidable hardware-software partnership. The fact that there were only two Indian journalists in China reporting the emergence of this ‘Chindian’ behemoth seemed remarkable.

In fact, the absence of Indian foreign correspondents was, and is, unexceptional. I moved to Brussels, home to the headquarters of the European Union, in 2009, to become the only Indian journalist covering the EU in what was, according to the city authorities, the world’s second largest assembly of the foreign press after Washington DC. In a cavernous auditorium inside the European Commission’s main office building, the Berlaymont, daily press conferences were simultaneously interpreted into twenty-three languages for nine-hundred-odd accredited journalists. I was the solitary Indian among these scribbling troops, holding my pencil high for the sixth of the world’s population I could be said to represent. (To be strictly accurate, another Indian passport holder was there for Kuwait’s state news agency). Indonesia, where I moved in 2012, was a similar experience; in South-East Asia’s largest economy I was once again the sole journalist writing for an Indian publication.

It isn’t easy to account for our absence. True, the money needed for travel, research and dissemination has meant that rich Western countries have long dominated the production of global knowledge.

The average salaries of experienced journalists in leading newspapers are in the one thousand to two thousand dollars a month range. Paying reporters several times that amount in a foreign country where the cost of living is quite often higher, in addition to expenses related to moving, schools and housing, makes little financial sense.

But a purely monetary explanation doesn’t seem fully adequate in the twenty-first century context of globalizing economies, cheap air travel and the Internet. The years I lived in China were financially flush for the Indian media following a spell of high economic growth and a consequent glut of advertising revenue. Bucking the global trend in the business, newspapers in India were burgeoning. According to a 2011 report in BBC News, in 2005, the total industry was worth $2.64 billion, a figure that shot up to $4.37 billion by 2010.

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, the number of Indian journalists in China did double from my early days in the country to a total of four. Nonetheless, our numbers wilted into insignificance compared to the hundred-odd American journalists based in the country at the time, not to mention the hundreds more who arrived to cover the games themselves.

The other main reason for the lack of Indian foreign correspondents had to do with the competition that foreign news faced from domestic stories, coupled with India’s generally modest perception of its role in the world.

Given India’s continent-sized spread, the national media were deluged by huge daily stories, from billion-dollar corruption scandals and gang rapes to the shenanigans of Bollywood stars and the fortunes of its cricket team. News about Indonesian elections, or a new European Union treaty, barely registered in the average Delhi newsroom. On the rare occasion where a foreign news story was of interest, Indian media ran pieces from the established (Western) news agencies like Reuters and AFP.

Moreover, unlike their state-directed Chinese counterparts, the decisions of most Indian media editors were not shaped by deliberate attempts to push Indian soft power abroad. The fact is that despite having been elevated into the ranks of the BRICs by cheering investment bankers, most Indians remained focused on their internal politics and challenges, and only rarely saw themselves in global terms. The media reflected this general orientation.

Thus it is largely through the collection, classification and distribution of the observations of Western academics, journalists, diplomats and adventurers that the world has learned about itself. Most consumers of news media, including Indians, read about a China of unruly traffic jams rather than one of orderly roads.

 

Toilets

For most of my time in China I lived in Beijing’s hutong neighbourhoods. The hutongs were a warren of criss-crossing alleyways: willow-lined villages hidden away from the surrounding urban sprawl. Too narrow for supermarkets, street vendors and corner shops provided residents with their daily needs: candied crab apples, knife-sharpening services, coal for the freezing winters. Cramped living quarters forced residents out on the streets where they spent much of the afternoon playing mah-jong and chess, or sitting around on low stools, their caged song birds placed next to them.

The centre of hutong socializing was usually the communal loos that dotted each alleyway at hundred-metre intervals. These toilets transcended the functionality of mere lavatories. These were in fact public spaces where residents gathered to gossip, snack and exchange news of the latest developments in their bowel movements.

I happened to live directly opposite the public toilet of Beixin Qiao Tou Tiao hutong, which gave me front row seats to all the local goings-on. A broad-leafed tree stood between the red lacquered door of my courtyard house and the communal loo, unfurling over both like a shared roof. The shaded space below the tree was coveted real estate.

When I returned home in the evening I invariably had to weave past a maze of chatting hutongers, as well as step over our neighbour’s eight-year-old son, Xiao Wang, and his assorted collection of chirping crickets arranged in woven bamboo baskets outside my door.

On the day my partner, Julio, and I had moved to the hutong, I’d eavesdropped on the toilet-chatter outside our front door. ‘Oh! So she’s Indian?’ a baritone queried. ‘Must be, I think,’ replied an alto. ‘But the husband? He’s not dark enough?’ the baritone had come back. ‘Yes, she’s black but he’s white. Must be from different countries,’ alto had concluded to murmured agreement.

There was much jealousy among the Beixin Qiao Tou Tiao crowd over nearby Ju’er hutong’s toilet. Ju’er’s loo had been chosen by the Beijing city authorities for conversion into what the local media had dubbed ‘luxurious lavatories’, an initiative to ensure that visiting tourists during the Olympic Games took home happy, hygienic memories of their stay in the city.

Infrared-automated flush commodes, electric hand driers and signs in English, Chinese and Braille decorated that toilet building. As the first luxurious lavatory in the area, the Ju’er loo had quickly become a major attraction, drawing in customers from as far as four hutongs away. Mr Yang, the local bicycle repairman, had set up shop outside to capitalize on the crowds. On most nights impromptu barbeque parties took place at the toilet’s doorstep, organized by the entrepreneurial Old Wang, who’d owned the cigarette and beer shop opposite.

Public toilets were much written about by foreign correspondents in China. The non-luxurious variety, with their unpartitioned holes in the floor and lack of running water, served to highlight how degrading life for many Beijingers remained, even as the city’s new rich lived in the lap of skyscraper luxury.

The new and fancy ‘Olympic’ loos, on the other hand, illustrated a government set on stage-managing every aspect of its international ‘coming out party’, as the 2008 Games were habitually described.

I too wrote about Beijing toilets, but what interested me was the toilet cleaners. Gandhi had identified toilet cleaning as key to revolutionizing society. He’d stressed that in a society’s approach to private and public sanitation lay its commitment to true freedom and dignity. I argued that if he were correct in his beliefs, then it was authoritarian China, not democratic India, that had in fact achieved self-respect for its citizens.

 


 

Yu Bao Ping was the cleaner of the loo in a neighbouring hutong to ours. He was originally a rice farmer from Anhui province who had moved to Beijing in early 2004 and landed the toilet cleaning job soon after. He was lucky to have got such good work in Beijing, he’d told me. Compared to the back-breaking labour of farming, the toilet business was a cinch. It had given him a stable income of around one hundred dollars a month. Before moving to Beijing he had been afraid of life in a place where he knew no one, but thanks to the toilet he’d made friends. ‘Everyone in this neighbourhood comes through these doors,’ Yu had smiled.

When I’d said goodbye to Yu Bao Ping, he shook my hand and invited me to come back a few weeks later. I thought of India where in many parts of the country people still rushed off to take a bath if they accidentally touched a Bhangi, someone belonging to what was traditionally the toilet cleaning and scavenging caste.

In my conversations with Beijing toilet cleaners, they’d all admitted that it was not a stigma-free job. Lou Ya, the cleaner at a lavatory near Beijing’s Drum Tower, said she knew that there were people who viewed her work with revulsion. But, instead of letting them belittle her, she reminded herself of the story of Shi Chuanxiang.

Shi was one of the ‘model workers’ of Communist folklore. Having spent more than forty years shovelling and carrying human refuse, he was chosen in 1959 from the ranks of the working class by the Mao-era Communist party and feted as an example for society to emulate. His story was compulsory reading in elementary schools even a few years ago.

And so it was that my piece on public toilets led to others about the relative dignity that China’s Communist revolution had brought to labour, albeit at a terrible cost. Another example of how my reporting tended to differ in content and intent from the standard Olympic Games-related fare that was served up in Western newspapers at the time.

There was one incident in which I found myself in agreement with other Beijing-based foreign correspondents. In June 2006, we were all equally shocked to discover that Liu Zhihua, the vice mayor of Beijing, had been sacked over corruption allegations. Liu, who had been overseeing the £22 billion budget for Olympics-related projects, was charged with bribe-taking to the tune of 10 million yuan (£670,000). But while Western journalists were shocked because of the corruption, I was shocked because he’d actually been sacked (and later arrested). In India, after all, it was de rigueur for the powerful to happily continue in their political and bureaucratic careers regardless of all manner of corruption charges.

The primary divergence in my views and that of many Western reporters was their automatic ascription of all China’s ills to the authoritarian nature of its political system. But I came from a democracy and was uncomfortably aware of how little this achievement had translated into better governance or less corruption. From the impunity of the powerful and the patchy application of the rule of law, to environmental destruction and yawning income inequalities, India’s challenges either matched, or were worse, than China’s.

While Western correspondents saw their primary role as holding China’s authorities to account, I saw my work in China as a way of holding a mirror up to the Indian government; as a provocation to thought and action about our own tussles with modernity and globalization.

 

Diamonds

My European friends in China had largely been agreed in their envy of my departure to the ‘civilized’ world. When I’d expressed any apprehensions about the move they had rushed to assure me. Things would be so much easier than in China, they’d stressed. Everything worked. You flushed the toilet and watched the toilet paper disappear instead of the water rising ominously out of the bowl. You might pay more for food and clothes but what you purchased was of assured quality. People in Europe were ethical. None of that lying and cheating that went on in China with its get-rich-quick culture. The air was clean, the neighbourhoods green. People queued at bus stops and didn’t spit up foaming gobs of phlegm on the roads.

Efficiency, quality, honesty: these words echoed in my head as our plane prepared for landing in Brussels on a late April day in 2009. An hour or so later I was desperately knocking at the door of the airport police station, wild-eyed and begging for help, having been robbed of my handbag and laptop case while expertly distracted by the thief’s accomplice. ‘Is this arrivals or departures?’ the partner in crime had asked, and when I’d turned to answer, his friend had quietly made off with my belongings.

The Flemish policeman who wrote down my complaint enquired whether the perpetrator had looked North African. When I’d hummed and hawed in reply, not being certain, he’d dismissed my equivocation with, ‘Well, they always are North African.’

And so began my European life. It took me nine weeks to get a Belgian residence card when it had taken five days to get the equivalent in China. It took me three weeks of phone calls before I managed a working Internet connection. In China this usually took a few hours to sort out, from initial enquiry to working wireless. Our flush, it transpired, did not efficiently dispose of the toilet paper as my European friends had promised, and worse, there was no plumber to be had to fix this glitch for the love of money.

We had arrived in Brussels just as continental Europe was gearing up for what the Belgians (or at least the Francophone among them) called ‘les grandes vacances’. This was a long period between July and August when everyone from EU civil servants to primary school teachers (and plumbers) headed off on vacation, clasping sunblock and beach totes. The earliest I could get a plumber to agree to see to our faulty commode was September. I was enquiring in May.

In May 2009, a couple of weeks after having moved to Brussels, I visited Antwerp. It was my first assignment for the Business Standard, the newspaper for which I was now the Europe correspondent. Antwerp, a medieval port city north of Brussels, was the centre of the global trade in diamonds, a business that had long been controlled by the orthodox Jewish community. But although in the popular imagination the diamond trade remained tied to images of Hasidic Jewish merchants in long black frock coats and tall hats, the business had gradually been taken over by Indians from Gujarat. Today, up to 70 per cent of Antwerp’s lucrative diamond trade is in the hands of four-hundred-odd Gujarati families. I was curious to find out just how they had come to be so successful.

I spent the first half of the day talking with members of the Antwerp Indian Association, a social club with over two thousand members, all of whom were connected to the trade. Over a vegetarian lunch cooked by staff specially imported from India (Antwerp’s Indian diamantaires are almost without exception Jains, a religious group that adheres to a strict diet that precludes all animal products as well as root vegetables), they took turns explaining to me how their families had steadily climbed up the diamond value chain over the last four decades.

When Indians had first begun to trade in Antwerp in the 1960s, they were bit players who dealt with the kind of small, low quality, rough stones that the established Jewish diamantaires tended to ignore. Building on this marginal territory, many Indians made substantial profits, and by the 1980s their once hole-in-the-wall outfits had begun to grow larger.

Santosh Kedia, an avuncular trader who was chairman of the association, had explained how they were helped by links to diamond-processing facilities in cities like Surat in Gujarat, where skilled labour is abundant and costs are as little as a tenth of the European equivalent. ‘For us, sending rough diamonds to India for processing isn’t outsourcing as much as homesourcing,’ he’d giggled.

 


 

After lunch, I strolled across the road to the offices of Rosy Blue. Although housed in a functional, unobtrusive building, Rosy Blue was at the glittering centre of the diamond quarter’s riches. The company billed itself as the world’s largest diamond manufacturer and was headed by a beak-nosed, bespectacled Gujarati, Baron Dilip Mehta. Mehta, who had been bestowed with the honorific title of Baron by the Belgian king in 2006 for services rendered to the country, looked coyly proud as he described his billion-dollar company’s operations in fourteen countries around the globe.

He’d grown up in Bombay but was sent by his family to the city of Surat after having dropped out of college. At the time, Surat was an up-and-coming diamond-polishing centre, and Mehta had worked on his family factory’s floor. He’d bicycled to work and cooked for himself. ‘There was none of this,’ Mehta said, indicating his plushly appointed office.

Mehta moved to Antwerp in 1973, following his father and brother who had established a presence in the city a few years earlier. They made a living buying low quality roughs that they sent back to Surat for polishing and sold at a small profit back in Antwerp.

Mehta claimed that the real key to his eventual success was his willingness to work as hard as was necessary to beat the competition. ‘The Jews just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,’ he’d shrugged. ‘We are married to our business. We will work at night and on the weekend. And we are willing to work this hard even for small margins.’

For Antwerp’s Jewish community, the Indian gauntlet had proved formidable. Antwerp used to boast around 25,000 specialist polishers and cutters only a few decades ago, many of whom were Jewish. This number was now down to less than a thousand.

My final stop that afternoon was the offices of one of the larger Jewish-owned diamond companies still in business, Pinkusewitz Diamonds, an outfit that employed 3,500 people. I met with its head, Abraham Pinkusewitz, a Hasidic Jew with a great white beard and intense, deep-seated eyes. He looked uncomfortable throughout the meeting despite the smiling, coffee-offering presence of his public relations manager, Eli Finkelsztein.

Pinkusewitz’s children had moved to Israel and were loathe to return. ‘My father’s name used to mean something in this city,’ Pinkusewitz said in his slow, deliberate manner. ‘Now it will all end with me.’

When I asked him how the Indians had edged the Jewish community out of their primacy in the diamond trade, he was gruff. The Jews had to adhere to strict religious rules and keep the Sabbath. ‘We have our family. Our religion. Our studies. So, we cannot be open at night and the weekends, unlike the Indians.’

Finkelsztein had put a restraining hand on Pinkusewitz’s arm, but the old man had shrugged him off. ‘The Indians work too hard,’ he’d spat. ‘Diamonds are their life and they won’t stop at anything to grab customers.’

The allegations Pinkusewitz made against the Indians were, ironically, charges levelled over the centuries against the Jews themselves. And yet Pinkusewitz had displayed scant self-reflexivity as he espoused what was a common European sentiment towards the continent’s new immigrants.

I found this argument being made both up and down the economic scale, against Indian diamond merchants as well as Chinese factory workers.

What no one ever seemed to suggest was that rather than immigrants working too hard for too little, perhaps it was the locals who were working too little for too much.

I had arrived in Europe just months before years of dodgy bookkeeping in Greece came to light, igniting the euro crisis that would dominate the news for the next couple of years.

In Brussels, protests outside the EU headquarters were part of the scenery. At first, I had found these curiously exhilarating. After all, China’s authoritarian leaders had rarely permitted public demonstrations, and the lack of audible dissent on Beijing’s streets had been a deafening, and deadening, silence.

The pageantry of striking dairy farmers’ cows mooing at cops, and the anarchy of irate fishermen throwing their daily catch at Eurocrats, held an allure to China-habituated eyes. But once the initial lustre wore off, I’d found it harder to sympathize with the protestors than my European counterparts did.

These were not malnourished coal miners from northeast China whose families were dying from lung cancer. They were not subsistence peasants from Sichuan whose land had been arbitrarily appropriated by corrupt local government officials. They were not tribals from India’s forests whose women had been raped and leaders murdered by mining company bosses. They were usually trade union-protected workers fighting against any loss of their substantial entitlements, no matter the cost to their countries as a whole. Striking dock workers, refuse collectors, pharmacists, newspaper vendors, taxi drivers: while these incensed strikers shouted about their ostensibly dire circumstances, I wondered if they realized just how privileged they were.

In Belgium, French-speaking Walloons from the economically depressed south of the country hadn’t learned Dutch in a lifetime, despite the availability of jobs in Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking region. Was it all that much of a crisis if Europeans had to retire a few years later than they had become used to doing? If they had to learn a language to find employment a bit further away from their home towns than they would have ideally preferred?

In the spring of 2012, I visited Italy to profile Punjabi agricultural labourers who constituted the second largest Indian diaspora in Europe. Official Italian government figures put the total number of workers from India at around 121,000, although the actual number was probably much higher if one included illegal immigrants.

As with the diamond merchants, the Punjabi farmhands I talked to in central Italy’s Latina province stressed their willingness to work hard. ‘Italians don’t like to work too much,’ Sartaj Singh, a clean-shaven Sikh lumberjack told me as he took a late morning break from felling trees. ‘They keep going on holiday and make life difficult for the bosses.’ His friend Harbhajan Singh chipped in: ‘Before we [Punjabis] got here, the fields were barren. There was no one to work in the fields. Today if there is agriculture in Latina, it’s all because of us.’

The Sikhs spoke Punjabi-accented Italian with practiced ease, and when I asked them if they’d taken classes they burst out laughing. They had learned it on the job. ‘If we didn’t know the language, who would hire us?’ one of them had asked. ‘We’ve been here ten years madam,’ another added, ‘Even an animal would have learnt Italian in ten years.’

 

Cover photograph courtesy of Piero Fissore; in-text photographs courtesy of the author

Cairo: September 2014
Performance Art