Opening Up to the World and Its Evils

Opening Up to the World and Its Evils

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune


PONDICHERRY, INDIA — A dark wind blew into this sleepy, coastal town recently — it carried the threat of global terrorism, of bombs and gunmen and unprovoked attacks on soft targets.

On Feb. 13, people thought to be Islamic terrorists bombed a restaurant in the northern city of Pune, killing 17 people. Speculation followed that the location had been chosen for its popularity with Western tourists. The government warned that terrorists appeared to be targeting foreigners in India, and soon a specific advisory was issued for this former French colonial outpost, a popular tourist destination usually associated with yoga, spirituality and the quest for inner peace.

A team of commandos in combat gear was seen driving around town in a jeep, automatic rifles at the ready.

At the French Consulate, on the beach road, where middle-aged pensioners take their evening walks, security forces set up roadblocks and sandbags.

The police and extra security were evident at hotels and tourist attractions. In a depressingly familiar — yet in these parts, utterly new — routine, visitors were frisked, and bags were examined.

Many of the precautions were clearly for show, designed to instill public confidence. Still, there was a definite undercurrent of worry, a certain anxiety that sprang as much from fear as disbelief. Bars and restaurants were filled with jocular conversations about black bags and unattended luggage. At the entrance to hotels and shopping malls, it was possible to hear derisory — and slightly nervous — comments about the lax security.

Outlook, a national magazine, ran a cover package that asked: “Are terrorists targeting foreigners?” One of the stories included photos of Pondicherry and a dramatic quote from a Frenchman who owns a popular restaurant, a backpacker’s hangout now said to be a possible target.

“When you come to India, you don’t mind dying in India,” said Pierre Elouard, the restaurant owner and an acquaintance of mine.

It was all bizarre — surreal, really. It was hard to imagine that this peaceful part of the country — a town without an airport or until recently even a broad-gauge rail connection, a sun-baked, slow-moving corner that has always felt at the edge of world — could really be on the map of global jihad.

Pondicherry’s charm has always lain for me in its isolation — its seclusion, its distance from the world, and the sense of perspective (and safety) afforded by that distance.

Yet the more I thought about it, the less surprising the apparent erosion of that safety seemed. After all, we’ve been subjected to wave after wave of globalization over the last couple of decades. I suppose terrorism is just the latest.

Pondicherry has reaped many of the benefits of globalization. In the 1990s, soon after India liberalized its economy, integrated it with the world, the country’s new wealth started trickling down here, transforming the quiet, tree-lined streets and the surrounding farms and fields.

Old French mansions, high-ceilinged villas that had until then been sequestered behind bright bougainvillea, were opened to the public, turned into restaurants and designer hotels.

Farms gave way to real-estate development, the open plains and coconut plantations of rural South India slowly choked by ornate apartment blocks.

Pondicherry woke up, grew more ambitious — and more wealthy. The wealth was evident in the flash of new jewelry stores and shopping malls, in the shine of the cars and S.U.V.’s, many imported, that clogged its roads.

Globalization is a multifaceted phenomenon, of course, a modern Hydra, and from the beginning this wealth has been accompanied, too, by certain less desirable characteristics.

Like much of India, Pondicherry has suffered from growing congestion, noise and environmental pollution. The wealth has not been distributed equally. Old patterns of living have been disrupted, and the resulting social disorientation has occasionally broken out into lawlessness and violence.

All this we have learned to accept as the modern condition. We take — we have been forced to take — the bad with the good. We know that globalization is a package, inseparable into its component parts.

Now, we are being confronted with a new part of the package. Global terrorism is inextricably linked to global capitalism — financed by it, a reaction to it, fueled by the resentments it has engendered around the globe.

Money always has a cost. I suppose it would have been naïve to think that we could take it — that we could grow wealthy, climb out of the poverty that has for so long defined this area — without paying a price.

I suppose it was naïve, too, to hope that we could sit in our living rooms, watching the senseless violence of the world unfold on our televisions, pretending all the while that we weren’t part of that world. No corner, how matter how geographically remote, is immune. Globalization, as the former United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, once put it, is a force like gravity — unstoppable, inevitable and frequently crushing.

On a recent Friday evening, rumors swept through town that a bomb had been found in the train station. The police fanned out to other potential targets, warning shopkeepers and hotel owners. They asked them to install metal detectors. They advised them to screen customers carefully.

By the next day, it turned out to have been a false alarm. An abandoned bag had indeed been found; a bomb squad had been deployed, but the bag contained only some clothes and utensils.

So the panic was premature. Pondicherry is still safe. But I can’t help feeling that we’ve crossed a certain line — that we’ve been thrust into a battle we never imagined ourselves part of, that we’ve been forced to confront an evil we always assumed had no interest in us.

No matter how often I tell myself that I have moved here to move away from the world, that I have found a safe haven for my children, a place where they can grow up removed from the madness of out there, reality keeps intruding. The world keeps reminding me that I’m part of it.

Comment (1)

  • Nayana

    Hi! February 21th The Mother's birthday the Ashram was filled with men in uniforms behind sand bags and rifles in hand. Anyone who went in the Ashram was screened and the detectors would make these sounds because all the Ashramites would be carrying their metal cans from the dining hall. The best part was that school children enjoyed going through these detectors because it was fun. Finally after 20 days they realised it was a prank played by some minister to be in the spotlight. Anyway your article is good and at the same time scary. Whenever I call up my sister and when she speaks about the situation in pondy I feel sad that the town where I grew up was not even on the map a few years back and see now it has come to in the limelight as a jihadi target.. Why can't these people let us live in peace?

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