Agra, India — I can see the Taj Mahal from the window of my hotel in Agra, India and I can hear the near constant honking of horns on the street below that seem to say "I'm here" and "look out for me."
The fifth largest economy in the world, and a nation still emerging from under the yoke of the British Empire after 70 years of independence, India is booming as never before. And Indians are tackling all of their many social and economic problems and turning a developing society into a powerhouse in Asia not beholden to China or Japan.
That's my observation after being here for just a week and talking with dozens of people. I have also come to the conclusion that Indians are also unwilling to be saddled with the old stereotype as an exotic land where sacred cows roam the streets and where tourists flock to see spectacular sights like the Taj Mahal.
For the record I am not a journalist in India but rather a tourist simply making observations. When I first applied for a visa for travel to India — no one is allowed in without one — I put down my occupation as "journalist" and asked for a tourist visa. Turns out journalists must apply for a journalist visa and they are much harder to come by than ordinary tourist visas. It could be that the Indian government doesn't want "foreign" reporters roaming around freely and writing about the gaps that divide rich from poor, men from women, the countryside from urban centers…
Indians themselves are aware of the gaps and the contradictions in their society as I quickly learned. Indeed, I came to India to attend a three-day conference about the gaps and about how to bridge them. The conference took place at a Hindu university that has a Hindu temple at the center of the campus and where the smiling priest in his robes gave me his blessing.
The male students live in one dorm and the female students in another, though there's a great deal of fraternalizing between the two groups. Whether they were male or female, they all called me sir. I have never been called sir so many times by so many different students day after day and I have rarely been around women as beautiful or dressed as colorfully. One Indian graphic designer told me there was too much "siring" in India. The British taught the Indians well.
The women at the university organized the conference and did the bulk of the work to make it happen, though the university has no women in the top administrative positions. Much the same holds true throughout India I was told. Indian women are restless. They want equality. I am not sure how they will reach their goal but I have no doubt that they will, much as I have no doubt that Indians will find ways to remake their ancient civilization and bridge the world of the Taj Mahal with the computer and the smart phone.