Monday, July 13, 2009

Nishi's House

After touring the temple to Hanuman and the temple to Ram and his wife Sita (incarnations of Vishnu), Nita took us to visit the home of an ancestral family of Varanasi, the Gupts.

We walked to it, as we had to Kanti's house. It began as a guest house for Banares Hindu University (BHU) but is now owned by Shardul Vikram Gupt and his wife Nishi.

Shardul is an engineer who has built many hydroelectric dams in India. He also built a nearby modern apartment building called "The Swastik."

His brother publishes the Varanasi newspaper Aaj (Today), the first newspaper in India to be published in Hindi. It was started in 1920 by their great-grandfather Shiv Prasad Gupt, but now it's only fifth in circulation for Varanasi. See

S. P. Gupt was a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and founded a hospital and the Kashi Vidyapeeth, a state university in Varanasi. He also gave to Harvard University the first books in Hindi to reach US soil. He donated 25-30,000 books to BHU.

Nishi runs a small evening school for children to learn classical music: singing ragas, playing the sitar, Spanish guitar, drums, and Cassio keyboard.

Their daughter lives in La Jolla, CA, with her husband (a scientist), and is studying for the California bar exam. They also have a son.

Their home is two story. We sat in the living room for tea surrounded by expensive, historical artifacts on the walls and floor: an alligator skin, ancient armor, and portraits of ancestors including S. P. Gupt.

From the courtyard-like living room, we could see above our heads on the second floor a rectangle of book shelves with a narrow walkway next to the ancient books.

Peacocks screamed in the yard as we spoke.

When the electricity failed (a common event during our two weeks in India), they whipped out cell phones to use as lights to pass cups of tea. They introduced an elderly servant as almost a member of the family.

"Are you hopeful for the future?" Kris Laverty asked Mr. Gupt.

He responded with a dissertation on India's progress.

The growth rate in our GNP is 4-5%, maybe even 6%. But not the 8-9% that China has. Our growth rate is hampered by our population's 4% growth rate. China has stabilized its population growth, but we haven't.

Here's the problem: we have a two-lane road, but we now have traffic for a four-lane road. If we begin construction to upgrade it to four lanes, by the time we finish, we will have so much traffic that it needs to be an eight-lane road.

Our achievements in economic growth are offset by our population growth.

Another example: 1 kg of wheat in 1969 cost 1.2 rupees. Now it costs 12 rupees. But the minimum wage then was 2.5 rupees per day. Now it's 124 rupees per day ($2.56).

My construction workers earn 200 rupees per day. Out of 111 workers I have on one site, 60 have mobile phones. They come to work on motorcycles.

Yes, there are improvements for the poorer classes. For one thing, the working class had job opportunities overseas. The Arabs pay $10/day... while our minimum wage is $2.

My workers used to ask for a bicycle for a dowry--now they want a motorcycle.

Prices are not rising fast enough compared to wages. Also many of these people are in debt; they have bad habits.

Our biggest problems are the need for education and the control of our population.

My great-grandfather employed people, and their children continued to work for us. But now our servants educate their children--many go to college--and they don't work for us. This is a sea change for the poorer classes. Things are getting better for them.

I am happy with the rise in wages, but I notice that many people buy things they don't need. I wear shoes that cost 1500 rupees ($31), but my driver wears more expensive shoes.

33% of my building cost is labor. It's good for the poor to become rich, because the rich become richer.

Here's an example of what India is and will be: in 1980, my brother had to fly around the world to get contracts to make PCs. Now we just buy technology that earlier we weren't allowed to buy outside of India.

The house was designed by an English architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, and completed in 1916. It was flooded and rebuilt. The Gupt family moved to the residence in 1920 because they had given seed capital for the founding of BHU.

"It was designed as a guest house, but they made my grandfather buy it," said S.V. Gupt, whose father was born there and whose son and daughter were born in the house as well. The family has lived in Varanasi for 300 years.

We toured the music school and thanked the Gupts for their time.

"Time? You have from the day you are born to the day you are cremated," he replied.

We walked back to the NIRMAN Guest House, but our guide Nita felt that S.V. Gupt's comments on the poor showed lack of insight. He had said something about the poor wasting their money on alcohol.

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