MUMBAI – “Full power” is the new Indian mantra. Delivered not in Hindi, Pali, Gujarati or Malayalam, but in English, with a smile, by the Mumbai taxi driver, the Goan marguerita specialist, the Brahmin in Calicut, the information technology developer in Cochin.

This is the sound of India stepping on the gas to 21st century great power status – even if the wheels belong to a rickety Ambassador, the good old Indian diesel sedan workhorse. This is the mantra in the cool parts of the Arabian Sea al-Qaeda fails to reach.

Maximum city

Outside the Gateway of India – the ultimate vestige of Raj-dom in south India – a plaque reads “Urbs Prima in Indis” (First City of India). Soon it may be the first city of the world. More people live in Mumbai than in the whole of Australia. Soon more people will live in Mumbai than in Sao Paulo or Mexico City; Jakarta, Cairo, Karachi, Shanghai and other developing world beasts have been bypassed long ago. As far as mammoth, brash specimens of urban civilization go, this may be the ultimate monster.

The Portuguese – after sailing from Iberia and arriving near this “gateway” more than three centuries before the British actually built a gate – called it Bom Bahia, “good bay.” They even called it Boa Vida, “good life.” Life can hardly be good when 51% of Mumbai’s population of at least 15 million – and counting fast – lives in slums or in the streets.

For roughly 75% of Mumbai’s families, “home” means a single room where five people on average live, cook, eat and sleep. The one-room-fits-all is a given, and not only in sprawling slums such as Jogeshwari. In more ways than one, Mumbai is Maximum City – the title of a remarkable book by Suketu Mehta, whose ancestors come from Gujarat and who was born in another maximum city, Calcutta (now Kolkata), but considers Mumbai his spiritual home.

But then, in a flash, Maximum Slum gets connected; virtually every young person in these overcrowded rooms seems to be learning computer programming. They are only a click away from one-room-fits-all to an air con office and the chance of perhaps one day buying a condo with an Arabian Sea view.

More than 17% of Mumbai’s population is Muslim. Far from sectarian affairs, Muslim neighborhoods in Mumbai – where the best fruit juice stands are to be found – completely integrate into in the urban jigsaw puzzle. In India as a whole, 12% of the population is Muslim – roughly more than 120 million people.

More than half a century after Partition in 1947 there are almost as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan. This fact irks people, such as the leader of the Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray – a character with a penchant for bigotry and full-power sectarianism, variously designated as the Sahib, the Supremo, the Remote Control or the Tiger.

Ten years ago, Shiv Sena, as a majority partner in a coalition with the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), finally captured power in the state of Maharashatra. The new government faced nearly insurmountable problems – the urban nightmare, widespread corruption, dreadful relations between Hindus and Muslims. So what was the number one priority? They changed the name of the state capital from Bombay to Mumbai.

A businessman sipping a gin and tonic at the Harbor Bar of the Taj – considered the best hotel in India – guarantees that Shiv Sena’s money comes from an array of “full power” Mumbai businessmen. He should know. Mumbai is essentially run by a concrete and real estate lobby. Exclusion is the name of the game. For the price of a gin and tonic at the Taj, the masses can buy 36 fabulous fruit juices in one of the Muslim-controlled stands.

Shiv Sena could not but be in the business of exclusion as well. The party has railed against Gujaratis, south Indians in general, communists, dalits (untouchables) and of course Muslims in general (including resident Bangladeshis). Now it turned against the neighbors, pressing to redraw the Karnataka-Maharashtra state border. Even leading party members such as Pramodh Mutalik can’t stand Thackeray’s intolerance; he is quitting to form a new political party, Karnataka Shiv Sena, with no links with Shiv Sena in Maharashatra.

Ever since India was attacked by the “economic reform” virus, the mainstream media has not failed to devoutly worship the new sacred cows – first a new wave of dot com maharajas and Bollywood stars, then any nouveau riche in sight. A ghastly Indian Idol – a mutating virus from American Idol – is on TV, of course, now two weeks into its second edition.

The Tata family – former opium concessionaires – continues, according to the eternal running joke, to rule India. But newcomers such as the flashy Kingfisher guy, Vijay Mallya, who’s on everything from beers to airlines, are sprouting as fast as ayurvedic centers. A cross between a Mafia don and a Bollywood superstar, Mallya greets passengers of Kingfisher Airlines with a smooth rap on how he is “revolutionizing business and leisure travel,” not least by plugging the King Credit Card, a co-branded operation with ICICI bank, which offers “exclusive amenities” and a 24-hour concierge service.

In 2004, against all odds, the Hindu fundamentalist coalition headed by the BJP was voted out of power and the Congress Party-led coalition – much to its own surprise – was back. Not by accident the fortress of whoredom in Mumbai – straight from one of Dante’s circles of hell – is called Congress House, conveniently across the street from the party’s headquarters.

Mumbai reaches parts Sex and the City screenwriters would not know how to reach, from Nepali whores for 50 rupees (a little over US$1) to an army of bar dancers. There used to be several hundred so-called “beer bars,” but they have been closed down. Nothing remotely similar to American lap dancing – and nothing remotely similar in the rest of India for that matter; the girls dance with all their saris and blouses on, gyrating on psychedelic-looking stages to the sound of Bollywood hits.

Unemployed bar dancers now stop for a juice by the Haji Ali mosque – the tomb of a Sufi saint joined to the main coastal road by a causeway where at any one time one finds a syncretic flow of Hindus and Muslims alike seeking Ali’s blessing. A juice stand may come with brown sugar – supplying Mumbai’s floating hordes of heroin addicts. Lucky former beer girls now grace a forest of billboards selling shampoo and moisturizers to the burgeoning Indian urban middle class.

For these designer shampoo masses, pre-marital sex remains a huge taboo, as well as radioactive material for the Indian media. The opinion of Sheetal Pandya, writing to the excellent newspaper DNA, is emblematic. “My children aren’t yet so Westernized. The subject is not relevant to us. There is nothing to talk about.” Khushboo, a cute popular actress, was crucified because she said pre-marital sex is acceptable. The publisher and editor of Mumbai Mirror was arrested because he carried a survey on the sexual habits of Mumbaikars – as the locals are called. And he didn’t even offer a deep plunge into Congress House.

The ultimate Mumbai experience – extreme sports India-style – has to be riding the mad rush of a local train. From Churchgate station, a ticket to the suburbs costs six rupees – roughly US12 cents. You may get in, but you may not be able to get off – and vice versa. If you are to get off at an ultra-crowded station such as Dadar, for instance, you must fight for positioning yourself in an extremely precise spot.

Platforms rush by on both sides of the train. There are no doors – just two enormous holes on either side. You must jump before the train stops at each station, otherwise the incoming mass of people will overwhelm you. Inside the compartment, with its gorgeous black fans hanging from the ceiling like bats, you don’t move; the crowd moves you.

Five years ago, according to official data, the number of passengers carried in a nine-car train during rush hour in Mumbai was 4,500. By now it may be approaching 6,000. Commuters travel in groups. Some share food, some sing, some sell underwear, some chop vegetables for the family dinner. More than 4,000 a year die, hit by electricity poles because they were precariously hanging from the “window.” That’s life on the go, full power.

Nobody expects the Goan Inquisition

The Portuguese occupation of Goa lasted 451 years. Old Goa used to be bigger than Paris and London. Today its ghostly buildings are part of a protected United Nations site. Long gone are the massive conversions to Christianity by Franciscan monks; Bollywood is the new Christianity.

In the neighborhood of Fontainhas in the state capital Panjim, there are plenty of azulejos – panels of blue and yellow ceramic tiles – to be seen, just like in Portugal, some depicting scenes of Cameos’ epic poem Os Lusiadas.

But the hordes of Indian tourists bombarding the tomb of St Francis Xavier with their camera cell phones hardly know that the Goan Inquisition – which lasted until 1820 – targeted Jews and Muslims above all, not Hindus. The Holy Office didn’t have a whiff of a sense of humor: it banned turmeric, basil, incense, marigolds, dhotis, saris, astrology, alchemy and it destroyed Hindu temples as a bonus.

According to the only surviving first-hand account, by the French physician Charles Dellon, the bowels of the Holy Office headquarters would put Abu Ghraib to shame. Even some of the former Portuguese governors, depicted in a collection of oil paintings, look positively evil. The old table used by the inquisitors to deliberate how best to send people to the gallows has survived, as well as the crucifix – a Christ with eerie, prying eyes – which used to hang over it, now haunting readers of Abu Ghraib torture practices in a small chapel in Fontainhas.

The rest is of course tropical idleness – or its mass packaging by the tourism industry, just as in Kuta in Bali, Boracay in the Philippines or Koh Samui in Thailand. Young, Western discovery armies, trying to flee globalization, reach the shores of idyllic Palolem beaches just to step into globalization-in-a-hut, serviced with pizza ovens imported from Italy, Russian or Israeli breakfast , laughing Buddhas made in China and fast-relaxing ayurvedic centers.

Ayurvedic massage comes from Kerala. Cynics equate it with turning yourself into a fish swimming in a bowl of thick oil. Girls from Sheffield, Leningrad or Tel Aviv swear it’s better than carrying your own personal guru. Western decadents stick to “full power” margueritas washing down shark steaks.

China rules, of course, as a Panjim shop owner attests. “The response for Chinese goods is encouraging. People like to buy attractive goods at a cheaper price.” And then there’s the ubiquitous eco-friendly syndrome – Goa’s self-image as an unspoilt tropical paradise.

A so-called resort in Palolem, rather a collection of shacks owned by a German with no beach view, advertises itself as eco-friendly, while sitting around a huge pile of garbage. Mumbai, in more ways than one, is coming to Goa. Ecological campaigner Joe D’Souza goes straight to the point. “Slowly but steadily and even certainly, the entire Goa state is developing dubiously into a large mega slum.”

The arrival of the Christian imperialist

Vasco da Gama, the ruthless Portuguese Argonaut who “discovered” India – as if Indian civilization had not existed for millennia – was horrified by the non-Christians of south India. He would flee modern, pagan Goa as the plague – but not after applying his own brand of diplomacy, which mixed elements of kidnapping, mutilation and murder.

The love affair between the West and Asia was never a love affair in the first place. Da Gama opened the sea link between Europe and Asia in 1497-99 with only three puny caravels, and this decades after Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s seven expeditions from 1405 to 1433, each featuring up to 300 ships carrying up to 30,000 men. Long before da Gama – not to mention Columbus and Magellan – began their globe-trotting, of globe-sailing, the Ming dynasty had already developed state-of-the-art technology in shipbuilding, navigation and astrology. The Chinese never tried to usurp local land or local power. They just wanted to trade.

So did the Portuguese – at least according to the official story in the West. Thus the Monty Pythonesque exchange between a Portuguese convict-exile – and not da Gama, who remained in his caravel – as he stepped into Indian shores and met “two Moors from Tunis” who spoke Castillian and Genoese (the Portuguese were initially thought to be Muslims from the Maghreb):

The two Moors: The devil take you! What brought you here?

The Portuguese discoverer: We came to seek Christians and spices.

A fascinating insight on what Asians think about this huge misunderstanding is supplied by Indian scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam, professor of Indian history and culture at the University of Oxford and formerly at the prestigious Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

One of Sanjay’s books, the remarkable The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama (Cambridge University Press), written with vast erudition and a wicked sense of humor, provoked tempests of rage in Portugal. Academic circles accused him of portraying national hero Vasco as no more than a brutish “imperialist pirate” (that’s actually the interpretation of most Indian Marxist-nationalist scholars in Kerala).

It’s much more complicated than that. Even after independence, Indian schoolchildren kept growing up learning that India was “discovered” in 1498 by a European navigator and a bunch of 170 illiterate sailors in three small ships. It was still the same dialectic of the economic and military power of the colonizer imposed over the native population. What Sanjay does – based on vast Portuguese-language historical documentation – is to set the record straight.

Sanjay explains how for the Portuguese court and merchants in the late 15th century:

Asia was simply too complex to be accommodated within the existing regime of compromises. Many elements in the Portuguese nobility saw sense in the North African campaigns, which after all brought glory and at times fortunes. The Atlantic too seemed to make sense as a relatively low-cost, high-return affair, underwritten by Lisbon’s cosmopolitan mercantile class. But Asia seemed at once too vast, too distant, and too risky a venture.

So the Portuguese were not exactly interested in “discovering” something so vast and distant. But King Dom Manuel was. And why? Because five centuries before Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he already had his own road map for the Middle East.

Just like Bush, Dom Manuel had a strong messianic streak. Everything for him evolved around the capture of Jerusalem. This had to do with many factors: the religious dimension of the Portuguese adventure of navigating the globe; the residual momentum of the turbulent cohabitation with Islam in Iberia; and of course the victory of the Reconquista, the Iberians finally expelling the Moors from southern Europe. As one of the foremost chroniclers of the time, Joao de Barros, put it, this all had to do with the rise “in the land of Arabia [of] that great anti-Christ Muhammad.”

Sanjay debunks the myth that trade in the Indian Ocean after the year 750 was a monopoly of the “Islamic world-economy,” or that the Indian Ocean was a “Muslim lake.” He shows how other non-Muslim Asian merchants – Gujaratis, Tamil, Syrian Christians from southwest India, Chinese from Fukien (Fujian) – were in the picture, and he also points out conflicts between Muslims, such as the celebrated Arab navigator Ahmad ibn Majid describing Malays as “bad people.”

So da Gama and the Portuguese – who “discovered” India only because they had hired a “Moor from Gujarat” as a pilot – were only one more among the players in this great trading game, certainly a player of certified ruthlessness. But they never managed to monopolize the spice trade. Sanjay also observes how Asian nationalists from different countries have always contrasted “the greed and rapine of the Portuguese” with “the scientific generosity and openness of spirit” of an Arab navigator such as Ahmad ibn Majid.

To say that the Portuguese raised hell against Muslims in the Indian Ocean would be an understatement. Da Gama terrorized Muslims who traded with the Red Sea (the Portuguese assumed they were all from the Middle East, and dubbed them “the Moors of Mecca,” but they came from everywhere, from Yemen and the Hadramut in Arabia to Iraq and the Maghreb). They were Arabs, Persians, Gujaratis, Khorasanis, Decccanis. The Portuguese practically managed to expel them all from Kerala’s ports, especially Calicut.

When Che meets Krishna

Kerala, self-described God’s own country, or the country where God is inherent to a lot of small things, may be the ultimate magic realism metaphor of all-inclusive Indian cosmology – complete with communists, salafis, technology freaks, Virgin Marys, women in burqas, portraits of Che Guevara and lost souls driving psychedelic buses with stereo horns at terrifying speeds through the lush, dense, tropical greenery.

For comfort, the thing is to forget all things ayurvedic; nothing beats a thali – the stainless steel tray the size of a huge pizza on which small bowls of vegetable curries, curds, deserts and other delectable goods are disposed to endless refills. The long and winding one-lane road along the Malabar coast, dotted with green mosques, women in burqas, temptresses advertising cell phones, murals of Jesus Christ and dominated by those terrifying buses, is actually a street linking an agglomeration of villages. As road movies go, it offers an unparalleled glimpse into rural India – usually terra incognita for the bulk of India and global media.

India’s hundreds of millions of poor suffered tremendously with the neo-liberal religious dogma of the 1990s. Prices were globalized while their incomes remained Indianized. According to the UN Human Development Index, it’s better to be poor in occupied Palestine than in the so-called Indian “tiger economy.”

But Kerala is something else. In 1957, it became the first state in the world to elect a communist government democratically. It bears the most equitable land distribution in the country. A glimpse of village life reveals that poverty is much less acute than in other parts of India. Health and education indicators are also much better. The literacy rate is virtually 100%.

And political awareness is obviously high. A little more than two moths ago there was a monster industrial strike in India – involving more than 40 million people. Kerala participated with full force. Indian mainstream media depicted the strike as a devastating blow to the country’s image as an investment destination. Not from the point of view of the Indian working class.

Da Gama actually “discovered” Kerala. His “reckless sailing” (according to the locals) during a monsoon led him and his 170 sailors to land in Kappad, a small, undeveloped beach 23 kilometers north of Calicut. Da Gama, for many Keralans the precursor of globalization and Western imperialism, is celebrated with a small plaque; Keralans actually don’t think much about him nowadays, nor did they ever.

Global tourism eschews Calicut and prefers to hit Fort Cochin, the one area of big, brash southern metropolis Kochi, formerly Cochin, which is still dotted with Portuguese palaces and Dutch homes – most converted into guesthouses. Fort Cochin reeks of Kuta in Bali and Thamel in Kathmandu – a theme park for Westerners; the same applies to the famed Kerala backwaters, an intricate configuration of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets negotiated by Kerala longboats, gondola-like vessels operated with poles and sails.

It’s impossible to do Kerala’s backwaters on one’s own terms; it’s all packaged, American theme-park style. So the real action in the Malabar coast is actually in Kochi itself, the sprawling Indian city a half-an-hour ferry ride away from Fort Cochin – where one can sample the full spectacle of the Indian middle classes in “full power” mode.

Drivers, carpenters, construction workers, they are all in “full power” mode. Not only in Kerala; most of all in the Gulf. From Kochi, it’s easier to fly to Muscat or Dubai than to Kolkata.

According to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects 2006 report, expat Indians pumped a staggering US$ 21.7 billion into the Indian economy in 2004. Two million Malayalees – Kerala migrants – are responsible for 34% of this total. And most are working in the Gulf, as well as migrants from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan.

According to the International Labor Organization, there are 10 million Indian migrants around the world – 3.6 million of them in West Asia. There may be up to 100 million ethnic Indians across the globe.

Life in the fast lane

The Indian stockmarket has risen by more than 20% in 2005. The country once again may grow by an annual 7% – in fact 7.5%, according to JP Morgan in Singapore. But it’s not all a tale of successful outsourcing – although Cochin is also investing heavily in its own information technology (IT) park. The entire IT and office service industry in India – so hyped by global corporate media – employs only 1 million people in a country of more than 1 billion.

Every Asian specialist and his neighbor says India now needs a boom in export-oriented manufacturing – so the overwhelming masses may be lifted out of poverty. The boom may eventually come, says a Mumbai businessman, but at an Indian pace.

Catastrophic infrastructure (but the Mumbai local trains miraculously arrive on time) and Byzantine regulations need to be urgently tackled. Kerala for its part does not want blind, neo-liberal “economic reform” per se – or a mushroom forest of Wal-Marts; the social effects would be extremely destabilizing.

India gets 11 times less foreign direct investment (FDI) than China – mostly because caps are imposed in many politically sensitive sectors, such as aviation, insurance, coal mining, media and the retail business. The Manmohan Singh government’s priorities are essentially correct; investment in infrastructure, agriculture, health and education. Singh publicly recognizes that “bureaucratic mindset and corruption continues to act as roadblock to enterprise and progress,” but he also adds that “Indians are ready to take on the world.”

The Indian Express (“journalism of courage”) offers a road map. “We have to increase agricultural production.” Additionally, “states should set up special economic zones and each zone should specialize in different commodities for exports.” The textile industry – bypassed by India and South Korea – is considered a thing of the past. “Massive and rapid industrialization is imperative to absorb the semi-skilled and skilled manpower now out of jobs.” And FDI has to come from the Indian diaspora. “India should explore and motivate overseas Indians to invest in India.”

It will happen – at an Indian pace. But certainly not for those taxi drivers in Mumbai, those demented, horn-honking buses on the back roads of Kerala, those computer whizzes in the back of a shack, those commuters hanging from a train window and dodging lethal poles. All they’ve got left is the energy to blast ahead and chase their mini India-as-a-great-power dream – full power.