Traveling has a way of changing you and your perspectives. These past two weeks of my life have certainly been proof of that maxim. My time was spent briefly in the UK and then I had the privilege of visiting India for the first time. As I arrived in Chennai, I came with many preconceived notions about India that were about to be blown away. Given that India has a population of over a billion people, I expected to experience that crush of humanity the moment I stepped of the plane. Instead, we were ushered into a beautiful new airport that was spacious and clean. We were quickly able to make it through customs and then found that my bag had actually arrived (which was certainly a relief given my experiences in Chile earlier this year.) Upon exiting the airport building I thought it might be difficult to find our Indian hosts and yet they were right there waiting for us and it was not even crowded. I later learned that many of the typical gawkers and “unauthorized” taxi drivers, etc. are deliberately kept away from the airport exit doors unlike my experience in so many other countries.
As we hopped in the van to make our trip into Chennai, I looked up to see the hulking structure of the Chennai Metro system that is being built. This massive public works system became the metaphor for my trip as everywhere I went; something seemed to be being built. Our trip into town was the beginning of a special “faith” experience as the rules of the road in India are not quite what they are in the west. I was quite sure on several occasions that we were going to die or at the very least be crushed under the weight of a passing bus. Ironically, neither of those things happened as the drivers in India have become quite expert at using their horns. Vehicles have a tendency of coming so close to one another that you could practically hop out of one and into another without ever slowing down. I still cannot quite understand how you can come within a centimeter (definitely closer than an inch) of another vehicle and not have an accident on a daily basis and yet this is happening all the time. What a wonderful picture of modern India these trips were as we watched motorbikes (hundreds of them), cars, buses, vans, pedestrians, auto-rickshaws and cows all vying for space on the streets.
Bookselling is alive and well in this society were literacy has improved from 12% in 1947 to nearly 75% in 2011. Reading is a prized activity and education is seen as the obvious route out of poverty, though this is still not happening as quickly as many would like. Christian bookshops are thriving and the church is growing. In both of the cities that we visited (Chennai and Bangalore), ELS (CLC operates under the name Evangelical Literature Service in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) runs three bookstores to meet the demands of those coming through doors each day. The main store in Bangalore was the busiest Christian bookstore that I have ever been in and sells the most books of any CLC bookstore in the world. With nine fulltime staff, they are able to meet the demands and do so with an obvious joy and excellent customer service. While were in the shop, five Muslim women came in dressed in full burkas and we discovered that Hindus and Muslims shop in our store on a regular basis. What an opportunity to share the truth of the gospel to people that might never enter a Christian church.
The people we met along the way on this trip highlighted this concept of a nation under construction. Not only are the physical infrastructures being improved and expanded, but so are the people. Education is so highly prized that India is now producing some of the best engineers and IT professionals in the world. Bangalore is now commonly referred to as the silicon valley of India. In many multi-national companies around the world, Indians now hold senior executive positions and are setting the standard for leadership. Our team was no exception to this rule as many on the team had both a college degree in an area of specialization and a theological education as well. The children of many of the current ELS leadership are part of the vanguard of these new engineering and IT professionals. It was amazing to meet so many people that spoke very good English and at least one or two other Indian languages as well. While our shops primarily sell many books in English and Tamil (in the South of India), they also sell books in several other Indian languages including Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu and Kannada.
On my second to last day in the country, I was asked to speak to our Indian team at the headquarters and was blessed to share my thanks for their partnership with our team in the USA. Unexpectedly, I was honored by a ceremony where I was presented with a traditional shawl and garland that they put on me. As I spoke to the people in the room, I could not help but notice this respect for the past while embracing the future. We were sitting in a room that was part of a complex built in the 1970’s and still looked like that era. Despite this, I was enjoying the air conditioning and using a laptop and projector and discussing the arrival of e-books and IPads. Not surprisingly as the meeting closed, we stepped into the courtyard outside the room and began discussing the need to expand their warehouse. ELS is under construction too and God is doing a mighty work in this dedicated team.