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|First Impressions of India|
|Looking beyond the superficial after a month in the summer.|
First impressions are not easy to capture; more time is spent in looking and reacting than in contemplating. There are some experiences like walking through a Monkey god temple that is overrun by hundreds of monkeys interacting with the human devotees, which are simply awesome. Then there is the humbling offensiveness of people sleeping in the only piece of cloth they own in a gutter by the side of the road.
Although we are here for months, most of the locals see us only as tourists in the off-season and therefore we are approached constantly to buy crap we are not interested in or we are offered services of a guide or a rickshaw that we do not want. We also see the joys of tourist prices published separately from local prices. Much of what we see has an economic factor at its root. Were we here for much longer perhaps we would see other cultural influences at play, but the economic ones flaunt themselves.
Before starting on the economic, let me just talk about a cultural blending that I did not expect. I knew that India was huge and that the people diverse. What I did not really anticipate were the connections that those in India's desert west have with those in the Middle East. As we traveled on camelback one night, the sound of music floated across the sand from the town of Pushkar. The sound was more akin to the imam calling Muslims to prayer and my preconceptions of life in the Middle East transported me out of India that night.
When we went to Darjeeling, in the North East corner sharing a border with Tibet, the sounds and smells of the market place, the dialect of the locals, and their method of interaction reminded me more of the Chinese students I have worked with than the Indian students.
Even Calcutta cannot be presumed to give insight to the Indian way of life since this is one of the communist states that have not had elections for two decades. A strike closed the entire transportation system including taxis and all rickshaws and brought out lynch mobs for any violators. In the South, where we are always encouraged to visit we are often told that religious attitudes are so much stronger there than elsewhere, this seems astounding to me since everywhere we go there are testaments to the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist everywhere. When a holy man is in attendance people will sit on whatever ground is nearby indeterminate of comfort. Monsoon rain is not a deterrent to faith, so I can hardly imagine how much stronger this faith could be exhibited.
When we made our plans we decided to take a two-week tourist trip to the Golden triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, with additional trips to Udaipur and Darjeeling before settling in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Even though we had bought backpacks and packed light for our travels, the heat in the off-season is oppressive. After five minutes of sweating unburdened of bags, while walking in 40 degree Celsius sun, we quickly decided that the hiring of an air conditioned car with a driver was not only great for comfort, but was also incredibly cheap. Less than $450 for 10 days, including petrol, taxes, and hotel stays. Sanju was available whenever we needed him and gave recommendations for trips to temples (like the Monkey god temple) and for restaurants. He would rush to open our doors and close them as we sat - an action that is disturbing to independently minded people. Bu I slowly adapted to what can best be described as a colonial state-of-mind. In hotels we were constantly asked if all was well. Within minutes of being shown to our room the manager would call and ask if we were satisfied. If we walked to the pool, someone would leave their task of the moment in a rush to open a door and ask if we needed drinks. After a while this "service" becomes pestering and annoying, like having a waiter stand a few paces behind you chair in order to be available when you need to refill your glass or to spoon another scoop of curry onto your plate. We met another man from Britain with whom I discussed this colonial sensibility and he was relieved to hear me say it because just the other day he had caught himself waiting for his driver to open the car door instead of just reaching out a hand by himself.
After ten days with the driver and the tourist spots and restaurant service I had grown exasperated because I no longer wanted to rely on these people and did not wish to have everyone attempting to get our attention for whatever service or trinket they had to offer. I felt the colonial arrogance and aloofness in which one simply has to ignore people because when you pay attention they will follow incessantly. So as a first impression I can say that a colonial attitude brought a change in personality that was brought on by being in India, but it is an impression of self within a country, not an impression of the country.
In India I believe that balance is essential. Physical balance, such as women who balance side saddle on the back of their husband's bicycle, scooter or motorcycle; they carry huge bags, children or ironing boards as their husband finds balance on the road, merging into spaces that he knows are going to exist when the vehicle in front moves slightly. When waiting in queues, if a space opens up before you and you don't move in balance with the group then someone will compensate for your imbalance.
There is an economic balance in which money has a flexibility based not on the value of a product but based on the value it has to a particular individual. Obviously, costs to westerners are much more than costs to a local - at tourist sights a Rps. 5 entrance fee for locals is Rps. 150 or more for foreigners. The cost of any item for sale is not quite so concrete and requires the buyer to know the true worth of an item in order to start low and come up, while if the seller makes the first offer then the start price is so high as to make a low offer harder to proffer. If it is a government-regulated price then there is nothing to be done, everything else, including a camel ride, is debatable based on a personal value of worth. Therefore there needs to be a greater awareness of personal value for things ... this does not translate to an awareness of value for other people, just an awareness of what is important to oneself.
Finally mental balance is key to seeing the poverty of some contrasted with the comfort of others. As I said before, these observations are mostly economic in nature, but in this case, the balance required is across a much wider range of poverties. At opposite ends of the scale are the businessmen treating their western customers to dinner at a five star restaurant. And the woman who sleeps on the street outside and is so covered in dirt that she cannot be easily distinguished from the ground on which she lies. Now these same contrasts exist when we see homelessness in the west. But what we don't have in the west are the numerous stages from one extreme to the other, where there is little that separates one person from the next along this scale. There is not a leap from homeless to working class to middle class to upper class and the small variations within each segment. A person sleeping on the ground may be next to a person who sleeps outside but on a wooden bed. They may be next to a person who has constructed a shelter and that shelter may stand next to a brick building that, like a garage with an open door is entirely open to the street. This garage is a place of sleep and of livelihood; business can be done from this covered room. There are those who sleep on the rickshaws they own, whether they are pulled by the bare feet of the owner or by cycle or a two-stroke engine. Hired drivers often sleep in their car. Okay, this is all about sleep. What of the people who are eating their food from a refuse heap that is just yards away from a street vendor who cleans his cooking utensils from the same water source as the people who are washing themselves in the middle of a street on which a businessman pisses against a wall close to an air conditioned restaurant as a barefoot delivery man carries on his padded head a brand new Samsung TV in its box. There are so many economic levels of want that the distinctions of poverty are easier to balance because so little separates one from the next. The mind has to balance all of these distinctions and struggles with itself to find the commonalities of human life by reassuring itself that, perhaps, if everyone is so close to the next level of poverty, then everyone is equally close to the next level of wealth?
We have not seen enough of family life to comment on anything but the most cursory items of note. Marriage is a commodity revealed most strongly in newspapers. On a Saturday when you pull out the classified there are no pages on items for sale, only four pages of, mostly women, advertising for a husband. Quite often these are the ads placed by a family on behalf of a daughter now living in the USA. Almost all have degrees and many are green card holders looking for a husband back home. These ads are, of course placed by those with money. For those with less, the newspaper is still a valuable resource for information about the marriage commodity. Consider the 10-year-old girl who is forced by her village to marry a dog in order to stave off a curse brought on because a baby's first teeth came in on the top and not bottom jaw. This article was complete with a picture of the happy couple. Or of the articles that always begin by saying that a woman committed suicide by either self-immolation or by poisoning, but concludes with the husband or parents being questioned or arrested because there is a high incidence of wives being killed so that the husband can marry into another household to obtain their wealth. There are also the marriages that we don't really see, the ones designed to strengthen business relationships because we do know that, a business can only be successful when it has strong personal relationships. Winning customers through economic competitive advantage is not the way it works here, perhaps that is why the Western companies have saturated the country with brand name recognition tactics, to establish their name with the people on a common basis and thus establishing a personal connection to them. Perhaps also this is why when a businessman attempts to get our attention in the street he does so by saying "hello friend," instead of just "hello?"
I will conclude with just one more observation. Kudos to those who have read with me thus far. Indians have the technology to build optical fibre networks. They can buy all the modern conveniences of air conditioning, fridges, cars etc. They could easily convert open-air markets into malls so that flooding would not require people to wade through the streets with their shopping. They can rebuild roads without having people carry bricks, rubble and sand on baskets that they put on their heads. They can use lawnmowers instead of having people cut back grass with sickles. But there is a choice that is often made to employ more people to do the work of a more effective machine. There is a value in manual labor that extends even to those studying management in the university Julie is attending. When we went on an adventure weekend with the students and an inflatable raft had to be emptied of water, the suggestion to simply upturn the boat to effectively remove the water was not appropriate to those with a manual ballast pump in their hands. To them there was a greater satisfaction in knowing that it could be done through determined effort.
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