The photograph above is of a palace in Delhi with a beautifully manicured garden. The woman in red in the foreground, a member of the Dalit community (also known as the ‘untouchables,’) lives on the lawn there with her family of over five children.
As you can imagine, the start of the program has been hectic and unpredictable. In a country where internet is not readily available at the drop of a hat (but cell phone coverage certainly is), it has been difficult to find a sustained time to write. But enough of that…
Everything you’ve heard about India is wrong. And it’s also right. At the same time. It is a land of what appears to be contradictions, a striving for binary’s where the gray area is so omnipresent, and enthralling. As I end day number eight here, number six in Jaipur itself, I am at a loss of where to even begin. How to even explain the sights I’ve seen when so much has happened in such a short time?
There are eleven of us (ten women and myself). I’ve never been surrounded by so many intelligent, dedicated, and interesting people. For the first time in a long while I feel challenged by my peers in an academic context, and have learned so much from them already. We represent a variety of academic disciplines, including international studies, political science, public health, food science (a huge bonus to the program), economics, sociology and English (with myself representing social work and gender studies). Most have had academic/formal exposure to discussions of international development, others have none, while I have a fair amount just from my outside readings and personal research and interests. The highlight so far has been long discussions with eachother where we bring our own personal studies to try and contextualize and understand this immense experience. While we haven’t begun our formal classes yet (we will finally begin on Thursday), we are all excited to start integrating all the confusing messages we’ve received thus far into our studies.
India is many things, seemingly all at once.
Women in saris, kurtas, and salwar kameses of bold red, green, white, blue, yellow, orange, and every iteration beyond literally glow in the sun light which is reflected off of their gold bangles, nose ring, earrings, and mirrors affixed to their clothing. And yet, men dominate the public sphere, outnumbering their female counterparts at least two to one. Men are everywhere: walking, riding buses, taking auto-rickshaws (a rather unstable three wheeled ‘taxi’), urinating publicly (mind you, in full view of any passer by), manning businesses, and every other imaginable demonstration of public citizenship. It is both full of women’s color, and completely devoid of their presence as well.
The neighborhood I live in with my hosts, the Bansal family, is a stable middle class one with large homes, spotless living rooms, and manicured lawns. At yet just two doors down lives a cow and her calf on the sidewalk.
Just ten more feet away on the main road is a small tent village of desperately poor families who beg for food and money. This abject human suffering of which no words can fully describe, is also punctuated by the reality that they are controlled by the local mob, who takes any earnings they receive from begging.
The streets are filthy here, littered with an unimaginable assortment of trash. And yet, I’ve not once seen a cigarette butt; people here simply do not smoke (although chewing tobacco is popular). And yet, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, an international gathering of famous authors which brings together the Indian intelligencia and gentry, it often has the feeling of a smoking lounge, and the air is thick.
I will not belabor the point, and I think it stands that there is no way to sum up this experience in one blog post, or even twenty. It is a land filled with curios and the mundane seemingly all at once. Sorting through that is my task for the next four months.
At a practical level, I am currently living in a homestay with the Bansal Family comprising of the father (Papa-Ji), a chemist and owner of two small businesses, the mother (Mummi-Ji), an yoga master and homemaker, the sixteen year old son, and the grandmother (Dadi-Ji). A modern middle class Indian family, they are secular Hindu’s, emphasize education, and are desperate to obtain green cards in the United States, where over 40 members of the paternal side of the family currently live. Their older son, who is my age, is currently away at Law School, and a particular obsession is a constant conversation about ‘success,’ standards of living, and how many PhD’s are in the genealogy. This, of course, is mixed with an interest in my background: I gained significant approval upon their hearing the my mother has her doctorate (followed by a barrage of questions about her salary). There is a strong strain of ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate,’ mainly in an effort to maintain their class distinction. My running thesis is that middle class is defined in visible opposition. They have money to bathe daily, wear button down shirts over tee-shirts, and maintain a clean house. They are not, thus, at all like the street at the end of their driveway, which is dirty, dusty, and littered. They have a comparison to act against. Read the rest of this entry ?