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Jonathan: What’s to come

January 25, 2011

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.

India, I’ve found, to be a much more conservative place than I first expected. Perhaps the most shocking moment for me came when I was told that my plain white tee shirt was ‘inappropriate’ to wear outside the home and was instructed to change. But beyond that, the dialogue I’ve heard is one that fiercely adheres to promises of free-market capitalism; a firm belief that with ‘growth’ will come an end to what is here called “backwards-ness.” The most striking moment was at the Literature Festival when an audience member professed during a panel discussion that the poor were destitute because they lacked the necessary greed to make money (enthusiastic applause demonstrated the general consensus in the forum).  In a country where over 500 million people live in poverty, it is appalling to suggest that they simply need to be greedy.  And yet, that is what Indian’s think, and at this stage in the game, they have more to teach me about India than I have to tell them. I am here to learn, not to preach.

If anything, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned thus far is that any feelings of shock, or amazement, or disgust, or wonder, are my feelings alone, and ones that I cannot project onto others. Even though I want to give starving children money when they beg, I know that the money is going to a mob syndicate. Even if it makes me uncomfortable to ride in a cycle rickshaw, to deny one is to make that individual to lose his income. Even if the difference between the intial asking price and the price one could get through haggling is 50 US cents, to not do so changes the local economy. It may make me feel upset to call the maid “servant,” or to pay her just Rs 300 ($6.50) to do my laundry for a month, but that is how it is done. I cannot change the world, and I cannot change India. This is not my country. I am here to learn and to be as responsible and respectful as I can in this situation. While I have been here just a few short days, I have been forced to constantly ask myself what the moral thing to do is, what human dignity means, and how to promote justice when the line between just and unjust is so blurry.

While I am tempted to end here, I would be remiss to do so without telling of my experience at the famed Indian wedding. Considered by all to be the highlight of Indian culture, it is viewed in the west as a tremendous curio and fascinating spectacle. My first night with them, my family took me to a ‘wedding dinner.’ It was one of the saddest experiences I had ever seen. Located in a large fair ground, the 500 guests milled about silently, eating the generic wedding food and listening to the generic wedding tunes. The bride, while not allowed to smile by tradition, looked as if she was going to cry, had been crying, or was actively crying. Her bottom lip quivered as she stood respectfully next to her beaming new husband. The whole event felt stale, and given that most Indian families go to at least six a season, it was. I recommend you to watch Monsoon Wedding, it is much more exciting than the real thing.

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