Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Welcome to India, Newbie.

I have a good online friend, a fellow blogger who chronicled her move to India and just arrived this past weekend. If you haven't had a chance to read her stuff, you're missing out: http://delhibound.blogspot.com/2009/07/disparity.html

Her latest post discusses her initial reactions to living her western lifestyle while witnessing the India around her. This is the initial reaction everyone has upon arrival. "How can I help the poor and wretched especially as I have so much?" (said with a whiny voice) I see this all the time.

First, let me say, this is my personal opinion based on years of living here in India. I am not a person of Indian origin, so my views are based on personal observation and responses to questions asked of people from here of many different backgrounds. Your background/responses to my questions may vary.

I struggled with "the poverty dilemma" many years ago on my first trip for a year in Mumbai. The family I stayed with were extremely wealthy, even by western standards. I had immaculate chappals and sandals because a family of cobblers lived just outside the walls of the family compound and I was sure to give them business as often as I could. They were raising four children on the sidewalk. One of my fellow students at Sir J.J. College of Architecture lived in the slums out near the airport, even then a formidable place. It wasn't something he was proud to tell people but he wasn't ashamed of it, either. He was studying to become an architect and lived under a tarp. He failed to see the irony.

I learned a lot about disparity but I also learned a lot about acceptance, perhaps even resignation. If people want to better their situation by whatever measurement they choose, they can, regardless of their circumstances and disabilities. This country is full of people that have bootstrapped their way to leading global companies while being barely literate. Parents really value their children's education and understand the investment they are making in their children's future. This country is full of people who have built manufacturing plants, became successful shopkeepers, movie stars... There are political leaders here from the very lowest of the castes. You can be successful here if you sincerely want to be. But it's not easy.

The situation can be partially explained in a couple of areas, one cultural, one just human. The cultural one is based on the idea that when you are born into a certain circumstance, you stay in that circumstance and if you do the best you can, perhaps in your next life, you will be born into a better circumstance. (My father upon hearing this, mused that perhaps this belief construct developed as a way of controling such a large population and waxed philosophical. It became a source for many political and religious discussions throughout the years.) It also creates pressure on sons to join the family business: "My father is a leatherworker, then I must become a leather worker, too." This is fundamental to the culture here. You'll hear this everywhere: Aunties complaining about a son that refuses to join the family business or expresses shock that son of a house servant wants to become a doctor, which to them is clearly "not their place". Not a big fan of the Auntie.

The second is the basic and fundamental human fear of change. You can't get those kids from "Slumdog Millionaire" to move from the slums of Mumbai and the western world is clearly perplexed. There's a reason for that. That's where their community is. Moving to a flat in a skyscraper does not allow them to stay connected to their own familial sense of community and personal identity. Even if you moved the whole family, the satellite persons involved intrafamily in their little world would contraindicate the move. The slums of Mumbai in particular are extremely complex cities in their own right with their own infrastructures, stores, restaurants, tea stalls, liquor stores, tailors, electricians, political machines, social programs, even quasi-health care, etc. that are entirely independent of any government programs and are completely self-funded. Numerous studies have been published as to the intricacies of this organically grown, undocumented subculture. I am not in any way defending this way of life. It is A way of life and should be accepted as the way some people choose to live.

The beggars are another known, unwelcome quantity. Never, ever give them money. As a foreigner, you've got a big target on your back and you will be contributing to the problem. The more mangled and disabled, the more money a beggar can bring in. They in turn end up giving most of that money to a Beggar Master. Babies are rented to increase your pity as well. There is an entire industry devoted to the separating of you from your rupees and every rupee you give will induce new beggar masters to lop off more hands and blind other children in their greed. They're not dirty because they haven't access to water - it's for the effect. Clean beggars won't earn as much as a dirty one. Water is available - it is finding potable, drinking water that is always an issue. They can certainly bathe and wash clothes. Another thing that I've seen in Rajasthan is using sand to clean pots and even skin (think of it like loose pumice) with a quick rinse of a mere cup or two of water. Indians, as a general rule, keep their homes and persons impeccably clean. (How they handle public spaces is an entirely different issue. LOL.)

Overall, it takes a while to even start to grasp the complexity that is India, just as it must be a challenge to all the Indians that have emigrated to the States... all that space with no one on the streets... the way people stand so far away from you (that pesky personal space issue again), the way people in America drive, stand in line, pay tips, say "Thank you" (You know who I'm talkin'bout - Bengali in da house! - long story), wash their own clothes, clean their own houses, tend their children... the lack of familial contact... It has to feel so very lonely... or liberating. :-)

I know I'm going to catch hell for this post. Again, please see my words above in bold. I'm still learning about this place and if I've made incredibly uninformed comments, please let me know - I find this puzzle called India fascinating and I'm learning as I go.

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