A word of warning…this is long and somewhat of a rant. I wrote it while still in India, but my anger and frustration haven’t diminished since my departure.
India has taken hold of me and she won’t let go. My head is swimming, my heart is broken, and I can’t figure out how I feel about this crazy, filthy country. During our weeks volunteering in Chennai, we breathed in India slowly, taking in only as much as we felt we could bear, processing a little at a time. Even with the help of our new friends, we couldn’t make sense of a land rife with contradiction, steeped in millenia of mystery. We were confused by rules regarding modesty, the inability to say no, and the complete disregard for public sanitation. Some things were amusing, like the trademark head bobble, a uniquely Indian gesture that can mean yes, no, maybe, or I don’t know and is the usual response to any inquiry. Others were shocking like the ubiquitous piles of refuse, the random roaming livestock, and the people defecating and urinating on streetcorners, in fields, and along roadsides. Still others were downright confusing, like hundreds of millions of people using a single name, e.g, Madonna or Kumar, and counting by 10,000s (lakhs) and 10,000,000s (crores).
While living with the RSO staff, I picked their brains on issues such as arranged marriage, the caste system, bride burnings, political corruption, and Westernization, but it turns out I only scratched the surface. After leaving the comfort of our southern Indian cocoon, I realized my questions were naive musings about a culture I could not even begin to fathom. Thousands of years, dozens of religions, and countless complex rules governing behavior have created a nation that is inscrutable to foreigners yet completely natural to Indians. The country’s English language periodical, India Today, claims its mission to be “Making Sense of India,” but this seems an impossible task.
Quite simply, this place is crazy. There is a semblance of order, but chaos lurks beneath the surface. The India I imagined was Gandhi’s India, a peaceful, nonviolent nation working to rebuild itself after the ravages of colonialism. Gandhi wanted to eradicate social injustices such as poverty, untouchability, and religious discrimination. While the Mahatma was instrumental in forging independent India, the nation he envisioned was not to be. Assassinated only a year after its inception, he nor his ideas could survive in a nation fraught with tension and distrust.
India is the world’s largest democracy yet struggles to elect worthy representatives. A great number of the country’s politicians are former movie stars or criminals, many of whom are elected from behind bars. The level of corruption is staggering. Thugs and common criminals rule, get rich, and kill those who stand in their way. During our visit a ring of officials in Kashmir was arrested for a series of murders, some of which were politically motivated, one which resulted from a disaffected constituent demanding his bribe back when the official couldn’t deliver on his promise to get him a better job. Though few societies are immune to violence, the level and nature of the beast here is baffling. Children are routinely beaten at school and home. One girl in Chennai was actually beaten to death by her school principal for failing to pay her fees. He is on trial now because murder is illegal; corporal punishment and abuse are not. Three people in a small town were just arrested for working together to kill dozens of women and children. The newspapers claimed the criminals’ motives were “sadism” and the simple fact that they had ready access to weak victims. In the US we’re accustomed to single serial killers, but a coed group of murderers is new. Violence is also seen as an official form of protest and little regard is given to potential victims. Members of one political group were furious when one of their members was convicted of corruption and set a university school bus on fire in protest. That students were aboard didn’t seem to matter and three perished in the fire. Six years later, during our time in India, the perpetrators were sentenced to execution.
Most Indians adhere to strict rules regarding social propriety and modesty. Men and women are not allowed to touch or display affection in public (though male friends are and do much to the chagrin of my sons). Women wear traditional dress that covers everything except their arms and sometimes their bellies. Revealing legs is unheard of and form fitting shirts are viewed as an invitation to male attention. Indian men demand these standards from their women, yet police have to post half page ads begging the same men not to participate in “Eve teasing,” or public groping and harrassment of women on busses, trains, and street corners. A recent India Today issue cited staggering figures that almost 3/4 of Indian women are sexually molested or abused in their lifetimes. Another source claims India has the highest child abuse rate in the world and between 50-75% of all children are molested. The same India Today issue which asked on the cover, “Is your child safe?” explained that children of all social strata are routinely kidnapped for ransom, for sex, for marriage, for sacrifice and a select few to be sent to Saudi Arabia as camel jockeys. Like so much in India, this doesn’t sound real. It’s as if the country is an alternative universe that defies understanding. One now famous Australian writer compared her time living in India to Alice’s time in Wonderland.
Poverty is another kicker. It’s in your face, everywhere. There is not a single place we have gone where someone has not begged for something from us. Everywhere are shanties and lean tos protected from the elements by some combination of blue tarps, corrugated metal, or cardboard. Often they are just meters from the palaces of the rich. Some of the wealthiest people in the country are the gurus, whose maniacal countenances gaze out from posters and billboards. Viewed as incarnations of the Hindu gods, people shower them with cash and gifts hoping for karmic blessings in return. In a country with much established wealth, a burgeoning middle class, rapid GDP growth, and increasing international power, it seems wrong that foreign charities and NGOs should have to step in to help the destitute when the country has the resources to help its own. Where all the money goes is a mystery. Infrastructure is a mess. Electricity and water are in short supply, roads are deplorable, and millions upon millions are illiterate. The rich sidestep these shortcomings by buying generators, establishing private water supplies, and sending their kids to private schools, thus working around the system rather than helping to improve it. I can’t say I blame them. The obstacles to widescale change seem insurmountable.
Much of the economic disparity in India stems from faith. I thought I knew Hinduism, the religion of more than 80% of Indians, but I was wrong. The caste system is alive and well..and ugly. Warring religious groups and castes periodically stage riots and murder one another. Emboldened by legal rights and protections, untouchables don’t always feel it necessary to remove their shoes or bow their heads in the presence of Brahmins. Like newly liberated slaves, some unleash millenia of bottled rage against their oppressors. Likewise some Brahmins who support the caste system are openly hostile to untouchables whom they feel are overstepping their spiritual and social bounds. In a post-Gandhian affirmative action measure, the government instituted quotas in each state regarding jobs for Dalits or untouchables. When the practice started, young Brahmins, members of the highest caste, set themselves on fire in protest. Replacing religious law which dictates that untouchables are being punished for karmic misdeeds with secular law which grants them privileges they have not earned in previous lives is a travesty in their eyes.
This same religious law dictates the importance of marriage, and in some areas, girls are married off as early as age 1. In many areas where parents can’t afford dowries, female infanticide is commonplace. For every 1000 Indian males, there are only 933 Indian females, a telling statistic given that in the US and other developed nations women outnumber men by about 1045 to 1000. In one Indian state, the number of females is as low as 800 for every 1000 males. What is happening to all the girls? Though officially illegal and punishable with imprisonment, bride burning is still a regular occurrence. Women whose dowries are insufficient, who don’t produce sons, or who don’t perform to the expectations of their husbands or in-laws are driven to remote areas and set on fire. Sometimes “accidents” occur in the kitchen providing a plausible defense for guilty families. Of those females who reach adulthood and survive marriage almost half are illiterate while only 25% of their husbands cannot read or write. This society it seems is not doing right by its women.
Everywhere marriages are arranged, and again caste is a critical factor. There are four primary castes but over 3000 subcastes. Members of all castes worship some of the more than 300 MILLION and growing deities in the Hindu pantheon. Faith is rampant and at the heart of much conflict. The 1947 partition into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh) was cataclysmic as 500,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed in the rush for Muslims to flee to Pakistan and Hindus to enter India. Every year there are murders committed in the name of religious intolerance. In 1992, thousands, yes THOUSANDS were slaughtered in cities around India after Hindu extremists razed a Muslim temple at the urging of their political leaders. The ruling party is currently a Hindu extremist group which advocates the formation of Hindustan, a purely Hindu state. With over 120 million Muslims, 23,000,000 Christians, 20,000,000 Sikhs and a handful of Buddhists, Jains, and Bahai, this would entail some serious population displacement. As we sat on the train from Jodhpur to Mumbai a few weeks ago, another train traveling to Pakistan from Delhi (the “Peace Train”) was bombed in an effort to derail Indo-Pakistani peace talks. 66 people, mostly Pakistani, died in the blast. Our train ride was calm by comparison. We were awakened at 4:00 am by the shouting of four or five men. We couldn’t understand what was happening, but as they passed our berths, we made out the English words “police station” and “police” in their arguing. The next morning our cabin mates informed us the altercation was over someone being mistakenly awakened and was really nothing, but at home, this would have been a full-fledged incident requiring police intervention, questioning of witnesses, and disciplinary action for the men.
The chaos that bubbles beneath the surface percolates daily resulting in a constant string of stories that seem unfathomable to the non-Indian. Sitting in a hotel lobby we read a local newspaper that described a spate of suicides by struggling farmers and a garment workers’ collective that decided as a group to sell their kidneys. The day we left four young men drank poison while attending a speech by the prime minister because he hadn’t delivered on a promise to provide jobs for their student group. The police got them to the hospital in time and they survived. Our guidebooks encouraged us to flee if we were involved in a road accident when either a cow or a person was killed because angry bystanders would likely set the car on fire and/or attack the passengers regardless of fault. The day before we arrived in Kerala, 15 children and 2 teachers died on a school field trip when their raft capsized in a lake. It was unlicensed and would have been rated for for 5-10 people instead of the 40 or so that were on board had it been legal. When we were in Mumbai, the top story in the day’s news related to a development in the national cricket team’s World Cup schedule rather than the bombing that had just occurred on the Peace Train.
There is so much that is shocking in India and simply does not make sense to the foreign mind. Add to it the constant, intense stares, the whining and grabbing of professional beggars, the pervasive foul odors, the crumbling roads, dirty water, and intermittent electricity, and it seems there is little to like about the place. But every time I get frustrated or disgusted I think of those smiling faces in Chennai and I realize they are India too. Granted they are untouchable India, the refuse that might have been swept aside had not someone intervened, but India nonetheless.
My hope is that they can be part of the change, part of the movement that will allow untouchables to prosper and girls to live. Maybe they’ll pick up their trash, poop in private, and hug their children. Maybe they’ll vote for hardworking, openminded citizens rather than common criminals. Maybe they’ll learn not just to look past those in need but to find a way to help them rise above their poverty. Maybe one day they’ll help me understand their complex, baffling country. Until then, I’ll scratch my head (not from the lice) and hope for an epiphany.
(Post script: I do not mean to imply that India is all bad. We met many caring, wonderful people, some of whom are working to right the country’s wrongs in their own way. Nor do I mean to argue that my own country is devoid of criminals, corruption, or violence. India simply blows away anything we’ve experienced to date in sheer scale and variety of its problems and is by far the most “foreign” place we’ve visited.)