It’s been exactly a month since I arrived in India. By tourist standards, I’ve seen very little as I’ve been focused on some journalism projects. But in the last calendar page I’ve made a few observations, a few friends and continue to be holding my head above water in the loud, crowded and incredibly complex Indian subcontinent.
BHOPAL, India – Just one guess why a freelance journalist might be going on more than a week in Bhopal – site of the deadliest industrial disaster in history nearly 25 years back. Just one guess.
Anyway, so far I haven’t been seeing the India most westerners seek out. No Thomas Cook-all-inclusive-yoga-resort-ashram-by-the-sea with lily-white buses whisking throngs of immaculately robed tourists from the international airport in their natural fabrics, bypassing the urban poverty and despair to deliver them to an impregnable fortress of new age bliss filled with like-minded world spirits with lavish lines of credit, finicky eating habits that gather together to achieve “consciousness” and only breaking the rigors of their meditation to eat, sleep, drink, smoke and partner up for the afternoon tantra clinic.
I guess I’m just jealous.
I’d been cautioned that as a fair-skinned westerner I might be treated with far more deference and respect than I probably deserved. I recoiled at this idea. For I don’t like to be treated better or worse than the next person. I’ll wait my turn with the rest and am equally indignant whether it’s the level of service or the price that’s being raised owing to me being a foreigner.
But when I saw how brusquely people can be treated in this country I learned to shut up and accept it. What would pass for fight-starting-behavior where I’m from is standard fare in this country. In India, blaring your horn as you overtake someone is considered a courtesy to the extent that many trucks have HORN PLEASE emblazoned on the rear.
It continues to amaze me how status conscious everyone is. This morning as I leafed through the Sunday paper, I found the “brides wanted” and “grooms wanted” section. These sections are classified by religion and caste. Most state family background and professional status in the first one or two lines. There are a few in the “cosmopolitin” section that state “religion / caste no bar” which was also repeated in the small section for “Divorcees.”
I’d also been warned of the dirt, the noise and the poverty. My first evening in Delhi I had to literally side-step a fly-covered toddler that was sleeping in the entrance way of a ramshackle internet cafe. This was in the heart of the capital city. With so much population dreadfully poor many make a bee-line for a foreigner with palms outstretched begging for alms. It’s not just for foreigners, but we’re known to have more money and be a softer touch.
Riding the trains is no different. Often when a train alights at a station some of the most heart-wrenching cases of human misery board so they can limp, crawl or drag themselves down the aisles of the second and third class compartments begging for alms. Small children will ride two or three stations sweeping the carriages – I feel obliged to tip them as the trains are in dire need of a tidying up – but there are much more desperate cases.
It gets to be that I dread the stops for I know not what manner of human horror will convey itself down the aisle searching for some morsel of charity.
Young and old alike with deformed limbs will thrust their affliction in your face in an entreaty to help. Most people are moved by such desperate sights.
Not me; I’m an asshole.
I find myself being unmercifully stingy while the Indians next to me reach into their pockets to give a few rupees to a young mother with an infant at her breast. There have been exceptions but they are rare. If I start I won’t know where to stop.
At least that’s my rationalization.
While the noise, the grime, the dirt and – did I mention the noise? – continues to grate on me from the onset I’ve tried to just go-with-it. In my first days here I met a group of Belgian girls who’d traveled more than a month in India and were appalled. Appalled that things weren’t like back home in Belgium. They’d booked all-inclusive package trips (never a good idea, especially from abroad) and were shocked – SHOCKED – to find that standards weren’t up to snuff. Trains were late; the shower pressure had been a trickle; there were mysterious masculine stains on the bedclothes. All pretty pedestrian stuff in the developing world, I’d thought.
They informed me rather smugly that they intended to use their last two days in the country to hound the travel company to try and get some of their money back.
“We can be very, very annoying if we want to,” said one girl. I rather believed her.
There’s was that sort of cultivated arrogance that Europeans seem to have mastered. Talking about “Belgian efficiency” I imagined King Leopold discussing “the blacks.” They posited that if Indians were as efficient as Belgians, the country would be much more powerful.
“We work 38 hours a week,” one said. “But we work really hard in those 38 hours.”
I guess during that month they’d missed seeing the porters, builders, bicycle rickshaw drivers, and other of the labor class that often literally sleep at their worksite and toil for more than half the day for pennies an hour.
Bhopal, in the heart of the country, isn’t a place to capture a visitor’s imagination. Like most Indian urban centers its open spaces have been cemented over as the progress of industrialization and population pressures of modernity plaster over thousands of years of history.
And its history is fascinating – for hundreds of years by Muslim women and the old city still has crumbling palaces that are now being used as orphanages, schools and other civic departments. The UNESCO heritage sites are reportedly under renovation but one has to overlook the tar-blackened crumbling masonry to appreciate how grandiose this place once was.
Arriving in Bhopal at dusk, I trudged through the twists and turns of a predominately Muslim bosti – that’s a slum – looking for a guesthouse. Having failed, I hiked over a bridge with a small boy tailing after me begging for a handout. After five tries, I managed to find a hotel with vacancy and settled in to my relatively expensive single room which was host to a thriving colony of cockroaches.
Venturing outside it was the usual whirl of noise and traffic. Amidst the chaos I witnessed the deftest bribe I’d ever seen. At a traffic circle, a young man leaned out of a speeding van to complete an impossibly quick hand-off to a stick-wielding traffic cop posted at the intersection. It was admirably efficient though not all that discreet.
That’s not to say that the state of Madhya Pradesh – of which Bhopal is the capital – doesn’t have its charms. Recently, I spent two days in Pachmarhi, a hill station resort developed by the British looking for respite from the stultifying heat and humidity. The town was just another undulating mass of noise and filth from too many vehicles competing for not-enough-road and I was determined to see the surrounding national park.
Too cheap to fork out the 500 rupees ($10USD) for a jeep tour, I rented a rickety one-speed cruiser bicycle from a guy on a corner for a tenth the price. As soon as I set off I realized I should’ve test-ridden the cycle first. At the first hill I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Noooo braaaaakes!” as I careened down past bemused Indians riding in their rented jeeps.
I spent the day alternating between pushing the hulking bike frame up tortured switchbacks that cut through the mountainous terrain and using using my feet to slow myself enough to negotiate hair-pin turns so I wouldn’t meet a grisly end head-on with a rented jeep.
Before Madhya Pradesh and Bhopal, I had been in the northwestern province of Punjab in Amritsar. I was squinting through an alcoholic haze when the driver leaned toward me.
He said: “We have two-and-a-half liters of illegal alcohol in the car — we really shouldn’t be doing this.”
It was my new friend Aaftab. Piloting his white Fiat through throngs of highway traffic at high speed, he’d just cut-off a heavy truck and threaded the needle between a bicycle and three-wheel autorickshaw.
I wasn’t sure where he got the we part. All I’d done was guzzle the desi – Punjabi moonshine – that had been proffered. Other than choosing his and his cohorts as company for the afternoon in which we got liquored up at a building site and then drove at high-speed to the Pakistani border, I felt positively blameless for whatever might happen next.
Amritsar is a city held most holy by Sikkhs, an offshoot of the Hindu religion whose male faithful are easily identified by their turbans. It’s in the north of India not far from one of the main borders with Pakistan on a road and rail line that connects with Lahore.
I had checked in at a free flophouse run by the faithful who guard the Golden Temple – the most holy shrine – that feeds and shelters pilgrims and deadbeat foreigners alike within the massive complex. I’d arrived at about 6 a.m. from an overnight train and arrived in the steamy dormitory. The turban-clad attendant had flicked on the light to reveal a writhing mass of pasty hippies recoiling from the bright fluorescent lights. A couple of hours later I had met Aaftab, a fellow ‘couchsurfer’ who gives hospitality to strangers from the internet, and we were soon pounding desi – a white spirit made from cane sugar – and smoking bidis in a field with his friends.
After everyone was suitably buzzing, we got in the car and headed for the Wahga border. Anyone who has visited this region knows that Wahga is the second-largest tourist attraction in the area, after the Golden Temple itself. That’s because the Indian and Pakistani armies parade for each other at dusk each day as they ceremoniously close the border gate that’s divided the two nations since Partition in 1947.
There are literally bleachers erected on both sides and we could see hundreds of Pakistanis on the other side watching from a few hundred yards away. For some reason the armies weren’t parading – for all we got was a group of young girls twirling in their saris to Punjabi and Hindi music waving the green, white and orange banner of India.
My Indian companions had seen this all before and were much more interested in gawking at the sunburnt European women who show off more flesh than they’re accustomed. These desi-crazed 30-something youths gazed longingly at a group of frumpy British women in pastel colors parading past in the VIP line. Fair-skinned foreigners are often given special treatment in class conscious India.
I had arrived in Delhi a little more than two weeks back. How or why I stayed so long in that city I am still trying to figure. It has to do with friends and contacts and myself angling for some sort of paying work while in South Asia.
I spent considerable time trying to fall in love with Delhi. Still trying. Like cities the world over, it’s experienced a considerable crush from people fleeing the countryside in search of work. Its infrastructure is crumbling beneath the weight of all those bodies. Fortunately the government has constructed a metro subway that’s in the midst of an expansion at a frenetic pace that’s been particularly deadly for its construction workers.
Obviously modeled in part on the London Underground, a pleasant Oxbridge-accented woman’s voice admonishes you to, “Mind the Gap,” at each station. Then, as if to remind you that you’re in New Delhi and not Tottenham Court Road, she reminds passengers not to sit on the floor or spit inside the train.
There’s also a very paranoid undercurrent. Still reeling from the Mumbai attacks and past bombings, police search passengers before they enter the station. That isn’t so disturbing as much as the recorded announcements reminding you that ordinary items might be packed with explosives.
There’s also this don’t talk to strangers imperative that I think crosses the line: “Passengers are reminded not to befriend unknown persons.” Hey, this is India. Nearly everyone’s a stranger and a good portion of them still wanna chat and exchange emails. Not gonna let the threat of terrorism make me into a rude person.
I also took the time to read the rules pasted on the walls. Apparently you’re forbidden from bringing human remains, manure or combustibles on the metro. As if a funeral procession would take the tube across town.
I was also amused to see that riding on top of the metro train would incur a fine of Rs. 50 (about $1USD) as if there would be anything left of the hapless person who clamored atop a metro train before it descends underground.
But the metro is child’s play compared to the buses. Anyone who’s accustomed to jumping on or off moving freight trains would have no trouble using Delhi’s bus service. The drivers – some, not all – seem to take malicious delight in forcing passengers to run run one or two blocks before he decides to stop. All the while the conductor leans off the side urging them to run faster and catch up. Then as about only half of the passengers have managed to climb aboard, the driver impatiently guns it with men, women and children running for their lives and being scooped up by fellow passengers.
Getting off is no better.
I remember telling my Delhi friend I’d managed to figure out the buses one day.
“You rode the bus?!”she shrieked incredulously. “Seriously, Jacob, don’t take the bus. People die every day on those buses.”
She does work a beat for a daily newspaper so I’m sure she was only half exaggerating.
The darker side of the city – if there even is a lighter side to India’s capital city – is definitely East Delhi. A friend studies at a college in East Delhi and told me about a colony of solvent-sniffing kids that are falling through the cracks.
We decided to go treat a few to veggie burgers and hear their stories. Naturally, they were wary – especially of me, this hulking pale-skinned giant that doesn’t even speak Hindi. The veggie burger stand was closed so that plan fell through and most were too shy to chat for long.
We did talk to Golu, a 13-year-old who said his father drives a bicycle rickshaw and mother cleans houses. He doesn’t live at home, he said, preferring to sleep in the subway with his friends. Many of them had white-out on their lips and chins from the solvent they’d sniff to get high. They spent a lot of their time collecting bottles and using the deposit money to buy a bottle of the solvent at the corner stationery shop or pharmacy.
The workers at surrounding restaurants and shops barely glance at these skinny boys who sift through rubbish with a stick to find bottles. As the sun came out they played a game of sorts with sticks and blocks of concrete.
“I just want to be able to do something for these kids,” my friend – who himself had dabbled in solvents and other drugs at an earlier age – told me.
My first trip outside of Delhi was to the sacred city of Varanasi. Built on the banks of the Ganges it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Or so they say. I also learned it’s got somewhat of druggy reputation for travelers who turn up to smoke hashish and crust.
But for Hindus, it’s the place to die. According to belief, if one’s body is immolated on a sacred pyre on the banks of the Ganges and then thrown in the river, the soul attains Nirvana. Which is not a bad deal except the firewood is incredibly expensive so the poor have to be burned in electric crematoriums – or in some cases – tossed wholesale into the sacred river.
Walking up and down Varanasi’s twisted streets and broad thoroughfares I would inevitably get hassled. I didn’t blame these touts and hustlers – work is scarce and there’s probably no softer touch than a stoned foreigner lost amidst the speeding rickshaws, cows, chai stalls and stick-wielding traffic police.
I learned to walk quickly and be brusque to shake them off. It was always the same: hashish? wanna see my silk shop? taxi?
As I was walking down one street, a young man sidled up to me.
“From what country?” he used as an opener.
I turned on him and hissed: “I don’t want to buy your hashish.”
His face twisted into a mask of righteous indignation. It was his turn to be angry.
” I am not selling any fucking hashish!” he barked. “All people here aren’t the same, you know.”
I was ashamed and embarrassed. Apologizing profusely I introduced myself and we spent 30 seconds exchanging pleasantries.
After a bit of a pause, he broke the silence. “Anyway, I’m selling handicrafts…”
That’s my dispatch from India so far. Maybe once this Bhopal project is over I’ll sneak a glimpse of the Taj Mahal or something equally touristy.
As an aside, I have noticed a lot of ads for ‘personality development’ courses. As it’s something I could probably never afford in the states, I may give it a try.
Sort of like getting discount-rate plastic surgery in the Philippines. What have you got to lose?