Post 44 – Final Thoughts

We have been in India now for almost 5 months. This post is being written in the Delhi airport as we wait for our 2 AM flight back to Chicago, a 15 hour trip. Being in India, and developing our Following the Box project, has been the most remarkable experience of our lives. We’ve tried to provide a taste of our experience through these posts. They also help us to remember what could otherwise fade, the telling details disappearing in the daily, colorful avalanche. Many of the people we’ve met will become life-long friends, our memorable adventures setting us on unimagined paths that will continue to unfold for years to come. Throughout, we never stopped asking ourselves “Where are we?” Our astonishment at India’s vibrancy, complexity and painful contrasts is just as fresh now as it was when we first stepped off the airplane back in November.

We each want to share a few thoughts before returning to our “normal” lives. Jerri will post a few “Snippets,” her final Muses, in the next few days.

I’ve been struck by the way in which India pulls you in two directions. It’s more than the obvious contrasts between rich and poor, old and new, rural and urban that I’ve commented on for the past months. It’s deeper. India has an ancient culture, a delight in gods and goddesses, story and myth, a tangible understanding that there is meaning in the world—in our lives. Indian culture affirms that things happen for a reason, and that if we take life seriously, we might better enjoy the journey. It is a culture that thrives on ritual, giving form to the inexplicable forces that course through our lives. There are celebrations everywhere, all the time. And there is a history of honoring study and knowledge, not unlike the Jewish culture. Actually, the similarities are striking–the sound of the conch shell announcing Hindu prayers mirroring the shofar; the belief in education; the Star of David a pervasive symbol. The culture pulls you upward, towards enlightenment.

But at the same time, other forces are at play. This is a country marred by corruption and violence, by tragedies that count millions slaughtered. Hinduism is a belief system more than a religion, one that stresses tolerance and understanding. Muslims stress the welcoming of strangers, the belief that we are all one. Yet neighbor turned on neighbor during Partition and during the creation of Bangladesh and during Hindu-Muslim riots that occur sporadically, often with the tacit support of whatever government is in power. It’s like trying to reconcile the sensitivity and sophistication of pre-War German culture with Nazism. It can’t be done.

This pulling downward, toward our baser instincts, takes a very real form in every day life, even without overt violence. To survive in India, to withstand the onslaught of one-legged beggars and mothers thrusting their babies in your face and people closing their fingers around imaginary morsels of food and beseeching you to stave off their hunger, you harden. As Jerri says, “No eye contact.” To be able to function, you turn away. To survive, you deaden your response to pain and inequality, to poverty and illness. I don’t like this feeling—it runs counter to all my instincts and it is core to the India experience, magical though it may be on so many levels.

India pulls you up towards divinity and down towards indifference. Negotiating the space in-between is the challenge that defines us.

Thank you Senator Fulbright for making this journey possible. And thank you to all our friends, in India and America, for taking time to share our adventure. Namaskar.

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Post 21 – Jerri’s Musings #6 – Rickshaws

Bishnupur, 2011 – We like to walk when we’re on an explore. But this time it was late, we were tired and wanted to get back to our hotel. So we flagged down a man on a bicycle rickshaw. The road back had a slight upward incline, whose angle increased as we rode. Half way, the driver was really struggling and got off the bike to push. I felt horrible and wanted to get off to ease his burden. Alan said that that would insult him and that we should simply stay on. I felt like a big fat American. I was relieved when we finally reached our hotel. We gave him a handsome tip, but that did nothing to assuage my guilt – actually it may have made it worse – now I felt like a big fat rich American. We didn’t ride on a rickshaw for the rest of the trip, which is bad. If everyone would feel this way, rickshaw drivers would be out of a job and would not be able to feed their families.

Kolkata, 2013 – A friend told us a story about a rickshaw driver he knew who was from a village outside the city. He saw his family only about every 2 months. At night, he slept curled up in his rickshaw; he bathed and ate in the street. He saved every rupee. Once, the driver revealed to our friend that he had tens of thousands of rupees under his seat. He uses this money he said, to put his children through private school.

Last month, in our neighborhood, I saw a barefoot rickshaw driver with two well-dressed children as passengers. The boy was sucking on a lollypop. The girl was holding a doll. They were dressed in British-type-blue-blazer school outfits. The scene was Felliniesque. I was totally perplexed, and pretty outraged – who are those children and why aren’t they walking? Then I remembered my friend’s story. Perhaps they are his children? One never knows, does one?

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Rickshaw driver Gatham Maji in Santinicketan (JZ)

Santinineken, December 31, 2013 – This a beautiful little town, just north of Kolkata, made famous by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It has a famous university and few paved roads. The major mode of transportation is the bicycle rickshaw – we had no choice. I had to swallow my pride and jump on. I can’t help it – I find it humiliating, especially when the driver struggles with an uphill path, or a road full of deep ruts.

I don’t like to be seen as “the master.” Even after 25+ years of having a monthly cleaning lady back home in Chicago, I feel somewhat guilty – why can’t I clean up my own dirt? When we were first looking for someone to help clean our house, a friend recommended an African-American woman. I felt horrible – I couldn’t do it – I didn’t ask her to come back despite the fact that she did a fine job. There’s too much history in America between master/slave, and I felt like “the master,” albeit my origins are in Central Europe, not America. Ever since, we’ve had Polish cleaning ladies. I’m still uncomfortable, but the guilt is manageable.

In India housekeepers are called maids or servants. We have Tapoti, a woman who comes in for a few hours a day, cooks, cleans and does laundry. Alan convinced me it was OK–not only an opportunity for us, but we would also be adding to the local economy, almost an obligation.

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Tapoti in our kitchen in Kolkata (JZ)

I still find myself cleaning up sometime. Once I was cleaning off the breakfast table, bringing dishes to the sink. She stopped me, said “no,” and waved me away. Did I insult her? Was I doing her job?

Kolkata airport, January, 2014 – I walked into the new modern bathroom at the airport. All the stalls were occupied except two. The woman in front of me walked into the empty one, then walked out and went into the other one. I assumed there was something wrong, so I waited, but the attendant motioned me in. I looked inside and found that there was no toilet paper. I said so to the attendant. She then went inside, took a roll that was sitting on a ledge, out of my view, unrolled a length and wiped the seat. She then motioned me in. “No,” I said, “I thought there was no paper, see?” and pointed to the empty spool. She didn’t understand. I felt terrible about the misunderstanding and brooded over the misinterpretation for hours.

I keep wanting to get off the rickshaw.

Post 9 – Jerri’s Musings #2 – Ethics

Many years ago, Max and I were driving downtown. We got to the corner of Sheridan Rd. and Hollywood, waiting at the stoplight. A man was selling newspapers. Max wanted to buy one. I protested, being married to a paper magnet. He said he wanted to buy one to support the vendor. “Look at him,” he said “Would you like to have that job? Don’t be cheap, buy a paper.” Max had just returned from Senegal, and his sense of justice was quite acute. I smiled, proud of my son – we had brought him up well.

The vendor noticed our interest and immediately came over. “How much for the paper?” I say. “Two dollars.” He says. I hand him the money, he walks away. I look at the paper and I see $1.75 marked at the top. “I just got cheated!” I say, indignant. “Geez, it’s only 25 cents.” Says Max. “That’s not the point, he should have given me the correct price, and by charging me $2 he was being dishonest,” I say.

We then proceed into a long conversation along Lake Shore Drive, discussing the ethics of the transaction. Max claimed that the vendor had a right to ask for the $2, after all I was much better off. My counter argument was that his economic status had no bearing on the matter and that he should have been honest and told me the correct price. Of course I would have given him the $2, but it was my decision to do so, not his. Max countered by saying that the vendor wouldn’t know that, and didn’t want to take a chance – he needed the money. We never came to an agreement. I still think I’m right.

So what does this have to do with India?

A lot – every time I go shopping I am put in a situation where I have to assess whether I’m being overcharged, by how much and whether I’m OK with that.

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The Plastics Lady, Lake Market (JZ)

I’ve been buying plastic everything – containers for food and spices, clothespins, hangers, laundry buckets, floor-cleaning buckets, washbasins, water jars, stools, self-stick hooks…. I think I’m finally done now. Alan is incensed at the enormity of plastic in India and my eagerness to fall prey. I agree, but we need to keep the spices fresh and the bugs out, and we don’t have a dishwasher or a washing machine, plus I’m a bit OCD regarding organization. All of these were purchased from street vendors, of which there are thousands. I bargain, because I know that I’m being overcharged – I’m a foreigner therefore I’m rich. Which I kind of am, relative to their situation. Sometimes I’m only able to get it down 10-20 Rupees – pennies, but it makes me feel better, and I feel in control.

Last week, I was talking to Salim, the man from Lake Bluff. We were discussing the purchase power of Westerners, the guilt of bargaining someone down for a few cents, just to make us feel better. Should I let the plastic vendor have the 10 Rupees, like the 25cent guy from years ago, just because I happened to be born into a more privileged societal situation? I think I reconciled the question by saying that the 10 Rupees savings made me feel better, and the plastic vendor still made more money off of me than from an Indian, and I am OK with that. And, bargaining at a street stall is expected; it’s a game that’s constantly being played.

A couple of days ago however, I was really taken. We were just coming back from the doctor’s office – I was terribly nauseous and apples were one of the few things I could eat. We passed a vendor that had several varieties – they looked wonderful, neatly stacked in circular pyramids. I bought a ½ kilo, plus a beautiful pomegranate. “210 Rupees ($3+)” he said – “Too expensive” I said, but my spinning head was not interested in bargaining or to seek out another vendor, so I simply handed over the money. As we walked away, I knew I had been way overcharged and started to grumble. Today I bought 1 kilo of apples and paid 100 Rupees ($1.50) from a great fruit vendor I found. Yesterday I was charged 3x what I should have. I’m really angry and can’t really let go of it. He saw me coming and I fell right in. I don’t like that sense of vulnerability, stupidity, of being the gullible foreigner, the targeted victim – I feel like I can’t control the situation, which always is a bad thing. My vegetable guy gave me a carrot today, “I’ll be back,” I said. Last week, the egg man returned 2 Rupees from my correct payment. I looked at him questioning. He said that’s so I’ll come back to him. I was so taken by his gesture, that I wanted to return it. I decided to keep the 2 Rupees, as this was his token to me. I smiled with a Bengali nod. I’m a faithful shopper – respect and honesty mean a lot to me, which is why the disrespect by the apple vendor is so upsetting.

Whether it’s a quarter by the Chicago paper vendor, or the tripled overcharged apples in a Kolkata market, it all comes down to a matter of ethics.