Travelling in India is an experience that enriches one’s life and learning in many ways. I can confirm that no academic text books, university lectures or international conferences can throw so much light on human behaviour, and help us understand and theorise international/social relations as much as travels in India and conversations with the people of this amazing country, especially those who live in small towns and rural areas. Here are some pertinent observations from my ongoing adventures.
Don’t believe those school history textbooks that tell us that feudalism was a thing of the past. It ended with the collapse of the ‘zamindari’ system and the empires that long ruled this country. Neither was ‘it’ something we inherited from our colonial masters. It is ingrained in our system; it is part of our DNA. Most people you meet expect basic work (which includes serving food and taking your plate to the sink!) to be done by some other person and that person could be your domestic help, children, parents, spouse, colleagues or friends. Domestic help particularly have it tough where they are expected to even carry footwear of the sahibs on demand. This is rampant among the upper classes and especially among the officer level bureaucrats. Having domestic ‘servants’ is not just a matter of requirement but also a matter of social status. Not that I was unaware of this but I was strongly reminded of it right at the Delhi international airport when I landed. Two evidently Non Resident Indian (that tag is always on public display through specific gestures, clothing, accents, gadgets, mannerisms etc.) women celebrated their homecoming by ‘ordering’ the toilet cleaners stationed at the ladies toilet to put their seats down. They were perfectly abled incase you were wondering. It was too much of a walk for them to get paper towels and the toilet cleaners had to attend to their order (not request) again. I am sure these esteemed travellers would never dream of doing this in any other part of the world. I guess their rationale as: too many people need to be gainfully employed in India. In an unrelated incident with a similar message I overheard a conversation that three senior and committed police officers were recently transferred to other less important departments in Jharkhand because they were having breakfast at an event where a minister in the state government had arrived. One of them even dared to stop and question the minister’s guards, which sealed their fate. Delegates at a national seminar at a minority girls’ college in Ranchi yelled at some of the girls that tea had not been provided on time and there was no water being served. The VC’s arrival was eagerly awaited by scores of girls lined up on a winter day. The VC’s car drove through that spectacular guard of honour without as much as acknowledging the students who had been waiting. As I was told, this is how it is!
The campaign for devalaya nahin shauchalaya (no temples but toilets) captures the biggest tragedy of a country aspiring to be a global super power. Other slogans that are eye catching in rural areas, Beti wahin denge jahan ho shauchalaya (we will marry our daughters only where there are toilets), jahan soch wahan shauchalaya (open thinking leads to closed toilets). For a significant section of the population availability of toilets is an important issue that requires more attention than the ‘food security bill’. Women particularly have it worse as I have personally experienced in my long travels esp. outside big towns and cities. Although petrol stations must have closed toilets for travellers, in many cases in Bihar/Jharkhand the money allocated for toilets has not been utilised. Roadside bushes are the only hope and urinary infections in women are common. On long travels, I recall being advised by women in the family to drink as little water as possible. Nothing seems to have changed. In a national seminar on violence against dalit women organised by Oxfam India on world human rights day (10 Dec. 2013) it was pointed out that women have to go to open toilets away from their homes and that also leads to rape and molestation, along with the threat of being attacked by wild animals. Seems odd but the one thing that no one is really addressing when it comes to violence against women in India is that building toilets will help! While there are hardly any toilets for women, men continue to ‘imagine’ a toilet against every possible wall, street corner or roadside walkways. A common sight is to see idols of Hindu deities strategically positioned on boundary walls of homes, or religious figures painted on walls to prevent men from peeing. This ofcourse is apart from the various signs of yahan peshaab karna mana hai (you are not allowed to pee here) on which men have relieved themselves! Just incase you think that works, in my travels to the steel city of Bokaro in Jharkhand: a young man was relieving himself just outside the Ayyappan temple against the temple wall. Not sure what Lord Ayyappan thought of his worldly abode being used as an open toilet, but when I panted and puffed after the man to give him my piece of mind, he promptly hung his head in shame, said he was from Arrah ‘jeela’ (district) in Bihar and “madam only firsht time”. No comments!
Now, with such a large share of the world’s population (apart from a very argumentative population as Prof. Amartya Sen claims) this country is bound to be noisy. The day begins with religious invocations and prayers (of all communities) on loudspeakers; honking is not just for the traffic on the road but also for your own family members to open and shut the door. It is more of a habit than need. Elevators, lifts are all musically loaded and loud music blares as they carry happily chatting people up and down; and then people need to cough loud, blow their nose louder, have the loudest roadside discussions on politics and international relations. I learnt recently that one couldn’t discount the possibility of delegates at an academic conference exchanging loud and angry words, which may escalate into a fist fight. Door bells/call bells are super fashionable and they play all kinds of devotional music; televisions are not worth it till the neighbour acknowledges their presence in your house. The most noise however comes from mobile/cellular phones that ring non-stop with all sorts of caller tunes. There are certainly more mobile phones than toilets in this country, perhaps more than even the number of people. Most people have either two handsets or dual sim phones (never heard of this before: two sim cards in one handset. I tried to ask people but no satisfactory answer so far. They said they need two phones, one for public and one for private conversation (but then all private conversations are public in India, right?). I think Indians love the mobile phone in general. I have come across so many Indians at different international airports talking loudly on the phone. Amidst all this, even missed calls have become a way to communicate. With prior arrangement, dialling and receiving missed calls is a way to convey messages, to have a conversation; even TV ads expect you to respond by a 'missed call'. Numerous times I have overheard, missed call maar dena, samajh jayenge (give me a missed call, I will understand); an auto driver in Delhi suggested I do the same so he could pick me up from a regular spot! At night, the stray dogs in the neighbourhood have important and loud conferences to discuss loud and noisy human behaviour. All my nights are spent trying to identify the different doggy speeches. Amidst all this noise, people can still meditate and prostrate before deities and read holy books and carry out their routine religious activities. Amazing, right?
Lane driving doesn’t exist in this country even in big cities. In small towns, traffic is multidimensional, comes from all directions. You could be sitting in an Audi or Mercedes and a mobike, cycle or rickshaw will manoeuvre past you. And just as you breathe a sigh of relief when you see the road to yourself, a human form will appear almost suddenly forcing you to brake. The human form will shower you with verbal blessings for endangering lives, advise you to NOT drive if you are not qualified and continue walking. By the way, most human forms in India have a tremendously developed traffic sense. No one gets run over in the busiest of traffic; people just know when to walk through traffic coming from both directions to cross a street. It is a skill one is born with and although I feel a bit rusted, it comes back to me everytime I am back in India. By the way, human forms are not the only issue here. Lazy cattle and stray dogs are immune to your honking and your traffic sense. The way out is to roll the windows down, extend one arm out while balancing the steering wheel with the other, pat the animal and say a few words of endearment. I have seen it work more often than not! Traffic in India is like a spiritual guru who teaches you patience, compassion and love for all things moving and alive. Oh and don’t forget to roll up the window, not just to avoid dust and noise, but because a saffron clad baba (mendicant) travelling with a jhola (loose bag) will suddenly force a python in through the window asking for alms in the name of one god or another. Ye Hindustan hai doston (this is India my friends) and didn’t I say all life forms are sacred?
Everyone knows India is the founding home of four major world religions: Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. Add to this list numerous sects, sub sects and guru following communities. I am sure you heard recently that one babaji (revered spiritual figure in this case), Shobhan Sarkar had a dream that a certain fort in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh had tons of gold buried underground. The Archaeological Survey of India immediately began digging at the site identified by the baba, citing their own research as the source of their actions. People would religiously gather at the site, singing devotional songs and waiting for the dream to turn into reality. Now do not ask me if the gold was discovered; the baba’s dream and his words were bigger wealth and blessings, surely you would know? In this country we take religion and religious gurus very seriously. People can spend hours listening to talks/advise from noted spiritual leaders, which vary from putting money into their (Gurus) bank accounts to eating sweets to resolve all their problems. One such spiritual guru, Asaram Bapu and his son, Narayan Sai are currently being investigated for sexual assault on teenage girls and women. You would imagine a strong condemnation of these people given the evidence against them, but I have met many who suggest that the charges against them are ‘politically motivated’. There are many TV talk shows of spiritual gurus and the sheer presence of people (men and women) listening to their live talks makes one think that spirituality is the one thing people take very seriously. And yet corruption, violence against women and minorities, and every possible dehumanisation continue unhindered. Let us however, not lose sight of the fact that everything is about religion: loud prayers, door bells, phone caller tunes and devotional songs playing in public places. Everything one does starts with a religious ceremony, including purchasing vehicle and property; religious figures are present in all shops and public vehicles, an altar for deities is present in every home. As I have already suggested, there are more places of worship than toilets. Everyday secularism is very religious in this country, and religion is secular. At the regional passport office in Ranchi, random conversations with random people revealed the enormous contradictions we live by. On the one hand people had travelled from really rural areas to get a passport to travel to Dubai (where there was more money for the work they did, they explained) and on the other people talked about the moral decline that had come out of rising material desires, the loss of family ‘values’. One more observation relates to the amount of sweets that are offered to deities. Given that this is the diabetes capital of the world, sweet shops proliferate by dozens every day. I needn’t tell you that Indian sweets are yummy and most are dipped in sugar syrup! Sweet blessings? J
Home service is very popular here. The good thing is vegetable growers and vendors knock at your door and bully you to buy something; pathological tests can be conducted from the comfort of your bed and blood samples collected from home; medical reports are delivered home; domestic help equals bonded labour in many cases when it comes to home service; cleaning your own toilets even in urban areas is not an option, there’s always someone to do it. Home service is very important. Cooking gas cylinders are delivered home, milk and groceries are delivered home, washed and ironed clothes are delivered home, garbage is collected from home, mobile beauty salon people can come to your home, doctors can also visit your home if you pay them or know them, medicines can be delivered home, newspapers are ofcourse delivered home. We are a very ‘homely’ country. It feels weird without this home service abroad.
Redtapism in India is (in)famous and as many analysts would argue worse than the other Asian super power, China. I needed to get my passport reissued and the regional passport office wanted me to produce evidence of my educational qualifications. I was thankfully carrying my PhD certificate but apparently that was not enough, I needed to demonstrate that I was matric (10th grade) pass. Don’t ask me how I managed to convince them that you don’t get a PhD without being school pass. I didn’t succeed. It so happened that they had in their records my 10th standard school-leaving certificate. Corruption is unabated. If you want a driving license form, you won’t get it from the RTO (Regional Transport Office)where it should be made available for free. You will be sent to a local photocopying shop where the forms are available for a price. And the money is shared between the RTO officials and the photocopying agents. Police will not lodge a complaint till you either know someone or warm their pockets. The sau-pachaas (paying a few rupees) culture continues to flourish. In rural areas agents take money to open a bank account for you and bank charges money if you receive transfers from outside (all illegal because when one person pointed this out, bank returned the charges). Poor people from rural areas coming for medical treatment at the local hospital in Ranchi were cheated by agents who promised them blood from the blood bank; organ harvesting flourishes; government hospitals supply inedible food (or food not worth even stray animal consumption) to poor patients. Pension holders have been fighting court battles for several years to secure their pensions (don’t ask me how their families survive); Black money continues to increase manifold and is siphoned outside the country. Buying government jobs and ‘paid seats’ in educational institutions is a common practice. School admission seats are auctioned and sometimes there is even a lottery! Without bribe nothing gets done and people are not ashamed about receiving and giving bribes. Doctors with fake degrees continue to flourish and prescribe medicines. That’s how the system works, we are told. The middle classes are complicit in this corruption and ironically the middle classes are also the largest participant constituency in the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement!
We are just a day away from the first annual remembrance of the horrific gang rape of Amanat in India’s capital on 16 Dec. 2012 and I can confirm that NOTHING seems to have changed in small towns and rural India. Patriarchy, under the guise of cultural norms continues to disempower women and inflict violence on them. The preference for the male child is openly declared; educated and highly qualified women are assessed only by their physical appearance in the marriage market; harassment of women in public places continues and domestic and sexual violence in the family is so rampant that many women have internalised it as the natural state of affairs. Many have chosen other fights, other struggles especially to educate their children and to acquire financial independence. I have many stories to share and for that please keep visiting my blog on women and feminism <www.kaalratri.com>
In the college that I attended for my undergraduate studies in Delhi, a popular T Shirt slogan would read: WE DO NOT BELIEVE IN MIRACLES, WE DEPEND ON THEM. That pretty much sums up my feelings about this incredible idea we call India. It never fails to delight, surprise, enchant and most importantly depress. My ‘Indianness’ is always restored when I travel here. This is ‘home’.