India: Scene Two — People

31 10 2011

Mostly about people

As I mentioned, things are pretty quiet before 11 am in the cities and then kaboom! People come out of nowhere and everywhere. In Delhi, some people live in apartments stacked one on top of the other like afterthoughts. Some people live in the slums: huts all glued together with the narrowest of footpaths so that, at points, your shoulders barely fit; dark and disorienting and smelling of despair. Some people live on the street, with a bed set up beside their little business, or a mat rolled against the wall. Some sleep on the tiny seat of their rickshaw, legs poking out like sticks. Some sleep sitting up, their hands limp on their laps, their chin resting on their chest with people stepping over them while they snore.

Some live in billion dollar towers.

It is, as we decided, a “land of contrasts.” In every area of Indian life, contrasts, contradictions; puzzles.

At around 11:00 a.m. Delhi hops to its feet and people start bumping into each other. Now the metro cars are stuffed tight, the air in the stations heats up with all those bodies inching their way to their destination, the horns are deafening, filling the streets to over-capacity, shops open and venders appear, and the wheel of the day turns at a maddening pace as people negotiate through it.

Faces have names and I try to think about this; 1.1 billion names. Who are they? They are the same as me and different. Same because we are all skin and bone, heart and soul. Different because I have been born in Canada and all its opportunities, and though Indians are intensely proud of their country and many will say it is the “best country, ” when someone’s job in life bears the title “brakes” I am not convinced that it is.

It was in Old Delhi that I saw him, Brakes that is. He was a dusty small man strapped to the front of a cart which carried a heap of sacks filled with what looked like cement mix. Two men pushed the cart and Brakes pulled until an incline and then he dug his heels into the dry packed dirt road to prevent the cart from hitting the car ahead. If it wasn’t so sad it would be comical, this man whose job it is to be the brakes.

With so many people living in this country, they have to find things for people to do, so there are all these random jobs: like the guy who pushes the button on the elevator – that’s it, he just pushes the button; or the three waiters who stand staring at you while you eat, ready to put more rice on your plate; or the guy with the whistle at the Taj Mahal (seriously, I have no idea what he was whistling at) or the man who cleans one small area of marble floor over and over, or the toilet-man who hands out squares of toilet paper all day, or the 10 guys who look at your ticket when you go to the Agra fort, standing a few feet apart, clearly in view of all the other guards who also check your ticket.

This would all be a ridiculous scene in Canada but here it is just one scene mixed in with other contrasting ones.

  • There are still leper colonies in India, and people who wear Gucci.
  • There are children who have been abandoned at the train station, and children who get flat screen TVs for Dewali.
  • There are elegant women dressed in gorgeously embroidered Saris who turn heads wherever they go, and women who are hardly there; one strong wind would catch their raggedy clothes, blow them away, and no one would notice because they are just one and there would be a billion others to replace her.

Some children take the bus to school; boys in ties and sweaters and girls in matching plain saris. Their hair is all combed, the girls wear braids. They are confident and noisy. And there are children who run around like wild dogs, hair a matted mess, clothes filthy, they put their fingers to their mouth and tug at my hand, puppy dog eyes asking for food or rupees. These children are caked with dust and use discarded wrappers as skates in the smooth train station floor, they get pushed off platforms sending a dozen fat rats scurrying for cover; they beg for money or food but won’t spend the rupees or eat the food because they also have a job to do. These children are owned by someone. It might be a parent who sends them out into these wild streets to make ends meet, it might be a begging-master, either way they aren’t young and free.

I bought an ice-cream for a little girl; pink strawberry. Before I gave it to her I tried to talk to her. She knew how to ask me for something but she didn’t know what to do with a conversation. She smiled shyly, I gave her the treat and she ran around the corner and gave it to some ladies. She didn’t even have a lick.

A boy came to our rickshaw and thrust his hand in. It was mangled, like one giant open sore, a mess of scabs. It looked horrible. It looked like he had been tortured. I gave him some rupees knowing it wouldn’t help him.

This isn’t how it is everywhere though, there are contrasts to thus picture; there are many well loved, well taken care of children with parents who have high hopes for them. There are good children and then there are over-pampered boys like the one we “met” on a 6 hour train ride from Amritsar to Delhi. Very rude and annoying, thrusting his water-bottle into the face of my friend over and over. We weren’t enjoying his company and wondered what would happen if we accidentally stuck our leg out just as he would be running by.

The Indian ladies around us were also very annoyed and let the father know it. At the end of the trip the father made him apologize but he had a twinkle in his eye and it was obvious he wasn’t too concerned with his son’s behavior. It is pretty nice being a boy in India, and India is noticeably short on women. Noticeably.

I had the chance to meet some of Alecia’s friends as well, such interesting conversations, such good people. She was treated so well here, and so were we. People were very open to talking, women are friendly and warm, the service everywhere was excellent, the bargaining was fun and mostly fair, we felt very welcome. Sometimes too welcome as people would stare at us and want to take pictures. Even at church there were the “church paparazzi” who would stand in front of us stare, and smile, take just “one more photo” and practice their English. I am not sure why perfect strangers want our pictures, but I am pretty sure they are saying, “these are my very good friends from Canada” even though they don’t know our names.

Side note about names: for some reason they can’t pronounce Brianne’s name. We have solved this dilemma as we found a chicken dish with a very similar name (chicken bryani) so now we can introduce her as “Brianne, you know, like the chicken.” The word actually means fried rice.

On the topic of friendly people, I thought it would be hard to avoid looking men in the eye (as we were instructed, strangely similar to the instructions for dealing with monkeys as eye contact makes them aggressive, Hm). But it hasn’t been hard at all. Frankly, I don’t even want to, for the most part because they are so inappropriate, more so with Alecia, but we get it too. Men ogle. They will be with their girlfriends, daughters, wives and they will outright stare at us or make little under-the-breath comments. Yuck. I would have a few choice words for them if I knew Hindi. When the men were overly friendly with Alecia I was quick to let them know that I was the mother and you don’t mess with the mother.

It is no exaggeration to say that we were photographed wherever we went. People would request to have pictures taken with us. And not just men, whole families, honeymooners, teenagers, children. I don’t now how we will return to our normal, anonymous lives after feeling like such celebrities.

I should add, not all people are intrusive and not all men there are sleazy; many more are extremely kind and polite and helpful but a large number of men brazenly stare at us, which is just weird.

I loved the conversations I had with women. In Canada women can be so wary of each other, but in India (perhaps because we are foreigners) many are eager to talk. And older women are very motherly, constantly concerned for our health and safety, making sure we eat enough. One friend’s mother gave Alecia a beautiful Sari, they would host us in their homes and make us Masala Chai and Samosas, they were full of complements and hospitality.

Often it felt like we moved from strangers to friends easily and quickly, and I absolutely loved this.

People easily make conversation and I have had a wonderful time talking to people. They love to talk about our families, about our countries, and easily move into conversations about “religion.” It is so not like Canada that way; they love to talk about gods and God. They are completely aware of the spiritual and are seekers of truth, though mostly confused about what that means. Mostly resigned to think that what they have is all there is.

There are random funny things about Indians, for example their TV and radio announcers are overly happy and enthusiastic; everything they say has exclamation marks. They choose English words for their shops and products that make you go, “huh?” Like “Panicker’s Travel” which we think is for overly-cautious travelers. Their TV shows, commercials, movies are very over-acted (though i thoroughly enjoyed a Bollywood film called “Ra-One” which was in Hindi, but we could make out what was going on and it was great!”) They have strange warnings wherever you go, especially around Diwali: “Remember, don’t hold fireworks in your hand once they have been lit.”

There are certain phrases you also hear quite often (these sound better in an Indian accent) “No problem!” and “I’m not trying to sell you anything, we are just talking” and “It’s not a bribe; it’s a gift!” and “This is over one hundred years old” or “This is many hundreds of years old” (everything in India is either one hundred years old, or many hundreds of years old it appears) and “Indian (name of product, actor, athlete, artifact) is of the best quality; is better than anywhere else in the world.”

There is no possible way I can write about all the interesting and colorful people I met here — Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, incredibly polite people and very rude people (if you are waiting in line for something, by the way, it means nothing. People will budge in and not feel a bit concerned about it. Whole families will squeeze in front of you and act like it happens every day, which in fact it does).

I can say that I was very moved by a few sets of people. I loved those I met at the Children’s Homes . I don’t even know how to write about this because it feels too big to fit here. It is actually too big, so I will be writing about Homes exclusively in the next scene.

I am actually finding the whole prospect of writing on this topic rather daunting. I don’t know if I can tell it as it deserves to be told.

— Teresa Klassen

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