Someone should and probably has written a thesis about the ambivalent position of Western tourists in India. Travelling in India maxed out my middle-class guilt and existential angst, which sits at a pretty high base level at the best of times. I mean, we were there, like cashed up enlightenment bogans, chasing spiritual and personal fulfilment, reaping the benefits of cheap prices, yet completely dependent on the assistance of Indians, as if we were babies. Because you’re so dependent, and you have money, sometimes it almost feels like you’re acting like a bit of a lord, expecting them to meet your every needs, even when those needs might seem bizarre to them.
I felt like a bit of an incompetent fool. I remember this one time, we stopped at a family restaurant and my friend and I needed to use the toilet. We were the only women at the whole restaurant. They had to open up a roller door to get us into the toilet. But it was dark, so we couldn’t really see inside the cubicle. I had to get my head torch from the car, and we put in on our head while we were peeing. Then there was nothing to flush the toilet with, no bucket, no jug, and no tap. So I went to ask one of the young guys, who couldn’t speak English, for water.
He offered me a jug for drinking water, but after I gestured that I needed flushing water, he changed it for a bucket and some water. After we finished in the toilet we needed more water to wash our hands. I asked him, wanting to do it myself, but because I couldn’t really communicate that, he ended up washing my hands for me, splashing water over them while I lathered them up with some soap.
I didn’t know what to do with the soap at the end – I offered it up to him as a way to ask him where to put it – but then he ended up taking it from me – which made me feel guilty – because him taking the soap I’d used to wash my sullied hands seemed a bit dirty, and maybe he was just being polite.
On my very first day in the country, a group of little beggar girls with atypically dark skin and bright clothing grabbed on to my skirts, refused to let go, and started shrieking. I think they were enjoying my obvious discomfort, in a normal group-mentality kid bratty kind of a way. I usually do give money to beggars, but because I was freaked out, and didn’t have my money organised in my pocket, I didn’t give them anything that time. So I tried to cross the road and they hung onto my skirts across the whole six-lane highway. Sounds pretty dangerous, but the traffic doesn’t move as fast in India. I mean, they have cows. Which are cute.
I’ve been to Indonesia, South Africa, and Pakistan, but don’t remember the poverty being as visible in any of these places as in India. Or maybe I was more blase when I was younger. Whatever the reason, the squallor seemed more extreme in India, and there were many more beggars on the street than even in Pakistan, which is ostensibly a poorer country.
The worst scenes for me were on our way to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. The previous day we’d been looking around old Delhi, where we saw shit like kids rooting around in the rubbish. My friend had made the point that even though the poverty was so dire, people still took a lot of care in their environment; the arrangement of fruit, spices, colourful Gods, etc – so there was a kind of beautiful dignity there.
But what we saw on the way to Agra seemed to have little that was redeeming about it – it was horrible, just rubble, piles of stuff and buildings falling down and scaffolding and desperate poverty and complete ugliness. Which is not to say that these people didn’t have any dignity or whatever, but just that the poverty was severe and the scene was shocking.
How far could the $1500 used to pay for my plane ticket have gone towards helping people? I mean, it would have been relatively easy for me to give this money instead of taking the trip, if I actually cared enough. And what’s the use of even talking about the unfairness of wealth inequality if you’re not going to anything? Analysing it is almost more hypocritical, because you make yourself feel better but you don’t actually do anything.
In terms of benefiting from inequality, there’s really no difference between being in India or in Australia. In Australia, we’re still benefiting from economic exploitation – for example, the only reason things are so cheap is because it’s produced under horrible, cost-cutting labour conditions. The inequity is just more obvious in India.
It’s amazing how quick you slip into an entitlement mentality. When I was in Islamabad in Pakistan doing volunteer work, I stayed for a month with an older man, the father of my university lecturer. He had servants. The house servant, who cooked every single meal for us, including my customised breakfast every day, used to watch TV from outside the door of the lounge room, he wasn’t allowed to come in. And he would sleep on the floor of the kitchen. But my host also supported the servant and his family in a number of ways.
Despite the kindness of my hosts in having me, I was getting a bit frustrated – my host was, naturally, very concerned about my safety, so wouldn’t let me go outside the house by myself. I’d never experienced that before.
I wanted to do some exercise at least, so insisted, against a little resistance (which was partly on safety concerns and partly, I think, on a class thing about walking around being something lower-class people do), that he let me go for a walk each day. So he did, but made one of the servants come with me. They wouldn’t walk beside me, they’d just tail behind. I think walking is something that the lower-classes do (except if you’re like a rich Pakistani cosmopolitanite who wears a tracksuit and goes for brisk exercise walks).So the servants really, really hated coming for those walks. You could tell.
One day, one of them said they had a sore foot and they couldn’t come. It seemed pretty obvious to me that they were faking it. But my host backed them up, because I think he didn’t like the walks anyway. I was frustrated. I whinged, from memory, although I think I gave up quickly. But what struck me from that experience was how easily this sense of entitlement, and expectation of servitude, become naturalised.
Guy looking after pot plants at Delhi airport – carpet is very Indian.
Richer people at Coffee-A-Day at Delhi domestic airport. Best airport I’ve ever been to. They had free internet.
My theory is that most people only do good things when it’s easy and suits us. This is p apparent when it comes to environmental issues, too. Which is why young, fit, fearless bike riders who live in the inner-city, or people with money who buy organic vegetables and solar panels shouldn’t feel too shiny.
Look at these guys. We saw them in Calcutta. I have blanked out their faces, because I am about to make fun of them.
Anyway, these guys were just walking around the streets of Kolkata with their shoes off, something no Indian would ever do, except maybe the sadhus. I think they’re saying: ‘We’re so OK with all this, that we’re happy to walk around and step on dirt and cow poo and possibly human faeces.’
I don’t knock people who go to India for spiritual enlightenment, I can identify with it and wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of doing it myself someday (maybe soon?). But I felt embarrassed by these guys – it was like they represented Western faux-hemian culture, something which I suspect I might be mildly a part of..
Anyway, I’m going to write more about India, I want to write about some of the cultural and intellectual stuff we saw, it wasn’t just the poverty but that’s something that was on my mind today. And so…