Wednesday, February 29, 2012

One morning in Delhi

One morning in Delhi, April, Dai and I walked in the direction of the metro station a few miles from our hotel where we would later meet most of the group.  We were walking on the gravel just off the paving of a fairly busy two lane light commercial road.   Just ahead of me and only a few meters to the left, a toddler in a short mustard-colored sweater, a boy not more than eighteen-months-old was squatting on the gravel pooping.  (I thought about using the word “defecating” but it seemed to erase the feeling of affection for this child that I wanted to convey); he looked to me like a brown version of our son, Ben at that age, and I was flooded with identification, a memory of the feel of baby skin and the joy of a beloved body doing its maintenance work.   

Farther to the left was a blue camping tarp held up by six or eight irregular poles, tree branches a couple inches in diameter and about five feet tall.   Next to the plastic-rooved but wall-less room was a small woman in a very beautiful turquoise sari, who appeared to be whisking something in a large metal bowl.  There was a man behind her who was calling to the toddler.  I felt like a voyeur and averted my eyes, but then caught the bed under the tarp.  A pile of familiar looking comforters was folded back, revealing white sheets; this bed could have been my own; I experienced that cold-morning-in-Hamilton pull of the warm bed. 

The cost of my hotel room could have fed this family for weeks, I thought.  What right did I have to be here with my significant carbon footprint, my ignorance of the language, my invasion of a family’s privacy first thing in the morning?  These thoughts did not erase the sense memory of that child’s skin, the pull of the bed, the brilliance of the turquoise sari.

I am not a naïve person, and I am well aware of my unearned privilege.  I am sixty years old, I have worked in shelters and taught in poor rural and urban areas of the US, lived in a village in Montenegro, and traveled in Central America and Palestine.   But this memory of the family on the gravel in Delhi has not left me for more than a few hours since we returned from India.  I can’t say what I am doing with it, only that I continue to experience the silent encounter as a gift, even as I make no new sense of  the cruel contrast of our circumstances.    


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India in CORE China

Workers in a denim factory, southern China.
Image from the documentary China Blue
Workers in the recycling industry, Dharavi slum, Mumbai
Source:Korea Times

When we returned from India in January, we had one week before spring semester classes began.  All I could think about was India, but I had to prepare a class on China.  More specifically, I had to prepare the class I teach for Colgate’s CORE Cultures and Identity program, an interdisciplinary course which lets me teach about Chinese history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, literature and anything else I can stuff into the 15-week semester.  Normally I love preparing this class, but this time my brain only wanted to think about Indian history, society, political economy, art, religion, food, and literature.  I found myself reading novels about India (Mistry’s A Fine Balance), histories of India (Dalrymple’s City of Djinns), looking up World Bank statistics about India, Googling Bollywood films…. I had to cut myself off and get to work.

I decided to sign up to teach my Nations and Nationalism course next year, so I could indulge in a whole unit on India.  (I wonder if I can assign all 944 pages of Ram Guha’s India after Gandhi? Will students freak out when they see its telephone book-like heft? But it's such a fabulous read!) 
But in the meantime, I want to find ways to bring India into my course on China. I always start off the course by giving students some statistics about China in comparison to other countries.  I don't give them any background or explanation, but instead let them peruse the data to see what they notice.   This year, I featured India prominently. For example, one of the tables I offered looks at GDP/per capita and growth rates:

Comparing China with Selected Countries 1980-2010
GDP/per cap*
Growth rate %
Growth rate %
India GDP/pc*
India growth rate %
Syria GDP/pc*
Syria Growth Rate
*current US $
Data from World Bank, World Development Indicators

As I hoped, my students noticed that China, India, and Syria are all very poor countries in comparison to the United States.  They also note that China's economic growth in the last two decades has been exceptional.  Compared to China, India looks like an underachiever.  (This is something that many Indians obsess a great deal about, as I pointed out in a previous blog post, “Chinese in India.”)  But compared to Syria (or Haiti or Indonesia or Romania or Nigeria), India’s economic growth looks very impressive. 

I also plan to bring India into class later this semester when we look at the manufacturing economy that is the driver behind China's economic growth.  In that unit, I have my students watch China Blue, a documentary about Chinese workers in a denim factory.  Students find this film eye-opening and often emotionally devastating.   They are appalled to see young men and women (mostly women) their age - and much younger - working to exhaustion to produce blue jeans for lower and lower prices.  They not only find the exploitation horrifying, but also express disgust at the living conditions for the workers: tiny concrete dorm rooms stuffed with eight or ten girls, squat toilets, no hot running water.  I have heard former students exclaim, months after they saw the video, that they still feel guilty every time they buy a pair of jeans.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Difficult Lesson

When we are young we understand only part of what travel is about: we think the point is to learn about other places.  Only when we’re older do we understand that travel offers us the chance to learn important things about ourselves.  And sometimes it doesn’t just give us the chance at such lessons– it forces them upon us.  This is the story of such a moment. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reflections: Faces of India

A month ago we were in Gurgaon and Delhi, on the last leg of our trip, wondering whether we have “taken in” enough of India to say something meaningful about the world’s largest democracy. Fearing that we hadn’t seen enough “people”, some of us scurried off to overly-crowded shopping areas such as Chandni Chawk and New Market, before joining the group at Nizamuddin’s Darga. “We will see ‘real India’,” we told ourselves.

A month has passed and I wonder, have we seen real India? What is real India? Who is a typical Indian? And here, I have to falter, as I process the images of the various faces we encountered:

• The bus-attendant who put out a stool and held our arms as we got off the bus every time.

•The bus driver who only smiled as we got on or got off.

• The various guides we had, each with different accents, but with grand stories about the places we were visiting.

• The street vendors who would not leave us alone.

• The coconut-water-wallah who gave me a brown coconut although I wanted a green one.

• The road-side chai-wallahs who thought I was an NRI (non-resident Indian).

• The road-side candy-wallahs who were surprised that all I wanted was aam-goli.

• The auto-rickshaw driver whose family moved from Pakistan in 1947.

• The store-owners in Chandni Chawk who said, “How the hell did they get in here?” referring to the group of four women who did not look like each other at all (Carolyn, Beth, April, and I)!

• Other store owners in Chandni Chawk who took us through alleys and winding stairs to their stores to show us beautiful sarees.

• The rickshaw-wallahs who were bemused by 27 foreigners riding rickshaws to Jama Masjid.

• The women in the “women only” section of the train who giggled watching Chris make self-deprecating comments about ignorant Americans to justify his presence.

• The half-naked priests in various temples who blessed us with garlands and rose-petals.

• Fully-clothed priests who offered us Prasad in the form of cookies.

• The hotel staff who were always, without fail, very courteous and helpful.

• The researcher who was very polished and well-spoken.

• The Colgate alum who started a new tourism company.

• The people in the “Muslim areas” who dressed very differently.

• The local tourists who were posing for photographs every now and then, very much like many of us.

• The “student” who was not a “guide” (but he was!).

• The group of protesters who looked like they were at a fair, having a good time.

• The tout who wanted to show me an elephant.

• The little girl who managed to sell me five necklaces, five pairs of anklets, and also got me to buy her ice-cream (she's the one in the picture; photo credit: Chris Henke).

I realize I can go on and on about the faces of India. And I also realize there is no one face. We probably have some notion of what a typical Indian looks like or is like, but that is also probably a constructed image that we have created out of the snippets of information we have on India: call centers, Bollywood, insurgency, Kashmir, IT, computers, Slumdog Millionaire, and so on! In a way, we really haven’t seen “real India,” but is there a “real India”?

Photo: Girl with the necklaces by Chris Henke.