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. 

inside the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri – Chris Henke
Fatehpur Sikri sits between the cities of Jaipur and Agra.  Established by Akbar (whose name means “great” and who by all accounts lived up to his name), it served for a brief period as the capital of the Mughal empire.  Along with its impressive buildings of red sandstone, central to the city’s overall political administration, Fatehpur Sikri is also home to the Jama Masjid, an impressive and massive mosque, capable of holding over 10,000 people.

The city’s administrative and palatial grounds (which include a huge Pachisi court and a once-gorgeous pool) are impressive in ways that mark so much of India’s architecture from the 16th and 17th centuries.  And though our guide on the tour bus had alerted us upon our arrival to what he called “the problem of the pickpocket,” there was no sense, walking around the lovely grounds and snapping photos of friends in goofy poses, that this would be anything other than a wonderful encounter with the glory of India’s past.

The Jama Masjid, however, was another thing entirely.  Approaching the entrance, we were met by a steady stream of people eager to sell us the relatively useless tchotchkes that would legitimate the transfer of money from our hands to theirs.  I ignored them, as we had all been told to do, but most were not so easily put off.  A charming young man spoke to me for five minutes, insisting that he needed to practice his English, and only after we had established a rapport did he spend another five minutes convincing me to buy a miniature chess set that I knew would end up sitting unused on a bookshelf in my house back in the States.  (I caved.)  After him, a somewhat older man attached himself at my side as I approached the mosque, patiently and insistently repeating his request that I buy some postcards from him.  My repeated refusals seemed only to spur his motivation, and his sales pitch began to take on the air of desperate incantation.

I remember seeing the entrance to the mosque as something like a cordon sanitaire. Surely, I thought, once I enter the sacred space of the mosque these vendors will have to either leave me or at least cease their entreaties.  Disconcerting, then, to find my imperturbable companion simply walking along with me straight into the mosque, his pitch continuing without the slightest pause as I began to traverse the more than a hundred yards from one side of the mosque to the other.  At some point, after having walked next to me for perhaps another 50 yards, he fell away.  Thank goodness, I thought; a moment of peace to enjoy this amazing place. 

Soon, though, something worse: a finger jabbing my thigh, a small voice asking me to buy a pen, a boy no more than six years old.  Trying to ignore him, I marched as purposefully as I could the remaining distance to the other side of the mosque, the boy’s needling finger steadily working my leg the whole time.  Reaching the other side of the courtyard I saw more and more children, who seemed connected to this boy in a way I could not understand.  They too approached me with urgency –children of six, seven, eight – and implored me to buy their particular trinkets. 

Now I should say here that I consider myself a man of adequate internal strength.  It came as a great surprise, then, to realize at that moment that I had reached some point of breakdown.  I suddenly could bear no more – the chess vendor, the postcard man, the needling boy, the urgent kids – so I wheeled upon the closest to hand, the boy at my side, and addressed him in the sharpest and loudest tone I could muster: “I told you I have no money for you!  I told you to get away from me!  Okay?  SO JUST GET AWAY FROM ME!”  I felt like my words were slapping him in the face, and the boy sensed it.  He left me quickly. 

From then on every moment in the mosque was miserable. I could not get past what I had done to that boy, the alarming recognition of the surge of anger I had felt in the moment.  After that I was poison to any other peddlers.  The grown men who approached me in particular I felt I’d as soon punch as look at.  It was a completely disorienting combination of emotions: the anger was still there, I can’t deny that, now covering over a more profound shame at what I had shown I could do to that boy; compassion for the boy, who had received something he should never have received; and, of course, awareness of the many others who would not be helped. 

What prevented my utter dissolution then and there was only the kindness of a friend, who saw me crying and thereafter made a point to stand as a shield between me and the other vendors who kept approaching me and somehow could not sense the emotions inside me, which at any moment were threatening to erupt in what would have looked like simple rage.  Other friends helped me make it through the rest of my time there broadly in one piece, as I searched for some equanimity that might replace the disturbing emotions I had felt.  We exited the mosque through an archway, above which swarmed an impossible number of bees.  Hundreds more lay dead on the ground.  In our socks we tried to avoid stepping on them, disgusted by their gummy carcasses and fearful their lifeless stingers might somehow find us.

I was left to wonder what kind of horrible cycle I had just participated in.  A young boy, no more responsible for his own actions than any six year-old the world over, had asked me to help him.  But how could I help him and not all the others?  And I couldn’t help all the others.  Why couldn’t he see that?  (Why couldn’t this little boy see my point of view?  Right.)  The sadness and helplessness were too much to bear.  So I escaped the sadness, sloughed off the helplessness, by generating as much venom as I could muster and then putting it right on the source of those bad feelings.  This at least gave me some distance from those feelings. 

And so I learned first-hand the appeal of indifference.  Confronting the seriously unfortunate, those who have it so much worse than we do, is, I had learned, a genuinely difficult experience.  Once we let the fact of their lives inside us, it is very difficult to go on as we had before.  So much easier, then, to keep them outside.  And in my case anyway, so much easier to preserve my sense of myself as a basically good and caring person without having to deal with those many other people who might need something from me.  This dynamic seems to me an extraordinarily important one to resist.  But recognizing that fact, I realize, doesn’t mean we’ll be successful in our efforts.  


  1. I was on the Colgate Study Group in India this past Fall 2011. We also visited Fatehpur Sikri, and it was also a miserable experience dealing with the hoards of children at the Mosque. I hope you find it comforting at least though in my youth and travel I do feel as you do that the experience is less about what you see and where you go, and more about how it teaches you about yourself. By the time we got to Fatehpur Sikri, we had been in India as a group more than 2 months, and surely by then had hardened ourselves to the world around us, myself included. One of the things I hated most about India was what I felt it did to my heart and my soul, turning me from a kind, compassionate person, to one who had to be mean and rude to innocent people just to get by day to day without completely internalizing all I saw and felt without breaking down and crying. By the time we reached Fatehpur Sikri, I had come up with the solution to the problem of beggar children by engaging them in conversation. Though it was useless to convince them I had no money to spend, I found it at least respectful and at least humorous on some level to engage them and find out more about their lives, how they knew english so well (since they spoke far better than many rickshaw drivers and other people I had encountered), why they were selling what they were. Even if their answers may have been lies in some way or another, it helped me at least to get through those times, to feel like I had engaged and perhaps learned from them, not letting their nagging and pulling at my sleeves get me down.

    One of my favorite experiences in India occurred when we were living in Varanasi, a notoriously grungy and difficult city in central North India. I went down to the Ganges river to sit and read, without money or anything of value on me, and some children came up to me setting up the flowers they were going to sell to tourists that evening for the Aarti. Seeing as I had no money and making that point clear to them, I had the best conversation in my whole time in India with these children about their lives, about how they go to school, then sell their wares, give the money to their family, what they think of the town, the tourists. If I spoke more and better Hindi I think the first thing I would want to study upon return to India is the tourist industry and the ways people are connected to it, how they learn their English, what their experiences are harranging tourists, etc.

    I had enjoyed following this blog, and I hope the Professors who travelled to India and those of us students who have just returned can come to talk about these mutual experiences. It is surely difficult for us both to get back used to life at Colgate.

  2. Thanks so much, David, for sharing your thoughts on this difficult topic. It is painful indeed to open your heart to the suffering and inequity that is all too visible in India. Sadly, the poverty is there - in India, Guatemala, the Sudan, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the streets of Baltimore depicted so movingly on The Wire - whether we witness it or not - so these painful moments are also a reminder of a tragic dimension of reality on this planet. I've struggled for a long time with how to cope with it, just as a person. When I think about it, in a way my adaptive response in India over the years has often been to minimize and ignore it. Facing it head-on is just too overwhelming. One more gift that going to India with my wonderful friends and colleagues gave me was the chance to see India through new eyes, eyes that have not grown accustomed to glazing over in the face of beggars and touts. These annoying, sometimes aggresive people are, I think, driven to this totally degrading way of making a living by a lack of alternatives - and at Fatehpur Sikri I'm pretty sure some kind of organized criminal group is at work too. I also try to salve my conscience by giving as generously as I can to organizations doing good work in India, and to trying to help support the families of people I have come to know well as friends. I'd love to hear how other people deal with this stuff too. I look forward to talking to the students who have just returned soon about your experiences. Welcome back, Becca!

  3. Dave, i recognize so much of myself in your account of the visit to Jama Masjid. Two weeks ago I also visited here with my girlfriend. I think it was one of the most mentally exhausting things I have experienced in my life. Although i had been to the less welfaring countries before (thailand for example) india is certainly the most poverty stricken place i have visited so far. I have also felt your feeling of having to become somebody you dont want to be just to get rid of the scammers and beggars. At first i engaged into conversation with people talking to me. But as soon as i realised they tried to set me up or sell something i dont need I told them I was not interested. The problem is that by then. They are almost impossible to get rid off. Thats why I decided the best thing is to simply ignore them completely. This very rude and arrogant way of dealing with people actually worked for me. The scammers and touts will realise youre not a fresh tourist and soon leave you alone. Once I arrived at the mosque in fatehpur my ignoring trick seemed to have no effect. The salesmen, fake guides, touts and beggars here are extreme versions of what I found elsewhere. At the entrance of the gate a teenage boy approached me telling me to cover my legs since I wore shorts. Also he tld me today was a holiday and all foreign tourists could only enter the mosque with a guide. The boy told me he would guide us. I told him it seemed strange and i didnt see the point but the boy persisted. As soon as I was inside the mosque I saw plenty of foreigners without guides so I tried to get rid of the boy. This was simply impossible as he kept repeating how it was forbidden to walk around by myself. In the end we were practically shouting at eachother. My girlfriend kept the peace with him and followed his tour while I basically dragged along. Meanwhile hordes or people were approaching me to buy stuff I dont need. The problem is that everytime you say no and try to walk away they tag along and lower the price by 100 rupees. Every tout takes about 5 minutes to get rid off and this exhaused me. At the end of the teenage boys tour he revealed his true purpose by taking him to his family shop. We were not inerested but they insisted we just look. When we did there was no stopping it. They basically begged us to buy something. I just knew that as soon as I bought something more and more people would approach me. When we left the shop suddenly the guide was done and he left us abruptly. Finally he told me that he was not a liar but an honest man. For just a minute we were alone and then a new batch of salesmen approached us. This went on for the full visit of the mosque which made it practically impossible to enjoy this beautiful place. It is just insane how many beggars there are here. I wonder why this is. There are many other places that are free to visit for everyone but nowhere did my spirits breakdown as they did at fatehpur sikri.