August 09, 2010
In one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, the main character, Francie, prays, "Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere -- be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost."
Francie's prayer is my dream; a dream that is happening at this moment as I sit at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, India, after yet another day of exploring India. This grant through the Center for South Asian Studies has made this dream possible, and for that I am grateful beyond what I can put into words. What once seemed like a vague possibility is now a reality that at times still has me pinching myself. I hope to explore some of that reality through this blog.
When I told my friends and family that I was going to India, they would ask how I felt. ‘Nervous' and 'excited' were the two emotions most often suggested, but ‘numb’ felt the most accurate. Though all the books I’d read, movies I’d seen, and stories I’d been told about India had built it up in my head to be a thousand things at once- inspiring and heartbreaking, filthy and yet impeccable, welcoming yet daunting- I couldn’t imagine how it would actually feel. I therefore deadened myself to expectations, and waited for that first glorious moment of MY GREAT ADVENTURE.
Some things I anticipated turned out to be accurate: yes, there are rickshaws, yes, I am stared at when I walk down the street, and yes, there are abundant mangoes. Never in my wildest dreams, however, could I have accurately predicted the exact sensations. And I suppose that’s what I came here to get- the precise scent of diesel, dung, and sewage that stings my nostrils as the rickshaw whizzes by… the eeriness of dozens of pairs of eyes peering through the fence around the clinic, watching my every move as I perform the most mundane tasks- eating, putting on my shoes, twiddling my fingers in my hair… the indescribable bliss of cool mango juice running under my tongue. There have been times in India I’ve felt gay (laughing over one of my many Hindi mishaps with Sambhavna’s custodian, Jameelabee), and times I’ve felt sad (watching yet another man with missing limbs pick through garbage on the street). I’ve been truthful about my life in America and about my intentions in India, and I’ve been a liar (of course I have someone to pick me up at the Bhopal station, I nervously fib to the men crowded around me on the train). True to Francie’s prayer, I’m trying not to lose any bit of living.
Regardless of my best efforts to get the most out of India, though, I sometimes have to continue to numb myself out of what I suppose is some kind of emotional self-defense mechanism. On one hand, the extreme poverty on Bhopal’s streets and the absolute lunacy of the politics surrounding the Bhopal gas disaster could throw me into a downward spiral of despair if I let it. The train ride from Mumbai to Bhopal as the solitary female in a compartment full of middle-aged men could have thrown me over the edge with fear.
So though in some ways I’m still numb, I’m loving every minute of my experience here. I’ll delve into the details later.
July 30, 2010
A little snippet of my research
The Wildlife Institute of India conducts ongoing research with nearly every aspect concerning wildlife in India. The particular department that I am working with, under the direction of Dr. Ruchi Badola, deals primarily with the conflicts that exist between people and wildlife. Living at the institute, I can say that we experience conflict with wildlife everyday. Monkeys constantly infiltrating our halls, turn over our trashcans in search of food, and even enter our rooms (I have learned to keep my door bolted because of this problem). But all of these are very minor issues compared to what the people living around the Nanda Devi Biosphere experience.
For the project I have chose to complete I was sent to survey two to three villages to understand the impact that primates have on the humans and vice versa. We (two fellow Wildlife Institute students and I) picked three villages to survey in the course of two days. In the end, we were able to obtain a total of 54 interviews. The questions we asked concerned things such as people’s attitudes towards the monkeys, how much and what kind of damage is done to their crops and orchards, whether they were ever physically attacked by a monkey and whether they feared an attack, as well as whether they were aware of any diseases that monkeys may carry. Many people at first found it interesting and even funny that we were only interested in knowing the problems they have with monkeys because generally the biggest problems they face are not from monkeys, but rather from bears, wild boars, and porcupines. Regardless, we found from these interviews that monkeys are in fact pests (94% of the respondents thought so).
There were several aspects of the interviews that I expected. For one, monkeys are a major issue for these people. They subsist primarily off of the crops and orchards that they themselves grow and when there is a common pest (such as monkeys) who constantly destroy they crops this results in major losses. People reported their losses in crops and orchards due to monkeys to be anywhere from 10% to an astounding 100%. Second, the people do not receive any compensation for these losses. The government compensates for damage due to leopards, bears and wild boars, but not for monkeys. As expected, we heard endless stories from the people we interviewed about how they filed complaints in regards to these losses but received nothing. One woman even reported to us that she was advised by the forestry department to kill the monkeys if they were causing such a tremendous problem. Finally, there was little aggression experienced from the monkeys. This is expected because these surveys were conducted in a rural area, and not in a city where the monkeys are reported to be highly aggressive and often attack people.
While many things were expected in the course of our interviews, there were a few surprises. I found it alarming that only two out of the 54 respondents were aware that monkeys carry diseases. Even though most people responded that they had never heard of any one being bitten, I believe this is something that should be highlighted to these people in the future.
July 13, 2010
I recently spent an afternoon with another American student in a place in New Delhi called the India Habitat Centre—easily the poshest place I've been to in India yet. The Centre is something of a blend of an office building, a conference center and an elite social club. The institutions it houses include the ILO, the MacArthur Foundation, the Centre for Science & Environment, and numerous other high-profile Indian think tanks, government agencies, and trade organizations. Its premises are undeniably opulent. The massive courtyard features several fountains, terraced gardens, and a glass ceiling at least five stories up to shield from rain. Custodial staff ceaselessly sweep and mop the pavement tiles to keep them free of the characteristic layer of Delhi dust. Rumor has it the Chief Minister of Bihar was recently denied membership for being too hoi polloi.
On returning, I remarked to a friend that the Centre looked like a slightly modified version of a ritzy American conference center. He responded, "Almost. It’s actually a cheap imitation." I was taken aback by his bluntness, but with some reflection I have come to the conclusion that he is basically right.
Why is it that the Indian elite choose to construct a conference center in an Anglo-American style in a country with an equally rich architectural tradition? Why is it necessary to keep outdoor tile footpaths—which will never be touched by bare feet—free of the dust that is found literally everywhere in Delhi? I believe the answer lies in a pervasive culture of imitationism in India. To exemplify this point further, consider the eating establishments at the Centre. My friend and I, not being members, were directed to a fairly basic food court (which included, among other restaurants, "Western Willy’s"). The members—essentially the social and intellectual elite of Delhi—however, get access to the exclusive "American diner". A friend of my friend extolled the quality of this diner’s hot dogs and hamburgers. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that these are pretty lowbrow dishes in the US.
I am suspicious of this trend for several reasons, not least of which is that the concomitant imported institutional arrangements do not fit perfectly in the Indian context. For instance, about a week ago I found myself in Croma, an electronics chain store run by the Tata group. For all intents and purposes, a replica of Best Buy. However, I quickly learned that this outlet was out of about one third of its stocked items. How viable is the supermarket business model in a country where most manufacturing is carried out in unregistered factories employing 10-15 people, and where a large proportion of shipping takes place on thelas and cycle-carts? Or, for another example (which has some relevance to my research here), does the car culture work in Delhi? Since the 1980's, the number of cars in Delhi has more than tripled, but the infrastructure to support them simply does not exist. For one, there is no parking space in Delhi. Cars tend to park illegally on street-sides, contributing to the already ridiculous level of congestion. The municipal authority has adopted the band-aid approach to this problem (with some exceptions, notably the excellent Delhi metro system) of building a network of flyover highways while continuing to provide subsidized loans for purchasing cars. The already taxed busing system seems to have been largely ignored.
I should clarify: I am not criticizing India for failing to live up to some Western-centric developmental telos. Rather, I am concerned that Indian society has itself internalized this teleogical point of view at the expense of forming appropriate—and no less valid—institutions for the unique context here. I should clarify further that my distress is not limited to the realm of development. The imitationist vein of Indian culture runs much deeper than that.
To explain more precisely what I mean, I think it would be best to start some more examples. If you walk around Connaught Place (the central market in Delhi), you will not see a single brown mannequin. They are uniformly white, and usually blonde. For another, a younger boy once tried to chum up to me by explaining that, "American girls. I like them. They are good girls." Yet another, on the train ride back from Agra of which I wrote previously, a young man took a lock my hair in his hand and infomed me, "Aapke baal... is beauty" (I had to laugh at that one). It is episodes like these that lead me to conclude that this imitationist social phenomenon is not merely a manifestation of admiration for Western economic and political supremacy—though it certainly is that. It extends even down to the aesthetic qualifications of races, which is not even to touch upon the cultural significance of the English language. No, this is a deep and broad cultural inferiority complex, and in that respect these are "cheap imitations".
Visiting today, it is difficult to believe that just over sixty years ago there was a broad-based movement to eject Europeans. And in this era, when the type of Indian leaders who frequent the India Habitat Centre are falling over themselves trying to attract foreign capital, I can't help but feel like what they might need more is a little pride.
Please Allow Me to Explain the Last Two Weeks of June
Hello people. Apologies for falling off the map for a while. I will now attempt to explain the happenings of the last 2 weeks of June in India. This post is coming to you in what we might call Indian time...maybe you're familiar.
This first post will be an overview of the relative chaos that kept me away from technology for so long. I will try to do a series of about 3 posts in the next week, all coming from detailed journal entries I was able to maintain throughout the trip.
Let's start at June 20th 2010 about 7:00 PM. I am upstairs in Hope's guest room frantically packing my backpack for an impromptu 36 hour train ride to Bangalore in the South of India. Why you may ask? Raj (an employee at Hope) is originally from Bangalore and kindly invited me and three other employees, including my project director zeba Baji, to join her and her family in their home in Bangalore. Another piece of information that may be useful to know is that Hope Project was pretty much on vacation from about 17 june to 3 July which also happens to be the time I spent traveling with the staff. I was especially excited to be spending so much time with Zeba, the head of the micro-finance institute (MFI) at Hope, and the one who has been kind of mentoring me along the way.
I haphazardly toss some things into my bag and jump on a cycle rickshaw to Nizamuddin Railway station. I have gotten better about taking cycle rickshaws. In the beginning I avoided them because I felt bad that the driver has to do this terribly grueling and downright dangerous traffic dodging just to get me from point A to point B. I soon realized though that these guys are going to be out there doing it anyway so why not give them business. They deserve it more than auto rickshaw drivers if you ask me. I have rarely been cheated, or had to walk away from, or have been walked walked away from by a cycle rickshaw driver. So now when the distance is small and I see a cycle I go for it.
I make it to the station and get on my train no problem. I was lucky enough to get a spot in the foreigner's quota for 3rd class AC. I get to my birth or whatever and it turns out I am sharing with a relatively large family from Nepal who have two small children. These children provide endless entertainment. I pretty much just sit there and watch them do everything from hanging off the bunks upside down, to reading stories to each other, to going over to the small baby that is in the aisle next to us and stealing its water.
Needless to say the journey passed extremely quickly with these children to keep me company. As if the extremely pleasant atmosphere of Indian Railways rajdhani Express 3rd AC (with its meals, blankets, and ice cream!) wasn't enough, the family invited me to their home in Kathmandu when I told them I planned to visit in July. Since it is already July 13, I currently write to you from Kathmandu Nepal.
Don't worry, I will explain the rest of India's shenanigans, how I got here, and when I am coming back, but all in due time friends. Here in Kathmandu there are time schedules for the power and it turns off in the afternoon sometimes, so I am going to stop short here so that I don't get to carried away and BAM! the post is gone. We will start again at 22 June 2010 6:30 am at Bangalore City Railway Station. Until then.