Thursday, December 29, 2011

India: poverty, apathy, the mad drive to oppress

There's so much I have to say about what I saw in India, but I've been having trouble listing things out because I'm so overwhelmed by all the things I've seen and felt there. It's like this huge furball that's stuck in my throat, I need to hack it up, hack it up. I'm just going to start talking without worrying about the science and art of communication because I really need to get all of it out of my system, or I'll never be able to move on.

I recently returned from spending almost a year-and-a-half in New Delhi, where I interned for a year at NDTV and then volunteered at an NGO called The Youth Parliament Foundation. I had been living as a paying guest in a double room in a 4-storey residential building in 'posh' Greater Kailash 1, and I shall only remember my lodgings for the exposure I received there to menstrual blood, mud, vomit, garbage, hair clumps, human and animal urine and shit. The particular colony I lived in - one of the best I'm told - was known for the stray dogs that, at night, liked to look down upon you from where they'd perch on top of the expensive foreign cars that crammed its lanes. Toyotas, Hondas, even the occassional BMW. Some that looked too big to even turn those congested corners. Some rickshaw pullers refused to go into the colony because of the dogs. One McDonald's delivery man (McD's delivers in India) had been bitten once. The trees of the colony were very overgrown and depressing, the buildings were long and smashed into one another, almost falling over each other, not quite unlike the people in this overcrowded country. Nouveau riche Hemkunt colony, home to a number of judges and doctors, was a strange place.

For almost a year-and-a-half, I shared my room with rats, lizards, spiders, ants (on my bed with me), mosquitoes, and flies. The mosquito bite scars on my feet have only now faded away after half a year. People would keep forgetting to flush, and sometimes they'd flush so hard that they'd knock the knob right off, which would keep the flush running and empty out the water tank, leaving none for the rest of us girls, a real nightmare if you're having your period or if it's summer or if you have food poisoning, or all three. Nowhere in India does the water run 24/7. The water usually comes in for a couple of hours in the early morning or evening, which is when people fill their buckets or tanks and use this supply economically. Someone kept breaking the toilet seats so the landlord eventually stopped replacing them. That made things very difficult during the near-freezing winters because porcelain gets very cold very fast. The building was not heated for the spirit-breaking winters or cooled for the morale-shattering summers, all we had was a rickety ceiling fan and a cooler that was propped up through our only window. Because that window had to be kept open for the cooler to send air through, rats would make their way into our room from the outside. We could see them dropping in from the window to the ground, like miniature commandos on a secret mission. We could even hear them squeaking in the dark at night.

I was hungry and thirsty in Delhi most of the time. The shared refrigerator in the common area was forever leaking water that would stagnate into a small pool at my door. I never really bought anything to eat that needed to be refrigerated because someone was always stealing food from the fridge. Delhi water often mixes up with sewage, so no one really drinks from the tap. It has to be filtered first, and even then it tastes strange and...salty? I can't really remember the number of times my stomach would be gnawing at itself, bile ready to flow out of my eyes because tears were an effort, and there was nothing to eat. I would be thirsty, very thirsty, and would have run out of drinking water. I really hit rock-bottom my last 4 months there. I probably averaged a half bottle of water and 1 meal a day everyday. I ran out of money and worse, tanked out on faith. My time in Delhi was a time of extreme highs and lows, and like the work-hard, party-hard way of life, it burns you out really fast.

I tried very hard to see India for its grand history and its economy, all the things non-resident Indians are emotionally blackmailed into tearing up over patriotic sings about, but all it really reminded me of was what I've read of London during the industrial revolution. Filth, pettiness, an onslaught of stimuli. Oliver Twist on steriods. It's hard to focus on anything else, really, when you realise in horror that the only difference between you and the snot-faced child on the street who lives (and will most probably die) like an animal is not your intelligence, your professional dedication, your sex appeal, your god, but just chance. That given the same circumstances, you, with the American accent and the light brown skin and clever sense of humour, are not only not special but in fact always just one step away from joining that shrunken mummy on the street. Yes, your precious dignity will be taken from you, you will trade it for food, for medicine, for clothing. India is slumdog millionaire, not Bollywood. India is starvation, premature aging, unfairness, and death, a lot of death, a lot of different kinds of death. India is about crushing innovative thinking, India is about punishing excellence, India is about learning to expect less, less, less, until you learn to be grateful for the 'paid' in 'underpaid'.


IshanSaluja said...

This is exactly what makes India tick. Our ability to function while effectively distancing ourselves from the filth, the pain around us is what makes India, India. We can empathize, we choose not to. We can help, we choose not to. We can change, we choose not to.

Perhaps that's the reason why I do not like India, why I'm not proud to call myself an Indian. Because I can't do any of the above. I might not be able to do anything about it, but it definitely fucks me up to think that I live in the same city under layers of comforters, while some poor mother is shivering close to death in one of its streets.

There was a similar account by an NRI who left India(again), for quite the same reasons some time back. Here you go:

Also, before I forget. You write beautifully. I know that it isn't much, a random comment on the internet, but never stop writing. The last passage is quite literally the best string of words I've come across in a long time.

Oh, and live long and prosper.


Khadija Ejaz said...

Kaplah! (do you speak Klingon? :D)

Thank you, Ishan, you're very articulate for someone so young. Keep on keepin' on, and maybe I'll see you back in Delhi soon.

IshanSaluja said...

Wait, hold on. You're a trekkie? I take all that I said back then. Star Wars is where it's at.

Also, yeah, thanks. :)

Khadija Ejaz said...

Heck yeah, been one half my life. But I like Yoda, so I think I can meet you halfway on that.

Anonymous said...

You had a bad experience. I'd like to point out though that you're generalizing - India is not Delhi and Delhi is not India.

Delhi is a **** #@$%$% city where people only respect you for your money or status. It really strips away your soul and makes you a hollow person. And there is only materialism to turn to forget about it all ...

I've lived in India most of life, but even today, whenever I travel anywhere in my country, it is both a disconcerting and exhilarating experience. Travel in any direction in India, and you will FEEL the difference, a change, every 100 kms.

I love watching the changing geography, trying to comprehend the changing language / dialect, being on guard or relaxing with others, experimenting in my interaction to understand the subtle differences in culture between me and other strangers, and of course, sneaking hidden glances at the women. (Ah, the women! Like Nehruji once said, India certainly has the most diverse, and the most, beautiful women in the world.)

That said, you should also realize that there is a world of difference between North India and South India. South Indians (in general but not as a rule) are more humble, less show offish, and more conservative than most north indian.

East India is even more distinct. (I find it fascinating that they don't follow Patrilineality there - women are the head of the family. Do I hear you say - as it should be!? :)

AS for the lizards, and cockroaches and other what-nots - you learn to live with it.

For example, one day, I had a lot of time to kill and I decided to count how many mosquitoes I could kill with my hand. And so, after killing each mosquito, I'd place its lifeless body on a paper, on top of the UPS, to count it later.

Then I noticed that a lizard was watching me and the dead mosquitoes, wary of me but wanting to snack on them. I obliged and moved away, and with watchful eyes it quickly hurried over and ate them all.

Well, from that day on, I started feeding it mosquitoes everyday. He isn't as afraid of me as before, and, dare I say, we've become good friends now. ;)

Ah, well. I'll stop. I can go on and on ... Trust me, you need a lifetime to really experience India. (Sometimes, I fear I may never live long enough to see the whole of my country).

Khadija Ejaz said...

At least we agree about Delhi. :)