Letter from India

December 15, 2004 Michael Kaufman

There is a collection of brothels at the side of the highway an hour outside of Agra. Young women, some really just girls, stand at the roadside doorways, hoping their make up and smiles will bring in the $3 customers. In the poorest neighbourhoods of the cities, sex might cost thirty cents or a buck.

Animal images: Along the two-lane highway, unhappy black bears, leashed and muzzled, are prodded by their trainers to stand on their hind legs to perform for tourists. It is against the law in Rajasthan, so the trainers congregate just across the state border in Uttar Pradesh. In Rajasthan, though, it is the camels, stately, huge-hoofed beasts, their necks and flanks painted with black circles and geometric patterns, pulling two-wheeled carts, the driver sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, heaped with sacks of grain, or stone, or wood. On a narrow road, through farmland where millet is growing in the dry soil, the road is clogged by herds of sheep tended by shepherds with red cloth loosely wrapped upon their heads, the ends dangling down their backs or wrapped across their faces against the dust. Black water buffalo, horns tightly curled on their foreheads like the hair of a 1920’s Hollywood starlet, lounge in yards, on the roadside, at the edges of the few pools left from the rainy season. Bands of monkeys scamper along the wall of a fort and the Taj Mahal. Wart hogs rustle in garbage. Packs of scrawny dogs trot past with suspicion and self-importance. Peacocks strut over a rocky hillside. An elephant thumps along the roadway, its driver perched high upon its neck. And of course the cows, white or black, with big humps on their shoulders, sacred, owned by no one, saunter across busy city streets or loll in the concrete medians of Delhi. As a lover of cows (in a different sense, of course, than Betty is a devoted lover of cattle) I can appreciate this sense of the holy.

There is a collection of brothels at the side of the highway an hour outside of Agra. Young women, some really just girls, stand at the roadside doorways, hoping their make up and smiles will bring in the $3 customers. In the poorest neighbourhoods of the cities, sex might cost thirty cents or a buck. At the workshop I led, there were women and men who work to rescue girls from these brothels on nighttime raids in, say, Calcutta . . . that is, if the police who accompany them haven’t tipped off the madames and if they can find the girls hidden behind false walls and attics. One such woman who runs an agency of 120 people and regularly goes on such missions – she is tiny, suspicious and slow to warm – finally confides that it is no longer possible for her to have a normal relationship.

The highway: Imagine the main road between a city of 2.3 million and 1.3 million, between Jaipur and Agra. It is two lanes with no paved shoulder, and is shared by cars, tractors, transport trucks (some gaudily decorated, others decorated only with dents and rust), oil tankers, farm trucks, camel carts, bicycles, buses, minivans, scooters, goats, dogs, motorcycles, water buffalo, pedestrians, oxen carts, and occasional three-wheel trucks with an exposed engine and steering wheel column. Every vehicle spills over with goods and people. Passing is not a linear process (as in, you watch, you wait, you pass) for when a car or bus is passing a lumbering truck which is about to pass a bicycle which is preparing to pass a camel cart, you can see it isn’t so much a matter of passing as of using the available road space. The terrifying moment you might have once in a blue moon on a country road in Canada when a passer is coming at you head on, occurs every minute, as vehicles wrench in and out, except here rarely does your heart leap for it is just how people drive. (I lie: once or twice our driver has to yank onto the shoulder and come to a quick stop to avoid the bus or truck that misses us by inches, but even this is devoid of drama.) On the shoulders, men or women squat to pass the time, we saw people lying fast asleep two feet from the traffic, an arm slung over their eyes to block the sun. Children walk to school, women carry improbable bundles of brush on their heads. The road is lined with eucalyptus trees, the countryside is perfectly flat, low mountains in the distance. It is farm country. Fields of yellow-blossomed canola and newly-planted rice patties are dotted with trees that provide the laborers with occasional shade. Women in beige skirts and fuschia or orange scarfs squat to weed or till the soil.

Every ten or twenty kilometers along this highway is a village, not the quiet villages of the country roads, but noisy trading outposts, strewn with garbage, with hole-in-the-wall stores selling cloth, tires, thread, hose, car parts, brick, cooking oil, plastic jugs, and tin pails. Women sit in the dirt with children, waiting for an eventual ride. Carts are piled with bananas, carrots, potatoes, and greens. Between villages, you don’t drive long without passing restaurants, houses, broken-down shops, artisans carving sandstone in one stretch, laborers making bricks in another. Overall, everything is unkept, broken-down, rubbled, dirty, scrambled. In all the cities, along all the roadways, in the villages, what is so disheartening is not so-much the poverty (as in lack of things), but the sheer squalor. The edges of foetid ponds and streams serve as outdoor toilets. Everywhere there are foundations either of buildings planned or buildings past, everywhere is litter on a mammoth scale.

But there are school boys in robin-egg blue shirts, school girls in robin-egg blue tunics over beige skirts or slacks, sitting outside in front of blackboards covered with math problems. Women cover their heads with shawls that wrap their upper half: saffron, turquoise, canary, emerald, pumpkin, ruby, jade or the Rajasthani red, which is a deep red, cranberry but so much more intense that it both dazzles and soothes.

And the people. What can one say as a tourist, for everything is conditioned by the fact that in one day we can spend what someone makes in a month or a year. In the tourist areas everyone has something to sell or some plea to beg. But at my workshop with men and women from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, I was greeted with enormous warmth. There is a gentleness to people – and you do feel this on the street – that flies in the face of so much that should beat them down and turn them bitter.

The workshop went very well. It is a region where levels of violence against women is staggering, where girls are so unwanted that selected abortion and infanticide leaves the boy/girl ratio 10:9 in some towns and villages. Luckily, it is also a region where a lot of dedicated people are working against too much history and too little resources to fight for equality. At the end of the workshop plans were hatched to start white ribbon campaigns. (It’s already off the ground in a few areas of India, in Sri Lanka and, so I was told, this week in Kathmandu a white ribbon banner stretched across a busy road.) The workshop sponsors, the UN agency UNIFEM and Save the Children decided to devote some staff to organize a South Asian campaign to complement the local plans. (The jazziest is to send a white ribbon and names of Nepalese men opposed to violence to the top of Mt. Everest.)

And now we’re at our final stop in Jaipur, the pink city. Like all the cities, the streets are a madhouse of pedestrians, vendors, drivers, bicyclists, and animals all vying for a bit of space. There is a crazy energy but, except for the ever-present danger from the traffic, no particular feeling of danger.

We’re staying at a spectacular oasis outside of town and it is taking considerable willpower to return to the real India and leave these manicured gardens, chattering monkeys and parrots, and our room with a glass-walled bathroom that looks onto a tiny private garden that has a wide black bowl filled with bright orange marigold petals. Did I just write something about streams and ponds being used as outdoor toilets? Then again, the contradictions are not only our own. India has announced is will land a craft on the moon in the next three years and spends billions on its nuclear weapons and military. This hotel versus the India of hundreds of millions of people is indeed an obscene contrast, but then again, in a globalized world, it is the obscene contrast those of us pampered North Americans and Europeans who consume, what is it, 50? 70%? of the worlds’ resources actually live with every day, although we’re able to pretend we do not. I am not trying to justify our wonderful hotel, just reflect.

And, finally, it is marriage season here. Most marriages, even among the urban middle class are arranged. The Times of India has a weekly section where parents place ads in hopes of hitching up their kids. Everywhere you go, there are marriage pavilions and men threading marigolds into ceremonial chains; at night, Hindi pop music throbs across town. We saw one small wedding procession, the groom leading his wife by a rope tied around his waist and clutched in her hand. She will go and live with his family, sometimes with horrible results. Good luck, good luck to her. Oh, let’s be more generous. Good luck to them both.

1 Comment on “Letter from India

  1. Well what a marathon of a letter.
    The picture painted and the story told came so vivdly to life.
    Next year I will go to India again after 48 years nothing has changed.!
    Yet India owns GE Money … one of the worlds biggest financial money lending ….
    Yet India owns Telecom communications in lots of countries around the world.
    When will India consider its own life force?
    Alys Ingrid – New Zealand

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