"Why?" they ask me.
Well, let's see... How can I formulate an answer they will understand?
"Why don't you live with your parents?"
"Why do some American women never marry or have children?"
"Why is your husband not traveling with you?"
I am asked these questions endlessley as I bump up against Indians in trains, taxis, restaurants and shops. I was prepared for their preoccupation with marriage and family (I call it a preoccupation -- they would merely call it an interest) but I never expected to be asked questions that are rarely voiced in America unless a burgeoning friendship is apparent. It has made me glad that I bought a cheap gold-plated wedding ring on the Internet before I left and have worn it on my left ring finger while I've been here. Being "married" gives me something to talk about and deflects some of the inevitable astonishment that people express when they see a woman in her early 30s traveling India alone.
My "husband," when I tell people about him, has alternatively been an architect, an archaeologist, and a novelist. Sometimes I'm about to meet him at the next station, sometimes I say he is working in Mumbai while I travel the country, and sometimes I say he wasn't interested in coming to India with me. Saying these things usually stops the questions (unless they start asking about my children). It also lets Indian men know that I'm not "easy." Apparently, in most places here, if you're traveling without the accompaniment of a man (father, brother, husband) you're loose and up for grabs. If you're traveling like that at night, you're sometimes considered a whore.
Honestly, as a woman born after the feminist movement, it has only been here in India that I have begun to truly appreciate the freedoms that I as an American women have. But while I get to go back to those freedoms, women here must continue to live in a society that Ramachandra Guha, an Indian sociologist and environmental historian, calls "caste- and kin-bound." And so most Indian women, kin-bound, are pretty much expected to marry young, move in with their husband's family, immediately have children, and keep the home. I have no doubt that many, many Indian women have no problem with this kind of life, and appreciate, even crave moving through the rites and rituals expected of them. But what about the ones who want something else from life? Particularly the poor ones, who don't have as much opportunity as upper-caste women?
And what about the women who lose their husbands early on? Widows here, mostly the lower-caste ones, are expected to wear white, aren't allowed to remarry, and are so shunned by society that they seek refuge in communities of other widows, further secluding themselves. Watch the extraordinary Indian film "Water" (banned from Indian theaters but recently nominated for an Academy Award) and you will learn, as I did, that Gandhi's legacy goes far beyond kicking the British out of India. He also set in motion a new, more compassionate vision of life for Indian women. Yet the discrimination against widows remains.
What, also, about the female fetuses that are aborted after parents learn they are to have a daughter? In Hindu society, sons remain with their parents all their lives (while daughters move in with their husbands' familes); for this reason, parents crave sons so they will be taken care of later in life. There may be other reasons why they crave sons, but the fact remains that families often keep trying to have a son, further bloating the Indian population (now at 1.2 billion, I believe).
And what about the poor women who can only offer a meager dowry to the families of their new husbands? I asked an Aurangabad taxi driver what the biggest problem facing India was. He surprised me by saying, "the dowry problem." Poor women are sometimes found mysteriously dead, the victim of a "kitchen fire" or some other domestic hazard. Later, the authorities figure out they have been murdered by their husband's families so that the husband can remarry and obtain another dowry. My friend Dee forwarded me an e-mail from an American friend of hers who recently visited India and shared this story:
On the 15th of December Sangita caught fire. Doctors say she burned for over 30 minutes. When I went to see her in the hospital on the 6th of January, 22 days after she was burned, her face was black with 22-day-old, 3rd degree burns... She was shivering uncontrollably, and looked to be in horrible pain... How Sangita burned is not a mystery, although she refused to tell the story. In Uttar Predesh it is not uncommon for a married woman to be doused with kerosene and set alight by her husband's family so that he may divorce her and his family receive a new dowry from another bride. This is most likely what happened to Sangita. Her in-laws were home when she was burning, but she had to call her brother who lives across town to come and bring her to the hospital. No one responded to her screams. Sangita has a four month old baby in the care of her in-laws, which may be some of the reason she did not speak up... Sangita died on January 13th, after I was back in the states. Her story horrified me, but what is even more disturbing is that in Uttar Predesh alone, over 2,000 burnings for dowry get reported each year, and this is believed to be a significantly low number.
Here in India, I've been answering a lot of people's questions, but when it comes to asking them, I don't tread on territory such as this. But if I were to ask ordinary Indians why such things as dowry murder, the banishment of widows and female infanticide happen, what would they say? Maybe they wouldn't know how to answer. Or maybe they would think, How can I formulate an answer she will understand?
As a solo traveler, you lack a constant companion who can validate or challenge your opinions about a place -- how good the food is in a certain restaurant, whether the bathroom you just used is the filthiest one so far, whether Indian children are the most adorable children on the face of the earth. So when you meet a fellow Westerner on your journey, it offers you a chance to learn whether your opinions along the way have been on the mark or whether you've simply gone mad and lost all perspective.
I had this chance when I met Nicola on a boat ride out to Elephanta Island, off the coast of Mumbai (formerly called Bombay). Nicola, like most of the travelers I've spent time with, was on a far more ambitious journey than I've been on - seven months solo through India and East Asia. "I enjoy my own company," Nicola said when I asked her about possible loneliness on so long a trip. We turned out to have a lot in common -- both only children, close to our parents, in our early 30s and interested in farming.
We ended up spending a great day together in Mumbai. Nicola, who lives in Calgary, had been missing the company of her girlfriends back home and mentioned that our time together in Mumbai -- shopping, eating, visiting an art gallery, going to the movies -- reminded her of a day with her friends. For me, talking with Nicola reassured me that some of my opinions about India were shared -- above all, we both thought the world of Mumbai, both preferred it (by far) to New Delhi, and both felt very at ease in the coastal city that -- to me, at least -- embodies the spirit of the "New India."
In Mumbai, I saw far more Indian women dressed in Western clothing than anywhere else. Many of the young men wore glasses and carried the Financial Times or some other English daily. In one restaurant, I sat next to a group of six guys having a Friday lunch out. Their Hindi conversation was peppered with words like "information technology," "computer" and "software." I leaned over and asked them where they worked. "A software development company," they said. I told them I'm from America and said, "We hear so much about the 'New India' at home... you are the New India!" They smiled bashfully, not knowing quite what to say.
In essence, Mumbai felt like my hometown of New York City. I suppose you could compare New Delhi to Washington, D.C. -- the seat of government, lots of wide, tree-lined avenues, a bit sprawling and without a central core. It seemed rather staid to me. Mumbai, on the other hand, had an intangible energy about it, great restaurants, black and yellow taxis, and sidewalks -- for the first time in a month, I was able to stroll. I felt re-energized upon arriving in Mumbai, having been sagging for a few days before that, weary in the middle of my trip.
Perhaps I also appreciated Mumbai because my mother lived there as a little girl. Her parents, having fled Czechoslovakia after the arrival of the Communists, arrived in India just before the 1947 partition of the country into Pakistan and Bangladesh. As if adjusting to India weren't hard enough for my grandparents, mother and aunt, they soon had to flee New Delhi in the middle -- literally in the middle -- of violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims following the partition. My mother and aunt have awful memories of the scenes they witnessed in the New Delhi train station. Perhaps this is why I've felt so much trepidation about taking the train in India. Perhaps the legacy of my mother's experience, so deeply ingrained in her, somehow passed into me. Nevertheless, I felt my family's spirit in Mumbai, where they lived for a year or so in relative peace before heading to Australia.
I know, however, that the central core of Mumbai is nothing like the outskirts, where millions and millions of people live in the most unspeakable slums. I saw some of these slums from my train -- buildings that looked like they'd been bombed out, the "windows" filled with faraway faces peering out at the trains rumbling past them. It is hard to see how the "New India" will benefit these people. As the government builds gleaming, hi-tech, gated compounds for IT workers and visiting Western businessmen, the other India waits outside.
It's also hard to square the squalor of India's poverty with the glamour of the Bollywood stars who appear in all the movies and fill the pages of the newspapers. Nicola and I went to see a movie one afternoon in Mumbai, which is Bollywood. We had a ball trying to figure out the trajectory of the love stories being presented to us in Hindi and a bit of English. The goofy, happy, and (relatively) well-acted movie lifted my spirits, but I left wondering how traditional Indian society will be affected by such flashy, Western-style films. (By the way, the movie was called "Salaam-e-Ishq" -- in English, "Salute to Love." If you see it, look for the great scene between the American tourist and the New Delhi taxi driver!)
Although the film was fun, my most precious moment in Mumbai was when I happened on a street fair one evening. There was a music stage, food carts, and various booths set up by non-profits. I was overjoyed when I came to the booth belonging to the organization Welfare of Stray Dogs. I spoke with the young people manning the booth about their mission to help the stray dogs of Mumbai. It was a relief to know that the dogs are being cared for.
While talking with the staff, though, I mentioned that I liked Mumbai more than Delhi. They all agreed, and appreciated my enthusiasm for their city, but then turned to a fellow at the back of the booth. Turned out he was a Delhi native. I immediately felt bad that I had insulted his hometown. "Oh, don't worry," he said to me good-naturedly. "I don't say this very often, but I kind of agree with you."
I've been on the road for a month now -- or rather, on many roads, and on endless miles of railroad track, heading from the top of India towards the tip of it -- and I can say with conviction that it is not being in India that is challenging, it is moving through it.
Roads are not roads here -- they are a series of lumps in the ground covered with asphalt and leading somewhere. And these roads are not simply where cars travel -- they are also the domain of bicycles, motor scooters, cows, stray dogs, rickety wooden carts, huge towering trucks that look about to topple over, and of course, people. Life in India happens in the street, and so along the shoulders of roads (I've rarely seen a sidewalk) you'll find food carts, clothing stalls, restaurants, fruit stands, women carting water in tins atop their heads, children in blue uniforms walking to school, and men standing next to their motor scooters making deals. Nobody seems to flinch when vehicles speed by them, just inches away. And they all stroll past loads and loads of trash.
Indeed, there are pieces of garbage everywhere in India, mostly plastic and paper embedded in the ground. You wonder if people see it or if it has just become a part of their surroundings. I imagine huge teams of Indians fanning out across the country cleaning up their roadsides and erecting, as in the States, blue signs saying, "This highway adoped by the citizens of Chandrapur!" or some civic organization. But of course, people who are barely scraping a living together don't have time to clean up garbage.
As you speed past all the pulsating activity on the road, you must trust your driver, who for some reason will drive in the middle of the road (rather than on the left side -- they've adopted the British style here) until he comes to a vehicle in front of him. He'll then beep a few times, to warn the person in front that he's about to pass, and accelerate past the hapless vehicle, coming hair-raisingly close to scraping the paint off. I've been finding it impossible to take my eyes off the road as I've ridden in various cars here -- as if watching the proceedings will somehow give me some control over them!
"Good horn, good brakes, good luck!" That's what one taxi driver told me is necessary to his profession. Indeed, I never thought India would resonate so pervasively with the sound of honking horns. Whereas in the States it's considered rude to use your horn, here it is a helpful warning to the slowpoke driver (or animal) ahead of you.
"Why haven't you listened to your iPod while you've been here?" I asked Cheryl, a fellow American (from W. 16th Street in NYC!) who I met at the Ajanta caves.
"Because India is so noisy!" she said, and we had a good laugh, knowing this to be so true, mainly because of the car horns.
Before I left for my trip, I also imagined I'd be taking quiet, leisurely train rides through the Indian countryside, during which I would read a good book, or write and reflect. But most of my train rides have been at night, in the infamous sleeper cars. A regular sleeper car has maybe a dozen berths (compartments), and in each berth are six "beds" -- three on each side, with the middle bed folding up for daytime travel. I've always opted for the top berth, which I climb up to with the help of a small ladder along the side. There, I've somehow -- oh, somehow! -- managed to catch a bit of sleep despite the fact that the train rocks back and forth, the horn blares even at night, random cockroaches scurry across the floor below, the people around me snore, the stench of urine wafts through the open window at every station, and hawkers shout "Chai! Chai! Chai!" as they stroll through the aisle in the early morning.
For some reason, I have always felt trepidation before taking a train here, but I've pretty much figured out the whole process by now and feel proud to have mastered this very Indian experience. And people are so kind to me and helpful in the train. Invariably, they have so many questions for me. My favorite: "What are the marriage laws in America?"
"Marriage laws?" I said.
"Yes - how many times can a person marry?"
Not knowing how to respond, I said with a big smile, "Twenty!"
This sent everyone in the car into hysterics, at the same time probably confirming their perception of America as a heathen land.
They then promptly bought me a cup of chai.
My experiences with taxi and rickshaw drivers have not been as pleasurable. I've learned to agree to a firm price before even entering a vehicle, but then at the destination my driver has often whined for more money or not given me the correct change. In Mumbai, I gave the wrong address to a driver and so he had to go a few hundred yards further than what we agreed on. As a result, when I got out of the car, he wouldn't give me the 20 rupees in change that he owed me, because of the "extra distance." I couldn't accept that. Since arriving in India, I have slowly learned to forget about being nice and instead stand up for myself.
"Give me my 20 rupees!" I said harshly. He was clearly taken aback, but only gave me 10 and walked away. I let it go. Most exchanges here end up in a compromise, anyway.
So getting from one place to another has at various times left me frazzled, depressed, irritated, courageous, mad, or exhausted. But I continue to move through India, heading to Kerala next. (Since leaving the organic farm, I have visited the Ajanta caves, Mumbai, and Goa.) And then, in two weeks, I head back to the quiet, clean, uncongested, polite and orderly streets of ... New York City.
Which ones will you always remember? Of the thousands of poor, sick, overworked people you pass on your journey, and the hundreds of lame, caged, dying animals you see, which ones will remind you, long after you've returned home, of the astonishing blessings of your own life?
Two children squat in front of their tattered cloth tent -- their home -- high up on an outcropping of rock in a Delhi slum. Although they are out of reach of your taxi, which flies by with its window open, letting in a stench of urine and burning rubber that the children must breathe every day, you can see that the children have no posessions, none. All around, hundreds of similar tents sit side-by-side on the rock, some of them tended by bent and bow-legged old women who assiduously sweep their front stoops with straw brooms -- as if a tattered cloth tent could have a front stoop. Younger women, with scowls on their faces and squinting in the sun, sit in front of small baskets of withering fruit, waiting all day for a sale. Men drink brown water from trickling spigots.
Strangely, it is not these people's lack of posessions or their unsanitary living conditions that strike you the most, but that inside that slum are hundreds of potential doctors, musicians, artists and scientists who will never reach their full potential. You think about your own education, your own freedom.
Standing on the platform of the Jhansi train station at 9 p.m., before your first overnight train ride, you peer down at the family crouching in front of you, waiting for a train. Between the mother, father and two toddlers, they have one duffel bag between them. The parents wear cheap, worn-out sandals, while the children go barefoot. You watch as the mother removes the cloth diaper from one of her children, washes it in a small bucket and wrings it out over the tracks. While she does this, her other child pees on the platform and waddles in her own urine as it trickles towards the tracks. Her parents take no notice. You think of the children of your friends, bathed every night and tucked into clean beds, and give thanks.
Exhausted, you enter the Nagpur train station in the early morning and there on Platform 1 is a white dog, a stray who looks like all the other street dogs of India until you see the pink spots covering his body, places where his fur used to be. The fur has been scratched off, bitten off, burned, it's not clear, and his backside is covered in fleas. All around him, people hurry and push and hassle, yet he is calm. You want to touch and heal this dog, but instead you look away from his pink flesh and his dignified demeanor because if you do not hold yourself together you will not get to your platform in time. After you do, and have a spare moment, you find a spot on the crowded platform and sit down and weep, because you cannot hold anything in any longer. It is the only time you have wept openly during your journey.
It's evening, and you're trying to make your way down a sidewalk in Mumbai that is jammed with trinket stands and hawkers. To get through the crowd you have to jostle past the tourists and the men calling "Madam, madam, look my shop!" Eventually you make it to an empty spot on the sidewalk and turn towards the fast food joint that's on your left. There, you see him standing, his long arm outstretched -- a man of about 50 in a pink button-down shirt and brown pants. He is rocking, forward and back, forward and back on his sandaled feet, holding a stick, blind. Amidst the chaos, he is blind, utterly ignored. What is his world like? You keep walking.
Halfway down the block, you turn back. There are times when we break our own rules and turn back. You reach into your wallet and take out 20 rupees -- the only time you have given money to a beggar here. But because he is blind, you make sure he grasps the money by putting your other hand on his, so that he does not drop it. Your hand and his hand momentarily touch, and it's then that you feel the warmth of his skin, so warm it's as if he has a fever in his hand. You know at that moment you will never forget the warmth of this hand. But in an instant you let go and turn around and keep walking, looking back to see him place the money in his pocket. You think of your own ability to see, and look up at the stars.
Everyone responds to suffering in their own way. Perhaps the way we respond says more about us as individuals than it does about the objects of our compassion. The people and animals that I will remember after I have left India may not be the same people and animals you would remember. But by recalling at least a few, we are able to move beyond statistics, toward an intimate relationship with poverty that can teach us about dignity in the midst of suffering -- for the old women, the family, the dog and the blind man all posessed extraordinary dignity -- and can remind us of the often-forgotten potential of our own, squandered lives.
The truck from the local milk processing plant won't come to her farm to pick up her milk. They require 100 litres a day for a pick-up, while her cows provide only 50. So nearly every day, Lalita Kamble and sometimes her husband Prem climb into their clanky white van and head into central Chandrapur to deliver their milk to the plant themselves.
Just as in Vermont, the small organic farmer in India has to do an awful lot on her own.
After the milk delivery, Lalita will sometimes bring paneer to a nearby dhaba, or roadside restaurant, stopping to chat with the hefty manager as he prepares the day's dishes and yaks on his cell phone. On the day I accompanied the Kambles on this errand, one of their laborers (that's what Lalita calls them) rode with us halfway, balancing the heavy round of paneer on her lap. She was middle-aged, had beautiful features and an easygoing way about her.
"Her husband committed suicide," Lalita told me as we drove. I looked over at the woman. She didn't understand English, and kept peering out the window. Later, I learned that her husband was an alcoholic farmer who threw himself down a well after a night of drinking. Lalita took her in, along with her four daughters, one of whom is the Kambles' cook.
I wasn't sure what - beyond alcohol- motivated this husband to kill himself. It's not just expensive pesticides and GMO seeds alone that are causing the farmer suicides in India. It's also unscrupulous moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates; Indian cultural practices that require families to spend (and thus borrow) huge amounts of money for weddings; changing weather patterns (perhaps from global warming) that are causing widespread drought and crop failure; global trade policies that give farmers a pittance for their crops; and failure by the heavily corrupted state and local governments to get relief packages to the farmers.
On the day I went on the rounds with the Kambles, they also brought raw milk and cream to the wife of a local bank manager. We sat down with the lady to sample her ladoos, a type of soft, sweet treat. Lalita hates going into the city where she was born and raised, hates the noise and the dust and covers her mouth with her shawl when the window is open, but direct marketing is necessary to the success of her farm right now, and "customer relations" is something she knows she must engage in.
Even on this past 26th of January, when the populace of India gathered in town squares and village squares, along major roads in big cities and in schools and auditoriums to celebrate "Republic Day," the day 58 years ago when India's first constitution as a British-free nation was ratified, Lalita had to make a milk delivery. But not before accepting an invitation to speak at the Republic Day celebration in her village - and asking me to speak as well!
I knew it would be coming - the moment when I'd have to stand next to Lalita and lecture villagers about their poor sanitary practices and failure to take advantage of organic alternatives. That's what she'd been wanting me to do ever since I arrived at the Clay House, when she learned that I share her opinions about agriculture and politics and most other things. She told me what a wonderful idea it would be to have me visit the nearby villagers and speak to them - with her interpreting, of course.
"And I will add some thoughts of my own, and make them think you said it." Of course!
This idea was completely natural to Lalita, who wants nothing more than to convert her fellow citizens to her way of thinking. As for me, I had visions of being driven out of Chandrapur by angry villagers upset by the arrogant American who had the gall to tell them what to do!
Still, at 8 a.m. on Republic Day I went with Lalita to the outdoor celebration in Chek Borda (the name of the village and literally "Small Borda"). The only people in attendance were a dozen elementary school children sitting on the ground outside their crumbling school, their teacher, trying to keep their attention with his earnest lecture about the constitution, and six or seven men, village leaders, I suppose, seated in an official-looking row of beat-up chairs. Presumably, everyone else in Chek Borda didn't care much about the constitution.
Lalita, as the invited speaker, took her seat behind a small table that had been placed on the ground for her. I sat next to her. Then the children rose, the sun beat down, a rooster crowed and everyone began singing the Indian national anthem. Lalita went over and raised a small Indian flag attached to an unsturdy pole. A goat strolled through the proceedings. Then Lalita stood and began her speech.
Hellfire in Hindi!
I was surprised the men paid her as much attention as they did, given what was clearly a scolding. But I've found Indian people to be very good listeners, enamored of good debates and conversation. They even listened to me, there in that schoolyard. As I rose, I had no idea what would come out of my mouth. But I ended up saying how pleased I was to be in their village, and that I'd heard about the farmer suicides in their country. I said that in America, farmers are treated poorly, too, but that when they turn to organic practices, their lives tend to improve. Awfully simplistic, to be sure, but Lalita's long translation of my few words probably had me saying much more.
Thinking back on it, the moment was heartwarming. But at the time, I was just trying to make it through without insulting anyone.
Later that day, as the fierce red jewel that is the Indian sun began to touch the horizon, Lalita took me to another village, a larger one, near to her farm. There, I sat in the small courtyard outside the dilapidated home of the village's lone "police officer." The mayor came, too, and about two dozen village men, plus a few women. They sat before me on the ground, on a tarp that they'd unfurled. This time, I felt more confident, and in addition to saying a few words about farming, also told them that in America there are some people who are very suspicious of corporations.
"When a corporation tells you something, you may want to question whether it's true," I said. I saw some heads nodding in agreement when Lalita translated. I also asked if they knew what global warming was. No one did. "If you begin to notice changes in the weather, it may be due to this problem," I said. "It is mostly caused by people in my country and other Western countries, and we are trying to do something about it."
If you'd told me six months ago that on Jan. 26 I'd be in central India speaking to rural villagers about organic agriculture, global warming and corporate power, I'd have sent you to bed and given you a cold cloth for your fever.
I left the village in the evening wondering whether my words may have helped them in some way, although I let go of needing an outcome.
Here in Mumbai, where I am now, I phoned Lalita and Prem to thank them once again for their hospitality, and to see whether there was any reaction among the villagers to my visits. Lalita said yes, that they seem more willing to work with Lalita on her ideas. Who knows if my visits had anything to do with this. All I know is that I did what little I could to share information across thousands of miles. And I wasn't run out of town.