Visiting India was near the bottom of my travel destination, but my dream to see the world will not be complete without setting foot on this subcontinent where one-third of the human race lived. All I knew about India, was Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, the Nehru jacket, its jewel-bedecked dark-eyed women wearing elegant and exquisite silk saris and who encrusted their foreheads with a ruby, and the celluloid portrayal of the lavish Maharajah lifestyle of the British during its two centuries of colonial rule, and yeah, the blockbuster “Slum-dog Millionaire”. I had many Indian colleagues in my medical profession but I did not have any personal friend. My aversion was shaped during my internship, and further cemented into prejudice from conflicted encounters with various forms of one-upmanship. Looking back, my experiences were with Indian men in the context of a very competitive professional milieu. I thought it was time to open my eyes, maybe I was missing something.
I arrived in Delhi on a Sunday. The city greeted me with a cacophony of car horns blaring, motor and pedal rickshaws careening with bells tinkling, street vendors screaming beyond the din, masses rushing to pick bargains, touts urging a sale at the best price. The smell of gasoline, dust, garbage, and animal excrement started a nauseous wave but then coriander, cumin, and samosas from the curbside food stalls quickly calmed the avalanche. The chaotic scene was contradicted by the brilliance of jewel-colored saris on the women, the setting, bustling, purposeful, so full of life!
Deja vu. The road trip to Jaipur was a symphony of contrapuntal tunes of trumpeting vehicles, urging speed in a grid-locked highway ridden with diversions and potholes, and stalled by cows, dogs and goats, lumbering along with motor traffic. The detour road was narrowed by makeshift truck stops and rest areas in shanty villages that catered to the needs of drivers who slept and rested during the day and drove at night. The major highway under construction since 2009 did not show any signs of completion anytime soon but was getting its five minutes of fame with the upcoming national elections. In the rural villages scattered along the way, women in bright saris harvested the jatropha and rapeseed mustard fields, and the men eked a living from scraps. They lived in unfinished dwellings that were being built as funds became available, and where town halls failed to provide services, so that thrash were everywhere and men relieved themselves by merely turning their backs to the road. In wealthy Haryana, just outside Delhi, gleaming mirror and steel office skyscrapers and posh gated residential developments with names like Princess Park, Nirvana and Park Grandeura had sprouted like mushrooms, to house the skilled workers in booming industries erected in planned industrial parks. In these gated enclaves, the rapidly growing middle class protects its fragile status. There are new millionaires and moneyed developers. They influence the dynastic political rulers. Nobody represents the poor but the poor overwhelms.
I barely walked three blocks on the street where the legend of the Taj Mahal lives, when I was forced to turn and take refuge in the sanctuary of my hotel. In that brief excursion on my own I was accosted by hordes of grimy children begging for food or a few rupees or offering touts of snow globes of the Taj Mahal, at the best price. When I withheld eye contact to ignore their supplication, I was taunted by chants of their imagined Chinese tongue and by their laughter, but then they left me alone. I was still shaking my head in mild disbelief, when I was jolted to attention by the screech of rubber meeting gravel and cement and then I felt a burning gash on my left ankle. A rickshaw just missed running over me but still made a side swept contact, inflicting a slight bruise on my ankle. I was crossing the street and was looking in the wrong direction, as India drives on the left the way the British do. I barely collected myself when I had to give way to a herd of water buffaloes on their way to their spa in the River Yamuna, on which banks the city of Agra was built. I then watched where I stepped to avoid the piles of trash that collected everywhere, and the varied deposits of animal excrement lining my path. Cows lumbered along impassive, and crossed the street with impunity, confident that humans will give way. I was told that there was hardly any cows hit by a vehicle or rickshaw. Rickshaws, the ubiquitous motorized tricycles, crowd the street and criss-cross out of lane without rhyme or reason. A juvenile goat herder was chasing and waving a stick at two run-away charges. And there were donkeys and dogs and a prancing white horse decorated to the hilt with gold tassels and bells on its way to a wedding. A tusked boar was foraging in a garbage pile. Engaged in the same task was an old man in faded red turban and matted grey-white beard grown down to where his clavicles joined at his throat. A woman in bright jewel-toned sari threw her leftover vegetarian meal to a cow. Vendors displayed their goods, from toys to vegetables and flowers, on makeshift stalls robbing the street further of precious space. The air held the scents of the agora and reached one’s nose depending on how the wind blew. One moment you held your breath as the smell of cow dung wafted by and the next breath you took might be the delicious aroma of cinnamon, cumin or cardamon, or the sweet perfume of roses and lilies. But you couldn’t linger in reverie of some of these inviting fragrances as there was always someone insisting on your attention, to purchase something you already declined or ignored. I was looking for a square tablecloth, and the vendor persisted on showing me rectangles. And I felt threatened by the invasion of my physical space. Vendors thrust their wares at my face and followed me closely and sustained their offers longer than what was comfortable.
On the Bhopal Shtabdi express train from Agra on my way to Jhansi, I engaged a baggage handler. By the time I boarded the train two persons were handling my luggage. I gave the main guy his tip, indicating that the two should share it, but the other guy won’t have it. I could argue and I know how to have my way but I was getting weary at this point of this tipping and I let it go. I felt like an ATM machine. The tourist was treated like a cash cow. I was told while shopping, “ You are rich, you can pay this price.” It seemed a tip was expected every time anybody did anything for you, requested or not. The doorman at a restaurant greeted me with a flower. He wanted a tip. Public toilets didn’t provide soap and tissues. You had to tip the nice lady in sari with her toddler who handed those to you. I was at a monument site and a guy standing next to me started to tell me about the edifice, he expected a tip for his unsolicited commentary. These in addition to bellhops and waiters and tour guides and drivers, and tour office representatives. I was beginning to feel abused. But reading the daily papers, I realized this is a way of life. Everybody is treated this way, not just the tourist. To get any service done, you must tip. The practice is institutionalized, it is part of the culture. To get a sought after government job, you must give the right staff a tip; to submit an application, to get an interview, and a bigger tip to land the job. Once you land the job, you may have to continue tipping in order to keep it. A Public Works Department timekeeper amassed millions this way, just on tips. Same goes for any business you want to conduct with any official agency. To get the building inspector to approve your plans to build, you must tip. To get the police to file a report of crime that was committed against you, you must tip. Trucks must tip the highway patrols so they can drive through. Then when you want the rules or law to be bent in your direction, you must tip. A guy cut off the finger of a police officer who was about to give him a violation ticket, which ordinarily could be forgiven with a tip. To make the government work for you you must tip. A farmer drank poison, when the farm bureau officer delayed inordinately to survey his loss for hailstorm damage to his tomato crop, because he failed to tip. And unable to tip, a vigilante women's gang had formed to get the officials in their rural village to file reports of domestic violence and rape, and to turn on electricity. The big politician does this, the littlest guy does this. The politicians insert cash in the newspapers delivered to a voter’s door, a tip. My waiter was trying to convince me to pay cash without receipt for my meal, instead of charging it to my room, enticing me with discount of taxes and hotel service fees. Everyone is a perpetrator, and everyone is a victim, on the pecking order. A bridge over the Chambal River that had been approved for construction twenty-four years ago remains on the drawing board. This would alleviate transportation for rural villagers in three states, but the Public Works Department and Ministries of Environment have not found the time to complete their clearance. Perhaps the right tip has not been offered yet? The courts are busy ordering government agencies to do their mandates.
The country has a very ancient and rich heritage, but it is a very young democracy. Tourism also is still very young, just a little over two decades in development. One could understand how everyone would try to make money off the tourist. Tips are a quick source of cash. The rural poor economy had changed with agrarian reform. It supplanted subsistence farming with cash crop planting. Many small farms succumbed to speculative real estate development and industrialization. The caste system, though abolished legally, still controls village mores. Reforms are disruptive of this society, and change is blocked that will threaten its way of life. In rural areas children are needed to help in the farm so they are not sent to school. Parents are enticed by free breakfast and lunch for the children, reducing their burden of feeding them. And girls especially are encouraged by the promise of a personal bike. In urban areas, children are trained to beg, and often are main earners. Everyone on the street that the tourist encounters is just trying to make a living, the best way they can. The sheer numbers of the poor make getting the basic necessities very competitive. So it’s part of the M.O. to flatter, to be servile, to undercut, trick, or manipulate. It’s about gamesmanship. Why, CEO’s and governments do it all the time. On the street everyone watches out for himself, man, cows, buffaloes, goats, rickshaws, cars. Anything goes, so it’s up to everyone to know. The street is where life is lived and everyone is street-wise. Live and let live. Respect all living things.
And so life goes on, and nobody minds. The street markets are bustling, colorful, so alive, and weddings are celebrated in grand style, as vibrant and merry and full of hope as ever.
On the street in Rajasthan, pretty young ladies dancing to a live band, in brilliant saris of emerald, ruby, sapphire, gold, and amethyst, followed newly-weds riding on decorated white horses. In another, the couple were on a silver horse-drawn chariot, and one at night had huge column lights illuminating the gathering. Arranged marriages are still the norm. Though there are reports of bride kidnapping and abuse of women, the society is very protective and nurturing of women. They are respected as the guardian of the home and manager of the husband’s income. The husband provides and upholds tradition and saves money so he can marry off his daughters well. Thus the cycle repeats and the fabric of life is woven.
Incredible India; vast, complex, a land of contrasts, with desert, plains, snow-capped mountains, and the sea, traditional and modern, friendly and intrusive, secular and democratic, yet for the majority life is governed by religion and tribal law, where women are pampered or violated, the seat of the oldest continuous civilization, spiritual, the origin of four world religions, the center of ayurvedic healing and yoga, corrupt, rich in history and heritage sites, rich in potential, home to 1.2 B people, and also home to the world’s poorest of the poor, amazing, frustrating, numbing, confusing, overwhelming, satisfying, inspirational. Incredible India.
Delhi Jaipur Pushkar Agra Orccha Khajuraho Varanasi Sarnath Kolkata Mumbai