Did you see the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Lovely wasn’t it? It was set in one of the cities we visited two weeks ago. A group of desperate British retirees try to make a go of it in a run down building built up by the hopes and dreams of a young Indian man. Its a sweet movie about relationships and aspirations but it has nothing to do with India. Not very much at any rate. It is a Euro-centric story and India’s role is limited to being the disruptor in the western characters lives.
India is a disruptor in Euro and American world views. India is the place where we confront the reality of real, brutal, intense poverty. The kind where a chunk of sidewalk becomes the living room, bedroom and kitchen for a family. The bedding sits neatly folded up along the wall during the day. A decoration of sacred marigolds hangs from the top of the wall and the children play in the corporate planting irrigation system just down the block.
India is the place where camels pull carts down the side of a freeway. India is the place where skinny, short men riding simple gear bicycles pull carts loaded with bricks three deep and twenty across in mass traffic chaos. India is the place whole families balance on one motorcycle. India is the place where wooden carts ten feet long and six feet wide are loaded with beautiful fruits and vegetables and hand pushed from the mass market to the neighborhoods at first light. How far is that journey? How long will he stand hoping for customers?
India is the place where women cut the wheat by hand, the old fashioned, biblical way with a scythe while kneeling before the stalks. Ruth, the stranger, and her mother-in-law are out in those fields somewhere. The wheat lies on the harvested field tied up in classical sheafs that the women will carry on their heads back toward the village. India is the place where the women will beat the harvested wheat with a stick to release the seeds from the stalk. India is the place where women will carry gravel in baskets on their heads at a construction site because their bodies are cheaper then a wheelbarrow.
India is the place where the visitor gets to see all this from the comfort of our air conditioned buses. India is the place where we can step off our bus and enter the marble floored, air conditioned hotel, where we are greeted by smiling women who dot our foreheads with red ointment and offer us refreshing fruit drinks. We sleep in comfortable beds with clean linens and dream of old men stretched out on wooden boards nailed over a rough frame in front of one room cement structures. We dine at buffet after buffet of foods set out on offer. We can overload our plates, take a taste of everything and then leave half the food on the table behind us. Sometimes we had to because India has disrupted our digestive system with all the new flora and fauna of India’s cuisine, spices, and water.
India disrupts our world view that the world is a nice place and hard work will be rewarded. India makes it undeniable clear that it matters where and to whom we are born. That fact is intensely disrupting and it leaves us who had to luck to be born well with basically survivor’s guilt. We know there’s no good reason that we’re on the bus and so many are not. Our bus drove past men on their way home from their office jobs, standing on the side of the highway in high 90’s degree (f) weather waiting for their open air local bus. The look on their faces as we drove past them was simply intense longing. They weren’t angry or envious, they were just trying to figure out how to get on our bus. India is also aspirational.
In Delhi, our guide told us, 10,000 people leave the countryside and arrive in the city every day. Delhi hosts the call centers of India. Delhi is one of the places we are talking to when we are frustrated with our network routers and handhelds. Ten thousand people a day show up and grab a broom or start peddling a bike and sleep out in the open till they have hustled and saved enough to buy a corner of a room, then the whole room and then the rest of the family comes. Barbers cut hair out on the street. Cooks toss food in big woks on the sidewalk and the room behind them is reserved for tables and chairs. Tiny hallways become bike repair shops and then also, the Lexus show room stands next to the Gucci purse store. The roads are choked with cars – not because of the number of people but because each person who can buys as many cars for the family as possible. India wants in on the good life, or at least the air conditioning.
India is influenced and influential. Empires have come and gone in this country, some internal and others from the outside. Islamic mosques of the Mughal rulers carry many of the same designs and markings as mosques and palaces in southern Spain and everywhere in between. Much like how the French palace of Versailles and its hall of mirrors is replicated and expanded in palaces all over Europe. The spices of India has been flavoring our cooking and our baking for generations. Think of the cinnamon bun, the nutmeg in our egg nog, the saffron in our rice. India makes our clothes. Much of what I packed to take to India had been made there, it was a return visit for my dresses. Perhaps they were having a party in the closet of my hotel rooms. The colors of India swirl around us and of course, half our software is programmed by Indian techs. Our vision of peaceful protest comes from India as well as the family living next door to us, and the colleague working in the cubical down the hall. India’s population is young, one of our speakers told us. India needs to be adding ten million jobs per year over the next few decades and right now its only adding two million. India will be moving out into the world. It has to.
Fortunately, India is friendly. Strangers will talk to you in the airport and expect coherent conversation in return even if its a hour past midnight. They will tell you their heart transforming stories of their trips just completed, of their families, of their lives. “If you get lost,” our guide told us, “Just find someone with a cell phone and ask them to make a call. They will,” she said. “They will hand you their phone, their phone in your hands. They trust you and want to help.” One night, while I was struggling with an unexpected climb up a hill, our guide hailed a passing car, and plopped me in the back seat for a lift the rest of the way up. “No problem,” these strangers said to me. “Of course,” they said to our guide. The saris we wore for the conference dinner were not ours but borrowed from an Indian friend in Munich. They were elegant, not cheap but she poured out her closets for us. “Take what you want,” she said.
There are camels who drag carts down a highway and men who carry goats on their motorcycles (pro tip: have a friend help). Everyone jostles and pushes and takes the opening if they can and they honk constantly at each other in warning, “see me, see me, see me!” Yet when the bus driver’s assistant walks in front of the bus, gently asking for passage for our looming presence, the festival crowd made way for us. Patience, persistence and everyone gets where they are going. Still at the side of the road sits the woman, her hand out, a child naked and asleep at her feet but a couple of meters away from our wheels.
India is alive. It is filling up with energy. It is both ancient and modern, wonderful and tragic. Perhaps you’ve seen Lion, the story of the Indian child who gets separated from his family? That story is closer to what I saw but I know I didn’t see everything. How could I? India is big.