Brightly Colored, silk covered, jeweled women walk along dusty streets. Bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and trucks engage in a fluid dance to overtake one another while a cacophony of horns conduct their dance. Glance to the left and witness an army of thinly appendaged men beating clothes in blessed water behind a sea of drying flags of cloth. Glance to the right and witness perfectly postured, brightly saried women carrying huge bags on their heads as if they weighed nothing. Sounds, Smells, Sights, and Senses collide to merge into a sensation that can only be India.
People always say that you either love or hate India. It’s true…there is no in-between. India is a drastic place – it overtakes you completely and some can’t handle being engulfed. It is unlike any other culture despite being a melting pot of so many. Muslims, Christians, Jewish, Portuguese, British- all have planted their seeds in this land, yet despite these invasions, India has never lost it’s true nature. India is India and no place can mimic or overtake her.
With the population soaring past 1 Billion, India faces many challenges. One is employing this vast population. An unknowledgeable person may look around and wonder why automation has not been more highly employed to achieve such tasks as street sweeping, clothes washing, etc. But with an understanding that everyone needs work, you realize that the lack of automation creates more jobs. Street gutters are plowed by hand. Fields are tilled by hand. Dishes are washed by hand. Hands that need work, hands that need food, hands that need shelter. As highly educated as many people are in India, salaries for most are very low. Even doctors often change professions as the salaries are too low to support their families. College educated people often eagerly take Call Center jobs as they can make high salaries ($250 per month). Yes – you read that correct. A high paying, college level job at $250 per month. The jobs for the uneducated can often be $5 a day or even less, and that is if they are lucky enough to get that job. Many men, leave their families to go work in other areas of the country or other countries so that they can earn higher wages and send money back to their families left behind.
The largest employer in India, is the India Railway System. They employ over 1 million people. To employ this many people, it may shed light on how integral and populated the trains are. Box cars are so overloaded, the doors do not shut at all and dozens of people hang out the doors, their lives perched over the passing railways. Getting an actual seat on the train is so coveted, that people actually watch for oncoming trains and run along the railway before the station so that they can try to grab hold of the train and swing themselves onboard before anyone else. People often die or are injured when they misjudge the train and get trapped under the moving wheels. There are cars dedicated for women so that they do not have be in such close proximity to men. The seats on these cars are also coveted and there are stories of women literally beating each other bloody to try to remove someone from their seat. Trains are one of the fastest transports as roads are crowed in a way most westerns couldn’t even imagine. A two hour commute each way to a job is commonplace- and that is using public transport. The commute would be longer if driving. I truly believe if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere. Lanes are not marked or used. Driving is completely defensive as roads are littered with motorbikes, cars, taxis, and trucks. Each moving and overtaking others constantly. Horns are used as a type of communication. Horn blowing is expected and encouraged. Cars will honk once to let a car know they are behind them, honk another time if they are going to pass, and honk a third time when they pass. Every truck has “Horn OK Please” written on their back bumper. You cannot envision India with out horns blowing. Every minute of every day. Constantly. People are so used to the honking they don’t even notice it. Silence in India is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.
Education is of high importance to most families here. The public education system is poor so any family that can afford it will try to send their children to private schools. Despite school being compulsory to the 10th grade, poorer families simply need the money that children can earn by begging or pandering. So dirty, barefoot children on the streets selling flowers, asking for money, or performing circus acts, is not uncommon.
A home here can constitute a wide variety of descriptions. One home in Mumbai, cost over 1 billion dollars, is over 27 stories tall, and has six floors of garages. 5 people live in this home. Another home consists of a plastic bag stretched over bamboo posts and a cardboard floor. Wealth is relative. Officially, if you have one pair of shoes, one change of clothes, some sort of shelter and have eaten something in past day, you are not poverty level. Even with this description, poverty level is high.
Families often live in groups with women joining her husbands family after their marriage. Moderns Indians are moving away from the age old system of arranged marriages. While arranged marriages are still commonplace, Internet sites for dating are now used, and parents often give permission to allow their children to marry for love if they feel the couple if compatible. Horoscopes are used to ensure the couple is compatible based on the star and plant alignment. Weddings are a huge event, and the brides parents will spend a vast amount of money paying for celebrations that can easily last a full week. A dowry is still often given, but in modern times, the dowry is given to their daughter often in forms of jewelry. Not paid directly to the groom. The dowry is intended to be money to support their daughter in times of trouble. Like every culture, horror stories exist. Stories of the grooms family killing or harming the bride in order to steal her dowry. Stories of women jumping into cremation fires of her spouse by either force or desperation. Stories of women and children kidnapped, raped, or forced into untoward professions. Stories like this can be found in most cultures, but in India, I’m told part of the problem is that the laws are not enforced the way they should be. Too many people, police force paid too little. The lack of enforcement enables the wicked.
Despite these stories, India is a country where one can feel peaceful. Part of this is due to the religion. Indians practice many religions. Hinduism is the most prevalent and has spawned many religions itself (Buddhism, Jainism, Krishna, Zhoraism, etc). Islam is the second most prevalent, the Muslims having conquered this country hundreds of years ago leaving many beautiful structures in their wake (Taj Mahal – yep it’s Islamic). Many of Hindu based religions are very peaceful. The Jains in particular believe in not harming any living thing. They are vegetarians but do not eat any thing where the root is eaten which in turn would kill the plant. So no potatoes, no onions, no ginger, etc. They do not kill insects. They do not take jobs in which they believe harm people so they focus on professions like banking and commerce (I could argue these professions do harm people, but in the Jainism view, these are peaceful professions). Hinduism itself is interesting in that they have thousand of gods. The story behind the gods is complicated at best but much of the mythology is based in science and the point of the stories is to explain practical concepts.
The population of India is so high that they do not bury people. There would be no space to bury all the bodies. Cremation is required and a simple and inexpensive process comparatively to the United States. Bodies are not embalmed. They cremate typically within 24 hours of death with the deceased’s male relatives carrying the body wrapped in cloth to the cremation site. For many Hindus, one of the greatest blessings is to be cremated on the banks of the Gagne River (a sacred river in India). “Untouchables” (a population who has historically done “dirty” unwanted jobs and thus keep to themselves not being integrated into the other castes or levels of society), live on the banks of the rivers with huge piles of wood, creating fires 24 hours a day cremating bodies. Hundreds are cremated daily on these banks, their ashes strewn into the river leaving layers of ashy scum covering the surface of the water. The same water that just feet away, people bath and wash their clothes in.
India is complicated in so many ways. One of the most obvious is in it’s language. There are over 1600 languages in India. Most speak Hindu, educated also know English. Everyone will also know their local language. This is based on region. These languages are often very different, even using different type of alphabet and script. Many are based in sanscript. They are so complicated that using the same term can mean something completely different from one village to the next. An example- in one village the term for mother-in-law meant nephew in the neighboring village.
In Mumbai (the historical and now reinstated name of Bombay), you find throngs of bicycle riders, that carry metal food cylinders. These men are called dabba wallahs. Most cannot read or write. They carry over 200,000 lunch deliveries every day. Each food cylinder is marked with colors and an abbreviation system that the dabba wallahs understand. The food cylinder passes from dabba wallah to dabba wallah across the city to it’s destination. One dabba wallah may touch up to 5000 cylinders a day. The food is actually cooked by the recipients wife or mother in the morning and put into the cylinder. It’s picked up by the first dabba wallah and is passed amongst hundreds of dabba wallah as it makes it way to the final destination point. They have a .99999 success rate- almost perfect. After intended recipients eats, the dabba wallahs follow the same complicated system to return the food cylinder to the original point of origin.
Many people have seen the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire” which exposes the slum situation in Mumbai. With a population of over 21 million and more than 350 new immigrants arriving daily, housing is definitely an issue in Mumbai. Roughly 55% of of Mumbai citizens live in varying level of “slums”. More than 40% of the police force in Mumbai lives in the slum areas- as salaries are very low. A city that struggles with terrorism from their northern neighbor of Pakistan, security is a big issue. You find many metal detectors around major tourist or high traffic hub areas. While police are there, they do not even look at the detectors even when they go off. I received the explanation that they were simply paid too little and lost interest with their job. The city has tried to combat the slum situation by giving the land to some residents in hopes they would build long term structures. What they found happened is that the residents moved out to a new slum area and rented their newly gifted land to earn additional income.
In far south India, the landscape changes as more tropical vegetation, hills, and beaches arise. Food becomes spicier and many men can be found wearing long pieces of fabric (lognie) that they tie around their waste like skirts. When hot or when riding a bike, they fold the cloth in half and tuck it in their waste belt. While beaches are famously touted in Goa and Cochin, they must be in less populated areas or on islands. What we found were beaches littered with trash. So much so you could not walk barefoot as their was broken glass, bottle caps, and other sharp objects embedded in all the sand. The waters of Mumbai should be called the sea of lost flip flops as you’ll see 100s of isolated flip flops floating in the water like little islands.
India truly is a land of contrasts. You can love her or not, but either way, you’ll never forget her. Good and bad, bright and sad, I am truly Glad to know her.