Just hours into my first visit to India and already I am being pelted with stones by a gang of street urchins. Truly, I have hit the ground running. Trotting briskly, at least — these little bastards are relentless.
This visit is a long-delayed event, occurring at a time when world attention has been focused on the country for unfortunate reasons. The Delhi bus rape and murder has brought attention to the unequal status of Indian women, even as violence in the Kashmir region reinforces the perception that India and Pakistan have the potential to top the global hot spot list at any time. By comparison my own issues have been happily minor. But the welcome, at least, was less than warm.
I set out to explore the neighbourhood surrounding my Delhi hotel, wandering through the Chennae Market and the lively Gaffar Market before ending up... I'm not really sure. Not for the last time on this trip I found myself in a neighbourhood that appeared to have been recently bombed from the air. As I had been encountering and photographing lots of happy, enthusiastic kids along the way I thought little of it when another gang crowded around — scruffy boys of about eight or 10. "Ten rupees 10 rupees 10 rupees," they chorused. Then one of them reached up and lightly smacked me in the face. Another grabbed at my bag. I made a feint at them to chase them off — a mistake. It meant war. As I turned to cross the busy street a stone hit my cheek. They dashed off as I turned, so I crossed the road and continued on — only to get another stone in the neck, then more bouncing off my back and shoulders. They were following me. Several blocks later they were still on my trail. These weren't urchins — they were little Terminators. I quickly hailed a bicycle rickshaw, negotiated a price and hopped aboard. The driver turned to head down the street but my tormenters weren't done. The leader ran alongside the rickshaw, pelting it with stones. Incredulous, the driver stopped the bike and gave chase. After making them back off a respectful distance, his vigorous peddling left them in the dust.
Hello Delhi, indeed. I'm sure the Beatles got stoned in India too but they probably enjoyed it more.
Many of the interactions experienced as a lone foreigner on Indian streets can be understood only by imagining that you are wearing a giant foam Mickey Mouse suit. Some children gape, some seem terrified, kids of a certain age want to punch or pull at you, others want to pose for pictures. But it's payback, in a sense, given the vast divide that still separates a fortunate global traveller such as myself from the tough realities of everyday life in India.
'Anything would be better'
As for more meaningful exchanges, they do happen when a visitor is blessed with the right congenial companion in a train compartment or cafe. But the divisions here are more obvious than the connections, and this holds true for Indians too. If the tourists are often estranged from the Indians they encounter it is not so different from the tremendous divisions cleft between Indians by caste and economics. First and Third Worlds live side by side in India everyday, tourists notwithstanding. Staring out the train window at a Delhi slum is no less alienating for the young Indian bank manager seated across from me — she's just more blasé about it.
Her name is Sonali, and aside from giving me plenty of tips on what to eat in Jaipur — "Look for golgappa" — she talks about modern India with a mixture of pride and impatience that sometimes shades into anger. "For every $100 of GDP there is at least $10 of corruption," she says. "Politicians have Swiss bank accounts. There is a revolution coming, I think."
Aren't you worried about what a revolution might bring, I ask? She waves her hand. "Anything would be better than this," she says.
Sonali is skeptical about the lasting effects of publicity over the Delhi rape and murder case. "This happens all the time," she says, "all the time. After the publicity dies down this case will drag on like the others. It will be forgotten."
Even when education and relative social status are accounted for, personal interactions here are fraught with another level of unpredictability lent perhaps by culture or, perhaps, mutual unfamiliarity. One day on the street in front of my hotel in Jaipur I am sipping the local street version of a cappuccino — essentially foamed milk and Nescafe. The Jaipur courthouse is steps away, and I am standing with a lawyer and another man. "How old are you?" asks the second man. I tell him. "Wow!" he says. "Nice body!"
The lawyer nods in agreement. His friend then reaches out and cups my left breast. "Good!" he enthuses. "And six-pack too, yes? You are married? No? How many girlfriends?"
Just then a cart comes down the road, pulled by a camel. "A camel!" I note helpfully. The lawyer then makes a remark I don't quite catch, which makes both men erupt into whoops of laughter. I am pretty sure he was comparing my breasts to the camel's humps.
The lawyer points to his friend. "He is unmarried too," he said.
You don't say. Well, it's been fun, but I really must gulp the remainder of this scalding hot beverage and be off.
'That is your problem'
Negotiating a few odd personal interactions is not the main priority for a visitor here. More pressing is going three blocks without getting killed. It's a toss-up whether two feet or three wheels are more perilous. An auto rickshaw trip (a.k.a. tuk-tuk) is a remarkable ride, although if it happened at Disneyland you could probably sue for millions. On Indian roads everyone is engaged in an endless game of tandoori chicken. Nobody wants to give an inch, everyone is leaning on the horn, everybody is crammed together like sperm in a test tube, and just when you don't think there's space for another vehicle your driver suddenly hits the brakes as a rambling cow lurches in from the left. Why not? At least their horns are the silent type.
Sometimes the confusion pays dividends. Today I was on a bicycle rickshaw passing through one of the Jaipur city gates. Just ahead was a sort of cargo bike with a flatbed full of burlap sacks. My driver scooted up behind it and, reaching down to a hole in one of the burlap sacks, pulled out a handful of the contents — peanuts, which he then offered to me. Air Canada doesn't even do that on domestic flights anymore.
India, as Indians love to point out, is the world's largest democracy. Yet being here can be like gazing into the abyss, an alternate reality of ultimate chaos — things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and all that. Understandably, such talk can make Indians rather defensive. Some, like Shankar, whom I met outside a Delhi temple as we watched a group of poor families receiving leftover temple offerings, will lecture on the failings of the West. "You no longer believe in God," he told me. "That is your problem. So your families break apart."
But others will make the simple remark that I hear from a shopkeeper in Udaipur as I stand on the stoop of his store, squeezed over by an astounding crush of people and smoke-belching vehicles that jam a narrow lane created long before the invention of tuk-tuks and Toyotas. It's a line that acknowledges the near-constant chaos and difficulty while implying that, after all, things do work out well enough — a line delivered with a shrug after the man takes note of my incredulous reaction to the traffic jam playing out before us. "This is India," he says.
Steve Burgess, who writes a regular column for The Tyee, has just returned from India and other destinations. You can find his first article on Bangkok in Pique's March 7 issue.