Tuesday, Day 5 -
Today is reality day. And the reality of India is poverty. Mile after mile of it. This morning we are scheduled to drive to from Ranthambhore to Jaipur, the administrative capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. So that's roughly 100 miles of poverty on our slate for the day.
We are picked up by Swaroop, the driver who will escort us for the rest of our journey around northern India. We stuff our bags and ourselves in a small white Toyota van. (A few days later we will finally register that every damn car in India is white.) Swaroop is originally from the state of Himachal Pradesh, in the Himalayan foothills. He and his family now live in Dehli. Just like Swaroop, many Indians come to Delhi, India's capital and main northern metropolis, for work. Not all are able to bring their families with them. Swaroop is the first of several people we speak to over the next few days who has three children. India has had a family planning program since the 1950s and can boast that birth rates have declined by 40% since then. But methods were notoriously draconian, including forced sterilization, and there was plenty of resistance and backlash. Modern family planning education emphasizes women's education and rights, including promoting the idea that having a daughter is just as good as having a son. But the average number of children per family in India is still three.
We leave our hotel and swing through the town of Sawai Madhopur. For the first time we see life in semi-rural India during the cold light of day. The roads are dusty and litter-strewn. Motorcycles whiz by us as we overtake tractors, buses, jeeps, tuk-tuks, sedans, trucks, bicycles. If it has wheels, it is on the road; and Swaroop wants to pass it. He points out one truck constructed with spare parts from a variety of other vehicles. The front end is two wheels with a slapdash engine and steering column on top; it looks like the Wonkamobile.
Camels pull carts of people and carry enormous bags of what Swaroop says is animal feed. Well, I guess there would be lots of that, because I see animals everywhere. Yes, the well-known sacred cows wander through the streets, but so do dogs and boars. The boars, rooting in the garbage for scraps of food, seem to be the main garbage collection scheme. There are goats and sheep here and there.
There are also pedestrians everywhere, while jeeps, tuk-tuks, and buses are positively bursting with people. People, people, people.
Many, but not all, of the men wear western-style clothing. Others favor white Nehru suits or the white homemade wrapped clothing that Ghandhi favored, with huge white turbans. There are many, many more men on the streets than women. The women are all home trying to wash the red dust out of their husbands' white clothing, I think to myself.
But the women stand out. They are simply spectacular. Not a single one wears muted colors. Yellow, orange, red, purple, green. And that's just on the scarves. From basket-balancing head to ringed-toe, they are covered in vibrant, rich colors and patterns, which are contrasted against their dark brown skin. Surrounded by dust, filth, crumbling buildings, and mangy animals, they look like they are headed to a party.
Groups of schoolchildren are visible in shabby uniforms. Other children, perhaps too poor to attend school, look even dirtier and shabbier. The small infants go bare-bottomed.
Trucks are elaborately decorated from end-to-end with paintings, streamers, bells, and all manner of bling, in a style my friend Julie has labeled "bedazzled." On the rear the words "Use Horn Please" are painted, so that drivers will honk before passing. Swaroop takes this advice to heart and leans on the horn incessantly. He remains calm, but fidgets with his mustache. Swaroop sports the classic Indian handlebar mustache. I've read that the Indian tradition of facial hair is going out of style, but I notice no such thing in my time there. The variety and volume of beards and mustaches is delightful (although, please Jimmy, just don't do it).
The main commercial building style is a row of up to 20 single-car garage-sized rooms built of concrete. These serve as fruit and vegetable stands, phone shops, convenience stores, barber shops, restaurants. Much of the housing appears to be stick or concrete huts with only three walls. A few Hindu temples are visible. Their architecture is elaborate, even when they are small. Lots of men are sitting around at outdoor cafes (dhabas) or around storefronts, chatting. They gather at the barber shops and those who can afford it treat themselves to a professional shave. I see people bathing at public hand-powered water pumps, and watering cows at the same pumps.
I am overwhelmed by my lack of comprehension of the scenes I have witnessed in just one hour. As we exit Sawai Madhopur and enter a more rural area (some awesome rural shots accompany this story about water issues in Rajasthan), I borrow a scrap of paper from Eleanor and begin frantically writing notes. Now we are in a region dominated by beautiful yellow mustard fields, broken up by the occasional grove of mango and guava trees or field of low, green, bushy plants that I think are beets. More scribbling. Over the course of the day (a five hour drive) we see the same scenes that we saw in Sawai Madhopur repeated in small villages and towns, interspersed with the fields of mustard. The only noticeable variation is that the buildings are 2 to 3 stories in the towns, only 1 story in the villages. Neither the people nor the buildings give any hint of greater wealth; the range seems to be from slightly poor to desperately poor.
So here's the part where I'm supposed to say something profound, but instead have to admit that I still don't fully comprehend what I saw in India. In the end, we spent several days on the road and every ride was the same: bumpy mile after mile of dust, poverty, animals, honking, swirls of fabulous colors, bling-covered trucks, and vibrant people. I have no idea if the Indian people are happy or sad, if the richness of their culture compensates in some way for the lack of welfare. The colors and the swirls of activity stand out against the poor background. Rich me prefers black. I take my own health, wealth, and education so much for granted that I have no idea what I would do without it. Could I wear bright colors (or white!) and thumb my nose at red dust and God(s) and say, look at beautiful me and my beautiful colors?! I would most certainly have less autonomy and die younger, but is that the sum total of my ambition? Live long, individually? Is there something in the crazy chaos of poverty-ridden India that lifts people up in ways that money cannot, or that money subverts, even? Why do they wear the bright colors and bling-out their trucks? What do they see in life that I don't?
Originally, our rides in India were supposed to be "rest days" during which we refueled ourselves for sightseeing. But the sightseeing we did from the car was the least restful time of all, even if we were just sitting on our asses. We didn't doze in the car, we stared in wonder and our minds were endlessly twisting through the whys and hows. Pondering, especially, how so much beauty and so much poverty could exist in such close proximity.One day, Jimmy wondered out loud if we were "using poor people for entertainment," and I assured him that although we were both mesmerized, we were not simply entertained. "Consider it an education," I said, "We both enjoy learning new things and we have learned the reality of India." But now, a few weeks on, we are still overwhelmed by what to do with that knowledge.