I'm in reduced circumstances and relying on gifts and handouts and only one week trips to India which are about as far from tourism as you can get and mostly revolve around various friends crises. So this isn't going to be a lush, detailed description of a Rajasthan tour or something.
I just wanted to post a bit of a ramble because I felt I learned a lot this time round. This was partly due to very funny and frankly talking (to borrow my friend's phrase) by my Indian acquaintances. And partly it was due perhaps to familiarity with my surroundings- you start to see the stuff you didn't see the previous five visits.
Perhaps this is why I felt like things had changed, really changed, in the three and a half months since I was last there. That can't be right, it must just be that I saw stuff I had missed before. But it really felt...different. "Westernisation" (or whatever you want to call it) is really gathering pace. Having previously felt comfortable in a punjabi suit I now felt like an anachronism amongst these trendy young things in their jeans and sweaters.
Perhaps this is what happens when your impressions are like vignettes, snapshots taken over a couple of years, rather than a continuous rolling film. The changes jolt you. My friend pointed out the old road to Jaipur the other day. One lane. Can you imagine? So I started to get a bit edgy, a bit fearful of what's coming. It's like this huge tide coming in but who's riding it and who's getting washed away? And what's going to get lost and what is already obliterated?
I don't know, perhaps it's just me.
The Story of The Rich Punjabi Client and the Two Percent CommissionSome that happened to me last week, and some that I was told. So first off here's an old driver story I was told. If the whole commission thing upsets you you may wish to look away now. Not intending to offend.
Back back back when he drove a Maruti van, my friend took a rich Punjabi client to Jaipur. "Please," he asked him, "Will you stop at this shop? We have a deal where they give me a blanket and two percent commission if I bring customers here,".
This was partly true (there are gradations of truth you know). They did indeed (weirdly) offer blankets to drivers, but the commission was in fact 10%.
The customer agreed, and went on to spend over 2 lakh in the shop on bits of furniture and whatnot. He came out and demanded to see the blanket. The blanket was duly produced for inspection. "OK," said the client, "Now go in and collect your commission."
So my feverish friend - you can imagine his state of mind knowing Rs 20,000 awaits him - runs into the shop and asks them to split off 2% separately. This he places in his pocket. They hand him the remaining commission, a huge wodge of rupees. He looks around- what to do? Where can he possibly hide this massive lump of cash? Finally he looks down, nips briefly to the toilet. Quietly apologising to Lakshmi as he does it, his stash is lovingly cradled in his crotch for safe keeping.
He waddles like John Wayne back out to the car, trying to look as normal and nonchalant as possible whilst apparently suddenly phenomenally well-endowed and in the full flush of male whatsitsname. The client demands to see the 2%, which is produced from a pocket. Awkwardly, legs tucked in close together, he slides into the driver's seat and drives away.
Upon reaching a stop for lunch, the once proudly upright cargo has slipped somewhat, and he realises he is unable to get up with out the whole lot sliding out in an extravagant show of fiscal incontinence. He instructs his customers to please get out- he has a little problem with the car. Once they are out of sight he hastily shakes out his leg until the cash plops out, and hides it under the mat in the driver's footwell, where he can feel it with the sole of his foot any time he likes. It needs repeated blessing afterwards, having been unceremoniously placed on the floor like that.
I ask him why he did not just tell the client that the commission was 10%- he would probably have bought just as much. He frowns and shakes his head "Oh no! I ask [tell] the truth, sometimes customer is very angry," he says. :D
The Story of Dadi, Dada and the Hospital Trip
Anyway, in case anyone is actually reading this, here's story number two, which happened last week. It's long, but I wanted to get all this stuff out of my head and down in writing, so please forgive me. I hope it's a bit interesting to someone, somewhere!
I have been meaning to go to Qawwali for some time. Last week I nearly made it. Nearly. I was in fact in the car on the way when the phone call came, from my best friend, bane of my life, instigator of all kinds of trouble and fun, and the financially incontinent gentleman mentioned in the post above.
"Dada is sick! Serious!"
Dada is his friend and confidante, 55 years old and working for a bank, a wonderful man whose kind hospitality I have enjoyed on several occasions including the evening before this panicked phone call. Dada's house, last year, was a bustling scene of children, grandchildren, neighbours and passers-by, and me, all munching away on pakora and laughing till it hurt. Last spring his rooftop provided my most vivid and precious memory of Delhi, a mosquito-ridden dawn to the sound of peacocks and traffic.
By this February, the house was cold and empty. Dadi and Dada had a blazing row and she had decamped to Himachal Pradesh, taking an entourage of women and children in her wake. One grandson remained, a quiet boy, respectful and well-behaved. He too was feeling bereft, as my friend's son, boisterous, mischievous and endlessly entertaining, had also recently returned home after spending some time in physiotherapy in Delhi. Everyone was feeling the chill of isolation in the Delhi smog.
The night before Qawwali, I had visited to find the house silent, Dada sat shivering by a three-bar electric heater and a pan of hot coals. He was suffering from a fever, sweeping the city during these cold weeks. Yet pakora and chutney was still forthcoming and within half an hour we were laughing as usual. He had finally visited the doctor after repeated exhortations from friends, and seemed confident of a speedy recovery.
Not so. The very next night my friend is shouting down the phone at me, "We must take him to hospital now!"
I can see my evening of Sufi music dimming rapidly.
"Do you want me to come to the house?" I ask. Hearing this, my driver slows to a crawl, awaiting further instructions.
"No! No! Ganga Ram Hospital! Meet me at the hospital!"
This is miles from Dada's house.
"How long will you be?"
"Maybe one hours."
I cut the phone and my hopes of finally reaching Qawwali.
We divert to Ganga Ram hospital, and the fun begins. Thankfully Dadi has returned, ready to make peace, and is able to accompany her husband to the hospital. But she's not allowed in, oh no.
Only one person is allowed in with the sick person. This makes sense, only there is no indoor seating for visitors. Nothing. And it seems to be an unwritten rule here that the men are in charge. Dada's wife quietly accepts that she can't be the one to go inside with her husband, and an unrelated friend must do so instead. At first my blood boils at this (in fact I did have a bit of a rant to my friend) but I am later put right.
A particularly jobs - worthy security guard is on duty and insists that we all - myself, Dadi, my friend's sister (Dada's next door neighbour) stand on the left. It must be the left. In front of the door, blocking everyone's path. He looks me up and down, and up and down again, and again. "Give someone a little bit of power...." I think, as he shoos me against the wall again for no reason other than that he can. I merely wish to see what's happening to Dada.
Dada is being rapidly dismissed, is what's happening. He's running a fever of 100, his pulse is rapid and blood pressure high. A nurse waves away my friend's concerns. "Oh, nothing wrong with him, send him home". It's lucky I was not there to hear this (being, as I was, forced to stand by the door, on the left).
Clearly, favours are going to have to be pulled. My friend explodes out of the ward and we all follow him outside while he makes frantic phone calls. He has a friend who works at the hospital. Please can he make sure Dada is seen?
The ladies remain impassive, sitting contained and collected on a small row of seats outside in the chilly Delhi evening. I am frantic for news, berating my friend for not allowing Dadi in to be with her husband. I ask, finally, what Dada's symptoms are.
"He have all marks on the face, this side," he indicates the left side, neck and up to the hair line, "with yellow blood inside, and itchy, pulling hair out. And he say his stomach is on fire,"
I'm no healthcare professional, but this sounds like an allergic reaction to his medication to me.
"Is he awake?"
I relax and reflect that I probably would not have made a visit to casualty for this, but I say nothing.
Various friends and acquaintances have turned up now, some are driver friends, some are people I remember from previous visits to Dada's house- there's the man who played the flute and his starey mate. My friend's uncle arrives - it freaks me out a bit that he's actually 6 years younger than my friend. We have the makings of a rather fine party, if we had not been outside a hospital emergency room.
An ambulance arrives and I shift out of the way instinctively. No-one else really bothers. It takes a good five minutes of negotiations before the occupant is extracted, and then he sits on his trolley on the tarmac, life-signs machine beeping steadily, whilst further discussions take place. About a quarter of an hour after his first screaming, high-speed arrival, the patient finally gets inside the hospital.
It's cold, and I head back inside to warm up. The tetchy security guard is gone, people are standing undisturbed on the right, and I am beckoned over to Dada's side.
"Look who is here," says my friend, and Dada turns his glassy eyes weakly to me and mumbles, but I don't catch what he says. His face is indeed covered in pus-filled sores which horrify and fascinate me in equal measure. I adjust his blanket and suggest, quietly, again, that Dadi might be a better visitor than I. I go outside to fetch her and we swap places at his bedside.
We reconvene outside. "Listen to me," says my friend, and I do. "Dadi is not understanding how this is working. I have my friend and he can make sure Dada is seen. Before they ask please take out - this means please just leave, there's nothing wrong with him - I have to speak to this one and this one and now I ask to my friend and doctor is coming, you understand?"
My driver, who is waiting with the rest of us, asks me what the system is in the UK. I decide now is not the time to get into the vagaries of NHS targets and their effect on emergency services.
"Well, you come in and you're assessed, and then the worst problem person gets seen first, then the next, and so on," I try to explain the triage system.
"Not like that here," says my driver, shaking his head sadly. My friend nods.
"If I don't have my friend working here, then out!" he says, meaning Dada would have been discharged without being properly seen. I am beyond feeling angry about such things, just grateful we have contacts enough to get him seen. What else can I think at such a time?
By the time the doctor finally gets to Dada, perhaps two hours after admission, he has been shifted into the corridor to make room for new cases. I am ushered to his bedside, to be conspicuously white and rich-looking, in the hopes that this will ensure a thorough examination. I watch as his face, ears and eyes are examined and his medication scrutinised.
Two European women rush in, one carrying a screaming, white-blonde child. They are fast-tracked shamelessly, and emerge mere minutes later with a pink prescription slip. They approach my friend asking for a pharmacy and he gives directions. They have no Hindi, and my friend's Uncle goes with them to help, and as a fellow white person it's felt a good idea that I go too. They ask us again and again who we are, why we are helping them.
"I'm just here with a patient," I finally reply, "And he is here with me. We saw you were in need of help so we are helping". They are profusely thankful, but I am left with an unpleasant feeling. I have felt this mistrust before, this assumption that people in India are not genuine, that they must "want" something if they help you, rather than giving out of the goodness of their hearts. Maybe I misinterpreted, but that's the feeling I got.
We locate the pharmacy and prevent the security guard from locking the access way so they can get through. Later we see them again, the child this time walking and with no tears, which was wonderful to see. They thank us once again and there are smiles all round. Dada has still to receive his prescription.
The list, when it arrives, is long. I peer at the notes, trying to decipher both doctor's handwriting and medical jargon. He is indeed allergic to his medication. I make out that he has some kind of abscess in addition to the facial marks, internal reaction and fever. They have prescribed about eight different medications, one of which is an ointment for the facial marks. The pharmacy has only two of the prescribed medications in stock. We collect these and drop Dada at his house. He groans every time the car jolts on a rough bit of road. Nobody speaks. I reflect that we have gone from him being dismissed, told to go home with nothing, to a list of 8 different medicines. All because somebody knew somebody who knew somebody.
I am aware they have given Dada two injections, but nobody seems to know what they are. I guess one may be a steroid, but the other? Nobody seems to know or care what these medications are or what they are for. I have had this before- there are no notes with your pills in India. I want to know exactly what I'm taking and what the contraindications are. I speak to my friend.
"Does Dada have a regular doctor?"
This is met with blank incomprehension.
"A GP, a same doctor to see again and again, seen before and after, all the time same doctor,"
I try every single combination of English to try to get the message across.
"Well," my mind is racing, "Who prescribed the first medication?"
I splutter. "But, but he must NOT have this same medicine again!"
"No, really, it's really important that somebody makes a note of this. Keeps a record. He can't be given the same medicine that made him sick! How will another doctor understand? Does he not have any notes? What's going to happen next time?"
"Oh, yes, is very important. Dada will remember medicine name," says my friend, as he leans over, turns on the car stereo and begins to sing along. It's midnight, the streets are empty and we wind our way back to Paharganj.
The Story of Rohit, the Office Space, and White Prices
The final story I have to tell this time is not an easy one for me. I could tell you about the freezing cold hotel with the dreadful chocolate brown bathroom tiles. Or perhaps the time I turned on the car's air-conditioning, unused in some months, and sprayed us all with dust. I could tell you about the Nehru Planetarium and its wonderfully old-fashioned display.
But these are not the stories I want to tell. I want to get into what is uncomfortable territory, and maybe a place that won't make me many friends. Perhaps I will come across as a terrible, nasty person in this story, or at least a stupid one. I hope not. This is my experience as it was, and you are welcome to comment on it.
I am in India, in part, on a reccy- looking at possible office space for my friend who I am going to call Rohit because "my friend" is getting too cumbersome. His friend Ravi has sourced a potential rental office through that bizarre network of contacts everybody seems to have - this person is this person's uncle who works for so-and-so in that place with whats-his-name's brother ... that kind of thing.
We pitch up at the arse-end of Main Bazaar, Paharganj, just before it disgorges its slightly dodgy contents into Chitragupta Road. There is a temple on one side, and a ramshackle row of shops on the other, those tiny units about the width of four people standing shoulder to shoulder, their roofs an unsightly mess of adverts and hoardings. One is a mobile phone shop, run by that instantly recognisable brand of middle-aged Indian entrepreneur. He is replete with paunch, mustache, and machine-gun rapid speech switching between Hindi and English for my benefit. The shop takes up the first third of the depth of the property. We squeeze through a gap barely a foot and a half wide, between the counter and a steep set of steps up to a second level. Behind the counter there's two to three metres of dead space, and then, right at the back, for no apparent reason, what must be, surely, the world's smallest office. Clad in wood, seventies style. There's not even space for a door. There's room for one person. If they keep their elbows in. It would break all the European health and safety regulations about the minimum size for a workspace several times over. It's miniscule. I try not to look disappointed.
Earnestly and with expansive gestures the shop owner shows me that the "dead space" behind the counter would also form part of the office, extending it by several metres. This makes things more palatable - at least four or five people could exist here without having to break limbs. There's still the issue of having to contort oneself under the steps to get back here. And how on earth is one supposed to know the office is here? From the front this is a mobile phone shop. But Rohit is transported in one of his fits of wild enthusiasm. There is also space upstairs, I learn. This proves to be a windowless, cobweb infested attic unsuitable for human habitation, with a roof barely high enough to allow access to the stumpy Rohit, who's smaller than I am. Hes in paroxysms of pleasure re-imagining the space as a bustling office. I am observing the damp patch and the low, low beam running across the centre of the space which he assures me would be removed and I secretly think might be structurally important.
There are protracted discussions in Hindi taking place while I stand and get stared at by the young boys behind the counter. I never get used to the staring, it's a failing of mine. I merely fight the urge to stick my tongue out at them, knowing that this will probably mean, or be taken to mean, something quite different from my intention.
I have become quite accustomed to silent waiting while the men discuss things. Since I am always consulted afterwards I dont particularly mind. It turns out that since my white ass turned up on the premises, the asked-for rent on this space has doubled. I feel a prickle of resentment and anger. I am far, far, far from rich. I am, right now, the poorest I have been in many years, but I am white, so the rent - which, rather importantly, I would have nothing to do with paying - is doubled.
It gets worse. In Jaipur we are prevented from eating together in my hotel room, Rohit and I. It is not allowed for unrelated white women and Indian people (read Indian men) to share the same space in this particular premises, even merely to eat a meal. I know full well why this should be somebody sometime got ripped off or raped, and the police probably barged in with a million questions and the owner decided it's not worth it. Rohit, known to the owner of this particular establishment for years, takes the news quietly, keeping his embarrassment bubbling under. After the rent-increasing incident earlier that same day, my worst proclivities- to stubbornness and righteous indignation- are writ large. I refuse to eat another bite; I demand to leave, immediately, loudly. In the car I rant and rave, poor Rohit - distressed at my distress- plaintively asking "What I can do? This is rule and regulation!".
"Just listen, and agree with me," I tell him, "This is always the best plan with ladies."
Then I continue with my tirade.
How dare somebody decide for me, a grown woman, what I do with my life? With whom I choose to fraternise?
How dare somebody imply with their rules that Rohit- whom these people know, don't forget - is a cheat and a liar?
This rule robs me of freedom of association, it tars all Indians with a "cheat and liar" brush and all foreign people with a "gullible fool" one.
Segregated for my own good, whether I like it or not.
I pinch my pallid flesh, still scarred from last year's mosquito frenzy, "And it's all because of this" I say, "This colour".
Rohit tries to placate me: "No, it's because of your nationality,"
"Bullshit! You think if my skin was brown they'd care one jot that I was a British tourist?" I retort, crossly. He smiles and shrugs. I'm right. I continue, "In fact, it has nothing to do with me being a tourist, either. I could have lived and worked here for years, known you for a decade- the rule would still have been enforced. It's skin colour, pure and simple,"
We drive in silence for a while, and I pinch my skin some more, swearing under my breath, mind racing, going over and over the implications, the feelings of indignation, the reasons why this rule is in place. Segregating people like this, unilaterally, unthinkingly. It's like giving in to the scammers, it's like saying India isn't safe for tourists, it's disrespectful to Indian men, it's disrespectful to foreign women, it fosters mistrust...
"There may a problem. But this rule, this rule will never be the right answer to that problem," I say, finally. "It can't be".
I drive prices up by being white. There's a dual-menu system in place at some restaurants. Brown skin one price, white skin another. I am reliant on Rohit to call them on their crap and get us the same food for half the price. But now this is being applied to things that I am not going to pay for- rent to be borne by my Indian friends is doubled due solely to their association with a white person. I cannot sit in my room and eat a meal with a friend, even when that friend is well-known to the hotel owner. I am the wrong colour.
I feel a helpless desire to be brown, to change to blend in. My body is wrong. The frustration is overwhelming. It feels like nobody sees me, not really. They see the carrying case, a sack of pale skin, and into that they pack assumption after assumption, mostly of wealth, but also of naivety, gullibility, and other things. Extra rules apply to this skin; different, punitive rules.
For the first time in my life I am truly aware of my race. In all my years working for equality, in government and in the voluntary sector, I had never really, truly comprehended what unequal treatment might feel like. For the first time in my life I am beginning to understand racism.
I am also aware of some of the benefits white skin brings with it in India. In any case, it's just as odious.
Latest comments for An unvarnished account of my travel experiences in India - Part One
- Join Date:
- Mar 2007
whether married or not, mixed races or not, will be given rooms in hotels to stay in most places. It will be most of the time assumed they are 'married'.
It is casual visitors to whom I am referring in that post, and whether allowed in the guest's room or not depends very much on the hotel's policy. And your words re coming to India to f**** Indian girls are far too strong - there is no such policy at all.
- Join Date:
- Jul 2006
- not on this forum
- Join Date:
- Apr 2009
- Join Date:
- Dec 2008
- New Delhi
Living in Canada, I was so up tight, running around, annoyed with everyone and just tired all the time. I was so busy or out right tired I never had time to think of others, I guess I only worried about myself. When I came to India the first time, I went home so ashamed and relized I did not have the quality of life I always wanted, I was too tired to relize I was unhappy. When I moved to India the first time, I learned to be more present more relaxed in life, I still get tense with things I cant control, but its only fleeting for a short time then I relax again. I think this is the greatest lesson India taught me, just to be more laid back, enjoy, the worlds way too messed up without me adding negative energy to it!
- Join Date:
- Sep 2005
- White Plains, New York
Just moved some of Karuna's brilliant writings into an article. There are more posts in this thread that deserve to be articles as well.
- Join Date:
- Sep 2005
- White Plains, New York