The painful confrontation with difference, and an attempt of reconciliation

During my last few days in India I stayed in Jaipur again, but this time I was by myself.  I loved the city the first time around, and I was happy that I could feel comfortable on my own.  I took pride in the shocked expressions of rickshaw drivers when I successfully haggled with them in Hindi, and I patted myself on the back for not feeling too hassled when I ventured out at night as a single woman.

I had this feeling that after almost two and a half months in India, maybe I belonged in some little way.

A return trip to Jaipur had not been part of my original itinerary, but there I was, six days before the official end-date of my internship, seven before the start of my trip through Kerala with Becky and Natalie.  I’d come to Jaipur because the medical team of International SOS had arranged an appointment for me with the dermatologist at an approved hospital there.  As my luck would have it, I’d noticed a painful boil on my leg that I thought looked suspiciously like a staph infection.   I’d actually had the infection about five years earlier, so I immediately recognized the possibility of staph.  I emailed a photo to my parents and International SOS, and everyone agreed that I needed a consult with a dermatologist.  The nearest dermatologist was a seven-hour car-ride away in Jaipur.

The dermatologist in Jaipur was incredibly dismissive, and he diagnosed me with a generic “boil.” When I asked him why he didn’t want to try a culture to definitively rule out staph, he responded, “It’s not worth it because it’s too messy—the lanced boil will leak on your clothes.  Besides, the risk of secondary infection is too great.”  While I thought his first argument was proof of poor medicine, I actually agreed with his second.  Knowing that the level of sanitation even in hospitals approved by International SOS is not comparable to the standards in the U.S., I’d been hesitant to go to a hospital in the first place.  “Indian hospitals are where you go to get infections,” I told my dad, “not where you go to treat them.”  Oh, how I tortured my parents this summer.

The general surgeon I saw the next day did want to culture the boil, but he required a whole slew of x-rays and blood tests, as well as an overnight hospital stay and a procedure in the operating theatre (all amounting to over 40,000 rupees) in order to do so. I’d spent enough time in hospitals, talking about them, and fearing more visits to them to know that government hospitals are inadequate while private hospitals will squeeze all the money they can out of you.  Despite the caring smile of the head of patient services, I had a feeling she was taking advantage of me.  At this point, I was going home to America anyway.  The amount of days I would wait in Jaipur to receive the results of the culture would keep me from finishing my internship in Bali, so I might as well return home and deal with it with my parents, as opposed to alone in Jaipur (or in Delhi—International SOS’s next suggestion).  I returned to my beautiful hotel that Penn had picked out for me, determined to enjoy my last few days in India as best I could given the throbbing boil on my leg and the imminent possibility of dying alone in Jaipur from a lethal infectious disease.  (Sometimes brainstorming the worst-case scenario with yourself can get the best of you.)

Penn’s hotel was lovely—so lovely that no attempt could possibly be made to eat at its restaurant on any kind of budget, so I ventured out for food.  A man named Yosh was my rickshaw driver on my last night in the city.  As he dodged between other rickshaws, motorcycles, and cars, creating his own lane in the Jaipur streets, Yosh shouted his philosophies on life to me in the backseat, straining to hear over the constant honking and the loud, steady rumble of the rickshaw’s motor.   He told me about his love for his family, and the importance of valuing people over earthly possessions.  When the ride was nearing its end he told me, “I don’t know what it is.  I saw you and I just knew I had to be your driver tonight.”

We approached the driveway of my hotel and Yosh sighed, “Ahhh, the Clark Amer.  I dream of being able to stay there.”  Embarrassed, I made excuses.  “Oh, my school is paying for it. I would never stay there myself.”

His response made me realize immediately the futility of my attempt to identify with him, and I felt shamefully ignorant and insensitive.   “It doesn’t matter who’s paying for it,” he replied.  “You’re still staying there.”

There was so much that made me different this summer.  There were things that I obviously couldn’t escape, like my skin, my hair, and my eyes.  There was also the fact that I didn’t speak the language beyond basic pleasantries.  But there were other things too, and though they were subtler and though they seemed pretty superficial, I realized how inescapably a part of me and my American-ness they were.  I, along with Ali and Sudi, carried a MacBook, while those in the office who had laptops used PCs. I made regular trips to the Falna market to buy jewelry and gifts and sweets without significant consideration of the cost of it all except maybe to marvel about how much cheaper everything is in India than it is in America. When I showed my friends in the office pictures of my friends and family back home, one of them said to me, “You really enjoy your life.”  She told me she was not free to make any decisions of her own.

But what really haunts me, and what has made it so difficult for me to write anything upon returning home, is the fact that apparently my difference made it impossible for me to live in India.   I’ve always been curious about other ways of life, and as a student of Anthropology, I think the best way to understand is through immersion.  When my supervisor indicated that falling ill was a sign of weakness, it was not only offensive, but also devastating.  I’d failed to be Indian.  Dr. Shukla’s father told me, “You’re too delicate for India.  That’s why your forehead is full of pimples.”  I was delighted by the immunity I acquired after my food poisoning scare, and I boldly ate food I never would’ve touched before my hospital visit.  “I now have a stomach of steel,” I thought.  “Try to stop me now.” And the angry fates responded, this time with staph.

If you take a class about the “developing” or “third” world, you’ll likely learn about the uncertainty of life.  For much of the world, life is based on subsistence, never surplus.  The smallest change in the environment can be catastrophic.  Children can trek to school, unsure if their teachers will be there.  A person can carry a loved one to the hospital, doubtful of the doctor’s ability to make an accurate diagnosis.  I felt a small part of that uncertainty this summer.  Ali, Sudi, and I would sit around at night, taking bets on the next disaster that would befall us.  I’d already visited the hospital in Jodhpur, we’d taken our Indian friend to the government hospital in Falna, we’d fought unsuccessfully for a chance to be taken to the field to do research, and we’d witnessed a disturbing act of abuse.  We had this feeling that whatever the next day would bring was uncertain, but that it would certainly be trying.  The bets were on Sudi catching malaria, but in the end, the next crisis was me contracting staph.

Though I do feel that I was exposed to a small piece of this terrifying uncertainty, the experience was largely superficial. When I became ill the first time, I had the means to visit a private hospital.  And when my second health scare proved more serious than the first, I had the connection to International SOS who transported me first to Jaipur and then to America.  I was so embarrassed to admit that I would receive better care in America than I would in Falna, and more embarrassed to admit that that care was so easily within my grasp.

When I remember the fleeting feeling I had in Jaipur of belonging in India, I feel foolish.  I wish I could’ve been tough and I wish I could’ve adapted, but my body made clear what was really quite obvious—I inhabit a crushingly different world than my friends in Bali do.  I think any claims of belonging are disingenuous.  So instead, as I settle back into a world where the first questions I answer are not, “What is your name? What is your caste? Are you married?” but instead “What is your name? What are you studying? What do you hope to do with that degree?” and as I drive down a paved road without any loitering cows in my way, throw a piece of trash away in a bin, or navigate the sparkling clean staph clinic and the public bathrooms with their overpowering scent of Lysol, I will simply think of how different my reality in Bali was, and I will remember that difference forever.

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About Eliana

Class of 2014, double majoring in Anthropology & Political Science. Interned at Educate Girls in Bali, Rajasthan in summer 2012.