This past week, Jon and I have been playing soccer after work with the neighborhood kids around the office. We play in the middle of a narrow street, bounded on one side by a middle class housing society, replete with Victorian-style street lamps on a stone wall that separates the society from the street. A wrought iron-gate stays open for the cars of those professionals returning home from work and the motorcycles of their teenage sons and daughters driving out for a night on the town.
The iron gate faces off across the narrow street with a little alleyway skirting the cement wall of a few bungalows. Down that alleyway are scores of little one or two room shacks with corrugated iron or tin roofs of a type that are a staple of Indian working-class homes. If the inhabitants were to jump out the windows on the far side of their homes, they would literally be jumping off a steep cliff. During the day, the entire street resounds with the sounds of heavy construction as a new high-rise housing society is built right next to the alleyway. When it is completed, the alleyway will be fenced in three ways between the walls of the bungalows, the wall of the new housing society, and the steep cliff which descends into a large pit. The children from the little alleyway, above which flutters the saffron flag of the Shiv Sena, join with the children from the housing society with the wrought-iron gate to play soccer or cricket each night, monsoon permitting.
There is much of India that strikes the eye and confuses the mind; that is the understatement of the whole trip. Yet, more than any other phenomenon or sight, the thing that gets me every time and confounds me without fail is just how literally rich and poor live side-by-side in India, above all in urban areas. That sheer poverty exists in India is not in itself something that surprises; from an early age I was treated with images of half-dressed children traipsing about in Kipling’s The Jungle Book, orphans being fed by Mother Teresa’s, and emaciated slum boys running from gangsters in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations, but I defy anyone to deny that poverty forms a cornerstone of the perception of India in the Western Imagination. Yet, what nothing could prepare me for was the proximity between those who are well-to-do and those who are scraping by.
The view from the balcony of our apartment is telling of this spectacle. Our balcony overlooks the parking lot of our housing society, which is fenced in by a sheet-iron wall. Beyond the wall, for good measure, is a sewage filled-ditch, filled during monsoon season by torrents of putrid green water. Past this moat, protecting the castle of our staunchly middle-class abode is the dirt parking-lot of the Greenpark Hotel, one of Pune’s finest. The parking lot is surrounded by a semi-circle of cement-walled shacks with a common porch. Shacks, in which each family, on average half a dozen people, reside within a single room, are connected to a series of stables belonging to the Greenpark Hotel. The guests at the Greenpark can enjoy an evening ride on a pony, in a carriage, or in an antique car, merrily driving round the parking lot as the inhabitants gaze out from their dimly lit rooms. On weekends, music blares as the Greenpark hosts wedding receptions and raves, late into the night. During the day, guests can swim in the hotel’s pool as the parking lot children shower with hoses behind a crumbling brick wall that at any rate goes up to their waists, ensuring that the delicate sensibilities of any guest traversing the parking lot will remain intact and unsullied.
In all honesty, it is not the extreme visibility of the extreme income inequality that troubles me. It is the sense, revealed to me in scores of academic textbooks without prompting genuine comprehension, that there exist two distinct Indias, exclusive to one another: the haves and the have-nots. I get the impression, and this is all I intend it to be, that the have-nots are invisible to the haves and that the lifestyle of the haves, seems resignedly to the have-nots to be unattainable.
In my last entry, I wrote of my week in rural Gujarat, where transactions and business were conducted in the single area of the bazaar, where everyone jostled each other in the early evening rush. It was exhilarating. A week later, I went to help represent Lend-A-Hand India at the NGO India 2013 Exhibition in Mumbai.
Mumbai is so far removed from rural Gujarat that I would embarrass myself by trying to compare the two, each is incredible in its own way. But the lifestyle of rural Gujarat is the lifestyle of the clear majority of Indians, over 70% of whom live in rural India. I was at the exhibition with a boy my age, the son of one of the master trainers in the organization. He, like his father, was from a rural township in Maharashtra, and had never been in Mumbai for an extended period of time.
In The City in South Asia, a course taught by Prof. Mitchell that I highly recommend, we read a chapter from the bestseller The White Tiger, by Arvind Adiga. In that selection, a low-caste chauffeur writes of how he would drive his wealthy boss’ wife to high-end shopping malls on a daily basis. He would park the car and wait with the other drivers for their bosses to come back from the shopping. None of the chauffeurs were allowed inside the mall and those who tried, were firmly stopped at the security checkpoint that fronts nearly every shopping mall in urban India. One day, the chauffeur, intensely curious at the lifestyle and leisure of his boss’ class, changes into ‘respectable Western attire’ and furtively enters the mall where he walks around for half an hour in a daze, completely bewildered and entranced by the opulence inside and the customers calmly going about their ‘ordinary’ business.
It was a good chapter, but one that I never expected to be able to appreciate emotionally.
High Street Phoenix, I later learned, is one of India’s largest malls, re-developed from one of Bombay’s famous textile mills that at one point served as the backbone of Bombay industry. The floor, tiled in faux-marble, glistens under the golden light of thousands of incandescent ceiling lights. Each store front, with its name embossed in metal, every railing, every elevator door and every support column, reflects this golden light spectacularly, making it seem as though Midas had touched damn near everything in the mall. If there ever was a smudge of dirt on the floor, it has long since been washed away. The shoes of the shoppers do not track dirt; they presumably have not stepped on any dirt recently which their shoes can track. Every store-front, every wall, is glossy and polished, and why not? Stores such as Hugo Boss, Bvlgari, and Gucci are not to be found behind a windowless counter opening onto a street choked with motorcycles and streaming hordes of people.
I felt horrified and immensely out of place. I had spent a week in a town where if a shop floor was not coated in dust, it meant that business was bad. There is an old poem which starts, “East is East and West is West and never twain shall meet.” It felt as though I had been transported from East to West without any adjoining interval. This mall could not possibly belong to the same country as the bazaar. For that matter, these well-dressed, well-heeled shoppers, with a uniform skin tone that was distinctly lighter than any I had hitherto seen in India, seemed as though they could not possibly be citizens of the same country as the rural Gujaratis from whom I had bought kulfi ice cream not one week before. The son of the trainer, Prathamesh, had by this point turned pale and kept glancing around not in awe but in worry. I didn’t understand his reaction until our third companion, our supervisor Gaurav, leaned towards Prathamesh and said, “ No one is going to do or say anything to you unless you do something wrong. You have every right to be here.” At that point, I realized that Arvind Adiga had captured a genuine phenomenon in The White Tiger.
Economists and journalists love to talk about the ‘New India.’ In coming to India, it was my wish to discover what this New India actually represents. I still don’t have an answer other than that it truly exists. It exists, not only in the form of wealth and globalization, but in the estrangement of it and its occupants from the ‘Old India.’ I am not trying to pass judgment on the inhabitants (though I imagine that some readers of this blog will laugh at this statement) of this New India. I don’t know that it forms a concrete problem with concrete solutions. Privilege and social inequality are in my eyes complex issues that do not deserve anything less than thoughtful and considerate answers, devoid of rhetoric and blame-game principles. As I come out of this trip, I desperately want to learn more, listening intently to the narratives of the many Indias that form this one whole. It is a whole that over these past weeks I have learned to love deeply, in all its chaos and raucousness coupled with serenity and over-whelming openness to me and my comrade Jon.
Come my next entry, I will go into the details of the organization and the work I’ve been doing here. Below are two photos, one of me and the team at NGO India 2013, another of the sunrise at our hostel in Gujarat.