April 20, 2010


As we walk down the street, early morning, we pass the poor whose home
is merely a tarp and a square of concrete. It is nothing new of
course, I see these slum folks along practically every street. My host
mom, an Anglo-Indian, comments, "These people. Look how they live!
Look--those children!!" she says with disgust. "They sleep under those
tarps, they even make babies under there!" She doesn't seem to
understand when I explain these are the poor people we help, this is
why I came to India, this is what I want to do with my life. She is
silent. As if, you know, who cares about these people? They're the
urban barbarians. This Christian woman with so much seeming compassion
really has none for anyone but her own kind. "You won't find my people
among these. I am mortified at her lack of empathy. But then again,
can I blame her? In a society where literally millions dwell on the
streets like these ones. Can she realistically expand her biologically
estimated 100 member capacity of humans that she knows as her own kind
to accommodate all of them? With such visible destitution I imagine
you become desensitized after a lifetime, or less, or if you even had
been sensitive to it in the first place. But what I can't condone, is
the dehumanizing treatment given to this caste of people. By these
people I mean the water-fetchers, rickshaw-drivers, chai wallahs, shoe
shiners. I see it when the water man comes just 20 minutes too early
for Dola, she screams as if he has made the most horrific unforgivable
mistake. He forgets to come the second time in the day, she scolds him
for his absentmindedness. Today on our walk back, her feet are
hurting, she wants to take a rickshaw. I haven't been able to allow
myself to ride the human horse until now, since I have no other
choice, with no knowledge of the area. We board the contraption, a
seat high up above 2 gigantic wooden wheels. The axel is attached to
the handles pushed by the driver, who holds them firmly in his thin
arms. His thin back is barely clothed by the white shirt which is
still stained pink from dye from Holi, a festival from over a month
ago. I imagine a passenger throwing colors on him in entertainment
while he carried them helplessly with no opportunity for retribution.
The driver darts across traffic, being nearly clipped by a bus and
then a tram twice as he escorts us to our home. As I sit upon the
throne looking out over the street from what feels like a majestic
view, even I begin to feel entitled simply due to my height and not to
mention the strange situation of being towed by another human being. I
become irritated at every halt, impatient at his slow speed, annoyed
at his impoliteness. My ride above Kolkata's traffic also makes me
feel, (unjustifiably), "above" them as well. As I descend, I am
disgusted at my own pleasure at the luxury ride, and moreso at my
ungrateful and selfish thoughts. I ashamedly pay him the 10 Rs. I
would have given him 100 for this experience. I want to thank him for
his work, for saving my legs the walk, for directing us safely through
traffic. But hesitate, as I realize that such kindness is not
culturally appropriate. It is not proper to sympathize with the lower
people, best to leave them to their work and you to yours. Best not to
get too close to them. Best not to be too polite or they'll get lazy.
Best not to over pay them or you'll ruin the market and spoil them.
What sordid disgusting people, can't even do their job right. We
coldly depart with no words to the rickshaw driver; only a silent
exchange of cash reduces our entire interaction to the commerce that
dominates all life in India. I return to my comfy bed, in my home
where water, bread, and cooking gas are brought to me. Where someone
cleans up after me, and sometimes even cooks for me. And I wonder,
But perhaps she will ask, why not?

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