Half a Cup of Tea
[This is a guest post by Kirsten Wallerstedt. Kirsten is a masters candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. She studies international economics and politics, and, has an interest in India. Recently, she visited India and below is a free-flowing note on her experiences and thoughts.]
I went to India to visit friends, and ended up with a new perspective on life, society, history, and humanity. It was my first time in South Asia, and what I knew about India was limited to superficial topics like Gandhi’s non-violence and the large population.
I lived with my friend and her family in Chennai. I spent early mornings with her grandmother since we were the only two awake. Our discussions were thought-provoking and inspiring. We started by discussing the things I knew before I came to India: dowry and the caste system, poverty and the booming economy. Then we moved on to the larger issues.
Each morning we woke under the fans to the sounds of birds squealing, even in the city. The echo of honking horns was distant enough to not be noticed. We shared The Hindu daily paper, the grandmother did the crossword, Meenakshi (who worked for my friend’s family) served us tea and coffee and made the white-sand design in front of the door, sweeping the patios with a stick broom. At 8 a.m. breakfast was served – always something hot with spices like curry and patkis.
Always there was tea. Boiled water and milk with sugar. Always half a cup. Even on the plane when I paid 50 rupees for my tea, it was half a cup (maybe this was due to turbulence, nonetheless, it seemed a pattern).
East vs West
The grandmother explained Hinduism– the gods and the values. I was particularly fascinated by the contrast with the West, with the ideas I was raised with: go after your dreams; you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough; this is the one life you have; be yourself. In Hinduism, the grandmother explained, there is no concept of the self. Here in India, she said, time is circular. For the Westerner, time is linear and they push forward towards a certain end. Here, there is a sense of the vastness of life, of eternity. The poets understand this, she said.
The many contrasts with the West struck me throughout my journey. On the plane connecting through Dubai to Chennai, I was the only white person on board, and there were only two other women – both traveling with families. The men in India generally ignored me, except occasionally struck up a polite conversation and mentioned their relatives in the U.S. Most asked if I was coming to study. Clothing is more conservative for women, almost all the women cover their shoulders and wear saris, street traffic is diverse and unpredictable, and there is a pervasive sense of history and tradition alive and well throughout the nation.
Culture & Politics
At meal times, the family had impassioned debates about modern Indian politics. I lived with three generations: my flatmate from Fletcher, her mother, and the grandmother. The mother calls the grandmother by her first name, per the grandmother’s progressive request. The debates at this time often centered on Anna Hazare and the anti-corruption movement – most people just follow him without knowing what he really stands for, and, are his demands even rational? We discussed the corruption in politics and law enforcement.
The discussion of marriage would come up. The mother wishes the daughter to marry soon, tries to introduce her to worthy Indian men. The mother adheres religiously to the Hindu horoscope. The horoscopes of the boy and girl must match, otherwise the union cannot occur. The daughter argued with cases that prove this untrue. The mother explained to me that in India often a marriage to an uncle or cousin is preferred, and at this another debate erupted with the daughter over the propriety of this practice. Just one household in India, so much debate and discussion. No wonder that the country is rolling forward.
Everywhere I went throughout India, I was met with fervent activity. You can feel the growth, you can sense the force with which individuals and the country as a whole are hurtling forward into their own futures, searching opportunities, selling, bargaining, pursuing education and advancement. My friend lamented that for every job you apply to, there are equally-qualified Indians you must compete with. The cities have a sense of potential and forward motion. It’s something that you don’t feel in the US anymore. The cities are growing, everyone is on their way somewhere, millions of motorbikes mix with cars, buses, small trucks and bicycles. Each strata of the economy is moving.
Media & Social Movements
During my stay, I was also met with Anna Hazare protests everywhere I went. From an auto rickshaw in Bangalore, along the rural roads outside Agra, to thousands amassing, chanting happily, around India Gate in Delhi. Every day the front page gave the latest updates, outlined the governments’ missteps, rallied the cause. The TV news headline asked, “Are you with Anna?” The news in India is roundly criticized for being sensationalist. I enjoyed the change from my Financial Times and NPR, and relished the provocative news media that seemed to be full of analysis and critique. At night we watched the trivia show, the one featured on Slumdog Millionaire, and the daughter and mother competed to yell out the answers first; they were always correct.
My friends’ family might be considered middle class. Her mother is a public servant, the head of an auditing division for the government. She has a driver and a servant, like most upper class Indians. Our meals were all cooked and cleared by Meenakshi, the floors were cleaned, the outdoors swept, the laundry done. As an American, it felt like an unusual situation. Our legacy of slavery means we are raised with such antipathy toward servitude that it is an adjustment for me to get used to a person serving a family wholly, catering to their every whim. Upon reflection, though, I realized that Americans do this too – just not in the homes I was raised in. And in a country of such disparity, it is only logical that those with education and money will provide employment for those without.
The Value of Life
On my visit I was spared witnessing the begging and poverty that reins in the notorious slums. One image burned into my mind, however, is that of a one-legged man – like a pole with two arms – hopping between cars in Delhi, asking for change. I was slightly aghast, but my friend seems hardly to notice. “He’s obviously on drugs,” he noted.
There is a greater sense in India of kind of a predetermined destiny – you are born into a place in life, and that is your lot. This life, after all, is only temporary, and we each of us become a part of the greater universe when we pass along, or our soul returns into another body, to live life anew. Along with the sense of the cycles of life, came a shocking (for an American) lack of respect for life. Maybe this is cultural; maybe due to the extensive poverty; maybe due to the fact that a country with over 1 billion people no longer values each one. My bus driver on a two-day tour through Jaipur and Agra sped recklessly, clashed and raced with other drivers angrily, oblivious to the risk of 42 lives that were in his hands. Three days later, on the front page of the Hindustan Times, a small paragraph related that 10 people died on a bus when another driver, after a bout of road rage, doused the bus in oil and set it aflame. My friend doesn’t bat an eye. This kind of thing is so common, she said.
This contrasted starkly in my mind with the respect paid to animals associated with religious practices – cows and many living beings – which are greatly respected and not killed when it can be avoided.
As I prepared to leave behind my first experience in India, I was most impacted by the dualism of a country: rich and poor, and the powerful mix of the traditional with the modern. Democracy is loved, but the people struggle to counter the now endemic corruption in their politics and police. Dowries are now illegal, but if a girl dies within 7 years of her marriage, it is presumed to be a dowry death and the in-laws are presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Untouchability is illegal and caste system frowned upon, but the reservation system for universities reserves room for certain castes. It is an affordable country for a foreigner, but inflation is on the rise and prices especially in booming cities have been skyrocketing.
Sadh, one of the many Indian gurus, says that in your life, if you don’t do what you can’t do, there is no problem but if you don’t do what you can do, that is a tragedy. Spiritual leadership is prominent here; even the most modern and logical have a guru that they follow. From India, for now, what I learn that I can do is to place a higher value on spirituality, tradition and history, and to continue to develop intellectually and find peace amidst the craziness of the world. India made me realize that in contrast to the pressures I feel in America, for now, I don’t want to seek to have an impact on the world, as we are often urged in our American education. Instead, I have realized that I still need the world to have an impact on me.
There is so much that a Westerner can gain from the more ancient eastern cultures and values, and so many fascinating contrasts to watch evolve. This history is full of exotic stories of kingdoms, palaces, astronomers, the birth of religions, and the modern India is still fully immersed in that history, amidst growing economy and leading fields of technology, innovation, and communication. There is so much more to be learned about life and the self in India than I ever feel in the US. I hope to return for a longer period of time to do more learning and growing, and for many more conversations over half cups of tea.