*I wrote this in a very unsettled upset state...things have changed a lot now but I also feel it's important to acknowledge how things were being processed at the time of experience*...
Something happened last night that hit me like a bulldozer. It’s been a long time since I’ve reacted so strongly to something.
Tamara, Dorian, Arving, Lakshya, and Nidhi went to this really beautiful, relaxed place that was like a mini-carnival/circus. It was attached to a fancy hotel. The place had various little stages with chairs in front, and you could sit and watch, and if you wanted, give some money to the performers afterwards. There was a place with traditional Rajasthani music and dance, a puppet area, tightrope walker…and there was a magician. I liked magicians a lot as a kid. I remember going to a few birthday parties, in particular one (funny, I cant remember whose it was) that was at the Old Georgetown Village building above the pool.
Anyway, the magician’s son was there on the side, his helper. When I first saw him, the emotion that ran through me was fear. It was like his eyes were filled with malice. They were like deep black pools, his eyes. Extremely intense. But intense because they were void. It was like falling into a black hole. As I watched, things shifted. There were maybe about 20 people watching the magician, who, by the way, was an excellent performer. Well-dressed middle class Indian kids with their families (mostly their dads). Big smiles. Best Sunday outfits. And the magician’s son with his sneakers full of holes. Watching the same trick for the millionth time. There was no joy or entertainment from his father’s tricks. No. this was work. And watching Dorian – so full of joy, so thoroughly entertained, amazed, laughing. The magician did a trick where he had one pigeon under a basket, and he turned it into 3 pigeons (I was amazed). The kids ran up to hold the pigeons – Dorian did too. And the boy took a pigeon and gave it to Dorian. He smiled a sad, resigned smile at Dorian. And watching these two children, universes apart, a European boy whose mother loves him so much and can provide for him, and sees the value in taking him to faraway lands from such a young age; next to the boy whose father’s job is to bring joy, yet most likely has no joy in his life. Who must come day after day to make people laugh, hundreds who don’t leave him anything, the boy who cannot go to school because there is no public education, because he must help his father. What happens to him? Does he become a magician too? The magician can bring magic to others but his reality has no magic in it whatsoever.
Watching this boy, and realizing that his eyes were not full of malice but instead of sadness, resignation, and defeat, I felt my heart break with an intensity that I have not felt since I was in Bangladesh. I struggled to keep my composure but it didn’t happen. I tried to walk away while the rest of our group was thoroughly engaged; the tears came – but few, and slowly. After, the magician finished his act and the crowd dispersed, but Dorian was mesmerized and he was the only person sitting, front row, captivated by the magician who was no longer performing. The magician asked Arvind if he should do a bit more, and we said yes. And so he did, and the scene was repeated. I was front and center, and tears kept coming. The boy was watching me, I don’t know what level of understanding passed between us but I felt something big happening. The magician finished his act and we moved on. Tamara and Arvind went to the bathroom, Dorian and Lakshya were running around, and I went back alone to the boy. I made him an origami crane, and he was mesmerized. When was the last time somebody did something for him purely for the sake of entertaining him or bringing him joy? I don’t know – it could have been earlier that day for all I know. But with those eyes…
And when I finished, there was a flash of a smile, and the eyes were full of gratitude. And he clasped his hands at his heart, with the crane between them, and said dhanyabad but with the heart of someone who means it. And his father did also, and I clasped my hands and bowed to them, and left, and then the sobbing really began and it pretty much hasn’t stopped since.
What is it that I see in these children that are the forgotten, abandoned ones? Why is it that I see myself so deeply reflected in them? I have two parents that have always cared for me in a million ways. I have never wanted for food, shelter, education, material goods. Am I still so scarred from Papa’s leaving? Am I still so scarred from Mama’s lack of tactile affection? It is unclear what is being triggered but it’s clearly a big issue.
The past 10 days in India I have of course seen astounding poverty, and been upset by it, but not to the point of devastation of yesterday. I have seen far worse destitution, whether it be the legless man on the ramp in Ajmer on the way to the Dargah, or the slum in Delhi adjacent to the Lotus Temple. At least this child has a father, who, although the income may vary tremendously, has a position working at a reputable hotel where there must be regular clients. A respectable job, by all means. But something struck me.
I am not enjoying being in India. People often say that you fluctuate between loving and hating India. One minute you are enamored, the next moment you loathe the country. Well, for me, the loving part hasn’t happened. Yes, there are moments that I have enjoyed – the fort in Jodhpur was breathtaking, and some of the scenery in Ranthambhore was really special. But nothing has made me think, Wow, India, this is where I want to be. On the other hand, many things have made me despise the country. The systems and culture are so far beyond my realm of acceptance that I have been constantly challenged.
In Anthropology, we are taught to try to be acutely aware of normalcy, cultural relativism, and essentially, to understand that things are the way they are because they serve some purpose by being that way. That may be true, but I have been constantly challenged in this aspect for the past few weeks and I am beginning to wonder if it is something I will get used to and begin to understand and accept, or if this is just a major cultural clash for me. I should have been better prepared, considering that I struggled overwhelmingly in Bangladesh. For example, the Couchsurfers in Jodhpur – Arvind and Ramni. I am sitting in Ramni’s house now, but I haven’t even met him yet. He is with Arvind and the 3 girls that Arvind is hosting. There was plenty of room in the car for all of us to do stuff together on Sunday, but Arvind left Lakshya and Nidhi at home and spent the entire day with Tamara, Dorian, and myself. He left Lakshya sobbing, and when I referred to the fact that Lakshya and Dorian would have gotten along marvelously and Lakshya would have had a great time with us, he said, I have tomorrow with Lakshya, and every day after. Except today the 3 Finnish girls arrived and he took them out the whole day. And Ramni is with them, leaving his wife and two girls at home, and I am with them. And that is ok, because to be honest I probably would have more fun and be relaxed at home in this setting, except…what about these women and children? Yes, I understand the beauty of CS, bringing other cultures to your home when perhaps you are unable to go to the other cultures, which is what would be the case in the majority of India. But there seems to be something majorly amiss here, and it is really upsetting me. But what right do I have to complain? I am the foreigner here, the guest, who has been incredibly well received, treated like a guest of honor, fed, given full use of every facility which I may need, and taken around and catered to. So I must not complain, I know. But it is for sure that I am deeply bothered by the things I have been surrounded by in India.