August 2005
Home   |   Argentina & Urguay  |   Egypt  |   India: Ugh! (the beginning)  |   India: Archive |   India: Current  |   E-Mail Me

Thursday, August 11

I am now staying with my aunt in the lap of luxury and have embraced the bubble as never before. I just can’t get enough of the air-conditioning and wall-to-wall marble (including in the bathrooms though my bathroom had no water this evening) and have not left the house in two days. Though one of those days was slept in deep slumber. I don’t even know what the weather has been like.

It is very tempting to ensconce oneself in this sort of comfort, especially after weeks in non-air-conditioned rooms where I have provided many a mosquito with a hearty meal. Fortunately, when I start work, I am sure I will be forced to leave these rarefied surroundings, so I am not too worried about indulging a little bit at the moment.

The only fear I have is that I might starve to death amidst all this luxury. There is very little food in the house (my aunt is away and my other cousin, her daughter, doesn’t eat) so I have been living off bread and honey. But now the honey is finished.

There are two girls who work here (they are from Jharkand, which used to be a part of Bihar) but every time I try to address a query towards them, whether about food, laundry or any other topic, they lapse into a fit of giggles and are unable to respond. But they seem to be able to speak with each other quite normally. Fortunately, today they left the house for three hours, supposedly to buy food. So perhaps some victuals will result from this outing.

Today actually, I did manage to have a conversation with the two girls. I was trying to find out what other languages they speak, in order to ascertain if this might be at the root of our language difficulties. Each speaks a separate language from Jharkand, from their own villages, and then they have another language that they speak to each other that is not Hindi. The older one that I was mainly chatting with told me that they are Christian, but even so each lives in a village inhabited by people of the same jaat (caste) and would not intermarry with others. For example, one of them said, they wouldn’t intermarry with the ironworkers that live near their village, even if they are Christian. This was interesting given my new-foun interest in caste, but also confusing.

the rules of handling panhandling

On the few occasions when I have been forced leave my surroundings (to sign contracts, go to the bank) I have tried to trickle-down my recent good fortune in getting a job by giving money to beggars, which I was not doing initially, even though I came equipped with a little bag of change accumulated over the years for this very purpose. I’m not sure why I was not giving, except that I felt vaguely embarrassed to roll down the window and incur the wrath of the driver by breaching the sanctum sanctorum of the air-conditioned car.

But I think partly the problem is that I have not yet developed a way of dealing with beggars here, which I sort of had in New York City. I'm sure everyone does develop some sort of internal system on the basis of which they decide to give or not give, since it’s not possible to never give or always to give.

Well, I did try that in Pondicherry, outside a church to see what would happen if I actually did give at least one coin to everyone who asked me for one, and as one would have expected, more and more people came out of the woodwork, running out from behind trees to partake of the largesse. I ran out of money just as a very old crippled man approached me, which was very sad, as there was no equity to my distribution of the money.

In New York, I always thought of panhandling as a sort of form of direct progressive taxation. I never really understood the premise behind the idea that I might be “encouraging begging.” I was giving to people who were already asking for money, not to suit-clad people heading to Wall Street. If they could have done something else, wouldn’t they have? Periodically I read news articles about how much money beggars are making, but I can’t bring myself to believe anyone chooses it as a career.

I also never really understood why you should not give money to someone because they might go and spend it on alcohol. If you are in that terrible state of living on the street and having to ask strangers for money, wouldn’t you need alcohol to get through the day, or at the end of the day? I know lots of comfortably-off people that desperately need a drink at the end of the day and no one frowns on them for it.

My system for giving in New York City, was, I admit, rather arbitrary.

I generally gave to people I liked or made me smile – a choice that was made easier by the fact that I thought there was some sort of final social safety net for the others.

It was also made easier by the fact that there were certain homeless people in my neighborhood who were fixtures and everyone knew them and gave to them and I did too. Like the fat man at the entrance of the Q train who was always asking for money for a sandwich, or the one-eyed fellow at the corner of Seventh and Flatbush who used to shower the ladies with compliments, or the man outside the grocery store who sometimes told me I had a nice smile. That was always worth a dollar.

It’s easier to give to the people who try to jolly you or compliment you out of money – somehow you feel like they’re not really asking you for money and that they consider themselves on a par with you.

Other times – like if you’re coming out of the ATM – it’s hard to say you have no money, which is how I ended up buying one gentleman a roast chicken and a banana. (He didn’t really want the banana, he wanted mashed potatoes, but I thought the banana made it a more well-rounded meal.)

But there were also people I never gave money to. Like the woman on the 2 train who spoke really loudly and was clearly strung out and a little scary. And annoying. Or the kids who sold stale M&Ms and had a vaguely threatening spiel about needing the money to keep out of trouble during the summer.

The spiel here is more in the latter vein than the former. There’s no question of joking and flirting, it’s more groveling, joined palms, bowed head and all. But sometimes it seems as if there’s a subtext of threat, at least on a karmic level.

For instance, some people will say, “You’ll pass your exams, you’ll get married, you’ll be very blessed … if you have mercy on me.” Meaning, if I don’t give, I will fail my exams (fortunately I'm no longer a student), remain unmarried, or suffer other strokes of misfortune?

And as a result, when I don’t give to beggars here, I immediately have a vision of myself falling, or coming under a bus, and the beggar nodding sagely and thinking, “If only she had given…”

But I suppose in a place where good fortune and bad fortune are the result of your previous life’s heavenly balance sheet, that’s a logical way to approach someone for money – reminding them of the credit or debits they may be chalking up at that very moment.

Lots of people say you just have to harden yourself to it and learn to ignore it. And sometimes I do ignore, do look away. But every time I do it, even though I understand that it makes perfect sense and maybe you’re not really helping anyone with giving them bits of change, I feel that at that moment I’m a little less humane. or a little less human.

There’s now a new law that fines people for giving to beggars. I can’t really understand what the point of this law might be, except to make people feel better about not giving.

So, at the moment, each encounter with someone who asks for money is very wrenching, and even if I end up doing loads of good works in other sectors of my life, I can't imagine that that particular moment of looking through a glass window at someone who can see you -- well-fed and holding a nice handbag or a cellphone -- will be wrenching.

And at each of those encounters I can’t help but think, haven’t I been rather lucky? And what can I do to have earned it if not at least dole out a little money here and there? Which brings me to back to the question of:

my karmic life-balance

Clearly, I must have been a very righteous sort of person in my previous life. As a result, in this life, I’ve always had a roof over my head, three square meals (dare I even list all these things lest I incur the wrath of some watchful god?), loving (if annoying) parents, wealthy relatives who are fond of me, nice clothes, lovely friends and mostly interesting jobs.

But what have I done in this life to be worthy of such good fortune? Or to enable my future self to have an equally nice life? I rather worry that my future self is not going to be entitled to all these benefits.

I am trying to think back, and while I have not been a particularly bad person (I do shout a lot at my mother, but don’t lots of people?) I can’t think of anything remarkably good that I have done either. And probably if you’ve had a nice life, you have to be especially good, since you’ve started out with so many benefits.

For what it’s worth, here is the sum total of my attempts at doing good:

1. Tutored the dhobi’s son in English when I was 18 so he could get a job in an office. But I’m not sure his English really improved much. I did used to get impatient with him, because he would always say he understood things that he didn’t, which made it hard to teach him. But later my sister said that maybe, being the dhobi’s son, he was just trying to please me by saying he understood. Then I felt bad.
Good works points: 0

2. Joined volunteer organization in New York City to do good works. But also joined hoping vaguely to meet a boyfriend.
Good works points: 0

3. Tutored a Chinese immigrant boy in English in New York City so that he could go to college. But again, not sure he learned a lot of English from me, as I used to get distracted by his very bad breath. But he was excellent in mathematics so I’m sure he got into college anyway.
Good works points: 0

4. Tutored a Haitian girl in many subjects so she could go from being a hotel maid to having an office job. Didn’t do it for very long, but when I stopped doing it she said I had helped her a lot and she was going to continue studying.
Good works points: 1

4. Give money regularly to alma mater. But alma mater gave scholarship to me.
Good works points: 0

5. Give money to sundry charities.
Good works points: 1

6. Shout at parents and lose temper with friends:
Good works points: -10

Total: -8

So that is not looking very good. But on the other hand, maybe I am thinking too far ahead? I think this is line of thinking is just a distraction from something I think about off and on, though not very productively, which is how does one live an ethical life in this life?

Tuesday, August 16

Yesterday was Independence Day again, but this time over here. I celebrated by simultaneously reading Harry Potter and watching a film about a non-resident Indian who returns to India to look for his nanny and goes to a village and helps them put in electricity and falls in love with the country (and a girl).

Sometimes I wish I was an engineer so I could make some more useful contribution to society like that or at least understand why it is those things don’t work. Like why does hardly anyone have running water all the time even when it’s monsoon and people are (literally) drowning it. And why is it so hard to produce a stable supple of electricity, especially given all that water? If I was an engineer I could understand better why this isn’t happening and then feel less irritated.. I wish there was at least someone I could ask about it who wouldn’t give me a flip answer like “corruption,” which is the answer to any question you ask anyone in India. But when the government wants things to work, they do (like the Indian Institutes of Technology) and it’s not as if corruption magically disappears in those cases.

Electrical wiring in KochiAlso, then I would like to ask someone why the electricity we do have is delivered to us through the most amazingly haphazard wiring system I have ever seen, all of it on public display. Medusa’s heads of wires surround poles, trees and even hang down menacingly like snakes Cellphone tower in Pondicherrywaiting to bite you. The park near my grandmother’s house has an enormous electricity generator of some sort in it. And everywhere cellphone towers have been raised, like national monuments, with no attempt whatsoever made to hide or disguise them. Is it only me who thinks they’re rather … ugly? Especially when they’re rearing up amidst a series of short buildings.

One, at the end of Shanti Path, is in the middle of a little park and they’ve put a large globe at the base of it, which is being painted. I can’t make out what the painting is just yet – no doubt people being technologically advanced. (Note: Um, apparently this is not a cellphone tower but a memorial in honor of the police - 9.21.05)

In a total non-sequitur, please have a look at the page I made about the khatakali performance I went to in Kochi, here.