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

Tuesday, December 20

I just came back from the city of Bhopal, the one made famous by the gas leak that killed (and continues to kill) so many thousands in 1984. Some years back I became really interested in that disaster. I still remember hearing about it when it happened when we lived in Delhi, and being shocked and sort of afraid that the gas might come to us. It had all the elements that can be readily grasped by a child: "chemical," "poison," "factory," "sleeping." I became interested in it when representatives of the victims tried to file a case against Union Carbide, later bought by Dow Chemical, under international law in New York. I remember when reading about all the things that conspired to make that leak happen, that like many things in history, lots of small things combined to make what might have been a minor tragedy into a historic one. One thing I remember reading is that the alarm system had been disabled, perhaps because it would go off periodically (a sign it was working?) and annoy everyone, or perhaps to save electricity. I don't remember which.

Even though it's been more than 20 years, I couldn't help but think that the city smelled funny. I know it was all in my head. But everywhere I went I was sure I could smell poisonous things. Sometimes I know it was just normal Indian pollution smells, like the mosquito repellent in my hotel bedroom or the exhaust out on the streets. But being where I was made me hyperaware to the notion of being posioned by the air we breathe.

I was there on work, but I got a chance to visit the Tajul Masjid, apparently the world's third largest mosque. When I went, lessons at the mosque's madrasa were on. Lots of boys of all ages -- the little ones in the courtyard and the older ones in rooms -- swayed back and forth as they read from a book. Perhaps that was an opening prayer and then later on they were doing the other lessons. I saw a world map in Urdu, the first time I think I've seen a map in a non-Latin script. I didn't see girls there studying, but those little boys must have girls somewhere in their lives because around the doorways of the mosque I saw the graffiti that is common to all schools (mostly in white chalk, thankfully). To wit: Younus "heart" Halima, Arif and Roji, Najma and Aamir. There was also a spikey heart with an arrow through it. But the intials in the middle were in Urdu, so I couldn't read them.

Saturday, December 18

Mongol or Aryan?

There's a restaurant near my workplace that specializes in momos -- dumplings. For about 50 to 80 rupees (about two dollars, hmmm, now that I think about it, that's not much cheaper than the price of dumplings in New York) you can get about 10 dumplings, steamed or fried. There are all sorts of fillings, like cottage cheese and mushroom, or mutton. There's also chicken, mongol or aryan. I asked my coworker to investigate the difference between the two sorts of chicken stuffing on my behalf. Apparently chicken mongol is chinese-style, with soy sauce and so forth. And chicken aryan is "North Indian" flavored. It's sublime -- there on a typo-filled black and white sheet was a magnificently brief summary of someone's perception of India's and China's racial history.

Child laborer update

In other news, I caught sight of the boy laborer again, this time looking so disturbingly young that I didn't recognize him and asked him his name again, to his astonishment. I was glad when I saw him that I finally made some phone calls to find out what resources there might be for him, especially if he wanted to keep on working. Unfortunately, not a lot it turns out. Also, it's not illegal for a 14-year-old boy to be a construction worker, I was told. There aren't very many night schools at all, but there are some places that offer shelter, classes and health counseling, including a vocational training center near my neighborhood, in Shahdara. So I wrote all this information out on a piece of paper, along with the number of a Catholic priest -- I hope Catholic priests are better to young boys here -- both in English and more laboriously in Hindi. But when I offered it to him he seemed reluctant to take it. No one was very near by, so I don't think it was fear of getting in trouble. He did say though that he was going back to his village soon, and that he wouldn't be back till next year. That made me feel much better. I hope it's true.

Tuesday, December 13

"Excuse me, are you Finnish?"

I stopped in my tracks and looked at my questioner. He was a stocky, middle-aged man, darkish and shorter than me. Our glances had crossed as I was turning into the street in Safdarjung Enclave that he was emerging from. He didn't look like someone who would be particularly interested in Finland. And I don't look particularly Finnish.

"Um, sorry? I didn't understand your question."
"Are you Finnish?" he repeated, smiling sweetly.
"No," I said, "I'm not Finnish. At all."
"Sorry, sorry," he responded, "I just thought you might be Finnish." And he scurried away.

Later that evening, I switched on the television to find myself watching the semi-finals of Miss World 2005. I wanted not to be, but I was immensely entertained and watched all the way to the end. And found all sorts of mini-trends from other realms had been imported into the contest. For instance, even though there's only oneMiss World, everyone has to be a winner now. Not just are there winners for congeniality, photogenecity and dental work, there are now regional Miss Worlds. So a semi-finalist from Asia, even if she doesn't get the crown, is reminded that she's the Miss World winner for her region. What does that mean? Either we're talking continents here or we're talking the whole world, right?

Anyway, after an interlude where various contestants frolicked in soft-porn poses as they talked about their aspirations for a better world, I saw a glimpse of the six semi-finalists. And I was reminded of Mr. Finland, and the difference between ethnicity and nationality. What with colonization, migration, intermarriage and all that, if you looked at the six contestants, and were given the names of their countries, you would have had a hard time pairing the right girl with the right sash. Ms. South Africa was definitely Indian, Miss Mexico was green-eyed, if Miss Iceland was not ethnically hispanic then I am Finnish and Miss Italy was flaxen-haired. Okay, it was visibly bleached, a look that seems to be popular there.

This in turn reminded me of long waits in the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (an agency that no longer exists in that form post 9.11) in Manhattan. A fun game to play while waiting for your name to be called was to try to figure out the Americans from the would-be Americans. There were mainstream American accents and a gamut of international accents on both sides, there were white people, black people, Asian people on both sides. The man who gave me my green card and congratulated me was Chinese, and judging by his accent, not U.S.-born. I wonder if the staff at the INS is selected to be so ethnically diverse on purpose. Is it a sort of beacon in the long, labyrinthine maze of a bureaucracy that can change your life in one of the most significant ways possible? Look at us, they seem to say. Just look. We're Americans. You could be too.

So the only thing I'm left wondering now is what it was about me that spoke to that man on the street of Finland.

Friday, December 9

There is something about the intimate confines of the beauty "saloon" that frees Indian working-class women from the effusive obsequiousness they often adopt at other times.

When you are in a badly-fitting nighty, awaiting their ministrations, their eloquence upon your warts and all knows no bounds. That is why, even though waxing and other beautifying procedures are exceedingly cheap, I find I have to force myself to go because of the battering of my self-confidence I have to endure.

It starts mildly enough.

"Didi, razor marte ho (do you shave)?," one lady will ask, looking sadly at the effects of years of experimentation with razors, cream hair remover and an epilady in skirmishes against my hairy Punjabi side. The other lady (it's always two ladies with me, which adds to the humiliation) pipes in with, "Growth bahut hard hain, razor mat marna." And so on. Much panting and puffing will follow, as if to demonstrate the extreme level of exertion I am demanding of them.

Once, my sister and I went for dueling waxing sections, to find the ladies trading comments back and forth over the partition:
"This is one is a hard job," shouts one.
"You think that's hard? You should see this one!" responds the other.

Even when I try to pretend I am having a relaxing time by burying my nose in a magazine, the room is set up in such a way -- a pan of hot wax will be balanced on your knees or just where you were planning to rest your head --that you find yourself forced to pay full attention and interact. From my part, that usually means offering pathetic excuses about why I have let myself go in this fashion.

They find a way to get to me, even when I'm not trapped in a small room with them. Once I sat down with a magazine hoping to enjoy a relaxing few minutes before a hair cut, and a beautician plopped down next to me, stared piercingly at my nose (yes, it often gets that response) and said, "Why have you avoided getting your blackheads removed?"

I really hope this happens to everyone and not just me. But after trips to beauty salons in other countries, I'm wondering if is me. Russian women in Brooklyn salons can be just as critical. That is why I had to start going to Korean salons, where they tend to burn you with the wax, but at least because of the language barrier, you can't understand their remarks.

I wonder if it would be different if I went to more upscale salons...

(pictures from Azadpur wholesale vegetable market, where Delhi gets most of its fruits and vegetables, 12.8.05)

Tuesday, December 6

On a cheerier note, I think I am making some friends except socializing here (anywhere?) is very uphill work with many setbacks -- very snakes and ladders. After one very social weekend a few weeks ago, I was roundly dissed by both new friends and old. To wit:

1. One (existing) friend I tried to meet for lunch had to cancel last minute because she got an assignment. Has not been heard of since.
2. Another (existing) friend who's getting married and doing up a house with her fiance says she's not free till Christmas.
3. And a third (potential) friend I was supposed to meet for dinner fell ill.
4. A bunch of guys whom I met at a party and subsequently invited to go on a field trip to a wholesale vegetable market (It seems like a cool place but no doubt will be all truck drivers and I don't want to go by myself and be dragged in the back of a refrigerated locker and molested) and they were all gung ho (but I could tell that they were smoking pot at the time). So the day for the field trip came and went and I never heard from them.
5. In desperation at not having ANY social events I decided to call this reporter that I met two months ago and invite him for lunch. But his mobile phone was switched off.

Then I gave up socializing and making friends for the week and stayed home playing board games with my mother for three nights.

But this week has been better, with many party invites, some coerced. Which means next week I will be banished to social Siberia again no doubt.

Monday, December 5

It's very hard to live an ethical life. Not just in India, but anywhere. Everything is so complex. If only it were as easy as deciding not to buy an item of clothing because it is made in a sweatshop in place X, and having that action lead the company to pay its workers better. But it doesn't really work like that, does it? Instead the company just moves its sweatshop to place Y and sends out a cheery press release about how it no longer employs sweatshop labor in place X. And the people in place X are out of a job. And it’s not just about an item of clothing, but every action you take and everything you consume has a chain of actions behind it, many of them exploitative, but one doesn’t know enough to follow the chain all the way back. So what are you to do? Not consume at all? Or make everything yourself? Neither are very practical possibilities…

I didn't love Will Self's "My Idea of Fun" but at least one passage in that has stuck with me, when the narrator, who has an eidetic mind, traces the history of something (sheets?) of Egyptian cotton with a very high thread count all the way back to the laborers picking it in the cotton fields.

The reason this is on my mind is that in a place like India, you're closer to the beginning of the chain, and then you see concretely what elsewhere is a theoretical problem. You see the things that sitting comfortably elsewhere you just know exist. And you find that when you're confronted with them all you know is that you should do something, but you don't know what or how to do it.

For instance, there is an apartment nearby that is having work done on it (okay, it's ours). And one day when I went to see what stage it was at there was someone working there who looked very ...young. It's enormously hard to guess the age of a teenage boy, but he certainly looked in his very early teens to me. I asked him his age in front of the other workers, which I guess wasn't a very smart thing to do, and of course he said he was 18. And he said he had recently come from Bihar, where a lot of migrant child labor comes to Delhi from. Which made me wonder, had he come on his own or with family? Did he have family here? Or was he bonded labor? My parents said his family probably needed the money, and that is a very real concern, but I felt bad to just let it go. What if he was here against his will? And even if he was going to keep working, shouldn't he at least be going to night-time schooling?

So after some advice from my sister, I tried to ask the contractor questions about the boy. But he either didn't understand or willfully misunderstood what I was trying to ask, and told me he didn't discriminate against anyone work wise. So I thought I should try to talk to the boy again on his own. But it was very hard to surreptitiously get him on his own. Somehow I didn't want to call him aside in front of his coworkers. In the meantime another friend of mine told me that I was opening a can of worms. After all, what was I going to with him if it turned out he didn't want to be working? And really, part of me did want to let it lie.

Then somehow my home life and work came together, in that I had to do a story on hundreds of Bihari child laborers who were rescued from embroidery workshops. While asking questions for the story, I slipped in my own, like what did they recommend people to do if they saw children working somewhere? But the answer seemed basically to call some government office and report it. Knowing how government works here, I wouldn't want to willingly turn over any child to them. Especially if a relative of the child's is here with him. Lots of Biharis have migrated here, so he wasn't necessarily on his own.

I thought I shouldn't call anyone but just try to befriend the boy and talk to him, and also find out about schooling.

But the boy was a moving target in many ways. Once I spotted him going down the stairs with a door on his head and tried to strike up a conversation. But he scowled, muttered something and hurried away. I felt like I was harassing him. Then for a few days he wasn't at the work site and I worried he had lost his job and livelihood because I was interfering. But then I saw him again. In a few days he had grown taller and had a much darker upper lip. I wondered if I was wrong about his age. At the rate I was going with this intervention, he would soon be fully grown, perhaps even turn into one of the glowering young men on the street I sometimes feel afraid of. But I sort of felt relieved that he was growing up so soon and would solve my dilemma by himself by ceasing to be a child.

To justify my lack of any headway, I started to think that wouldn't he have been more responsive if he did need help?

I haven't managed to speak to him again. And I haven't found out about any local night schools yet. And even if I do, I don't know how to bring it up with him. The house will be done in a few weeks time, and then he'll be gone, perhaps to work on another site. And I won't have done anything for him at all.