Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A Letter from India - Feb. 17, 2004

Feb. 17, 2004

Dear Family and Friends,

In November I sent a message ending with a description of a begging child. I was slightly concerned about the image I painted, not because the girl was not real, but because it was only one angle of India. To clarify, the beggars in Delhi are not the poor of India. Seventy percent of India’s population live in the countryside. In those rural areas there are neither doctors nor education. Far from the cities are the families whose members work their entire lives making bricks. Yet they are never able to repay the 500 rupee (approx. $12) debt taken on to pay for a funeral. By the time they reach old age, though age is hard to measure in grueling places, their wilted skin is a deep brown dusted with red or tan clay. In the extremes of rural areas some people have their only brush with modernity when they lose their land when a dam is built. Children are sent to Delhi for a better life.

Additionally, it must be understood that India is not a country of beggars nor is it a country asking the rest of the world to take pity on it. The poverty is overwhelming, dehumanizing and disheartening. For a foreigner from the West not to notice the poverty or not to write about it would be neglectful. It would be wrong to brush over the fact that 70% of the children in India live in conditions worse than even the poorest child in the United States. But India has a thousand years of history under every stone. A traveler gets used to the towers, the tombs and the forts that at first sight bring images of emperors, dungeons, mist and hobbits. The Indian way of life and culture is both unique and diverse. It’s easy to think that it’s a civilization "catching up", but such a viewpoint is arrogant and faulty. Indeed, I’m often reminded that the United States is the "young" civilization in the world.

As I type, the orange dye artistically painted from my wrists to my fingertips, is slowly fading. Feather-like images along the back of my hand, spirals around the knuckle of my fingers and shapeless wisps up my index finger stop abruptly at my nail. This is henna, an enchanting ornamentation Hindus, Muslims and Christian women alike have painted on their hands and feet on festive occasions. If I turn my hands, more geometric shapes are whimsically stained on my palms. On each finger is a long peacock feather. The beak and elegant neck curl at the inside of my wrist. The die, made of a plant extract, was applied by an artist two weeks ago in the Eid-Adha festivities. First it was extremely dark, almost brown. Within a day or two it faded to a red and now it’s orange. Against my pale skin, the henna appears particularly dark. We’re told that dark henna predicts a good mother-in-law in the future of an unmarried girl. After seeing my deeply dyed hands my female classmates make remarks about my good fortune. Then they role their eyes and say "Oh, as if you people have to worry about that!"

In most families, the bride is taken into the groom’s home and made a part of the family. It’s understandable that some girls consider a good mother-in-law more important than a good husband. Most bridal couples do not meet each other for the first time until the wedding night. Middle and upper class families are becoming more liberal: the boy and girl will meet a time or two before making the decision to wed. There are some love marriages (less then 10% of the middle and upper class) but such marriages are considered risky. After all, what do an unmarried boy and an unmarried girl know about marriage? Indians and others take the longevity of Indian marriages (and the lack thereof in the West) as an indication of the success of the system.

An Indian marriage ceremony is one of the first things one reads about when looking into Indian culture: exquisite handmade invitations announcing the "auspicious occasion" ("auspicious" means "lucky", did you know that?), a dowry often four times the annual income of the bride’s father, saris intricately embroidered, breathtaking gold jewelry, days and nights of festivities. Grassless parks, empty land and farmhouses are transformed with felt green carpet, multi-colored tents, archways of thick fabrics, a few stages and brilliant lighting to freeze a soul in her place. Read any Westerner’s account of an Indian wedding and it will say the same two things: it’s all alluringly beautiful and the bride looked petrified. Many would agree the groom looked anxious as well. It’s probably not our place to draw such conclusions but I know I’d be scared jumping into such an unknown. However for Hindus, like all of us, marriage is an act of faith. Hindus I’ve spoken to believe that God (most learned Hindus I encounter claim monotheism) is guiding their lives. There is no making a mistake here; they only have their astrological sign, their caste (disregarded by a few), maybe a guru, and their parent’s judgment to go on. There is no second guessing after the big day – this is what they’re called to. I pray for such certainty – without the astrology – as well.

Not everyone wants such arrangements. One friend in his late twenties sets his sights on greater and greater career goals saying he’ll marry once he’s professionally settled. In reality he’s searching for a love marriage. Another friend, single and in her 30s, is a Supreme Court lawyer who only took education seriously when she saw her sister, who did poorly in school, married off against her will at 19. Many of my female classmates at JNU will admit they pursue education as a means of putting off matrimony. But these are the minority; most are content to leave the selection of their spouses to those with marital experience.

All this said, I’d given no thought to the upcoming Valentine’s Day. In Delhi, it’s extremely rare to see a couple holding hands in public. Affection is something kept in the quiet of home. So last Saturday came as quite a surprise. I’d seen the heart shaped balloons appear in shop windows earlier in the week. Still I was taken aback, that night, when upscale Vasant Vihar had traffic at a stand still. There was no parking at restaurants and I doubt there were any tables available inside. Outside the Pyra Cinema Complex, there was a live band. Young people were dancing – not as couples – but dancing on the plaza! The newspaper Sunday Morning reported that prices on gifts, chocolates, cards and roses were four times that of any ordinary day. Cell phone companies were tied up in the morning with the abundance of text messages. The paper also reported that there was a great deal of controversy over the day, claiming that Valentine’s Day was "alien to Indian culture". There were protests and card burnings. One NGO, in an attempt to bring the holiday to India and raise awareness of women’s issues, proposed calling the day "Bahu Divas" – Daughter-in-Law’s Day!

Again here’s India, where internet-cafes are built along side ancient tombs. BMWs impatiently tail ox-carts. Huge stout Dalmatians and Labradors are walked on leashes along road construction passing shoeless little boys sleeping on piles of sand. There are those whose future is in medicine and technology, and those whose lives are spent tending sheep on Himalayan mountain tops. It’s a place where marriages are arranged, but the young with money in their pockets are adopting at least the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day.

Hope you had a wonderful day!

love and blessings,


P.S. My parents are coming on Thursday!