This is a difficult topic, but one I feel I need to discuss. India is a crazy place, filled with lots of wonderful things. But, in contrast, there are also things that are less pleasant – things I’ve begun to notice more and more as the days go by. It’s a dynamic experience; the gap between the highs and the lows is much wider than I’ve seen anywhere else.
So, for the sake of keeping it real and to give a balanced image of what life is like here, I’d like to tell you about the less nice things.
As a developing nation, India still has a lot of poverty. This is one of the first things you’ll notice when entering the country, and it is also one of the things that affect a lot of the other things you’ll experience during your stay. For most first world countries the societal grouping goes like a bell curve; some poor, most middle-class, some rich. In India that curve is almost inverted; a lot of poor people, a diminished middle-class and then a lot of people who are relatively rich. People are being pushed towards the extremes of the spectrum.
You can drive on an overpass, see a ten meter wide advertisement billboard for high-end consumer products, and underneath it a sprawling community of plate shacks and tents. As you exit the largest mall in the city you might find yourself surrounded by beggars. The fanciest apartment tower can stand next to a shanty town. It’s a stark contrast, and how it’s all mixed together just makes it more apparent – gives it more impact to the outside observer.
At crossroads, while in a rickshaw, or when just walking about, young children come and beg for money. Often the bigger ones carry their only slightly smaller siblings, perhaps for added effect. They are trained to smile, but most often they’re too jaded or tired and end up just showing a row of teeth; a confused, scournful grimace. People say most beggars are controlled by a mob, and that it’s actually a huge business based on taking most of the money gathered through begging.
Remember Laxmi, from my visit to Mumbai and the Diwali festivities? She’s 18, can’t read nor write, and as a second-generation flower girl is practically locked into a life of poverty. There simply is no escape, since she doesn’t have any education nor can she afford to get any. You know how you can look forward to nice things, like the next vacation trip, an interesting project at work, a good party on the weekend or moving into a new apartment in a super nice part of town? That is so far out of her world that it isn’t even relative. She has very little to look forward to. Every day is a struggle to make ends meet.
She shares the fate of hundreds of millions, in this country alone. A good reminder that, if you can read this, you should consider yourself very lucky. Please don’t forget that.
Bureaucracy and corruption
Bureaucracy is a big thing here: lots of different forms, signatures, passport photos and stamps. All analog, you can’t do any of this stuff digitally. At many government institutions there is a defined quota for people who have moved in to the city from the countryside. It’s a nice idea, offering people who have no formal education a chance to work for money. But it’s a flawed one. Firstly, the most obvious one; this requires no education. Secondly, if you manage to land a government job it’s next to impossible to get fired.
This results in people working at places, without knowing what to do, and without the motivation to do anything at all since they’re safe. This explains a lot, and is also a big reason for corruption being so common; without paying a little extra the person on the other side of the desk will have no interest whatsoever to move your paperwork onward.
My affection for Indian bureaucracy has been quite well documented in the series about the FRO (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) but there is also the trouble behind getting a working broadband connection. That took over a month due to a convoluted approval making process. If I had to do any kind of actual serious paperwork here, like buying a house or applying for citizenship, I’d probably go mad.
I don’t know if traffic in India is any worse than in other countries in this part of the world, but it sure it chaotic. At first the seemingly unorganised flow was mesmerizing in its ability to not lead to more accidents, but with time this system started to lose its appeal and just became inconvenient. A two-lane street can have three lanes if there are enough bikes involved. One if a car or, worse yet, truck decides it needs to move in the opposite direction but there isn’t enough space on its side of the street. For rickshaws and bikes the sidewalks are also acceptable paths.
For people on bicycle, like me, this offers lots of situations where I can cut through and dodge between others in order to get forward faster. But you also need to be alert. You can trust your own reflexes and mastery of the vehicle, but you can’t trust others’. Especially considering they don’t use blinks and the preferred method to let someone know you’re coming up is by using a horn – something bicycles don’t have.
The lack of proper rules means that you have to judge every situation as it comes up. Good part is it allows you to make quite improvised course changes, and others are prepared to react to that. In a more strict system, ignoring the rules would confuse others and lead to danger – here such turns of events are to be expected and hence, ironically, it is less risky to make them.
There are several things that cause dangerous situations, like when cars come out of sidestreets onto bigger ones. Not all break and wait for an opening. Hell, some don’t even look to see if anyone’s coming. And, as a pedestrian, remember that no-one will break for you. Cross that street when there’s a gap, not when you think people will slow down significantly once you step out.
Another thing that bothers me is the use of high beams. Many cars use them when going through darker areas, which would be a good thing if it wasn’t for the fact that they don’t turn them off if someone is coming from the opposite direction. They will actually blind you, and you’ll risk hitting pedestrians or obstacles if you’re not careful. Showing these drivers the finger does not help, but it comforts.
India is developing at a fast pace, but a lot of the infrastructure still has a lot of catching up to do: power outages are common, roads are bumpy and water pipes don’t always function like they should. In this country roughly half of all generated electricity is lost between the power plant and the destination – mainly because people have MacGyvered something in between that provides them with power, but saves them from the trouble of paying for it.
Don’t get me started on cell phone coverage. Half of the time my phone is useless because there is none. The carrier I have (Tata DoCoMo) seems to work only here in Pune. If I go to Mumbai or anywhere else I’m off the grid.
Pollution, waste and filth
I’ve been to places like Thailand before, where piles of garbage by the road or on the beach is not an uncommon sight. But it’s usually managed. Here that trash is distributed everywhere. Everywhere! And it’s all eternal plastic.
The primary reason for it being spread about freely is that trashcans are scarce. So, what people generally do, is once they have the wrapper off whatever they just bought, they just drop the trash. Let it fall and land where it may. After all the lectures about how that shit lasts for hundreds of years and circulates the ecosystem as small toxic bits, seeing people do that kind of stuff so casually is depressing. A very shortsighted act, reflecting the mindset “out of sight, out of mind”. They could use some of that 90’s MTV slogan: Think global, act local.
Pollution is a very tangible thing as well, since many cars lack catalysators and the trucks and buses blow out thick diesel exhaust. Emissions control is a somewhat new thing so there are heavy particles the size of peppercorns floating everywhere – don’t forget your scarf; it can function as a breathing mask when needed.
Or keep some odors away, since the only type of pollution here isn’t in the form of waste: there is also smell and sound pollution. India is a bustling place and that can be felt through all senses. The general aromatic landscape of India packs a punch. There are places where the heat mixes with waste, excrement (bovine, canine or even human) and lacking infrastructure, creating quite potent odors. Consider yourself warned.
And you better have your zen mindstate ready when dealing with traffic, otherwise the constant honking can get on your nerves real fast.
Pune has its share of street dogs. They behave well; I’ve never seen one behave in an aggressive manner towards humans. Every night, when the sound of traffic and other human activity fades, the dogs come out from their daytime hiding places and roam in packs. They are in the streets and out in the darkness. They bark and they fight. Every now and then one yelps for one reason or the other. Often it sounds like it’s getting hurt. As a dog person these sounds are not something that resonate well within me.
One of the absolutely worst things I’ve seen here is dead puppies. Some of them by the road, a result of venturing out into traffic too early, before knowing how to cross the road. Many of the adult dogs walk with a limp, indicating a lesson learned the hard way.
Also, not all people like dogs. There have been times when I’ve seen people behave badly towards them, without any apparent reason whatsoever. In some cases I’ve tried asking the aggressor about the reason for his behaviour, but have never managed to get a sensible answer. Some days I can read in the local newspaper about people torturing and killing dogs, even puppies. I don’t get that.
The city dog pound is probably not the most humane place either. What we have here is a struggle between species to find a way to co-exist in an urban landscape – and we aren’t always playing nice.
Local culture is a very touchy subject, and something a traveller should be very careful about criticizing. A lot about travelling to far away places is, after all, also about reassessing ones own view on things, adapting to the new conditions, and above all not to even try to force your own culture on the indigenious one.
Having said that, there are some issues related to manners, mostly among Indian men, that I find peculiar. The one I’m going to take up here is the most apparent one: scratching your genitals in broad daylight.
This is something I see on a daily basis. On streets, in restaurants, in shops: it’s not just the construction workers or rickshaw drivers that do this, people in higher job positions do it as well. And it’s not a short nudge either, it’s a full lift, pinch and roll for a good length of time. They linger in it, as if lost in some deep contemplation. Witnessing this can feel a bit awkward for a westerner, especially if it’s performed in the middle of a conversation or a business transaction with them.
Money is king, and a lot of the everyday life circles around how to maximize it. It’s most apparent when dealing with cab drivers, since a lighter appearance immediately adds a double multiplier to whatever the fare is. And then you’re supposed to start bargaining, going down to half. He’ll meet you perhaps half-ways, which would mean he still makes 50% more than with a regular fare. And it’s like this every single time. Some days it’s ok, but most often it’s just a nuisance.
As a foreigner you carry around a big target on you, especially in touristy spots. It is almost guaranteed that anyone who approaches you, without you showing prior interest, has an ulterior motive related to money. They might seem nice at first, and you might think it’s really nice to chat with strangers, and then the sales pitch comes in. Buy a tour, brochure, guide, bongo drums, anything. It’s a really jading thing, because it devalues you as a human to a walking cash dispenser. Which sounds like a first world problem when comparing to some of the challenges the locals face, but it’s vexing nonetheless.
The food, while mostly delicious, is quite heavy – saturated with oil, sugar and all those other ingredients that make food taste good. You won’t find any salads here. At first this didn’t bother me that much, but after a month or two I noticed that I just can’t handle another paneer gravy and jeera rice combo unless I get a couple of days of non-Indian in-between. Noodles, thai, pasta, sandwiches, anything.
It’s apparent that some things here are getting to me. Long gone are the rose-colored lenses through which I saw this place for the first time – what I’m experiencing now is something closer to the objective reality. And with it comes frustration and new challenges with coping with my situation. But it will get better, this might be the first culture shock setting in, full impact.
Remember the obnoxious American at the Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai? The guy who would immediately assume that the guide was trying to trick some money out of him, and replied in a needlessly dismissive manner? I am slowly becoming that same kind of character. With every new encounter that culminates in a request for money, my threshold becomes lower for assuming the next one also will. It is beginning to reflect in my default behaviour, and that saddens me.