September 23, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
I received quite a bit of advice from people in the States before I left on this little adventure. Some of it was useful (don’t bring a lot of clothes; don’t bother with shorts; bring plenty of deodorant); some of it not so much (staying away from street animals is impossible if you ever want to leave your house, for instance, and wearing sandals in this country is ALWAYS a terrible idea – I don’t care how “liberating” it feels), but all of it was given with the best of intentions by people who truly cared about my safety and well-being, and that’s more than enough to be grateful for. You can buy plenty of books with perfectly useful travel advice if that’s really what you’re after.
The insight that’s served me best over the past week or so however, wasn’t actually advice in the most technical sense of the word. It didn’t begin with “remember to…” or “make sure you don’t…”, it wasn’t a heads-up regarding a foreign custom, nor was it a suggestion of a place to see or a type of food to eat. In fact, it really wasn’t a suggestion at all as much as it was a statement of fact.
“There will be a point when India is just going to drive you crazy.”
The past week and a half has been among the most emotionally draining few days I’ve had for some time. There is a point, I’m finding, where the novelty of a new place begins to wear off, and yet it still feels so very foreign. That fleeting thrill, that adrenaline rush of utter sensory overload that comes with immersion in the new and carries you through your first few weeks subsides and you are left with the realization that this is not a little vacation, and that nine months is a very long time – a lot longer than maybe you first realized. And India is starting to drive you crazy. And that’s ok.
The complexities of accomplishing the simplest of tasks (3 ½ hours to open a bank account, 3 days to negotiate a gym membership, 2 weeks to get internet) are enough to try the patience of anyone used to the rapid pace and consumer-centered lifestyle of an east coast American city. Frozen meat, for instance, has proven to be nearly impossible to acquire. We learned this after a trip to the local butcher where, upon asking for chicken breast, we were handed an entire newly-slaughtered chicken, organs intact. Fresh? Yes. Convenient? Not exactly. Meanwhile, standing in line at the (frozen meatless) market means suppressing just about every ounce of compassion for your fellow shoppers and shamelessly holding your ground while boxing out would-be cutters, unless you find yourself really enjoying the scenery around the check-out line. As in you’d like to be there for 5 days or so. The abundance of diesel generators, made desirable by the daily power cuts and affordable by hefty fuel subsidies contribute to a dense haze that lingers around the city. The stench of burning garbage, diesel fumes and animal waste seeps into your clothes and sticks to your skin in the form of a thin film of grit to be wiped from your face as you sweat.
Around here, the big news is the recent decision by the current government to allow “big-box” western stores like Walmart to open in the country, a move that prompted nationwide strikes, school, and and railway closures as many people feel, probably rightly so, that the introduction of western outlets may spell the slow death of many of the country’s smaller convenience shops and markets. While Lucknow was not hit particularly hard by protests, the events have led me to wonder just what India may look like in 25 years or so. For all the talk of India being a rapidly developing country so much of it does not appear to have changed all that much in the last 30 years, when the country did the bulk of its growing. True, there are some major differences: a steadily growing number of cars, air conditioners, and towering new apartment buildings where thatched huts used to stand, for instance. However, most public services are handled by a painfully slow and corrupt bureaucracy, much as they were for the latter half of the 20th century, and basic resources like water and electricity are often poorly managed. In a recent conversation with a friend of mine here, the question was asked: “would the type of foreign investment proposed under this new policy make things better?” As such practices increase and management of goods and services becomes more and more privatized, how would life here improve? We could both agree at the time, sitting on the back of a rickshaw after another exhausting afternoon at the market, that more effective resource management and a Walmart here and there wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
And yet that day was perhaps the one I’ve enjoyed the most since coming here. India is in the midst of Ganesh Chaturthi – a festival honoring the birth of the Hindu god, Ganesha. One Hinduism’s best-known deities, Ganesha is easily recognisable as an elephant-headed figure, the remover-of-obstacles, and one of the most beloved deities in the country. We had decided to take a trip to Aminabad market on Saturday to purchase some locks for our doors – a task we had been neglecting for some time. Aminabad perhaps most closely resembles what India had looked like in my head before I arrived. Narrow alleyways lined with motorcycles and vendors wind their way through through a dense, low cityscape. Children dart through crowds, dodging rickshaws and bicycles. Men and women chop broad strokes in the air with their hands as they haggle over prices of this and that. Its smokey. Its dim. It smells alternately of sweet oil, diesel, curry, and waste. While shopkeepers appear to have segregated themselves by ware (fabric shops occupy one section, idol shops another, music shops are over here, etc.), its hardly the one-stop-shopping so many of us in the West have become accustomed to.
As we rounded yet another unfamiliar corner, once again completely lost, I began to notice the gradually increasing presence of festival lights and music and that intangible energy one simply feels in a crowd begin to slowly rise in anticipation. Men began testing microphones as musicians tuned their instruments. The sunlight faded, and soon the market was immersed in traditional festival music. Men and women gathered around stages and shrines set up to honor Lord Ganesha and took pictures, offered puja, and prayed. There was a certain beauty in these ceremonies and offerings that both went beyond the hand-made stages and light displays and yet was represented perfectly by them. This was no glittering sale display assembled according to instruction and placed in a sterile entrance way. Flags and banners hung this way and that and lights flickered on and off. There had been no focus-groups or target audience. Here was a simple, genuine expression of tradition, faith, and community occurring in a shared, public space, just as it always had been.
Its certainly not for me, or really anybody who is not Indian, to decide what direction this country should go in the future. Decisions that effect the lives of so many certainly shouldn’t be made on the premise that Westerners like to come and look at the pretty lights in the market. Who’s to say that people shouldn’t have the same conveniences I do back at home, if in fact that’s what they want? To be honest, though, I’m not sure there’s much of a choice in the matter anyway. Market integration is happening, whether people like it or not, and the consequences are probably far more complex than we can accurately see at the moment. This is not to say that India will ever lose all of what makes it Indian. Foreign investors will always have to cater to the cultural nuances of any region in which they operate – but I have to wonder how long scenes, and markets like the one in Aminabad will be around. My point is not necessarily to condemn all of these changes (which are indeed happening all over the world), but only to acknowledge the road we’re on, and enjoy the scenery while it lasts – insanity and all.