Friday, April 18, 2014

Impressions Of India

India, a country of 1.2 billon people, is a nation of stark contrasts, rich and poor, both a 1st world and 3rd world country. Upon arrival at New Delhi's new modern IGI international airport, we ran the gauntlet of service people looking for their clients. Identifying our driver by his signage indicating our names, we quickly exchanged pleasantries and were ushered through the polluted and foggy weather, struggling to catch our breathe. This was our immediate introduction to this amazing and mysterious country.
As foreign tourists it soon became clear we closely resemble India's privilege class, even though our heart and souls go out to the poor and downtrodden. Entering our 5 star hotel, we are treated with the outmost respect by security staff and hotel staff. There is literally nothing they wouldn't, do to make our stay pleasant. After a brief rest we spend the next day wondering the streets of New Delhi , interacting with the Indian people who are warm, engaging and helpful to us. Deciding to take a taxi to dinner that night, our driver, an elderly man driving a very old ambassador which coughed and wheezed it way along, insisted on waiting for us at our restaurant, before driving us back to the hotel. His English perfectly understandable, we were able to exchange mutual personal information. A most enjoyable encounter.
 While vising the upscale Khan market in New Delhi we saw many wealthy Indians frequenting the restaurants and shops featuring the latest American brands. On one occasion we met a very distinguished elderly man wearing a Nehru jacket, who was surrounded by security staff with Uzi guns drawn. We learned later he was the Governor of Punjab state.
 The upper caste,(class), enjoy the finest schools, universities, and health care that money can buy. Many physicians, US trained, not only cater to their wealthy Indian clients  but to other wealthy clients from abroad. The latest medical technology is readily available for those who enjoy the ability to pay.
 Perhaps the best example of this entitled attitude of the upper class, occurred while we were flying AIR INDIA flight 433 from New Delhi to Varanasi( home of the Ganges river) via Gaya. Soon after landing in Gaya, the modern airbus was about to take off for Varanasi, when a very well dressed Indian man of approximately 40 years of age, reputed to be a physician, decided to stand up in the aisle as an act of protest because the airline" did not serve  a proper breakfast on the flight. "For 15 minutes he stood, immune to the protestations of both the staff and fellow passengers. The captain of the plane threatened to return to the gate At one point a rather burly character threatened to punch him out, yet still he persisted. Finally after a near riot broke out on the plane, he sat down. Upon arrival at Varanasi he was taken off the plane by security only to be rescued by fellow passengers complaining about the lack of service. This incident, in which we were passengers 2 rows away ,was reported in the Times of India, Feb8/2014.
On that same plane, another more positive incident happened , involving my son, who was experiencing a very painful back injury. While negotiating with the Air India staff, to upgrade his seat, a rather large, muscular man spontaneously offered my son his first row seat in the airplane, a gesture all the more remarkable, when we learned that he had been flying all night from America.  We learned his name, Rinku Singh, who was visiting his family in nearby Varanasi. Later we learned his remarkable life story in which he won a throwing contest in India and presently is the first Indian player pitching in the National Baseball League for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Currently his life story is being made into a movie. I intend to follow his career and will forever be grateful for his compassion and generosity of spirit.
 On the other hand, the poor, the homeless,and uneducated face a far worse fate, often being enslaved either by the shackles of religion or poverty.Many, we saw, by the roadside, begging for money, the mother holding her baby, children who should be in school, performing on the road, the elderly poorly dressed in the cold weather, without dignity or respect asking for a handout. In every town and village , by far the most difficult experience in visiting India, is to handle one's emotions while experiencing this shocking and all too familiar experience.
The emerging middle class, the ubiquitous call centres, the expanding tourist and textile industry, are piloted by ambitious, driven individuals who will do almost anything to make a buck. A concrete example. Our driver, a married man with 2 small daughters, who was assigned to drive us all over Northern India for 2 weeks, would pull all kinds of stunts, all in the name of making money. Let me be more specific. Forget about taking us to expensive shops and restaurants where he got kickbacks, but having the nerve  as my ancestors would say" chutzpah" to actually ask to borrow money because " his bank card got stuck in the machine. "It took a stern lecture from my son 5 days later, before we were stopped in the middle of a road and handed our money by a total stranger. Upon our departure from India he confessed, hoping to get a big tip, "he had made mistakes. "I said to him, "we all make mistakes, it takes a smart man to learn from those mistakes."  
Similarly our guide in Varanasi declared he was not a real guide but" an organizer". How prophetically we would learn the next morning when he refused to join us on a boat tour of the Ganges River, the main tourist attraction, for reasons  he never did divulge. Despite seeing very little of him, he left us in the capable hands of our driver for most of the 2 days, he did manage to find time to send us off, no doubt looking for a sizeable tip
 While in Jodhpur we visited a storefront shop which sells handicraft woven by uneducated and poor women and girls from the countryside. The Sambhali Trust is a non-profit charitable organization which trains women and girls in basic literacy, vocational skills and sewing. Please join me in supporting this wonderful organization.