Chasing Hemingway

Indian Observations

I realized yesterday that not only have I been in India for 7 weeks, but this is – and will be, when I leave after two and a half months – the longest I’ve been in any one country outside the US, except for my year in France. I guess India wins some sort of award. It seems appropriate, then, that I should share some of my thoughts and observations about India, as I seem to have been mostly keeping my posts to events. My apologies if this gets a little haphazard.

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Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve been interviewed for Indian CNN (CNN-IBN).

The first time was when I was in the village/town of Shirpur (pronounced more like Shil-poor), a poor but improving place in one of the hottest parts of Maharashtra. My hostess in Mumbai is working with a group of women to help set up an English Medium school there, and invited me to accompany her out there for the weekend; I figured it would be a good experience to get out of the bigger cities and into the smaller, poorer areas, as the best experiences I’d had so far had been in the more rural parts of Kerala (though I was already loving Bombay, which I’ll write about soon, I promise). Needless to say, it was fascinating, and I was definitely a main attraction; most people there had never seen a Westerner, and most didn’t speak English. I was treated like a VIP or whatever, which was thoroughly bizarre, and was given a tour of the area and the schools and factories, to show off how developed they are, etc. I don’t know why it was important to show me, except that I’m a foreigner and therefore worth impressing? It was interesting, at least. Getting interviewed pretty much topped it all, though; they simply wanted to interview me because I’m different, and wanted to hear what I have to say. I made it back to the school too late to be interviewed there, so they took me to the local hospital to meet up with the camera crew, so somewhere out there, there is video of me being interviewed in a hospital, surrounded by tons of staring people who’ve probably never seen a Westerner in the flesh before.

It was more or less the same thing yesterday, when I was interviewed by the same TV station – the local branch, of course – at the Mapro Strawberry Festival here in Panchgani/Mahabaleshwar. Nikunj said they wanted to interview me because I look different. All they wanted to know was what I think of the area and the Strawberry Festival; I asked if they minded if I was biased, as I’m a friend of the family throwing the Festival, but apparently they didn’t. I was also wearing a saree, which garnered me even more looks yesterday than normal, but I’ll get to that in a minute. So, once again, there’s footage out there somewhere of me talking about Mahabaleshwar and the Strawberry Festival. It may be labeled as Kate Moss (thanks, Nikunj…), though I usually get Kate Winslet here. (I’ve decided it must be because of this year’s Oscars, which all of India watched, so now whenever I say my name is Kate, pretty much everyone I’ve met all over the country says, “Oh, like Kate Winslet!” I’ve even had people saying I look like her. It’s a little absurd, but at least they know my name.) Apparently I shall be interviewed many more times today…

It’s so funny to be singled out here, because in any country full of Westerners, I’m nothing special. (I know, I know, my parents think I’m special…) I’ve gotten used to the stares and barely notice them anymore; I didn’t realize this until yesterday, when I was walking around with the girls and they kept saying how everyone was staring at us, and I realized it doesn’t make me uncomfortable anymore, but of course they’re not used to it because they’re from here (though Yutika spent three months traveling with her American boyfriend, so she’s more used to it). For the most part, no one means any harm, and if I catch someone’s eye, I’ll just smile and they’ll smile back, and sometimes wave, or look away embarrassed. Occasionally, people want to take pictures, but it’s usually kids, so I don’t mind. The odd ones are when people just take pictures of me without asking; then I try to put my hand in front of my face or move or something, so they have to ask. Sometimes, people will come up and chat, asking where I’m from and how I like India, or complimenting my outfit, as I usually wear traditional clothes (this was particularly the case yesterday, when I was in a saree). I felt like a walking publicity stunt yesterday, because people kept asking if I was dressed up for a festival, so I could tell them about the Strawberry Festival.

To top all this off, on the flip side, I’ve been asked before if I’m Indian; as in, if my family is Indian. So, who knows, I don’t know what to think.

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I will likely offend some people with this next bit, but inasmuch as it’s been a bit part of my experience here, it has to be said.

Having been in India for nearly two months and having spent a good portion of that staying with family friends and in other private homes, I have become intimately familiar with the practice of having servants and drivers, etc. I have tried and tried to become inured to it, to treat it as normal, but I simply can’t get over it. For one, on a purely selfish level, I don’t like the lack of independence for myself; I can’t cook or really control what I eat (I can request things, but it depends on them knowing how to make it, and I have to deal with them thinking I’m nuts for wanting something), I can’t wander around without having to be aware of other people, I can’t really go out on my own (everyone insists that I just take a driver, because why bother paying for transportation?), I have to arrange to meet the driver at a certain time and place in order to get home (and he usually doesn’t speak much English), and the list goes on.  On a moral level, I have issues with having servants. I know, I know, I’m too American. I have issues with other people cooking and serving me food and cleaning up after me and eating separately from me and being taken for granted for pretty much anything, being considered genuinely second-class. I feel often that it’s not my place to think these things, because it’s not my culture, so I haven’t written anything on here before now, but after a conversation the other day, I’ve decided to just go for it. If anyone has any opinions, comments, etc., I’d love to hear.

Michal thought about it too, after she left, and said that maybe it’s like being a domestic servant was in the US at the turn of the last century; it was a good, secure job, where you knew you’d get good pay and good food. If you recall my comments about the factory jobs in Cambodia, which we’d consider sweatshops, where their salaries are minimal for the US but good for Cambodia, it could easily be something like that. And being a servant varies from job to job, I’m sure (based on my experiences). Still, though, I have qualms I can’t get past, and while there’s nothing I can do, I know this is a primary reason I will be relieved to get back to Western cultures.

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I’ll stop there for now, but I’d love to hear some comments.

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This entry was published on April 10, 2009 at 9:52 pm. It’s filed under Cambodia, clothes, culture shock, India, Maharashtra, Panchgani, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Indian Observations

  1. In Chile a lot of people still have some kind of domestic help. Most people don’t have chauffers and armies of maids, but I know several families who do have a live-in nanny/maid/general housekeeper, and pretty much everyone who can afford it has someone who comes to clean, do laundry and maybe do some light cooking once a week. We do too. I know what you mean about it being a bit weird – I’m usually at work when our nana comes, but the times I’ve been here I’ve felt a bit awkward. But my approach is that as long as I’m being a good person it’s just part of the culture. To me that means paying a fair wage and asking for a fair amount of work – with the knowledge that I’m doing those things, I can enjoy my clean apartment without too much of a guilty conscience.

  2. i want you here visiting me RIGHT NOW. I keep telling people that you’re coming, which makes me soooo so much more excited – a month now!!! think about where you’d like to go for a weekend trip away. i’m currently thinking santander or someplace in asturias (oviedo/gijon), so if for some reason you’re bored (ha, ha) and have extended internet access, look those places up and see if you’re interested. if not, we can likely figure it out when you’re here, and i can get more ideas until then. i cannot WAIT for you to come!

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