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A Day on the Street in Delhi

Cultural patterns and learned behaviors explain pieces of it; and the foreign and racial stimuli heightens the occurrence of sexual harassment Intellectually, the overwhelmingly disappointing behavior of a collection of male individuals can be analyzed with social and gender theory, with the hope that understanding will lead to empowerment and change. One striking factor is that harassment was often the worst in areas commonly frequented by foreign tourists — the most popular sites or hotel neighborhoods. Lack of cultural awareness on the part of visitors is problematic anywhere, but it is dangerous to suggest that this can dismiss accountability for such negative behavior.

For today, I am simply going to describe the public treatment I received in my last few days in Delhi, so that maybe you can understand what it is like.

I was staying in a small hotel in Paharganj, known as the backpacker’s neighborhood (budget accommodation and close proximity to the railway station). The white population is only a sliver of the crowd, but at a higher concentration than most of the city.

My life is simple: saying goodbyes, writing, collecting gifts for the package going home. Every day, I walk through the neighborhood.

Walking down Main Bazaar, the widest of the narrow roads shattering order in Paharganj, means hearing “hey, baby”‘s every ten feet or so. I used to count. Every minute at least on the main road. Sometimes every ten seconds for patches at a time. Those were not always the literal words, but that’s how I’ve dubbed the casual inquiry since the first time I heard that Americanism from an Indian guy’s mouth. Other not so pleasant comments, as well.

This should not need to be said, but for those who need to hear it: I dress in primarily Western clothes but conform to Indian modesty, always wear my hair up, do not smile or make eye contact with men. A friend commented that I almost looked angry when he first saw me on Main Bazaar.

December 9th begins just like any in Paharganj — with a lot of sexual harassment — but it is the day that I am (truly, this time) leaving Delhi.

I had visited major locations and ashrams related to Mahatma Gandhi across the subcontinent, but the thread was incomplete: the last, and natural, step was a visit to Raj Ghat, the site of his cremation, in honor of his work and what I had learned.

The park was not far from the railway station, so I made my way through the general harassment of Paharganj, dropped my backpack off in left luggage, and sought an auto rickshaw from those lining the station exit.

Auto drivers tend to be older than the typical guy vocalizing his desire and/or masculinity. They do not verbalize, but they are not entirely free from intrusion. Most often it is lack of respect and a strong drive to overcharge that dominates the exchange. One accepts my price, relatively quickly, among the many who scoff. Zooming off into city traffic, he adjusts his mirrors and I slide all the way over to one side, removing my body from the two circular reflections hanging at his eye level while adjusting my clothes to be sure that I am covered. Sometimes I add an arm across my chest, too, in defiance.

We arrive at the park; I exit with a severe look on my face and pay him. Knowing little English, he responds in a confident voice, “Sex?”

I fling out my arm in a weak hit, not quite connecting with his face, and hurl a few harsh words which sufficiently communicate my opinion of the idea, because his smile disappears and he speeds off.

Already worn down by the Main Bazaar gauntlet, I stagger into the park, stunned by the encounter — that he was almost twice my age, how clear it was that he expected a positive response, how casual.

A few couples and families occupy the wide sidewalk leading towards the enclosed reverential square. Graceful lawns separate us from traffic, drawing in a peaceful quiet despite throngs of schoolchildren on a field trip to see the closest thing you could get to Gandhiij’s grave, as his ashes were scattered across India.

I try to relax, focusing my mind on ashram memories. It is hard to ignore the elementary schoolgirls pointing at me. Depositing my shoes to be shelved away at the counter, I pass through the archway. More little girls come, giggling, to stand a few feet away and then skitter back to their friends. I walk, breathing, feeling each footprint, bringing up a meditative state. As I reach the enormous glossy slab of stone, flame and incense swirling in his honor, I lose focus. Attempt some thoughts of gratitude and respect despite the circling schoolchildren who keep their distance but remain intently observant.

Quickly out of the square, back to my shoes, across a lawn, deep breaths now, far to the edge of the initial grassy slope but still within sight of women although at least fifty feet from any human being to get a break, I sit against a tree and take out a little book of Gandhi’s writing to recover what meaning I lost.

Six teenage boys in matching uniforms gather together about fifteen feet away, stare, and laugh.

In one forceful phrase I instruct them to leave. They begin to move, but look back and linger, so I stand to go, and more of them arrive. All around seventeen/eighteen. They follow me in gangs of four or five, fanning out behind me laughing pointing jeering grinning. I lose it, shout back asking them to leave me alone, the farther ones pick up the pace.

Four months in India and I am finally, literally, chased away.

It is not violent. Eventually, after following me for a good seventy feet, they stop, I break away and reach women, crying once my face is turned away from the teenagers. But they were clearly part of a high school trip, where were their teachers? And the families, couples, adults there. This was not a subtle moment in a packed street. It was a crowd of more than twenty whooping and pursuing a girl in front of their eyes.

Delhi had been my home during the journey, hosting close friends and inspiring work. I left the park and the city hating that that was my goodbye.

To Give Love

In the afternoons at Brahma Vida Ashram, I am free to rest, read, and reflect. I spend my time speaking with the older sisters, the ones who have been at the ashram for decades. This post is a compilation of two interviews with a particular lady in her eighties. She is devout, informed, and dedicated. May I share her words well.

“’I, me, mine,’” the elderly sister tells me, leaning forward from her pillow in earnest, “that has created all the problems.”

Her simple room near the ashram’s gardens is dark and cool in the afternoon heat. She sits on her bed next a table stuffed with books, an alarm clock, a radio, and bits of paper. Her gray and white hair is cut short, a radical style for India; sometimes she takes a deep breath as she speaks, wind in her chest emphasizing her most important points. “A calm state of mind is essential, all the time observing your breath,” I am told. She squints slightly at me, serious but kind. Sometimes she augments our conversation with a book pulled down from the shelves behind her – something on Vinoba, the ashram’s founder, or various aspects of life. The conversation flows from her travels in America to questions about my work. At this particular moment, we are discussing the future of humanity.

“From the moon, there are no lines on Earth. […] The identity of “I” is fake, it has no meaning. When we get rid of the I-ness, I am nothing, I am an instrument in the hands of a power, I want to keep links with that power.” Her eyes are calm but grave. “These wars, the bloodshed, exploitation, trying to find some place for myself, I depend on this person — I don’t depend on any person, I am empty.”

She tells me stories: how she gave away her inheritance after keeping just enough for her needs, how Gandhi was careful to take no more than his share, Vinoba’s simple way of life. Producing a pair of pink pants made from thick, handmade cotton, her hands perform the movements of sewing a patch — for twenty-two years. She owns a summer outfit and a winter outfit. Waving at the things on the table beside her, she tells me, “Objects are here with me temporarily, they will move on,” her hand flings out and I imagine the books speeding away from her. “We have to use objects to their ultimate end, you can’t use and then throw away.” Counting on her fingers, she explains that mass production and consumption mean mass waste.

Our conversation turns to India, its problems and heritage. “India is a land of unity in diversity,” she explains, her voice soft but her words railing against corporate systems, the dangers of globalization, the monopolization of seeds and that variety will be finished, that regular folk won’t be able to get seeds from the fields, as they always have. Vinoba’s peace walk for land reform floats up from my memory; I hear the vital role of agriculture in her words, echoing the man who started the ashram seventy years ago.

Thinking about role of giant corporations in America’s government and economy, I ask the question I’ve carried with me for the Gandhians: how can young people have hope?

“When we see positive and negative things in this world, we get confused. But there is — positivity is in a bigger number than the negativity. And the whole world is standing on some harmony. In human society, negativity is in bigger number than positivity. But because God has created this whole universe, Divinity will be more successful… there is a survival instinct in human beings, in insects and everything. Through violence, we cannot survive, we need nonviolent means. The language of love need not be learnt, any individual animal or insect understands the language of love. […] So our mission of life is to give love, to everyone who comes into your life flow — serve them with a compassionate and loving heart. If I can do that, then my life is worthwhile. You will be so much happy, and so much enjoy. On a certain level, that’s how the Divine power works. People catch our vibrations, and it becomes something magical.”

I scribble notes and promise to write something that my university community back home could read.

When we say our goodbyes, she hands me a book of poetry on nature’s beauty, and takes my hand. “I have realized the significance of your name. Bridget. You build bridges between people.”

Remembering Chicago, the interfaith community, and their nickname for me, I know it is not a great leap to make but I still stagger away from her room in awe of the experience.

Living Museum

Faintly curved seams distinguish wall from floor in the earthen rooms. Wooden slats and beams separate the kitchen from the sky, but birds flit in through the windows to perch above the breakfast scene. One or two brave souls join the ashram residents on the dining room floor, making small nonchalant hops as if they are innocently sharing space — then dive for a peck or two from an unattended breakfast plate.

Glass-free windows allow an untempered flow of sounds: cows murmuring to each other in the nearby fields, chattering schoolchildren, the intermittent low rumble of an auto. Memories of plastic and tile stand stark against worn wooden cupboards and exclusively metal tools. Half-doors sling a partial line between the large, plant-spottted patio space and the kitchen.
Paths connect each building, turning the complex into a single unit wholly integrated with nature, where inside and outside become loose terms.

Chicago had felt disconnected — cement and brick sealing off earth access, wind and winter pushing us between disjointed boxy buildings, isolated under fluorescent tubes at pressed-board desks. When people ask me about India and America, I explain how space separates: wide roads and long distances, the urban personal bubble, lawns pushing the world away from suburban houses, that three thousand miles affects how people think.

Sevagram Ashram embodies a Gandhian ideal. By embracing a village lifestyle and merging with nature, it attempts to tap into the common Indian experience of rural life. Gandhi advocated simple living and personal sustainability: outlining “bread labor,” doing at least some direct work each day on producing your own food, as well as the practice of wearing natural fabric woven from thread that you have spun yourself. One slim, serious woman wears the kurta of a man, spurning dupattas (and the symbolic modesty) for a practical shirt. One with a softer face and easier smile is still wrapped in soft, white women’s clothing, but her self-assured tone and movements defies the stereotypes written onto her body. Their apparent leader, a bearded man, strides around the room without aggression, approaching every task in the same efficient manner; his toned, age-denying chest and back are often exposed under the drape of his dhoti, a reference to Gandhian simplicity and work.
This seemingly simple village complex witnessed major political decisions and discussions that shaped India’s independence. Modern India grew in reference to its heritage, birthed in allegiance to its past.

Where the general rural population inherits its position, this is an intentional community, self-conscious and more likely than not finds its residents in the middle to lower middle range of economic class. Rose-tinted glasses removed in the spirit of effective understanding, I am surprised by their employment of a cook and wonder at how contemplative living truly could make a positive difference in the world. But the residents work alongside her in the kitchen, and sometimes there are more than twelve for dinner, visitors swelling our numbers. They humbly live in a significant historical site.

The new country did not dedicate itself to Gandhi’s ideas. This living museum could be called obsolete, clinging to a past that never produced its hoped-for future. It is village life interpreted, a demonstration of the ideas of one influential man. Indian tourists come and click their pictures of Gandhi’s walking stick. So easily forgotten, a small community holding on against globalization’s tidal wave of obscurity.

It is remembrance by doing — how very Gandhian. Each lift of a spade, each rolled chapati and turn of the spinning wheel, done in quiet dedication. You could focus on the individual buildings marked by a sign explaining their role in Gandhi’s life, but the work, the people, the dynamics embodied in their way of life and the use of space, are the real thing being preserved for the education of posterity.

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