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Poverty in Bihar

November 27th

The auto drivers swarm when I exit the train station. This is, of course, a common experience for me in India — leaving a train station always draws at least a few offers, usually at double the price. But this is different. A few get a head start in my direction, but in a moment I am among them, twenty men clustered around me, layers of circles, waiting to hear who I will choose. I look back at the station and think about how I haven’t seen a single foreigner (I wouldn’t have noticed before, I’m often the only one) but I begin to wonder at the rarity of my occurrence. How there’s no one else looking for a lift.

I hesitate, the men wait with anxious faces, some tossing out offers. This is not frightening, as it would have been in Delhi if so many overtook me at once. There isn’t a single infuriating, anticipatory grin as I scan around the group — no well-known look of relishing imminent extortion or violation. Only strangled hope. I don’t know what to do, who to choose.

There’s no obvious “first one there” to solve the question, my usual solution. The cruel and creepy usually make themselves known quickly, but no one here is distinguishable. My hesitation drags on, a distended moment that heightens the anxiety of those waiting for my all-too-powerful choice. I want fairness and reason, and it is not coming quickly in this poverty-stricken state.

Second solution: bargain, which works in Delhi for selection and, in some cases, retribution. Here, it is a mistake. I call out for eighty rupees instead of the standard one hundred, thinking that I’ll get to ninety and we can go, but someone accepts it. Glad that the choosing is over, I toss my backpack onto the back shelf and dive in.

The young driver and I quickly pass through the simple city and out onto a long road passing fields and I wonder if the poverty is connected to the weak-looking land that cannot entirely owe its appearance to an imminent winter. Tension eases. The driver switches on his radio and suddenly I have a soundtrack to life, heightening my awareness — I really am in India.

We stop along the way, and a street-clothed man asks for a “road tax,” not even attempting to feign professionalism. I refuse to pay the ten rupees, and fake incomprehension, another common ruse of mine. The young man pays it instead; he may only be subject to corruption, and not participating. I don’t know, and I won’t be so disconnected as to pretend he has much of a choice.

Again, we stop at another cluster of stalls, mostly chai-focused, and the driver leaves me behind in his auto. He’s only gone for a moment, waving goodbye to someone and shouting. I ask, and he tells me he stopped to see his friend [unspoken: to show off his passenger]. So I figure that that’s worth ten rupees. But after crossing the seven miles to Bodhgaya, I tell him that my quoted price is unfair, and give him the one hundred rupees. It’s still an unthinkably small amount for how prices usually go; to give more would increase the ugliness of elbowing for a foreigner, unproductive for everyone.

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained Enlightenment 2,500 years ago. A grand temple marks the spot, with a grown offshoot of the original Bodhi tree. A town formed around it, with more temples.

There are extremely poor, begging folk all over India; there is a high concentration of them in Bodhgaya, here for the merit-building donations that praying Buddhists may give and potentially the highest concentration of any tourists in Bihar. And there aren’t that many.

The destitute are often maimed, sometimes accidentally, sometimes to intentionally elicit sympathy. Sometimes they’re organized, carried to their “spot” by others who will take a cut of their earnings. Mothers may hang back and send their children to you, or point to an infant wrapped across their chest to ask for milk (which, at least in McLeodganj, they sell back to the shop owner for cash). In lucrative tourist areas, they make more than they ever could via hard labor. It is a complex situation integrated into the society, supporting the better-off in many ways, especially by producing cheap labor.

Bihar feels different.  The pleas used to make me feel cornered, anxious, overwhelmed, helpless. Here, I am simply and utterly humbled. Pity separates: one standing above, extending a thought or a small rupee bill meant well, but keeping the others below. In Bihar, poverty manifests in broader ways, a heavy message of limited options. Perhaps I am simply able to receive the message, now that I’ve cleared my head and heart. An earnestness devoid of manipulation or disconnection. That anxious desperation. There can be no superiority in the presence of that, only great humility. Maybe it is because I was raised Catholic, maybe it was my university, but I feel as if this is what they are talking about, the Jesus of my liberal friends and family, of St. Vincent de Paul. 

I have come to visit the sacred Buddhist site, but also to see the collection of temples built according to different cultural styles: the carefully painted structures stand stark and strange against the living pain. Bizarre expenditures bent on glory and peace but decorated with suffering.

It’s around 8 AM as I am walking past the grand Mahabodhi temple. I recognize some Tibetans standing at a basket or two — there’s bread! Imagine a giant English muffin, baked fresh that morning. I can’t buy enough for everyone here, and what will they eat tomorrow? The juxtaposition of nicely-outfitted Tibetans, baskets of bread for those who can afford it, the fancy temples, and the thin, begging people scattered among it all contorts my mind. I take a breather in the known — and ask about the bread.

Buy Tibetan things from Tibetans, and Indian from India = an attempt to sort through consumer ethics. The salesperson smiles, and the man behind her gives me a price that is more than double what it would cost in Delhi. I give him a startled, critical look, but he smiles and shrugs it off, but I buy it — and he asks me for a donation, says something about hard times. I leave without answering.

Priorities. Racial conflict. Discrimination.

My delight in eased harassment among the Tibetans had been too strong an influence. This is not a condemnation of an entire community, Indian or Tibetan. Eyes opened to the few who take advantage of a situation, to the desensitization, and the troubles. Traveling in India demonstrates the worst and the best of humanity, and draws out your best and worst. It is a land of extremes, with a unique education to offer.

Still, the next morning, I purchase Tibetan bread from two young Indian woman squatting next to a large woven basket. All smiles and connection and reaching out. So much for a simple answer to ethical consumerism.

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A Different Sort of Darkness

November continues without a clear answer from any of the workshop leads. The ambivalence leaves us wondering and waiting, even from those who actively pursued us for our experiential, discussion-based approach to gender issues.

The first week of November is electric. I’m writing, filling in the blanks in both the project and my education, reading some relevant material procured via a professor back in the States. I’ve tried most restaurants in the neighborhood, and have established which dish at which spot are the best — finding the nuances of quality and flavor across similar menus of noodle soup and steamed dumplings. The local cafe has wi-fi, couches (!), real coffee and muffins; the staff recognizes me now.

But the ambiguity saps my focus, and I slowly slip into darkness.

Something feels “wrong”… an unsettled feeling, an inability to truly engage. I often take an auto (rickshaw) to Charnita’s to meet and discuss the workshop — the drivers are starting to recognize me and they don’t waste time doubling the price — but I am realizing that it isn’t the workshop anymore.

Anything is overstimulation. Taking the footbridge over the six-lane traffic to the Punjabi side of the neighborhood is a nightmare of human misery. The impoverished moan their agony, stretching out stumps and wasted limbs for ten rupees — not enough to solve their problems, not enough to change the system. The streets on the other side are packed with tiny specialized shops selling dishware, snacks, sweets, clothes…piles of vegetables and fruits wait to be weighed and bagged. The scale reminds me of Egyptian hearts being tested for quality, the seller holding it up and tossing metal blocks into one concave dish until it nears balanced. Back across the footbridge whose population has multiplied as we near dusk and the shoppers return home.

I hide from everything, even the quieter Tibetan spaces, and let myself slide into depression. Half the day is given to sleep, consistently not leaving bed until 2 p.m., and then only to roll downstairs for a single meal somewhere before retreating to my now-somber room and deeper into my shell. I fall into the old bad habits, developing an emotional dependency on a particular Indian brand of caramel candy.

Sitting on the top step of metal suitcase, near the water tanks which are responsible for the water damage in my room below, I exhale cigarette smoke into the hazy Delhi night sky, gaze out over the smog and lights into the quiet chaos below, and wonder at my own pollution.

Last Train to Chennai

“This time there’s no child to guide me,” I silently laugh at myself, standing in the mid-morning sun. I’m waiting for the third train, the one that will take me to my original destination — Chennai. I’ve already rejected one over-packed, sans-ladies-compartment option. The two other women on the platform leave it alone as well after some inspection, and we collect in the shade to wait for the next. I’m told it will come in thirty minutes, and I don’t mind, because compared to the total delay, it is a momentary pause.

The strained anticipation of last night is nonexistent. An old hat now — psh, second class? SO done — I forget that this is not my typical mode of travel, and can enjoy the carefree energy at this end of the platform. Sitting on the ground, leaning against my backpack, I reflect on the night before.

Thank god I pack light. I can’t imagine anyone fitting the classic 70-litres-to-break-your-back monstrosities into that crowded space. The primary reason that I made it into the train car was my ability to toss my bag over my head, sending it into the outstretched hands that rose to receive it. My curious companion, the ten-year-old girl, had later asked me about its contents.

I couldn’t open it or explain. What would I say? That I have one more shirt and some socks. Plus a small laptop, a light solo mosquito net, a handheld water purifier, books and three different spiral notebooks, a pile of malaria prophylaxis, and that, at departure, 50% of the pack was medical content. How do you say that to a self-assured family whose combined objects fit into one shopping bag and a bundle of clothes?

A train arrives, chugging and hissing, and the few women climb into the small ladies’ compartment. I turn down welcoming offers, and reject a seat for the spot at an open door. The questions that began the night are answered — I will make it to Chennai in time for my next train; but there’s no fear left to ease, and I nestle into door’s adjacent corner to see the unfiltered world.

In the night, a grandmother and the mother had pulled the door open after a good half of the hallway’s occupants had disembarked. This had enabled the chai man’s last efforts to supply the train, and after we had rolled slowly into the dark, they left it open, gazing out at the countryside, sipping chai. I remember the grandmother. Her age and oppressed female status was irrelevant, as her strong body leaned against the door frame and her leg swayed out into the air. Her inner energy smoldered under her skin, her peaceful, confident face seemed to be appraising the land that lay before her. The younger ones, myself included, were sorting out sleeping positions; but as we were drifting off, I thought about her, saw an inner strength played out in her body, laced with an acceptance that was far from defeated.

Bright sunshine heats my right side as fields and trees zoom by under the train’s pace. I let one leg loose, but keep it in line with the car so my mind isn’t invaded by images of losing it. Hours go by, and I wiggle and adjust my pack. No books, no music, just experience and silence in the racket of wheel-on-track. Exhilarated by the train’s speed and open space between myself and this confusing, complicated country, I feel elated and connected.

We snake through towns, revealing patched-together slums (because who would choose to live next to the tracks?). At best, stones are stacked into walls and bridged with tarp-covered metal sheets, then weighed down with rocks. Animals mix with drying clothes and running children. I don’t hide my whiteness, the anomaly sitting in the door of a second class train car, but I am still removed. I can absorb and observe at a distance. But, then again, they can return that gaze. A seeing and seen exchange, poverty as a suspected vulnerability — but that cannot be assumed.

I am thrown out of myself later, in an air-conditioned, quiet restaurant complete with white tablecloths. Dumped into a frenetic train station, officially the most people I’ve seen in one place in my life, I’ve come for a place to discreetly access my laptop, and it is the only discernible candidate in the area. Was I really so comfortable in second class? I felt more accepted and far less unusual there, where I had expected the opposite. Where everything about our economic and cultural differences demanded the opposite, but that was not what happened.

The waiters are staring at me, and my discomfort increases.

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