Through the Lens

So far, I have written of all that is good, fascinating, beautiful, amusing, and otherworldly in India. Elephants lumbering down the highway under the orange glow of streetlights; deserted beaches where Brian and I wandered up and down stretches of sand for hours undisturbed; warm, all-encompassing families who, for better or worse, want to smother you with hospitality; raucous festivals filled with color, music, and energy; delicious foods like freshly fried paranthas, flavorful fruits and vegetables, cardamom-infused sweets made with pure ghee (clarified butter), and a constant stream of sweet, milky, gingery chai; and of course intricate crafts linking artisans today with their ancestors from generations ago.

However, describing only the fun, easy, and beautiful parts of this adventure does not depict the whole truth of the India we are experiencing. Everyday absurdities make our lives feel more like a farcical comedy than reality. For example… the ceaseless honking of cars on streets where there is no other traffic to speak of; the misty haze of burning trash that began to hang in the air and permeate our bedroom when winter arrived; the packs of street dogs whose howling wakes us in the wee hours of most mornings yet are fed milk and biscuits by our sympathetic neighbors; the internet that taunts us by working for five minutes and then completely shutting down; the acrid odor provided by men using the roadsides as their urinals; the need to argue with every rickshaw driver over the cost of your ride; and the sinking feeling after most commercial interactions that you’ve succumbed to the “tourist tax” yet again.

While we’re usually able to laugh (after the fact) at these daily irritants, there are aspects of India that engender no mirth. Rather they are telltale signs of a harsh reality. A one-armed beggar imploring a crisply uniformed police officer not to fine him for begging; a little girl in pigtails doing acrobatics between traffic at a stoplight, as her younger brother beats a drum and her mother looks on impassively from the curb; a young man explaining that a woman from his religion would never marry a man from another because all men in this other religion treat women badly; two little children, one wearing only an oversized sweater, collecting discarded drinking straws off the ground to sell later for pennies; a family ostracizing a daughter who elopes with a man of another caste and skin tone; a young man being beaten bloody by a group for the mere transgression of a traffic accident; a tired mother holding her baby and begging, watching anxiously while my Indian friend, unconscious of the irony, tried to push the change from our dinner into our other friend’s hand.

As guests in India, we do our best to observe daily life with open minds and no judgment, acting as laymen cultural anthropologists.  Yet we cannot escape our own life experiences, and we must view the good, the bad, the ugly through a lens tinted by our biases.

Manjari Sharma’s Maa Laxmi