the good – the bad -and the ugly side of india

While all the p***ing about over the tax cuts continues in Washington today, I think it’s a good idea to distract myself and continue my 1980 first visit to India musing.


It’s probably pertinent at this point to re-cap a bit of what was going on in the world in 1980. I am a born worrier, I concede that, but things were happening that justified my worry. Jimmy Carter was president, and you’ll remember that in the latter part of 1979 Iranian student mobs seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two U.S. citizens were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981 with all kinds of tension all over the world during that period. While I had looked forward to that first foreign travel for a long time, I did so with a certain dread. There were more things than crashing into the Atlantic to worry about.

Hijackings. Statistically, worldwide hijacking of airlines between 1948 and 1957 took place an average of one per year, between 1958 and 1967, that average jumped to about five a year, and grew to 38 in 1968 . In 1969 it jumped to 82, the largest number in a single year in the history of civil aviation. In January 1969 alone, eight airlines were hijacked to Cuba. And it only kept getting worse. Between 1968 and 1977 there were 414 hijackings, or an average of 41 a year.

Not to worry, Hubby assured me. Nothing bad is going to happen to us. Thank goodness one of us has the gift of calmness. It has saved me many times. I remember having read or hearing sometime–not long before our departure–that a boy had picked up an abandoned portable radio. Of course it was a bomb and it exploded, killing the boy, and said to have been planted by a Muslim to kill a Hindu or vice verse. To listen to American media at the time, you would have thought Muslims were fighting Hindus on street corners all over India. That’s one of my first lessons in life about putting too much stock in what the American media says.

So there we were after our big day in Agra, returning to New Delhi on the same little train we’d taken in the early morning, The Taj Express. I believe I mentioned that we had seats in the same car with a group of  Muslim Mullahs we’d seen praying and playing music in the Taj. They’d been so friendly to us then, and sure enough, there they were in the same car back to Delhi. I was on a train in India, surrounded by all kinds of people, no other western faces that I remember. No one seemed to be enemies with anybody else. Besides the jostling that is to be expected in crowds anywhere, I observed no animosity at all between different ethnic groups.

So what I had learned about India in my first three days so far? Mostly what I already knew. I grew up in the country, so I hated crowds. Chaos. The traffic. I couldn’t figure out, despite traffic signs and signals and round-abouts designed to ease the flow of traffic, it looked to me like the right of way belonged to the most aggressive drivers or those with the loudest horns to honk. Where there seemed to be two or three lanes, there were four, five and more lanes with all kinds of traffic. A bullock driven cart driver might be ambling along right beside an Indian Lorrie(truck), bicycles next to taxis. There was no point in being afraid. I rather learned to respect the professional drivers in time, and instead of being afraid I kept my eyes peeled on the windows either side where so much was going on, that I didn’t have time to worry or be scared.

The poverty was very affecting. Being an obvious westerner, hoards of beggars gathered around us everywhere, the railway stations, the perimeters of any visitor attraction, mosques, temples. I didn’t carry any rupees on me at all, for safety reasons as I’d been warned about thieves, so I couldn’t give anything no matter how heart-wrenching the gaunt woman with the skeletal baby riding her thin hip, gesticulating with cupped fingers lifted to her mouth to tell me she and her baby were hungry. Nor did I have anything to give the kid without legs scooting around on a skate board, or the blind man, or the leper on the street corner. It was  nearly overwhelming. To make it worse I learned that begging was a way of life for some families. Often children were maimed at birth in order to be more successful at their trade and attract more money from sympathetic westerners when they were a little older.

I suspect now, looking back, that it may have been for my own protection that I wasn’t encouraged to carry money of my own–protection from more than thieves. On a subsequent trip, I did carry a small purse with rupees in it, a request I made of Hubby. The first child I saw outside a mosque begging, I gave him a rupee. Then there were two, three, and in mere seconds a thong of begging children following me. I cringed when I saw the results of downright cruelty to a dog. In time I realized that, in order to live here on a day to day basis, you had to harden your heart to some extent. I forced myself to be mean in order to extricate myself from the situation. Common sense told me I couldn’t solve the problems of the world by casting rupees about. It was a lesson I disliked learning, but it was worse disliking the me they were forcing me to become.

The other side of the coin is what I found good. Things weren’t wasted. Plastic was scarce and what could be was reused over and over. Public transportation was everywhere. Crowded. But available. Walking was a viable way to get around. Consequently we got far more practical exercise while we were there. I loved seeing what to me were exotic animals, seeing cows who weren’t going to be killed or molested in any way. For every good thing, I could probably list that many or more sad thing, but somehow the family life I experienced there made up for a lot.

No matter how the children might have misbehaved, they were never made to feel shame for being themselves. You could see that they were loved. I loved the way men and older boys looked after the them just as fervently as their mothers would. I can’t speak for all Indians, but for Hubby’s family, it certainly was and is. After the last meal of the day, instead of turning on the television, the whole family would go out for long walks together.

Even after nightfall, the streets of Delhi were teeming with life. I had the feeling then that Americans might just have life a little too good. When things get too easy, seems to me, lots of begin sleepwalking through life.  It’s much too crowded and noisy, at least in the days I’ve been there so far, to sleepwalk for very long in India.

In only a couple of days we would leave for Madras on a first class sleeper train to meet other family members along the way for the first time. I could only imagine how my mother-in-law might be feeling waiting to see her son again, her youngest, and his two daughters. And the American woman that kept him from coming home to India.

20 thoughts on “the good – the bad -and the ugly side of india

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Poverty in the U.S. is a cake walk (and yes, I know what one is and bet you do, too) compared to India, Mexico and other countries. It’s really sad. I’m looking that I’m looking forward to your trip as much as you are because I love reading your adventures.

    • You’re right about poverty in the U.S. being a cakewalk compared to other places. I never realized that until that first trip.

      • I spent most of my childhood growing up in Central America – in Managua, Nicaragua and San Salvador, El Salvador and can remember my US mother crying as we passed every day children living in cardboard boxes and thin mothers with their dirty infants with distended stomachs at their breasts. That is the one thing that North Americans don’t comprehend that the poverty in other countries is something you “never” want to get to used to.

  2. Wow – feel as if I were there! Your descriptions are so crystal clear like I am watching a movie. I have always sensed that loving compassionate demeanor about Indian men. You are blessed! Hey! Did you know that it is snowing on your blog here?

    • I do. I love having the snow each year through the holidays. You don’t have to shovel it. If you’re on WordPress, you can have it too?

  3. What a wonderful portrait of love. I’m so honored to be able to come here and read this story. G tells of taking the train all around India on their breaks from work, and I have photos of them everywhere there.

  4. nice post Alice – it seems the older I get the more I realize how cyclical the nature of things are – almost like the toddler book I’m reading talks about the whole years being equilibrium and the half years disequilibrium, the time you are describing sounds like disequilibrium and reminds me of when I visited Cuba in the middle of the explosion in San Francisco – I left the haves and went to the have nots and had more in common with the latter. It also reminds me that all of these cycles pass – last night a German friend described how she moved to America the first year George W. Bush was elected to be president – imagine what she thought about our country and our values? This came up only as everyone was lamenting Obama’s continuance of tax breaks for the wealthy – no one at the table – mostly Europeans – could understand why he did that – but I could – he came to the presidency with long-term goals and the country has demanded short-term ones so he has had to readjust to madding crowd so to speak. One day I will be writing you from India perhaps following in your footsteps and I hope it is peaceful on your upcoming visit and on my long overdue one.

    • I hope you’re right about Obama’s vision that unfortunately I can’t quite see myself so far. When I begin thinking this is the worse things can get, I have only to go back 20 or 30 years and–like you say–see the cyclical nature of politics particularly. We managed through quite a few crises so far, but I wish so much more could be done for those who need it more. I know you’ll be writing from India one day too. Plus I’m going to speak with my more religious in-laws about prayers (is it mantras?–should ask Hubby I guess) that you mentioned once. Will let you know. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • we do a lot of Hindu chants/provocations in the yoga I take care (apparently a big debate in the yoga community – sort of like gadzook, is this religious stuff or something? – like my yoga teacher says, some fear the light – whatyagonnado?) I had been wanting a mantra that I and my yoga group could say for you when you were going through your ordeal – here is the one I said “Ganesha, sharanam, sharanam Ganesha” which I understand means I take refuge in the son of Siva and Parvati, Ganesha, the strong guardian. The one who kindly delivers and removes all obstacles so there is progress in my (your) life.

        • Ohhh, how nice of you! It must have worked as I’m still doing very well, even if at the moment I’m fighting a flare of RA and working to re-establish treatments needed for that. Like you say, whatyagonnado? I’d rather fight RA than the other thing.

  5. From distressing experiences to joining a loving family circle, all the India episodes you described opened up new ideas and perspectives for this reader. Thanks for sharing.

  6. When I was in China I saw a badly maimed child begging on a street corner in Xian. I was told this was a gangland operation. They steal children from the country, maim them (this one looked like it had been burned) then put them out on the streets. The government, which controls everything, does nothing. China, certainly Xian, has no poverty like you saw in India. It made me feel horrible, and helpless. My experiences in Chicago and New York have certainly hardened me, but this cut me like nothing I have ever seen.

    Your posts are wonderful. I look forward to your trip, even if it hurts.

    • Ruth, I may have mentioned this once before, but if you haven’t already you should look for LOST ON PLANET CHINA in the library. It cured any desire of mine to ever visit China. Everyone should read it. Seems like China’s attitude has been there’s always someone else to replace whatever is lost in man-made of natural catastrophes. Only North Korea seems worse. Thanks for the great compliments; only hope I can live up to everyone’s expectations.

  7. Better late than never, I always say………..I had saved all of your posts on India because I was very anxious to read them and knew I would when time allowed. I’ve read as far as this one so far and just have to tell you, Alice, how MUCH I’m enjoying all of it. And I SO agree with you about American’s that don’t travel! There is NO way we can understand and accept other cultures if we do not travel and at least observe them! I’ve always felt that travel is an incredible education and allows us to leave our very comfortable society to really see how others live. Will be reading all the rest of these posts. Also…..wishing you and Hubby a wonderful 2011!

    • You know what they say about keeping the writing habit primed like the old water pump. I find writing these reflections all these years later has certainly primed me to see India as it is now all these years later and get much more from it. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Next year sometime I’m planning a series on “Living on Tobacco Road” about growing up in the tobacco growing business. It’s a way of life that’s disappeared so I’m putting my thoughts on it out there for posterity because, while there are many of us with the common experience I’m not sure how many are writing about it.

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