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.