May 282011

Each day in India is full of a myriad of moral questions. Not just about the life I comfortably lead at home, but also, of course, how to act here. Is it right to pay a man to pull me in a bicycle cart, and watch him strain through the heat as I sit? Is it right to ignore the beggars that approach me on the streets? Is it right to be feeling annoyed of all the times I’m stopped for a photograph or stared at? How do I respond when women share openly that if their daughter was to get pregnant out of wedlock the family would “follow tradition” and pay for an abortion or kill the daughter? Should I partake in religious activity at the temples we visit in order to experience the ‘culture’? Everyday here is a day of contemplation.

On Friday, Susanna was unable to come to our Hindi lesson, so I embarked on the little trip myself. As I stood on the side of the road flagging for the usual auto-rickshaw, a man peddling a cycle-rickshaw approached and convinced me to hop in for the 3 km ride. I was, before, quite sure I wouldn’t venture on the roads in one of those things, but the streetss are not as busy at that time, and I must have been feeling adventurous!

The ride was interesting. I felt completely safe, probably even safer than in a tuk-tuk, because the speed had a nice, calming effect. But, it was so awkward and uncomfortable to see this skinny little man in front of me exerting a tremendous amount of energy in 45 degree heat, sweating and never sitting on the bike seat, as he used his entire body to pull me along. I had such an urge to hop out and start pushing the bike, and can’t imagine how hard one would have to work to pull more than one person, or luggage. Every stop we made I offered the man some of my drink, but he always refused. Even with this discomfort, I ended up feeling better about riding in this way. Of course it is more ecologically efficient, but I also know that if someone did not desperately need a way to make money, they would not resort to this method of earning income. It is hard work, and it is honest work. I paid him more than we had initially agreed on when we stopped. I feel better knowing my money went to this man than to a man in a tuk-tuk- I think the cycle-rickshaw driver may just be the hardest working man in India.

This weekend Susana, Eli (Germany) and I took a day-trip to Pushkar, which is a town 130 kms away from Jaipur. It is a pilgrimage site for Hindus, as it holds the only temple in the world dedicated to Brahma (the god of creation). We were up early to catch the 6:30 am public bus. Here they joke though about running on Indian Standard Time- which seems to me to mean whenever is convenient! We arrived at the bus station at about 6:10. The site was incredible, and saddening, with over 30 homeless men, women, and families, laying on the cement floor of the complex. We had to maneuver around bodies to make our way to the ticket counter. As soon as we purchased tickets and got on the bus, it began moving. It was only quarter past six, but as I have said… Indians just rock on when they want to!  A good lesson for future bus-travel experiences!

A public bus in India is a hectic way to travel. Too many close calls, too many games of chicken. After we transferred buses at Ajmer for the 20 km remainder of the trip, we traveled one-lane, winding roads up a rocky mountain. I was reminded of Flin Flon on this leg of the trip- but the graffiti on these rocks was, of course, written in Hindi! And there weren’t hearts with lovers’ names inside! Apart from the large rock formations, the whole trip passed stereotypical desert scenery. The trip was bumpy but certainly more comfortable than I expected.

When we arrived in Pushkar we were dropped at the ‘station’, which was really no station at all, but a line of buses and people surrounded by fruit and drink stands. We could buy one-litre bottles of water here for rps. 10, the equivalent of a Canadian quarter!

The town is quite small, and we were able to walk entirely through it in four or five hours. It was nice to be in such a quiet place, a welcome contrast to the constant hustle and bustle of Jaipur. As it is off-season, we were some of the only tourists around. The shopping here was much different than in Jaipur, a real lack of bartering! The shopkeepers in Pushkar were fine to watch us go, and did not pressure sales in the least… maybe they are also enjoying a lazy off-season!

We were fortunate to be guided through the Brahma temple without charge by a young student of the temple, who may have just been excited to be with Western girls and practice his English! I would not have learned so much without the guide. I did my best to tour the temple with an open mind, but I find some of the idols of the Hindu gods to be disturbing to look at. The central Brahma figure was set up with a mirror behind it so that the faces were multiplied, and here our guide instructed us to place half of the collection of flowers he gave us at the bottom of the temple as an offering to Brahma. There were hundreds of Hindus in and out of the temple doing the same. After this we went to the basement of the temple where there is a “wishing room” which walls’ are covered with individual prayers and there is offering plates.

Upon leaving the temple we took the three minute walk to Pushkar Lake where we were each paired with a quasi-priest who led us through a prayer to Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. I did not like praying and saying “Pooja” in worship of these gods I do not believe in. I suffered through trying to embrace the culture, but it was not nice at all! We each performed a strange ceremony with different significant powders and other symbolic items. I was told to name my family, friends, and “life partner” in order to pray for their well-being, and then after was treated horribly by the ‘priest’, as he told me that they would all have bad karma if I did not “give 500 ruppees to the poor, starving children”, and that my good life at home depended upon giving lots of money to people here. I finally had to tell him he was being mean. I should have had the guts to just get up and walk away once this started, because it was a very uncomfortable experience which I wouldn’t recommend, even if you do want to partake in the culture. I spent the rest of the day contemplating this strange occurance, and feeling like I needed to apologize to my God.

We also entered a very modest Krishna temple on the outskirts of the town. Everytime we enter a temple where people are worshipping I feel intrusive, but the group of women with a few small boys were so thrilled we were there! They spoke no English, but performed a dance and song, motioning for us to their photographs as they laughed and held hands. It was an amazing welcome, one which I don’t think we would get had it been during tourist-season.

Religion is just so important here, and I have been enjoying reading Gandhi’s autobiography as I experience so much Hinduism everywhere. So many individuals here live every aspect of their lives (so it seems) according to tradition and to their faith. The different dress, diet, and lifestyles are all symbolic of people’s religion, race, and class. There are especially so many symbols for married women- many, many more than a ring on a left hand. Married women wear two (never less) toe rings, a red bindi, a red powdered line through their hair part (to signify a wish for their husband’s long life) and dress in saris everyday (as per most husband’s expectations). Even amidst all the modernisation I have seen, traditional ways dictate most aspects of behaviour. I was apalled at my Hindi lesson Friday when my teacher (who I had previously pegged as an elitist, there are always 5 or 6 servants around her pompous home) was explaining different ways of addressing someone in Hindi, and stated that the informal friendly way, “tum”, would be “improper for a street person to use this term, as they are uncivilised, not like us.” I stared back blankly after this comment.

Classes this week went well, although it is difficult to be in the uncomfortably hot classroom for four of the hottest hours of the day. I was so filled with joy on Wednesday- there was a special presentation of scholarships during classtime, a big procession for these children. The scholarships are used to send the children of Ambedkar Nagar slum to private school (the public schools here are notoriously awful). It was a nice little ceremony, sitting on the cement floor, with pop and cookies and many proud parents there with their children. The two top scholarships were awarded to Gora’s two daughters (who attend my afternoon class daily), and she was beaming as we sat together. How fantastic! In our discussion later I realized how much she believes in the importance of the education of her children, even when she has not had any formal education herself. As all the students went to accept their awards individually, they stopped to pose for a photograph with their award, having to force back their big smiles. It is rare here for anyone to smile for a picture, and I felt that in this situation it was such a shame! Each child, when heading back to their seat, grinned from ear to ear with pride. I held back happy tears.

I truly planned to write more about what’s been going on with school, but I have spent too long now at the computer screen! I am off to read more Gandhi and work on Hindi- I am writing short sentences now!

Will write very soon.



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