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December 27, 2005 > A perspective from halfway around the world

A perspective from halfway around the world

by Nitasha Sharma

On Nov. 9, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw Nitasha Sharma: Fremont born and raised, confident, poised, and certain of whom I was. On Nov. 12, I looked at myself in the mirror and did not know what to think. It could have been that I was disillusioned by my 35-hour journey, or maybe I was just fatigued from airplane food I didn't eat. Then again, it could have been the fact that I was in India.

Growing up as a privileged young teenager attending Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, one does not see many great visions of adversity. A person like me would call a desperate situation something to the effect of not being able to buy clothes for a new season.

I had been to India two times before, but I must have never mentally landed in the country because what I found on my most recent excursion was literally life-altering. Truthfully, what could be better than taking two and a half weeks of vacation from school to visit family you have not seen in years?

As I moved away from the China Airlines airplane on which I had just flown in from Taipei, I knew I was in for an interesting trip. Momentarily forgetting the drastic differences I noticed in my surroundings, I eagerly greeted my family who had driven 80 miles to receive my mother and me - a three and a half hour drive from my parents' hometown of Aligarh. I felt excited hands herding me to a car that awaited us outside. I was tired and slept the entire trip back to Aligarh.

During my stay in India, I shopped, slept, and ate - all common pastimes for a 17-year-old senior. But what was revolutionary was the plethora of things I learned about my heritage and the land from which my parents hailed.

The first thing you see when you step out into the street of an Indian town is waste. At first, I frantically tried to save my Converse sneakers from being tinted a yellow-brown from all the debris, but quickly was resigned to the lack of sidewalks and sewers. As an American girl traveling to her country of ancestry, I was terribly embarrassed. I thought to myself, what would my friends think? How could I bring back pictures of a country so foreign to an Indian person like myself - one to which I could not adapt?

If sharing is caring, India is the land of compassion. Cars, scooters, dogs, cows, buffalos, pigs, and even people share the same unpaved, unmarked roadway. Sidewalks? Evidently, an unknown concept. Here I was, a 5'8'' size 11 shoe-wearing giant Indian girl screaming in fear when a street dog looked my way! Animals were not the worst of my problems. Sewage "drains" in India are ditches on each side of the road which are open to fresh air and welcome the feet of anyone caught unaware of their path of travel. In these sewage "drains" breed mosquitoes, a trademark of any stay in India (I have the scars to prove it).

At night, the layer of dust in the air is so dense that one can barely see 30 feet in front of their car. If that is not enough of an obstacle, trucks often break down (not necessarily on the "shoulder," if there is one) and are left in the street, without lights, for days, if not months. Needless to say, traffic is a problem in India. During my entire stay in India, our car did not reach a speed of more than 40 mph, and that was on the highway. For two and a half weeks, I experienced chaos in the streets on a daily basis.

Do not get me wrong, not everything about my view of India is negative. Whether or not young Indo-Americans like me consider themselves ABCD's (American Born Confused Desi's), we are all still Desi's from India. I refuse to lecture India from atop a soapbox halfway around the world. In all honesty, while I hated my stay in India, I also loved it beyond expression. The culture in India is a reminder of how flawed our own nation can be in the eyes of moral critics. No matter where I went in India, everyone treated me like a close family member. Although I feared being an outsider in a world of strangers, I never felt like anything but "one of the family." When we went out for dinner, everyone fought not to dodge, but to pay the bill! People served others before themselves, and watched everyone's plates for empty spaces on which they could plop another serving of paneer or another quarter of naan.

I nearly doubled over with disbelief when I returned and made the death march to the bathroom scale, only to find that I had lost five pounds. Anyway, it may already be quite apparent that food is the center of culture and social gatherings in Indian society. No less than 20 families - many of which we met for the first time at their residences - invited us to visit their homes. To clarify, this meant no less than 20 meals, with no shortage of food or lack of "magical" appearances of food on my plate. The hospitality was truly amazing.

For a person who was raised to be punctual, efficient, and fashionable, but not late, India was frustrating beyond reason. India may be in another time zone, but it also operates on what I like to refer to as "Indian Standard Time." I never woke up earlier than 10 a.m. and we never left our home in Aligarh before 2 p.m. to run errands. I grew frustrated with the inefficiency with which everything in India ran. Breakfast was at 11 a.m., lunch was at 5 p.m., and dinner was at 10 p.m. There is close to no concept of time in India. The general attitude of nonchalance is almost to the point of lethargy. For example, everything at the State Bank of Aligarh, and government organizations like it, run on a schedule dictated by the workers. Someone could wait 20 minutes to make a withdrawal only to find that the person able to perform the transaction left while he or she was waiting. In a country with four times the population of America in a total area equal to about one third of America's, it is no surprise that nothing runs with ease and efficiency.

India is such a populated nation that it is tremendously common for people to become a blur in the eyes of the government. People live in poverty with next to no visible government aid. Social programs like social security, welfare, and unemployment insurance simply don't exist as they do in America. The level of poverty in the nation is so high that there is no escaping the harsh reality of the way people live. During one of the many traffic jams I experienced in Aligarh, I happened to glance down and out of the car window only to see a man with two arms, without legs, trying his best to cross the street without getting run over. Amidst such chaos I saw this man making the best of what he had. There are no wheelchairs and scooters to help the poor handicapped of the nation, people must fend for themselves.

One woman I met was a recent widow, mother of seven, and daughter-in-law of a bed-ridden woman who had to work everyday in order to support her family. In fact, her three eldest children, the oldest being 14 years old, were servants in households as well. School is not a priority as they become stuck in the cycle of poverty set up by a lack of education and limited opportunities to beat the remnants of the caste system - a pyramid-like class system dictated by genealogy. Despite these difficulties, I never saw the aforementioned woman complain about her life. She never asked for help; she simply did her work and returned to her home to care for her family. Even though she had to resort to relying on her 5-year-old child to take care of her 1-year-old infant, she smiled and took every day as it came.

That was one thing that astonished me about India; I saw more desperately poor people in two weeks than I would care to see in my lifetime. What was even more inspiring was that none of them criticized the government for inadequate aid, or blamed others for the desperate straights they were in. Their children may have been playing in the filth and dust in the streets, but they were content with their lives and thankful for what they did have. Maybe this trend contributes to the cycle of poverty that these people are in, or maybe it's what keeps them going when they have to tell their children that they don't have anything to eat, and there is no one to help them get through the day.

There are no public defenders to represent the poor when they are accused of crimes, no agencies to provide them with food stamps or clothes, and no one to baby-sit their children when they have to work. The whole situation is almost like a fairytale. The poor share what they have and are thankful for the problems they do not have. Even more so, the poor of India almost always work and attempt to provide a basic quality of life for their families. It is not unusual for unfortunate people's homes to be washed away with moderate rainfall, for their children to get sick or even die of tetanus or other diseases, or for them to work full time (well over 40 hours a week) yet still make no more than $20 per month. There seem to be so many obstacles to overcome as a poor person in India.

I found the economic climate of India to be rather interesting. There are two types of income in India: black money and white money. White money is regular income that one receives as salary or payment for employment. Black money, on the other hand, is money that is either obtained or lost by illicit means, such as bribing. Bribing, although technically illegal, is extremely common in Indian life. In the novel, "The Black Economy in India," Arun Kumar details seven or eight bribing processes during his quest to obtain a contract to be a food vendor to the Indian Army. So in all reality, income in India is a simple matter of black or white.

On another note, credit cards and checks are not terribly common in India. How then do people pay for things? Do they carry around hoards of cash? The answer is that it depends on who you are. My relatives in Aligarh are relatively well-to-do, and our family name is associated with honor and integrity. If my family members want to purchase something, they can walk out of a store with merchandise of any value and not pay a single penny until they feel it is convenient. When I learned of this "put it on the family tab" system, I predictably asked questions like, "What if they don't pay?" and "How can they trust random people just based on a name?" The answer is trust and honor. Vendors trust their affluent clients to pay what they owe; families repay their debts to uphold the sanctity of family honor. This system of trust and honor is one that is almost extinct in our nation, save for a few small towns in America's heartland. Seeing such an agreement being made between two parties was curious to a city girl like me. I realized how cynical an average large-town person becomes over time. India seems to have a spirit of optimism and trust in some aspects of its economic culture that are counteracted with negatives such as black money and extortion in other economic dealings.

One quality I would like to emphasize is that the majority of people in India are extremely tolerant of people from all walks of life. No one is persecuted by the government for religious reasons, women have the same opportunities as men, and people are free to speak out about injustices. In fact, India is ahead of America in that the country has had numerous powerful women politicians including Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India. Bollywood, India's equivalent of Hollywood, boasts the largest movie industry in the world. Recent movies have strayed from the beaten path by embracing such ideas as homosexuality and discouraging suicide. Although kisses onscreen are still taboo, and promiscuity is greatly frowned upon, India is changing with the times. The nation is progressive in its social customs, often more than America.

On Nov. 29, I returned to America a changed girl. Learning about my lineage, visiting my family, and seeing the land that my parents grew up in confused me at first. Nevertheless, I am more confident and poised knowing where my roots lie and what traditions and customs run through my blood. India, with its positives and negatives, is a marvelous place that made me appreciate my life and become more aware of adversity in the world around me.

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