Journal Entry: Contradictions
September 28, 2009
We read an article prior to Indicorps orientation about India being a land of paradoxes, a land of contradictions. In this past week, I have come to experience that phenomenon firsthand.
In contrast to other countries, Indian culture has a particular focus on family and community. People’s homes and hearts are open. Even when they don’t seem to have a lot, it has been my experience that people will still generously offer what they can to others. There is so often this beautiful sense of unity among people. But perhaps I have been romanticizing India from a limited perspective – I now realize that there is also a heavy and hurtful presence of separation and disconnectedness in India.
Kavita, Pramal and I attended a garba for Navarathri as guests of a Gujarati Association. We were there only ten minutes when an angry older woman came up to Kavita and me demanding to know what we were doing there. Detecting our non-Gujarati roots, she exclaimed, “Outsiders not welcome!” As she began hastily ushering us out, the event organizer came to our rescue, but still her sour words did not leave my mind. There was so much joy, color and devotion in that room; the Indian culture was so vibrant. Yet there was barely any love shown to us – the cold shoulders and evil glares are all that resonate in my memory. My concept of an India with open arms fell a few notches that night.
Yesterday, Pramal and I explored some of Hubli and Dharwad on our day off. As part of a social experiment of sorts, we went to a well-known coffeehouse chain called Café Coffee Day. It was disturbingly similar to Starbucks. I self-consciously drank a frappuccino while lounging on a plush chair listening to upbeat Western tunes blasting from the sound system. It was a truly surreal experience in India. We were surrounded by upper middle class youth, on dates or just gabbing with friends, sipping their drinks and quite oblivious to the world on the other side of the coffeehouse’s glass wall. But Pramal and I were acutely aware of the trash on the ground, the pollution in the air, and in particular, the two street children begging for money just outside the door. They looked at us, their noses pressed against the glass, and I was overwhelmed by feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness and compassion. It was eye-opening and also depressing for me to witness this blatant indifference from the upper middle class. (But then again, can I really judge them? Was I the same way in New York City? – so accustomed to the poverty around me that it became quite easy to turn a blind eye and go on about my day?) In an India I appreciated for its sense of community and generosity, I am amazed by the power of a glass wall.
– Geetha Mathews, Indicorps Fellow (August 2009)