Saturday, December 31, 2016

India diaries: Good bye India

I've been useless at blogging about this trip. Mostly because I was always too tired at the end of the day or I was mulling over the day and couldn't decide what to write about (it was easier just leaving a Facebook post in fact). But it's only fitting that I least write a final blog seeing as today is the last day of the trip.

India has been a lesson about many things and unfortunately I have very little original thoughts on my trip because I leave with the lessons I've seen been written about many times before: the inequality, the history, the traffic, the pollution etc etc. Of course this list runs the risk of framing India as the single story of what we mostly see on CNN or the media (perhaps excluding Bollywood). It's been an interesting 10 days which have left me with many questions. The trip spanned Pondicherry, Chennai and New Delhi (I would have loved to pass through Jaipur but after the New Delhi experience we decided against it).

The first mistake I made when I arrived in India was to try and liken India to a place I know. This was a huge error. Of course some cities and places have a similar sense about certain things but there are limitations to the similarities. For example I compared Chennai to Butterworth or Umtata based on first impressions. But after navigating more of the city I realised I was wrong. Chennai has it's own feel and texture that I haven't experienced before. Perhaps this is the danger of travelling: bringing preconceptions or previous experiences with us on the journey does not allow us to fully experience the new place we visit because we're trying to make meaning of the place based on the information we have about the place. Of course it's impossible to travel on a clean slate because we carry our experiences and memories everywhere we go. But the best way to travel should be about suspending those memories or misconceptions and simply experiencing the new place rather than relying on the contrived and imagined idea about the place we choose to visit.

One of the experiences I haven't been honest about while I've been here is that I have been operating as a monolingual English speaker. I have not learned one word of the local language. The truth is I haven't had to. The power of English has become very clear for me in an experiential way for the first time in my life. In South Africa I am more aware of the fact that I would be at an advantage if I learned to speak more South African languages.  English has many limitations in South Africa even though it carries a lot of social capital in some places. The fact that I know Nguni languages places me in a position of being able to navigate most places. Outside the context of my work (which is largely English), I often have to communicate in other languages which means I am constantly aware of my linguistic shortcomings. However, for the past ten days I haven't really had to think about my lack of language ability in a foreign country: why? Because English and Hindi are the official languages in India. I worked on the assumption that if anyone heard me speak English they would try to help me because at least I spoke one of the official languages.

This assumption is based on the knowledge that English has power. People have been willing to help or simply ignore me once I've spoken English (tuk tuk drivers have no time for English-speakers; they just ignored us if we didn't use the correct key words of locations). In New Delhi most people understood and spoke English. And unlike South Africa, there doesn't seem to be an obsession with accent (at least that was my impression). And so unbeknownst to me India gave me the feeling of what it feels like to use the dominant language with very little shame of not speaking the language most people speak (Hindi or Tamil in my context). I should have been ashamed or shunned but I always expected someone to respond to me when I spoke English. I've never done this while speaking African languages in South Africa. I've never approached someone in isiZulu (the most widely spoken language in South Africa) with the same confidence of approaching people in English in India. And upon reflection; I should have. But I was too drunk on the social capital I had to care about the language.

I shouldn't be shocked by this experience. The Englishness is a real presence in countries that used to be English colonies. Even in a country like India which has an interesting disregard for anything "western" in some parts of India. But when it comes to anything that resembles prestige, English is ever present (especially in the cities). This is not a new idea. And anyone who has a real sense of inequality is yawning at my observations. India is one giant lesson in inequality. There doesn't even seem to be a restlessness with inequality. The scale of it is largely because there are 1.2 billion people in India and it is the second most unequal country (South Arica remains at the top of the list). But somehow I was still shocked by the level of inequality. Every time I've travelled to a plush mall, where the middle class of India seem to be comfortable, I drove past what looks like a poor area. Of course I've experienced this in South Africa as well. But not at the same scale I've seen in India. It would be an interesting investigation to look at the levels of poverty and wealth per square kilometre and compare between India and South Africa. Perhaps the poverty I experienced and seen in South Africa has become normalised. I've been more overwhelmed by the levels of poverty and wealth that I've seen in India. I have been consumed by images of how well India is doing while navigating malls which speak to this success. There's a mall called DLF Emporio in New Delhi  which is Hyde Park Corner (in Johannesburg) on steroids. It makes Hyde Park look like a small shopping centre.

I would be remiss in writing a final post about India without writing about money; or rather lack of it. Throughout the trip I became hyper-aware of money in my bag. Mostly because most ATMs did not have any money. For a night Sku and I had 350 rupees in New Delhi without the hope of getting any more money. This meant we wouldn't be able to pay for a tuk tuk if we wanted to get around (there are certain places where uber wasn't available). This was very worrying. The kind of worry I've never had about not having money. I generally carry no physical money with me in South Africa. It's become normal. And there's almost a sense of pride about having a moneyless lifestyle because that's a marker of real progress. And perhaps that's what India is going for. But if you're poor and have no access to digital money this can be a precarious experience. When we eventually found an ATM with money, it gave us 500 rupee notes which made us very nervous because we weren't sure if the notes were credible. We had to google and check whether the new 500 rupee notes had been released before we could rest in the confidence of having money for a few days. The excitement was also hollow because all ATMs have had a limit on the amount of money which can be withdrawn. It was 2500 rupees when we arrived and it will be increasing to 4500 rupees in the new year. These limitations bring into question the urgent need for money and the security it offers. And of course the nervousness of not being able to be a consumer or to travel easily without the confidence of money in your pocket. I couldn't have these questions in South African in my privileged lifestyle where the only thing threatening my livelihood is what will happen at universities next year.

I've been writing and rewriting this post in my head throughout my time here and I can't find the right words to write about India without sounding like another privileged tourist who came searching for enlightenment in India. Most of the stories I've been sharing on Facebook make it sound like I never want to come back to India. But the opposite is the case. I will come back to India. There's a whole country to experience. Of course I'll carry this first experience with me when I come back. It's a complex place like most places in the world. I wish I could understand how people who live here make sense of living in India: are they happy? What do they see? Would they ever live in another country? These are questions I could ask anyone really but they are particular for people who live in a country that is struggling and far from perfect. I could ask myself these questions about South Africa in fact. I wouldn't have any simple answers.

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