I’ve been to India several times before since all of my family lives in India. My family enjoys traveling so I have been all over the country, but never to Pune. Thus, I like to think I had a pretty broad view of India before starting the program. However, one of the reasons I decided to attend this particular program is that I would be seeing a very different side of India as a student living here for an extended period without any family to depend on. So far this has proved true in the sense that confronting face to face the realities of the population of India has caused me to reflect more on my past knowledge. I was already aware of the poverty and had thought about it, even understood it relatively well, but I never really got to think more about the people behind the poverty. It is an unsettling topic to consider, but also a very important one. Through ignoring the issue, we lose the humanity of it. I was taught to look away when I hear tapping at my window, not for the purpose of ignoring the issue or showing disdain, but simply not to encourage it (I don’t want to go too far into the why but basically since food is better to give than money since many beggars are part of an institutional system/I personally don’t have money to give since I am not earning money yet). However, this has the unwanted side effect of removing the personal or human aspect of the issue. While a removed understanding is also beneficial, a closer study is just as important.
In my new everyday routine, I am walking to class and taking auto-rickshaws around the city rather than traveling in a windowed air-conditioned car. I am able to appreciate the simplicity of such a life, but also get to see the life of the majority of India, rather than the upper class. Also, I am able to make new observations due to the cohort I am in. For example, I have noticed that beggars are much more prone to follow foreigners than natives. When traveling in a group, I am not asked for money but rather the Caucasians are generally pursued more. This comes from the realization/knowledge that foreigners are much more likely to give money. The extent to which this is true though is especially striking. Little boys of maybe 6 or 7 years of age have this ingrained in their mind to the point that once they see a white person, they drop what they are doing and automatically follow them and begin begging for money. To grow up with such a mindset is a really sad reality that I had never thought about.
Last weekend we took a trip to Jalgaon to visit the Gandhi Teerth for Gandhi Jayanti. It was a long road trip of 13 hours each way (rather than the expected 8-9 hours). However, although the road trip was long and tiring, it did give us the chance to see rural parts of Maharashtra. I have traveled by car throughout India before, but it has been many years since then so this trip reminded me of previous trips while also provoking me to think about the lives of people in this roadside villages. Class discussions have also gone into depth on socio-economic class and caste. Trying to match my own observations with what we are learning is interesting. I have noticed that class boundaries are very different from those in the US. The upper class is much smaller and in India, there is a level below the lower class that consists of those in extreme poverty. This effectively pushes the pyramid down since the ratio between poor/lower class and upper class is definitely much larger than in the US.
These roadside villages operate very differently from the lower classes in cities. The entire town consists of maybe one mile alongside a major road with their homes built as shacks just behind the road facing shops. I admittedly don’t know much about their lives, but I find it fascinating that they are so connected to the rest of India through the road networks yet also disconnected in that most remain in the village their entire lives. When our bus passed by, they would wave, excited at seeing foreigners for perhaps the first time. I really want to learn more about their daily lives and maybe even after finding what is lacking work on providing resources to these impoverished areas. Sometime in the future I’d like to travel through India cataloging rural areas through photography. Traveling through Kashmir would be particularly interesting to see the effect the violence had on the people. However, that may be difficult given the current situation. We’ll have to see if I get the chance.