Monday, June 20, 2011

The Smell of Hope: Haves and Have Nots in India

From eighteen stories above the slums of Mumbai, I sat looking down at an endless chain of red and white tail and headlights while eating spaghetti Bolognese by myself. Three different waiters tended to my table like concerned pre-school teachers, frequently checking if Miss Susan was alright.

I'd asked for a piece of paper and a pen and received a piece of paper, a pen and a newspaper in return. I had no phone, no iPad, no leather zippy case with important papers inside. Perhaps these waiters were perplexed with the image of a lone business traveler who wasn't maximizing her time and instead simply eating while at dinner.

I hadn't planned to eat alone, but only twenty minutes prior, my colleague's family had unexpectedly Skyped her just as we were leaving to take the elevator to the restaurant in our hotel. As soon as that Skype phone rang, I accepted my fate. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I knew I would be left behind to contemplate my role as second best. So, I took myself to dinner instead.

Perched at my eighteenth floor table for one, I sat underneath an airconditioning duct which left me cold and confused after spending twelve hours in the sweltering, soupy heat that exists below the soft cool cloud of the Westin hotel. But I felt too cold, and also awkward; over-pampered like a figurehead emperor with no clothes.

I'm here in India doing market research for a food packaging company. Riding through the streets of Delhi and Mumbai, I've been obsessed with capturing the perfect photo – The one photo that will encapsulate the indescribable contradiction that is India. Bouncing and winding, whizzing past countless photojournalist money shots, I've been too slow to capture most of what I've seen.

It is very difficult to capture this country in photos. India is a contradiction in it's bold juxtaposition of elements that simply do not go together until seen with the naked eye. Like ice cream and pickles, you cannot quite understand the strange harmonies of India until you see them first-hand. And to try to capture them on camera is quite nearly impossible. India will only show you her gems when she feels like it, and that's normally when you set your camera down. The images that taunt and haunt my mind are centered around color.

  • World-weary, mud-streaked, tin-roofed grey shacks with a pinkish-orange-watermelon sari-clad woman swishing past
  • Unabashedly cozy interiors made of cinderblocks painted turquoise and illuminated by acid lemon-lime fluorescent light bulbs
  • A tan, black-fly eaten dog naps while a rusty red bus blows its horn
  • An old man in white selling his mangoes and lychees to woman covered in black from head to toe (expect for her eyes)
To me, this is India. It's the color wheel gone haywire, making up twenty-first century Van Goghs and Monets and selling them for ten rupees a piece.

In the Mumbai-based Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, the author could not have prepared me better than with this:
"The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air... I know now that it's the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; and it's the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It's the smell of gods, demons, empires, and civilisations in resurrection and decay... It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live... It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense and freshly cut flowers... The worst good smell in the world."
One day in Delhi, we got out of the van to go do an interview. As I was putting on my backback with all my video camera equipment, I spotted a boy. He was intently looking down at a handfull of potato chip wrappers, counting them, sorting them, and considering them from all different angles. All the wrappers were the same – small green foil packs.

"What is he doing?" I asked our interpreter.

"Ah, yes. He is collecting. Because, you see, in India, you can get one rupee per empty potato chip wrapper, so this boy is collecting them in order to make a profit."

I felt as though I couldn't move. My feet, clad in brand new REI sandals, were like lead in the mud-dried street. I could not stop looking at this boy. He was so serious, so thoughtful, so mature in his task. I discreetly took this picture, and thank goodness he never looked up. I needed to capture him but I did not want him to know that I was taking his image away with me. I only felt respect for his potato chip wrapper counting, and I did not want him to somehow think otherwise.

As we walked through the dark cement hallway of the interview participant's home, my head was spinning still thinking about that boy. Here we were, in India, doing research on food packaging – something that I used to affectionately call decorated trash when I first got into the business of food package design – and this young boy was an ultimate end-user of this business chain without even getting to eat the potato chips. Well, that was something I assumed. Maybe (I hope) he actually did get the chance to eat the chips, but instead I had more of a notion that he had fished these wrappers out of the trash.

But going through trash in India is a commonplace task, and quite clever in a way. Although we do this in the United States to a certain extent, Indians are expert at finding new uses and values out of everything, whether it is earning a rupee per empty potato chip wrapper, making a game out of a discarding tire, or recycling old car parts to fix a three-wheeler taxi.

When I came out of the interview, there were suddenly several children in the street, intent on playing a game that looked like an ancient form of cricket.

"See, the boy throws the ball, and if he knocks down all the piled up stones, the others have to stack them back up before he runs to them." Our interpreter smiled at me with knowing eyes. "Inventive kids, these children are."

The children. Next to the colors of India, what I notice most often are the children. They are fearless and cunning, often gathering in small societies of their own to discuss unknown topics while hanging onto dirty metal fence posts. They often look serious yet relaxed, embodying the calm optimism that is the backbone of India.

The driving. Ask anyone who travels the world and they will tell you that India is home to some of the craziest drivers on the planet. But once you accept that the vehicles here defy the laws of physics in their ability to twist and bend around motorbikes, cows and humans, you discover that the level of road rage and traffic angst is far, far less than that in more developed cities. I reflect back to three weeks ago when I was working in LA. We were stopped at a traffic light in the heart of Hollywood. Two men in giant SUVs got so heated up with road rage at each other that I screamed to my co-worker to "Just DRIVE and get away from these guys - they probably have guns!" This while in India, I actually feel more safe with my duct-taped seat belt.

See, the thing I'm learning from India is that the world is not only contradictory, it's backwards. India is teaching me that sometimes you have more in life by having not. 

If you did a litmus test of overall sentiment, I am certain that the citizens of Delhi and Mumbai are more confident and assured than the citizens of Los Angeles and New York. 

So, which side do I find myself on, the Haves or the Have Nots? I think what it comes down to is what we all know deep down – there is no technical requirements for either position, except that it all depends on how you see it. 

I've been seeing it Have Not for most of my life. If you read my blog, you certainly should know this by now. However, I am an optimistic pessimist. This makes me OK in the eyes of both the glass-half-empty and glass-half-full people. At least I hope that is the truth.

In the spirit of the opposites, contradictions, and backwards learnings of India, I've come to my own up-side-down discovery. 

I've had to go around the world just to learn that I want to be home.

Now there's an India-ism.

For those of my generation who also enjoyed Alanis Morrissette, you can grin in understanding at how I had her "Thank U" lyrics in my head upon boarding the flight from Paris to Delhi. "Thank you India... Thank you blah blah.." It just kept playing over and over in my head. I am not going to spend precious time Googling the meaning behind her lyrics in that song, but I like to think that she, along with countless other lucky Westerners, had the chance to come here and get bent back into shape. To smell the stench of hope and to laugh at the easiness of it. 

And let's remember that finding hope is easy. Every single human being has the choice to choose hope, no matter if he is living in a blue tarp on the sidewalk or if she is sitting in a high-rise hotel, feeling lonely as hell. It's just that our phones, iPads, and leather zippy cases get in the way of that hope. 

If you asked her for advice, India would look you in the eye, laugh roll her eyes. She'd shake her head, blurring the bright reds and golds of her bindi and earrings. She'd put a knowing hand on your shoulder, take a deep, cleansing breath, and tell you, 

"Janu, pay attention. Sometimes in life you have more by having not."

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