At the train station last night I dismissed a mother of no more than twenty, her infant child swaddled on her hip, when she asked me for ten rupees. My nod so fast, it was almost instinctual, a reflex.
Living here worries me. Every day I see things that are not right and they’ve phased from outrageous to normal, my reaction no longer disgust or sadness or indignation, but of shrugged shoulders and self-centered concerns.
This afternoon, on the way to the store to buy 500 rupees of phone credit, I passed a construction site. Under the noon sun, two young women worked together to haul bricks from the street to the mason 100 yards away. One of the women, in a yellow sari, her muscular mid drift exposed, bangles covering her biceps, shoulders pulled back with a strong, royal stature, stood with a piece of rolled cloth on her head and a plank of wood on top of that -- the cloth serving as a shock absorber and soft base for balance. The other woman symmetrically placed bricks onto the piece of wood, five across and four high. Without looking down and with twenty bricks stacked on her head, the woman in the yellow sari walked to the mason.
Nearby, on a pile of sand, two young boys in t-shirts and nothing else were playing, their hair matted and dirty, almost dredded in filth, snot crusted to their upper lips.
Every night around 10 p.m., our doorbell rings. I know who it is; when it rings I scamper into the kitchen and look for something to give. A piece of fruit, some biscuits, leftover food if there is any, I try to find something. The man at the door is a Dalit (untouchable) sweeper who works in our compound and the neighboring ones. Without fail, he, and sometimes his son, make rounds of the building to beg for food. People toss him one or two rottis, some daal, vegetables on a good day. What he collects will be his family’s food for the day.
These are easy examples, obvious examples of destitution that stands in the most marked contrast to Western norms of what is and what is not acceptable. These are the norms. There are others that are as obvious – the caste system – and countless subtler ones that also stand in contradiction to what I’ve lived: most middle/upper class families have several house help (cleaners, cooks, ironers, drivers, washers); it is ok to drive like a lunatic (yes, a comparative measure against a Western norm that could very easily be tame driving by Indian standards – like all norms); it is ok to harass women; blatant corruption; piss anywhere you want; litter; answer the phone in the middle of an important meeting; wear white denim, ass-hugging bellbottoms.
Maybe adjusting or adapting or accepting norms is a coping mechanism, something you have to do not to go crazy in a new place where the customs are different from what you know. Sometimes there is no choice and you eat what you are served. In this international volunteer game, this is often encouraged and called acculturation or behavioral fluency, substituting Skippy peanut butter for locally roasted peanuts, or jeans for a lungi, or your greeting for a more appropriate, local one. In so doing, foreigners try to fit in, to assume a normal life as dictated by what’s around them, to substitute some of what they’ve known for the new world they’ve landed in.
But, I don’t want to be rude (yes yes, conversations on what is rude, what isn’t rude, social
Maybe it is a coping mechanism -- it is not that hard to relinquish Skippy peanut butter - but at what point is the acceptance of norms an excuse for a dulled sense of morality, responsibility, right and wrong excused by anthropological masturbation that permits you to write it all of as a local norm. When did I go from fearing the approaching beggar because of how uncomfortable he/she made me feel, to brazenly dismissing illiterate, dirty children with a motion of my arm because everyone around me does the same.
I missed something, I’ve tipped too far, gotten used to things that no one should get used to, neither the person seeing it nor the person living it.
Maybe accepting norms is buckling under the pressure, acquiescing in the face of enormity. But it is not about the enormity, it is about what I see everyday and reacting. This is about personal behavior in response to norms, about looking out the window each morning and rejecting comfort, refusing to say that the view from my window is acceptable. My answer should not depend on what those around me say.
I can clean my own apartment, wash my own clothes, and, no matter how many times I see someone jump into a sewer in their underpants, remain indignant about something that is normal here but loathsome, inhumane and unjust. Even though I live here, I can remain outraged at the outrageous.