Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Spaces Between

India has a billion people. Stop and think about that. Look at a map of the world, compare the size of India to the rest of the world, to Canada, to the US, to the UK, and now imagine squeezing one fifth of the world's population into that space. It's not easy. One billion people eating and sleeping and shitting and buying and selling and doing all those things that people do everywhere in the world, except here, they never do any of them alone.

On our walk back to the hotel tonight, we passed life being lived all around us, out in the open, shared with anyone who had the courage or desire to watch.

I was asked if I wanted a shave from an enterprising man who'd set up shop against the wall of a house. He had a mirror hanging from a nail, a small wooden shelf leaning up below it, and a battered chair waiting empty beside him. In Kajuraho I had seen the same thing, this time with a tree for a hanging post and the road shoulder providing the necessary empty space. They both had their regulars, the customers who returned day after day to have their early morning stubble removed as they watched the reflection of India commuting to work behind them.

We saw a pair of men pull down their pants and squat to take shits beside the main road leading into Old Delhi. Oblivious of the traffic, the people, the cows, each other, they settled in comfortably and went about their business as normally as you or I tuck a paper under our arms and saunter off to the downstairs shitter. Apart from us, no one noticed a thing.

Entire lives are lived in the spaces that we take for granted - the distance you drive from your house to the grocery store, say, here encompasses whole universes. Peoples' lives consist of the small concrete garage where they eat, sleep and earn their livelihood, wedged in a narrow, dirty alley, where they eat the same food, at the same times, and have the same routine, day after day. Blink, and they don't exist, their existence irrelevant to the India you've discovered.

That thought is a very difficult one for me. Irrelevant people, living irrelevant lives. Millions and millions of people struggling daily to survive until tomorrow, with no thought of different, or better, only the immediacy of selling ten more oranges so they can have enough food to feed their family tonight. They don't mean anything to me. They have no bearing on my life. They are irrelevant. How arrogant, how fortunate, how privileged, and in the end, how true. I can ignore the overfilled spaces and keep walking; blink, and carry on. Those spaces between will disappear as soon as I leave, and return home to the emptiness of the West. If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? Or better yet, if you watch a tree fall in the forest, then walk away and never return, did it really happen? Or did it matter if it did happen?

I'll take any comments...


J Sidhu said...

I don't know you but this blog was forwarded to me from a friend of a friend. I was born in India and have lived in the United States for 10 years. Reading this makes me want to tear my hair out. I'm glad you at least acknowledge that you are arrogant. To state that these people are irrelevant and lead irrelevant lives is the height of arrogance. I'm sure you believe that your life is so much more relevant. The fact that you are "privileged" and "fortunate" enough to travel the world on your parents' dime and judge other cultures does not make your life more relevant and meaningful. Unlike you, these people actually WORK for a living, they are productive... they work endlessly to support their families. Why do you believe that isn't meaningful and relevant? These people live for something more than their own self-gratification and enjoyment of life. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you haven't worked an 8 hour day in months. Travelling for months on end for the sake of your own self-gratification without any desire to make a difference is anything but relevant. I have a lot of respect for people who work their tails off day-in and day-out selflessly to support their families and little respect for two priveleged "gringos" who leisurely travel around the world without trying to make a difference in anyway and then claim to be so worldly. I'm sure you believe you are very open-minded and knowlegable about the world and that these blogs are so enlightening to all of your friends. But you wouldn't have any idea what it's like to struggle and suffer just to put food on the table, not only for yourself but for your whole family and the children you desperately love and hope that you can continue to feed from day to day. You do not have a family to support, nor do you work for a living. So what exactly is so relevant and meaningful about your life? Think about that gringo.

Phillip said...


Matt said...

I think you might have missed the point "j sidhu" or mis-interpreted the context of his commentary.

I'm sorry that you have such hatred for someone you don't even know.

Stephen and Abigail Rideout said...

J Sidhu,
Thanks for your comments, but I think you're missing the point of this post. I think Steve's conundrum is that it is too easy to walk by the "real India" and ignore it, only concerning yourself with the "tourist India" that touts and guidebooks lead you to. He's saying that these peoples' lives are "irrelevent" in the way that you can walk by the back alley and refuse to let yourself really think about and understand the poverty, dirt, and helplessness in which these people live their lives. That is what is disturbing to Steve (and, to me as well), that, if you just refuse to let your mind and eyes and heart wander down the back alley of India, you can complacently travel through "tourist India" ignorant to the "real India" just around the corner. Read the post again. Perhaps it wasn't written as clearly as it could have been, but, again, you're missing the point completely.

In a petty sort of way, I'd also like to respond to your personal attack on Steve (and, by perifery, me). I don't pretend to know anything about your life, and I think it's wrong to make assumptions as you did about ours. Read the rest of our blog, and I think you'll find we're much more open-minded and independent than you assume.

As a side note, if we really were traveling on our unlimited "parents' dime", I'm not sure I would choose to submerge myself in the open sewage and cow-shit strewn streets of India. I'd be on a white-sand beach, tropical drink in hand, or maybe at a world-class ski resort, slopes by day and jacuzzi by night. We are on our honeymoon, after all!

Stephen and Abigail Rideout said...

j sidhu,

Thanks for the comment. I'm glad to know that the thoughts and observations and ideas that we've been dealing with on our travels are getting an audience, and generating thought and discussion. That's the whole purpose of this blog: to encourage people to think about the world, and maybe gain some perspective on the places we've been.

As for the content of my post, well I have to say that I agree with the point you so crudely tried to make. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, but the intent of my post was to raise the exact issue that you, uh, kind of bludgeoned a little. I was trying to point out that it's too easy to pretend that these people ARE irrelevant, and that my life isn't. I can float above almost a billion people without a second thought or wayward glance, as though they don't even exist. I don't like that, but this place instills a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in me that makes it so much easier to ignore the unpleasant aspects than to actually try and confront the issue head on. Solutions? Yeah right, I have enough trouble trying to find a rickshaw!

As for the rest of the rant, I'm trying hard not to return the favour. I don't understand why you feel the need to attack me for sharing difficult personal struggles. You've made countless assumptions (mostly wrong), and the vitriol you've spouted doesn't seem to be the right approach for changing anyone's ideas about anything. I can respect the fact that life in India makes you frustrated and angry. I've been tearing my hair out since we arrived. In the past week I've been spit on, yelled at, ridiculed, thrown out of a hotel (for declining "pressure-free" services), lied to by travel agents (resulting in considerable extra time and expense), and generally treated like shit. I've been trying and trying to figure out this country, to gain some understanding of life here, and all I get is a faceful of dirt. If your rant represents what Indians think of foreigners, then I'm very happy to board my airplane in 5 days and never come back. I don't want to feel that way, but I can only turn the other cheek for so long before I'm either going to hit back or I need to leave. It makes me sad that I'm leaving on a down note, but your comment nicely summarizes the hospitality I've been shown in your homeland. I've been confused and overwhelmed by this place for 6 months, so why should that change upon my departure?

I would encourage you to put some more thought into the issues that are bothering you so much, and get back to us (perhaps a little less aggressively?). I would honestly like to know more of your opinions - there's no lack of topics for discussion. I would also suggest reading through the rest of our blog, and trying to have a more open mind about us. It would be appreciated. Much of what we share is very personal, and not easy or well understood, so some understanding on the part of our readers goes a long way to fostering the type of thought-provoking environment we're looking for.


Stephen Rideout, Esq.