Posted by: cochinblogger | November 23, 2009

Judging “Judging India”

World Hum published a short piece on India by J.D. Roberts (http://www.worldhum.com/features/travel-stories/judging-india-20090909/) on September 14, 2009. Here is the comment I posted to the article. I will confess that the blood went to my head, but I will leave the wording as it appeared on the Web page. I think what caused the rush of blood was “families shilling their daughters.” In the United States, the institution of marriage is in tatters, and yet Americans have the gall to lecture us on our marriage customs. Families trying to get a good match for their daughters are “shilling their daughters”? Here is what I wrote:

The introduction of Claire makes this piece interesting, but the depiction of India is on the level of gut reaction; there is no attempt to analyze or dissect. The eyes see what one’s conditioned mind wants them to see. It must be nice for Westerners to read about third world shitholes and allied stereotypes and think, “There I would have been born but for the grace of God.” But surely a travel piece can rise above this level of superficiality?

Let me first critique some assertions that are presented as bald facts (well, I could have sworn I spotted a literary license or two lurking in the background):

“Karen and I have staked out a small patch of concrete and dirt that is almost entirely free of rotting garbage and human waste. We’ve gone a full three minutes without anyone trying to beg/sell/pilfer anything, but the Shih Tzu-sized rats are getting bolder. One of them is actually leafing through my Lonely Planet book while another is laying waste to a bag of trail mix from our day pack. I am exhausted and sweaty and cultivating a rash of mysterious origins.”

The above sounds more like a bad acid trip than anything corresponding with reality. It gives the impression that Indian railway platforms are overrun by human waste (by which euphemism I think our hero means “shit”), rotting garbage, and rats. I live in India. Trains are to India what planes are to the U.S. I’ve been to many a railway station, but am yet to see what our writer has seen: mounds of shit and rotting garbage leaving just a patch of uncontaminated terra firma that our heroes gratefully occupy, only to be besieged by rats that have somehow lost their fear of humans. I think it was probably more like this: our heroes saw a pile of rotting garbage (or perhaps a banana peel) and some pigeon droppings and put as much distance from it as they could. I’m not saying human waste and Indian railway platforms are like oil and water. Sanitation is a big problem in India. There are people who defecate by the tracks, and in fact, even train travelers defecate onto the tracks, because everything is funneled to the ground. But I draw the line of credulity at mounds of human waste ON railway platforms. Indians are no strangers to shit (presumably unlike civilized “bottom-swiping” Westerners), but even we Indians don’t like to roll in it. Please. (And talking of shit, an Indian who traveled by train in the U.S. in the Fifties recalled seeing people squatting in the fields with exposed bottoms, a corncob stick in hand for swiping the bottom.)

Again, the references to widows, dowry, sati, and divorce are misleading. India is a country in transition, and the old customs and attitudes are fast withering away. It is only in feudal, hidebound pockets of the country that widows are regarded as bad omens. Dowry can become a problem, but most families arrive at a mutually agreeable settlement. Sati … it makes the headlines in India on the rare occasions when it occurs. The stigma attached to divorce is fast disappearing as divorce rates increase, but again, it depends on which segment of society one is talking about.

On arranged marriage … I have posted on this earlier and have no wish to cover the same ground. Remember, dowry and arranged marriages were not invented in India; they were pretty common even in the West not so long ago. In any case, those who wish to marry a partner they love can do so in India. One can also opt for the arranged marriage. Both options exist. A successful marriage is a tricky business, and one can see from the ragged state of the institution of marriage in the West that the Western way is hardly the solution.

The four gigglers who asked our heroes about “love marriage” are the Indian counterpart of Westerners who harbor stereotypes about India. I know how they and their ilk view the West and Westerners: Westerners indulge in sex, booze, and drugs while still in school; the family as an institution has virtually broken down, with parents divorcing and remarrying as they keep falling in and out of “love” with nary a thought for how it affects their kids; maladjusted, neglected, psychologically troubled kids grow up to be sociopaths and psychopaths; parents are abandoned by children in old age; rampant alcoholism and drug abuse; high levels of violent crime, much of it mindless as in school carnages; high incidence of sexual crimes, sexual sadism, serial killing, and every sick, violent perversion under the sun; and all this, despite a relatively high level of affluence. In the eyes of the “gigglers,” Western women are available, because they start trading their bodies for material rewards while still not out of school, often have multiple partners, keep changing partners (a different partner for each season of life?), and leave their kids and elderly parents to fend for themselves. In the eyes of such Indians, the sexual habits of Westerners are comparable to that of dogs copulating in the streets. (And, horror of horrors, they don’t even wash their bottoms properly with water, preferring to swipe with tissue instead!)

Do successful, long-lived marriages exist in the West? Yes. Are Western women available? No. Are Western bottoms encrusted with shit? No. Are Indian railway platforms layered with shit? No. Are widows burned in India? No. Is the custom of arranged marriage uncivilized, barbaric, or even undignified? No.

What is the point of traveling if one cannot take the trouble to peer behind the veil and ask why something is as it is?

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