india: different

So I should probably post about my recent trip to India.

I could give a ‘what we got up to’ report of the work our team did (some still over – some still yet to go) on the new Freeset T-shirts building.  But we didn’t only go as labourers – we went to observe as well.  Kerry took us on a couple of ‘walks’ to see the areas around Freeset, and also we saw other bits of Kolkata as well.  I suppose I’m more inclined to reflect on what I observed and the thoughts it brought to mind – many of which will still tick over in my head for some time to come.

Kolkata is dirty (except for the clean bits) and smelly (except for the non-smelly bits).  They’ve got the latest technology (laptops, cellphones, etc.) but also way more poverty/beggars than many places (certainly developed/western places!).

I used to argue that people were happier in the 2/3 world (as opposed to ‘third’ world – 2/3 better reflects the balance of population and land mass).  To some extent, this may well be true.  But this doesn’t mean that many people wouldn’t choose a “1/3 world” lifestyle if they could.  I sometimes assumed they would just want to carry on as they are, but that’s not true.

Take drinking water, for example.  The water most of them drink carries disease.  They would drink clean water if they could (and thankfully, the community around Freeset will soon have access to safe drinking water – though the issue of how to ensure it doesn’t contribute to inequality – the powerful taking all the clean water, etc. – is an ongoing issue).

Or take the controversial (or not, or in different ways, depending on where you’re from, influences, cultural assumptions, etc.) example of prostitution.  The women are nearly universally pressured/forced/bullied/threatened/coerced into the trade by pimps, boyfriends or even husbands or family.  Their bodies are turned (by others) into a commodity to support needs of all kinds (and all levels of legitimacy).  These women would do something else if they could.  Matter of fact, show me any any 12 year old girl anywhere in the world who would choose (apart from manipulation or coercion) to sell her body to strangers.  Apparently, you can spot the new girls to the trade by observing the ones who aren’t smiling.

It is true that we cannot simply cut/paste our cultural sense of what is appropriate or not onto another culture.  But I’m convinced that there are real and true modes of existence for the world that are better or worse than others.  Some things are indeed merely cultural differences.  But other things we just ‘know’ are better or worse than others.  A lot of morality may well be grey, but not all of it.

On one of our walks, we stopped to play a game with some children – like 3-4.  In minutes, the whole street population (it seemed) had gathered to watch – including (I’d barely noticed) an older drunk man.  As we eventually moved on, a young man commenced giving the older man a hearty beating – young, angry fists connecting with elderly, weak skin/bone.  Kerry (who later told us that it would have been due to their seeing the drunk man as an ’embarrassment’ to the community – esp. with foreigners present – time to make an example of him) quickly broke it up and gently-yet-firmly – with fluent Bangla – rebuked the younger man.

Was Kerry imposing his Western values onto them?  I think not.  I think some things aren’t as complicated as others may be.  I think they understood – and even respected – his actions.

The Hindu caste system was behind this and other inequalities we saw (and seeing the inequalities in India made me more aware of inequalities in so-called ‘egalitarian’ NZ…).  Widows in India lose their entire identity and worth (in the past, a practice called ‘sati’ was common – but is now outlawed apparently – where widows would throw themselves onto the burning graves of their dead husbands).  Again, I don’t oppose this simply because it’s not American or Kiwi, but because I genuinely don’t believe it is right that a widow need be stripped of honour and dignity.  One truly amazing and inspiring woman, Mina, had just lost her husband, and even though she has turned to Christian faith, she is still struggling massively with feelings of un-worth and uselessness.

That’s probably as good a place to stop as any for this rambling, unstructured post.  I may post again on other things, and I apologise (sort of) for the philosophical/ethical bent to this so-called ‘report’ on my trip to India, but it’s just what came out as I typed.  Cheers.