Thursday, September 29, 2011

A god by any other name

India reminds you that there are gods other than money.  You hardly even need to go there to understand this on a literal level: between Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and others--and the polytheism many of these share--India seems to cultivate religions the way Switzerland cultivates banks, or France cheese.  And of course the notion that there is more to life than dollars and cents hardly bears repeating here.  Nor is India by any means innocent of capitalism: from the most humble bootblack to the most illustrious IT king, it is very much a commercial center.  What I mean is that India immerses you into the full spectrum of human life, thereby casting the old Biblical and philosophical saws ("Whosoever does this unto the least of these my brethren does it to me," "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven," "The essential is invisible to the eyes," "All men are created equal"...) into vibrant relief.

This suddenly became clear to me on my last day, in Delhi, when I returned to Chandni Chowk alone (having previously gone with a guide).  In the heart of Old Delhi, Chandni Chowk is the throbbing hub of commerce whose snaking alleys and choking boulevard have been teeming with business since the Mughals.  It is pretty close to what many foreigners probably imagine India to be--crowded, dirty, frenetic--only more so.  No doubt there are areas of Calcutta and Bombay that are far more intense, but for the sheer crush of humanity, it dwarfs Beijing, Mexico City, Dakar, anywhere I've been.  I'm not sure if I'd become innoculated to the sensory overload after a month in the subcontinent, or wandering alone was paradoxically easier than following a guide, but I suddenly found it fun, exhilarating, beautiful.

On the way back to the metro, I wandered down a relatively quiet, spacious, shady side street where brahmin bulls grazed on trash and a gaggle of rickshaws were parked, their drivers sacked out across the front and rear seats, looking more like kindergartners at nap time than grown men resting from backbreaking labor.  And suddenly it dawned on me that in India there's no such thing as a "bum."  You see all kinds of people who in the USA would be swept aside into jails and asylums, or "reformed" into burger-flippers and register-punchers and line-followers, walking around, crouching on sidewalks, sleeping on train platforms, loitering in mosques and temples.  To an untrained eye, there's no telling who's a pilgrim, or an itinerant salesman, or a beggar, or a traveller, or a pauper.  They blend in with each other and with the "normal" people wearing Western clothes and manifesting wealth.

We're so proud in the USA of being "democratic," but we're acutely uncomfortable with anyone who doesn't fit a fairly narrow mold of dress, cleanliness, regular work, mannerisms, and cultural orthodoxy.  A city not far from me recently gained national attention for outlawing panhandling.  In their defense against the ACLU and others, the mayor and his minions said that the law has been on the books since the Great Depression, it just wasn't much enforced until now.  Maybe I've spent too much time abroad, but I just don't get it.  Why are we so afraid of anyone in need, or even the possibility of swindling or shiftlessness?

Indians are beautiful people: well-built and fine-featured, with bright eyes like exclamation points against rich brown skin, they become even more striking with colorful dress.  Whereas in most countries I try desperately to get people out of many pictures, in India I often waited for a group of women to walk into the frame, their colorful saris providing an exquisite contrast to the red sandstone or white marble of the Taj Mahal and other monuments.  Most beautiful of all, in many cases, are the "fringe" people: the man with a Biblical beard and incongruously lithe body garbed in what seems like an adult's version of swaddling clothes; the Sikh warrior with his saffron turban and gilded saber; the cleaning-woman with henna-ed hands and a riot of costume jewelry; the half-naked boy with eyes like pie-plates and a jaw that seems to have lost its hinge.