[Reading music: Dan the Automator - Third World Lover (feat. Kid Koala)]
“You’re old enough,” my cousin Mohammed said before we hopped on his motorcycle. I was eighteen and, despite our family’s objections, he was going to show me the “real” India. Up to this point, my Indian experience consisted of nightly dinner engagements with obscure relatives, unsentimental gift giving and marathon video-gaming. My mother, my younger brother and I returned to India every four years and each visit had been identical to the last.
Mohammed and I arrived at the local butcher's market. It was nothing more than a ceiling and support beams, but the suffocating odor defied the open-air architecture. The butchers worked on large concrete slabs. There they cut the meat and laid it out for sale. Skinned goats hung upside down from chains extended from the ceiling. Flies swarmed about. Unoccupied butchers absent-mindedly swatted them away. Stray dogs freely entered the market, lusting over the goods, kept at bay only by a shout or a whack.
Mohammed began taking photos with the camera my mother had bought him. A few butchers noticed and approached us. They assumed we were reporters and, before Mohammed could correct them, began complaining. Mohammed translated, explaining that the market was municipal institution and the butchers thought that if the wider public was made aware of its gruesome conditions, they could force the local government to clean it up.
Mohammed criticized the Indian press. He drew a parallel between my family shielding me from the filthy, inhumane side of India and the way the media served the public. Desperate, impoverished people wanted to hear good news, not to be reminded of the ugliness of their lives. And that’s what the reporters and television anchors gave them. Everyone wanted to pretend that everything was okay.
By now a small crowd had gathered around us. Despite Mohammed’s attempt to explain that we were not journalists, a man pulled us aside. He led us to the local public bathroom. First, he pointed out the local police station and then directed our attention to the bathroom’s confines. Even from ten feet away, I could smell the stench of urine and feces. Of course, it was a stinking rotten mess. But what the stranger wanted us to notice were the two men, who were able to withstand the odor with broad smiles. They were sitting on the floor, just beyond the entrance. One was heating a piece of aluminum foil with a lighter. The second had a straw with one end hovering over the foil, the other end in his mouth. The restroom didn’t have a door. People were walking in and out, urinating with ease and washing their hands before exiting. The police station was only two blocks away.
Next, we came to a river. Mohammed explained that rivers were considered sacred in Hinduism, which was why people were bathing in the murky green water littered with trash. He explained that their bathing was making the river even more polluted; the run-off from the soap stayed in the current and, further downstream, people were doing the same ritual bathing, adding their own soap-scum to the water. Each attempt at absolution deteriorated the river further. From the middle of the river rose a temple, thin and tall like a dagger stabbing through the current. It was five stories tall. Due to the high tide of the monsoon season, the first story was completely submerged. Walking along the riverbed, we were confronted by a hoard of what Mohammed called “professional beggars.”
“These are beggar colonies,” he said. He claimed that they allowed only the most disfigured and heart-wrenching to join their ranks. They worked the streets together, sometimes clashing with other beggars over turf-rights. At the day’s end, they split the earnings amongst the group, dividing it along their hierarchal lines. When Mohammed wasn’t looking, I gave an elderly woman with a face like crumpled brown leather and stubs for fingers twenty rupees.
Mohammed had been taking photos since we stopped at the butcher's and now he wanted a shot of the entire river. He wanted it all: the fanatics bathing in the toxic water, the beggars preying on the faithful, the temple standing erect amidst the flood. We climbed a ladder leading up to the roof of a nearby two-story building. As my cousin took his shots, I surveyed the area. In a pen beneath us, the cows were eating out of a large pile of trash, feeding on leaves that were used to wrap portions of rice and chicken. Between two cows kneeled a man and small girl. They were picking leaves out of the unopened trash bags, scrapping up the remaining rice and chicken and shoveling it into their mouths.
“That’s not something you see in America,” Mohammed said, “people eating besides cows.”
Later on during the same trip, my entire family took a vacation. My mother considered it absurd that our family had spent their entire lives in India without ever seeing the Taj Mahal. So she rented a tour bus, a driver and a guide, and we set off for the sights of northern India. We visited Agra, Delhi and Jaipur to behold the treasures of Indian civilization.
There was a hotel in Delhi with a bridge. To reach the hotel’s front entrance, you had to drive over this bridge. It was completely unnecessary. It was constructed as a gimmick to make the hotel seem more luxurious than it actually was, something to compensate for the green blotches of mold on our bedroom ceiling and the half-functioning air conditioner. The bridge passed over a small, man-made valley complete with an artificial river and two swans. River may be an overstatement; it was drying up and much more akin to a shallow stream. The swans waddled beneath the bridge, hiding from the unrelenting north Indian sun. The edges of their feathers looked rusted. They moved awkwardly and were missing feathers. They could have easily flown away, but it seemed as if their wings were clipped.
[This story won the Fall 2008 Harman Writing Nonfiction Competition and will be published in next semester issue of Encounters magazine.]