I love Indian food, Indian music, Indian clothing, books about India, stories that take place in India – I even watched the Cheetah Girls movie on the Disney channel specifically because it was set in India. (Talk about having to suspend disbelief: Bollywood needs the Cheetah Girls? Oh, and please let me tell you about the subplot involving Aqua! Before departing the US, she’d been flirting on the phone with some guy at a Mumbai call center who was ostensibly helping her with her computer troubles. But then she comes to India, and bumps into him on the street! Shut up – it could happen! And they fall in love, only he’s not just a call center worker, but some sort of prince or duke or what have you. I’m a little sketchy on this particular point, having viewed the movie with a glass of merlot firmly in hand. And somehow the movie ends with a spectacular song and dance number, a la Bollywood, and I’m pretty sure Dorinda rides an elephant. Or maybe they all do?) Anyway, the Cheetah Girls movie is called “One World”, and after my first day in Delhi, I have to say, yes, it is.
Delhi is a vast urban explosion, a city more than 300 miles across. It’s at once ancient, dating back to
1450 B.C., and utterly modern and completely wired. Streets are clogged with cars, buses, motorbikes, and these crazy little taxis built on trike chasses. They’re called tuk-tuks, and though they sport covered roofs, the sides are open to the elements. They veer all over the road, squeezing to fill any opening in the traffic flow. They look like great fun, in a terrifying sort of way. I couldn’t help noticing that nearly every tuk-tuk driver had images of Hindu gods and goddesses taped in front of his handlebars. Divine intervention no doubt plays a big role in the tuk-tuk driver survival rate. I’d last about an hour, tops, behind the wheel of a car here before crashing. It’s insane.
The people are beautiful. And I don’t mean just the actors and models that grace the billboards. The women, even in the slums, are dressed for the most part in traditional saris, some with gauzy scarves covering their hair. Standing next to them in baggy cargo pants and a white t-shirt, I felt like a complete slob. And in the blistering monsoon season heat, their attire made so much more sense than my own. The children are gorgeous, though very, very small for their ages, and painfully thin. In too many cases, malnutrition has given their naturally dark hair an odd rusty tinge. It’s a telltale sign that the child is suffering from hunger. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: they’re lucky to have one small meal per day.
There are horrific slums in Delhi, places so desperate that the government actually set aside a parcel of land for families willing and able to take a step up and out. This area is known as a relocation zone, and in it, small plots of land can be leased (but never owned), and the renters may erect homes no larger than 12 feet by 12 feet. Sewage runs in perennially overflowing ditches along the sides of the dirt streets, electrical service is spotty at best, garbage is mounded in piles, standing rainwater is a breeding ground for the mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever, and this, remember, is a step up from the slums.
Here’s the surreal part: the scene I just described is taking place in a city that will remind you uncomfortably of parts of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit. The face of movie star Penelope Cruz, blown up to gigantic proportions, floats on a billboard above a cluster of shanties pieced together out of faded fabric and sheets of plywood like Our Lady of Impossible Dreams. Kids sleep on the street beneath placards advertising smart phones and coffees. There are luxury hotels and a Rolls Royce dealership and business is clearly being transacted on every corner. And yet. This is a place where child labor is rampant, where a 10 year-old might work as a dishwasher for perhaps 15 cents per day. Where 6 year-olds beg on the streets to provide money for their families. Delhi is such a collision of the old and new, the traditional and the modern, the haves who are cashing in on globalization, and the have nots, who barely survive one day to the next.
When you see firsthand what a few dollars can do, how dramatically the life of a family can be improved, it’s almost shameful to think how casually many of us throw that kind of money away. A family in Delhi earning less than $500 per year falls below the poverty line. I used to spend nearly that amount on haircuts in a year – a realization that makes me more than a little nauseous. You can’t help but do those kinds of calculations, especially when you’re sitting with a mother whose children are half the size of your own, yet four or five years older. You think about your own small luxuries – for me it’s Starbucks a few times a week, and trips to the paint-your-own pottery place with my girls. Then you’re invited into a home that is nothing more than a single room, partitioned off with a sheet or two, dark and sweltering, and it stops you in your tracks. You didn’t understand that you were rich, that your air-conditioned home with its flat screen TV, refrigerator, and hot shower any damn time you feel like it might as well be a palace, is a palace. For most of us, that kind of comfort is a given. How lucky is that?
None of us gets to choose where we come from, or how much we start with. We can only choose what and how much of ourselves we give.