I’m at the kitchen table, surrounded by the detritus of a day beginning: my tea, thick with milk and sugar, my dadi’s combs and her shoes. She’s taking a bath the old way, bucket of hot water and a “mug” — a pint sized plastic pitcher to pour the water over her body in the wet room that is home to both toilet and the mostly-unused cold water shower, as well as the hot water tap.
This is my India.
It’s really the only India I’ve known deeply. Last time I was here, 17 years ago, I spent endless days in this exact apartment, the same one where my father grew up—one bedroom, a luxurious two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room, in a building that was probably new 20 years before my grandparents moved in. The walls are sturdy, thick concrete. You can’t hear the bedroom from the living room, even if you’re shouting. The building is short, no lifts, so my 97 year old grandmother has been confined to just this tiny world when she’s in Mumbai for years now, since stairs became too difficult to navigate. When my uncle comes he will carry her down the stairs and take her to his large and modern apartment in Pune, several hours away. There’s more space, but less warmth there; she prefers the place where she has lived for 70 years.
My days here are mostly constrained by language: I don’t speak Hindi, the language of my family and one of the official languages of India, or Marathi, the local language. India has 13 major languages, but of them only English and Hindi are on everything. South Indians are so angry at having been slighted, Tamil left out, that they would rather speak English than learn Hindi. North-south rivalries abound everywhere, but here they take on the flavor of thousands of years of mythology-reinforced prejudice. In the north, paintings of demons in the temples look like people from the south: shorter, rounder, darker, with curly hair. In some parts of the south they celebrate the figure known as the demon king elsewhere. This is nothing if not a country of contradictions, paradoxes, and the inevitable, “you adjust.”
But the funny thing is that you .do. adjust. What seems onerous in any other context feels at most like a mild irritation. And if you pay attention when you get here, you find that we—they—have been solving these problems for years. Water only comes to each part of the city for a few hours a day. Solution: everyone with a building has a cistern. Everyone without a building has a big bucket or two. In the mornings I wake to the sound of water on water, the tap in the courtyard going full force into a five gallon bucket as the man who lives in the hut there—his house made of corrugated roofing balanced where the courtyard walls meet, and enclosed with tarps and more roofing—stocks up on water and bathes, old school multitasking out of necessity—he is not the only one who comes to the tap for water and the hours are short.
Meanwhile, we have the luxury of waking slowly, my father, my dadi, and I. Her overnight caregiver gets up first from her pallet on the floor by dadi’s bed, and begins the laundry and making lime water and the tea I will drink when I’m ready.
Hiring servants is a social obligation here; there are three who come through the day. Anita, who does asleep overnight caregiving for dadi, Chara, who comes around 11 and cooks all the food for the day, and Geeta, who comes in the evening and sweeps, mops, does some dishes and cleans the bathrooms. There’s no SSI here, no welfare, no dole. If you don’t hire people, they will have to beg on the streets. So everyone who possibly can—middle class and up—hires someone, or several someones. The best people are paid well, relatively speaking, and are loyal and trustworthy. As has ever been the case, if you’re going to trust someone in your house, that’s very important. However, the relationship is clearly stratified. Old rules still apply; servants rarely sit with their employers. Some still adhere to the tradition that servants sit below the level of the people they work for. And yet, there’s a lot of respect and sometimes affection. Paradox. Contradiction. Adjust.
As a foreigner here, I adjust as hard as I can. It’s my job. I’m a guest. I travel with the Prime Directive high on my list. My father has a different perspective, being Indian at heart, even if his passport now says differently. He sees things he wants to change and changes them. But even he is circumspect in his choices. There are things you can’t change, jenga pieces you can’t pull out without toppling the whole tower. It’s a delicate balance between awareness of equality, justice, and human rights, and a culture that is thousands of years in the making. Indians pivot fast when they have the incentive, but there has to be a good reason—and for everyone. It’s hard to change the culture when the benefit is primarily for the non-power-holders.
Humans are humans everywhere. Supply and demand doesn’t change because you crossed a border. And here, humans are still cheaper than machines. Labor is easy to get, and the comforts that balance out the “adjustments” are often provided by other humans. For every stressor here, there’s a luxury to balance it out, as long as you have some money. But the luxuries are available across a much broader range of classes. On the other hand, especially with the tech revolution, there is a huge gap between the increasingly wealthy and the abjectly poor. Both are true. Constructions workers live in temporary tents on the construction site while fifteen stories above their heads, million-dollar apartments survey the neighborhood from the sky.
after I published this, I got a sweet and thorough response on Facebook. I said I would add it to my post, but then couldn’t find it on FB. The gist was that there are other perspectives and other ways of understanding India; that my perspective is necessarily limited by my particular experience and location, and that the commenter, who has lived in northern India but is from a southern state, has a rich and nuanced sense of things that have looked much more binary from my perspective. I will keep looking for the thread.