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Eyes Open in India


It is said that there are two types of India. One is especially for tourists; the other is what many refer to as the ‘real’ India. A land of paradoxes, paradigms, controversies and contradictions, India possesses mystifying beauty, and unspeakable ugliness. With an ancient history thousands of years old, understanding India’s past is crucial to comprehending the present. This is a country that lives for agriculture – rice fields are particularly abundant – and 70% of its residents reside in rural areas.

Within this vast landscape of geography, history and politics, lies the undeniable Indian psyche, a mind state that has arisen more out of necessity than deliberate intent. Consider the following: a woman lay on the landing of a stairway at a Mumbai railway station, forming an island between thousands of bustling commuters, salesman and luggage handlers. She had one arm partially covering her face, her hair was strewn to one side, and her eyes were shut, her face lifeless.

Was she a homeless denizen of the streets taking an obtrusive nap? Had she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion? We never allowed our curiosity to turn into action, instead walking on with a quick glance, knowing full well that the medicos would take their own sweet time getting to the scene. The crowd nudged me along, and I went with the flow. I was in India now, and in India, it is a common fact that the value of life is almost zilch. This is one of the cold, hard truths that tourists will never see through their agents, interpreters or friendly airport staff. Speak to any local businessman about his wares, and if you’re observant, you might notice a glint in his eye. The shrewdness kicks in now, as soon as foreign origin is detected, prices double and hard bargaining along with skilled manipulation begin.

Travelling by train was an incredible experience. Along the way I had plenty of time for visceral thinking, there was no shortage of topics to contemplate. I spoke to a man from New Zealand, who had come for a visit to one of India’s many tiger sanctuaries, and was surprised to learn that he was surprised at how noticeable poverty in India is. How could he not know that one-third of the population live below the poverty line? He seemed to treat India as if it were just another holiday destination, content to stay at five star hotels, and never really understand the complexities. But India isn’t just another place to go; it’s a learning experience and a lesson in humbleness.

I absorbed much during my trip, including experiences in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. Delhi is a majestic city with a majority Hindu population. You will notice that there are a number of illegal squatters, some on army land. Another lesson, in India, anything and everything can be bought – the Indian Army has been known to illegally lease government land to the poor, at exploitive prices of course.

If visiting temples, it is most important to remove your shoes, if required. You will see that religion and spirituality in India is a business, the shopping area in many temples is larger than the sacred space. Years ago, my mother almost got beaten up by priests who overheard her criticising the temple as a donation-taking exercise. So tread carefully around religion, fanaticism is strong.

Corruption is rife, as you will soon see from reading The Times of India. In fact, customs officials have been known to take foreigners aside and demand money in exchange for being allowed onto their flight. Keep your money close and important documents closer. The security situation in certain states, such as Bihar, is terrible. This small pocket is practically in a state of chaos, in terms of law and order. All throughout India however, major and minor extremist groups operate, sometimes in harmony with the local authorities.

Because there are so many beggars, if you do feel compelled to give alms, I’d recommend offering money only to disabled poor people, for example, those without limbs. This is because disabled people not working in the government get absolutely no welfare, and without education these individuals are at high risk of ending up among the hundreds of dead bodies found each year in the street by police. Keep in mind however, that many disabled children have had their limbs cut off on purpose, for the specific “business” of begging. Sympathy is a powerful thing.

The author is a Year 11 student at Melbourne Grammar School.

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