Villages

I’ve been ungenerous regarding the Martins, I suppose. They’ve been gracious hosts: feeding me and telling me their stories. John is enough of a gentleman that I doubt he would throw me out of the house if I told him I can’t work with him. But still I feel like a bit of a prisoner. I’ve resolved to leave Friday.

I do believe that the Martins are committed to helping the poor, and I think they have probably given up material comfort in order to do so. I admire them for that. Sangita is a sweetheart, and when John occasionally stops venting his spleen (usually after a few bottles of beer) he can be informative and entertaining. But there is an incredibly patronizing element to his attitude. He calls the villagers ‘the little people’, and though he’s been here years, my Marathi is now almost as good as his (I know water, cow, bullock, yes, no, more, mud, monkey, rooster, hot, tea, and spices).

I’ve been thinking about the concept of one’s myth of self. John Martin sees himself as a warrior for the little people, a Christ-like savior who stands up against corruption and incompetence and lack of thought. I see him as a committed man, yet deeply flawed in communication, unable to see that his temper and focus on the negative drives people away. Are we all so blinkered? I like to think I know my strengths and faults, but maybe I don’t.

Sangita arranged for me to go to the girls’ village today, Sunday, day of rest. It was lovely. Coming along the path from the river I almost didn’t notice it hidden in the jungle until I was right in it.
It was much larger than I had expected. It was also meticulously clean and tidy, well-kept, good-smelling and colorfully decorated, which makes me think what a tragedy the cities are. Fifty years ago, before the population doubled and people bought cars and there was a massive influx to the cities, they must have been beautiful – as opposed to the dirty, smelly, falling down teeming cesspits they basically are now.

Writing in 1988 about Calcutta (after having seen it last in the 1960s) V.S. Naipaul cried:

“But I was overpowered this time by my own wretchedness, the taste of the water, corrupting both coffee and tea as it corrupted food, by the brown smoke of cars and buses, by the dug-up roads and broken footpaths, by the dirt, the crowds, and could not accept the consolation offered by some people that in a country as poor as India the aesthetic side of things didn’t matter.

My feelings went the other way. In richer countries where people could create reasonably pleasant home surroundings for themselves, perhaps, after all, public squalor was bearable. In India, where most people lived in such poor conditions, the combination of private squalor and an encompassing squalor outside was quite stupefying. It would have given people not only a low idea of their needs – air, water, space for stretching out – but it must also have given people a low idea of their possibilities, as makers or doers. Some such low ideas of human needs and possibilities would surely have been responsible for the general shoddiness of Indian industrial goods, the ugliness and unsuitability of so much of post-independence architecture, the smoking buses and cars, the chemically tainted streets, the smoking factories.”

I found myself nodding along. I’ve had direct experience in America with people who are intelligent and motivated, yet handicapped by growing up in abject poverty. They were never told they could achieve anything, and their physical circumstances were degrading: as a result they lacked the belief that they deserved better. One acquaintance, a talented and competent architect, dropped out of graduate school mainly because he couldn’t bring himself to ask anyone to be on his thesis panel. His lack of self-esteem prevented him from believing that he was worthy of people volunteering their time. He also had a problem with the administration, a problem that I would have solved by finding out who to talk to and going and doing it; he let it drive him out — his experience with authority had never been positive.
The privilege of growing up in a family with wealth and education is not purely material. Understanding this, I’ve only recently stopped taking my natural confidence for granted.

Naipaul goes on:

“…Now it occurred to me that perhaps this was what happened when cities died. They didn’t die with a bang; they didn’t die only when they were abandoned. Perhaps they died like this: when everybody was suffering; when transport was so hard that working people gave up jobs they needed because they feared the suffering of the travel; when no one had clean water or air; and no one could go walking. Perhaps cities died when they lost the amenities that cities provided, the visual excitement, the heightened sense of human possibility, and became simply places where there were too many people, and people suffered.”

The Konkan villages are showing me a different side of India. They lie far below the poverty line, yet they have space and clean air and relatively clean water. Their diets aren’t very good because they can’t afford to buy fresh vegetables or eggs (let alone fish or meat) – they basically eat rice and dhal – but their lives seem to me much better than if they were living in the slums of Bombay (no one here calls it Mumbai). That’s an outsider’s perspective, and maybe it’s not the way they see it. 85% of the villagers’ income comes from relatives in Bombay sending money. Moving to the city for these people has often meant a rise in income, if not standard of living.
I asked the Martins what caste this particular village was; they answered “Other Backward Castes”. Apparently this is the new, politically correct terminology! A generation ago, when the government first began to address caste problems, they reserved government posts for Untouchables and below, which had the effect of moving many people from the country to the city, where they were practically guaranteed a job.

I had tea in four different houses: so much chai that I don’t need to have any for the next few days. Three girls took me around the village: new house take off shoes at the door; say ‘Namaste’ and ‘Marathi nai’ (I don’t speak Marathi) to the parent; sit in the chair of honor and drink tea and eat biscuits while the entire village comes to stare at me and giggle. I took loads of photographs, which the villagers loved: seeing themselves on camera is a rare treat. The Martins say that I honored the houses I went into. Apparently it was a sign of respect that I drank and ate while nobody else did, and the silence that I wasn’t sure was comfortable was actually highly polite. The chickens didn’t seem quite as impressed with me; I think one pooped in my shoe.

The girls walked me home, about 20 minutes’ shortcut through fields and along the river. There was a cricket match going on in a series of dry rice paddies, with boys watching from the shade and a professional announcer on a loudspeaker. At one point a player reached too far for a catch and fell several feet from terrace to terrace; the crowd errupted with amusement.I wanted to stop and watch, but the girls kept going, and I noticed there weren’t any women standing around watching.

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1 comment
  1. Alex G said:

    Wow, mirren! What an an adventure! I had no idea you were even traveling, i’m glad you sent out the email about this blog.

    I haven’t read the whole thing, but so often i find mmyself nodding along, too, like you describe up here.

    Say hi to your bro for me.

    love,
    alex.

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