Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Gobi, aloo, matter!" - Memories of a month standing still

Each morning in Lucknow I was woken up not by an alarm clock or a rooster, but by a vegetable wallah. "Gobi, aloo, matter (cauliflower, potato, peas)!" he would call out as he pushed his vegetable trolley down the street. Soon after others would join him: the milk wallah, the cream wallah, the bread wallah - this last one saved his voice and used a bell. Residents were saved a trip to the supermarket, simply wandering out onto the street each time they wanted to stock up on groceries. These cries would continue throughout the day, until they were replaced in the evening by the whistles of security guards. Not equipped with walkie-talkies, guards wandering the area would instead blow whistles to each other. If no whistle was blown in reply then something was wrong, and the guard would go running to find his mate.

A month in a place is not a long time, but it's amazing what you can absorb just by standing still. You benefit from the slow-drip of information about everyday life, and the release from travel's crazed daily attempts to go out and find 'India'. The grocery wallahs are just one example of the millions of Indians whose office is on the street and who work incredibly hard to make a living. Cycle rickshaw drivers ply the roads of Lucknow carrying a middle class cargo that sometimes amounts to a family of four, the driver hopping off on the steeper hills to manually pull the bike and its load. There are the streetside vendors, selling anything from chai, jewellery, flowers and clothing, whose jobs are relatively stable but include crushing hours. I lived in an middle class home, and grew accustomed to the amount of 'help' that visited the house daily - the laundry man, the dishwasher, the cleaners, the cook - with the vague task of 'supervision' being the only job left to the home owner.

But at the other end of the spectrum, working life is often measured out in cups of tea and lunch breaks. In an attempt to collect a parcel, I descended into the belly of Lucknow GPO and observed dozens of bureaucrats sitting at dusty, empty desks and doing nothing but reflecting on their rock solid job security. They were visibly perturbed that I had interrupted their collective daydream, and in the end it took two visits, an audience with the Deputy Postmaster and several arguments before anyone lifted a finger to give me my parcel - which, of course, had been sitting all along in a cabinet at the side of the room. The bureaucrats at the railway station have a similar work ethic, with the number of tea breaks increasing exponentially as you progress through the senior levels. Their twin expertises seemed to be in sitting and in doing as little as possible - more than enough to secure their paychecks.

Being in Lucknow also gave me time to reflect on the increasingly troubling problem of what to do about Indian men. E has attracted the stares of Indian men throughout the country, and Lucknow was no different. Some are simply curious, which is not surprising given that Lucknow is off the tourist trail and does not see many Westerners. But others are hostile, and while it is by no means all Indian men who engage in these stares, it is widespread enough to be a source of discomfort to E each time she went out in public. The lingering stares of men in their 20s, 30s and 40s exhibit the slack-jawed sexual immaturity of thirteen-year-olds gathered around a Playboy magazine, but it is of the sort that has grown sour and impatient over the years. The stares also seem to carry in them the perception that women are nothing more than objects and property. It is this sort of attitude that has seen E and many other Western women groped in public places, but women in India suffer far worse on a daily basis. Newspapers are filled with stories of horrific violence. Bandits boarding a train and gang raping a woman in the toilets while four police officers in close proximity did nothing. 'Dowry murders', where husbands pour kerosene on their wives and light a match when their attempts to extort money from her family are refused. Through our contact with a women's legal organisation we met a woman who was attacked by her husband because she went out to find employment. She is now trying to raise money for a third essential operation to ease the suffering caused by the acid burns he inflicted on her.

One of the struggles of travel in India is to absorb the stark inequality and frightening violence without writing off the entire country and everyone in it. In Lucknow I was fortunate to have experiences to help right the balance. I met passionate, feminist women who spend their working lives fighting to improve circumstances for women, and I met gentle, loving husbands who saw their wives as nothing other than equals. I was the beneficiary of touching generosity, as when I was invited to an Indian wedding, or when new friends took me by surprise and helped a homesick boy celebrate a wonderful birthday. I snuck beer into my room and was joined by my landlord's son - but only, he said, after he confessed to his mother that he was going upstairs for some boozing. Thanks to the people I met there, so much of daily life in Lucknow turned out to be a thrill, and the days of wandering city streets battling touts ("Sir-you-are-from-which-country?") seemed a distant memory.

I'm not sure if I'll end up 'missing' Lucknow, but there are memories that have burrowed into my head and are unlikely to leave. Like the familiar faces at the local auto-rickshaw rank who always offered me a fair price, and the more hard-edged drivers in the city who always bargained hard. The local internet cafe, which had a new surprise each time - power failures, faulty keyboards, broken printers - and the clerk who would always shake his head at me and smile, as if trying to work out what a white boy was doing in his shop. And I will think about the relief I felt in arriving back in Lucknow after a short trip to Kolkata, almost as if I were returning 'home'. It's funny how quickly you can fall into the rhythms of a place, how quickly you find local haunts and familiar faces. It all adds up to some sort of connection, and it would be wrong to say that there is no loss in letting that go.

Photos of Lucknow streets, birthday pics, and Kolkata

Rolf Potts on culturally sensitive travel

Is the traveler who hikes into the jungle to interact with the natives having an authentic intercultural experience, or is he negatively interfering with the natives' lives by flaunting his modern, internationally mobile lifestyle? Is the traveler's unconditional respect for people's archaic lifestyles doing them any good if their life expectancy is 47 years, their infant morality rate is 15 percent and their literacy is nil? Furthermore, isn't temporary friendship a self-indulgent gesture when the people the traveler befriends will likely never see him again, and might have benefited more from a less personal but more tangible contribution to their economy? Aren't -- by literal standards of cultural sensitivity -- the best travelers actually the herd-like group tourists, who experience the country from the safety of their air-conditioned buses and don't disrupt anything that hasn't already been

Rolf Potts, 'Goodbye, Khao San Road'