As your plane descends upon New Delhi, a soft orange haze engulfs you, drawing you in. A cascade of shanty towns drift below, clogged arteries of traffic dividing the landscape into innumerable scattered shards of populace. If you land in the evening, the haze throbs over the country with a dull glow in the speckled city lights. If you land in the afternoon, then the haze is a giant mass of incomprehensible dust — some amalgamation of smog, smoke, dirt, and fog — and no matter how far away you go, or how far you get, you never completely escape it.
I have been to 40 different countries. Yet India made the most indelible impression of any of them. And not for all of the right reasons. Frankly, it’s not a pleasant place to be. Anyone who tells you otherwise lacks perspective. India’s full of contradictions: horrors and delights, achievements and atrocities, often on the same city-block. And despite the immense history, the monuments, the spectacular sites of human ingenuity, one can’t help but ask themselves repeatedly what they’re doing there.
The first thing that strikes you about India is how dirty it is. In a word, the place is disgusting. All of it. The entire country. Never before have I seen mountains of garbage the size of a small house stacked on the side of a road, in broad daylight, in the middle of a city, repeatedly. Dumpsters tipped over and overflowing. Mounds of trash — wrappers, cups, papers, napkins, strewn all about, mixed with sludge from the soda and urine and spit coagulated from thousands of daily passersby.
Like the dust, the garbage never ceases. And along with the garbage, there is an unending stream of humanity. It is impossible to spend a full day in the middle of a major Indian city without lobotomizing yourself trying to figure out where the hell all of the people come from. I’ve been to Hong Kong. I’ve been to Manhattan and Beijing. I’ve been to Mexico City. And the swarm of humanity crawling through India’s cities is unparalleled. There’s no comparison. Many streets more closely resemble a bee hive than a functioning human society. When I flew into Mumbai, there were homeless people sleeping on the tarmac. Take a moment for that to sink in: the city is so crowded and disgusting that people decide they’d rather sleep on the airport runway.
And that is the second thing to strike you about India. The poverty. It is legitimate, take-your-breath-away poverty. Like the kind you see on TV charity ads, but far worse. And far more real. Limbless men stewing about in their own feces. Emaciated children playing on piles of garbage. A man with his leg literally rotting off to the bone, maggots and all, laying on the curb. It’s everywhere. The amount of suffering is indescribable. And it is unceasing. After a couple days, I was excited to hire a driver to go to Agra because I figured I’d be able to see some countryside and escape the stench and horrors of the city. But no. The entire four hours between Delhi and Agra was an unending stream of people, garbage and cars, with billows of dust drafting in our wake the whole way down.
My initial reaction the first few days was pure shock. But it quickly evolved into anger. How could a place like this be allowed to exist? How could normal people walk around with a clear conscience with so much shit and squalor festering about them? I felt indignant. Where was the social accountability? Where was the charity? Where the fuck was the government?
I’m no expert. And god knows my own country has plenty of problems. I’ve been to plenty of developing countries and seen plenty of poverty. But this was something else entirely. The sheer magnitude, more than anything, wrought a deeply emotional response out of me.
For the first time in my life, I finally grasped what inspires people to drop everything and move to a dirt hole in the middle of Africa and start feeding people. When confronted with that much suffering, it seems insane not to do it. People like Mother Teresa or Princess Diana or Bill Gates didn’t seem like such foreign actors anymore. I could feel what they must have felt, even if just for a moment. With my driver taking me on a full-day trip to Agra, I watched the endless poverty scroll by like a demented video game. I had an overwhelming urge to stop at an ATM and withdraw 25,000 Rupees and start handing money out to people at random. I started doing the math in my head. That’s roughly $500. I could hand out $25 to twenty people. $25 could probably feed these people for almost a month. How much of my monthly income would I be willing to give up to feed 20 people each month? At what number would I no longer be willing to do it? At what dollar amount did my morality begin and end?
The numbers began to make my head swirl. I was calculating my personal morality. I felt pathetic. And powerless. Like Oscar Schindler at the end of Schindler’s List, sobbing that his gold ring could have saved one more Jew, self-pitying yet noble at the same time. That Big Mac I had in the airport could have saved one more Indian! Damn you, value meal!
Things only got more surreal from there. At a security checkpoint, a kid brought up a real live cobra to my car window, scaring the living shit out of me and my fellow passengers. He then asked us for a rupee. We didn’t give him one. In another scenario, a Swedish girl in the car with us mentioned she should have given some starving boys her box of cookies. When we asked her why she didn’t, she calmly replied that little boys shouldn’t be eating cookies, that it’s bad for them.
In a Pizza Hut, every table had its own waitress. When I ordered hot wings as an appetizer my waitress duly congratulated me on making such an excellent culinary decision. Seriously. That’s what she said. As I looked around the restaurant, I saw each table occupied with fat, well-dressed Indians. I was reminded of the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
“He must be a king.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He doesn’t have shit all over him.”
In Pizza Hut, the Indian people did not have shit all over them, therefore I assumed they were kings. That and they all conspicuously had their Blackberry’s out for one seemingly nonchalant reason or another, silently bragging to one another across the restaurant between garlic sticks.
Meanwhile, out the window in front of the restaurant, a homeless boy (covered in shit) was attempting to pry open a boarded-up hot dog stand, presumably to find some scraps of food left inside. Stray dogs licked their open sores nearby. Trash milled about, blown by dust. And we, the fat, rich kings of Pizza Hut had our appetizers congratulated by personal staff. The mind boggled. The contradictions mounted. My cognitive dissonance flared. When the manager came by to ask me how I was enjoying my meal, my first thought was “This is fucking Pizza Hut. What’s wrong with you?” But I didn’t. I smiled and said “Fine, thanks.”
But the bizarro world of India didn’t always lead to anger. It could be charming as well. At the Taj Mahal, I was approached by an Indian guy my age who asked me to take a picture. I said sure and reached out to take his camera, assuming he wanted me to take a photo of him in front of the monument. But instead, he stepped away from me, pointed the camera at me, and as four of his friends surrounded me and draped their arms around me, snapped a photo. Minutes later, a small family of four requested the same. And then another family, but this time just me kneeling with their kids. Then a group of teenage boys who wanted a picture with my tattoo. As a tourist, I became part of the tourist attraction myself. Here we are at the Taj Mahal. And here we are with a white person. And here’s little Sandeep flexing his arm next to the big white man. Soon a crowd had gathered. Many of them hung around, nervously trying to speak English with me. Some of them simply stared for minutes on end. All of them beamed smiles of excitement.
But, to be fair, many Indians will go out of their way to be honest with you. There were multiple times where I thought the guy had asked for 50 Rupees when he had actually said something else, and instead of taking the extra money, he gave it back. Or like the time a taxi driver offered to show me a famous Minaret for free, for no other reason than because he was Muslim and thought I should see it. Or the kid in Gaya who rode me all the way back to my hotel on the back of his bike, for no other reason than he was excited to practice English with me. Or Sanjay, who on our third night drinking together, surprised me with an entire home-cooked meal made especially for me. Or my tour driver, who after dutifully driving us around for over 13 hours straight, teared up and hugged me when I gave him a 50% tip.
Like anywhere else, Indians aren’t all good or all bad. You simply get more of each social extreme. It’s unpredictable. Not to mention emotionally draining. The constant need to be on-guard is taxing on one’s psyche.
In Bangalore, I snapped. My taxi driver from the airport “forgot” to turn on the meter. Realizing this, I watched his odometer and counted the 30 kilometers we traveled. When we arrived, he tried to charge me for 50 kilometers. A shouting match ensued. I threw the money for 30km at him, grabbed my bag and walked into my hotel. He followed. He began pleading to the hotel clerk that I had refused to pay and that his price was the appropriate price. Now, with four people watching, I pulled out my laptop, connected to the wireless network, loaded Google Maps, and showed him that it was, in fact 30 kilometers from the airport to the hotel. My hands were shaking with anger by the time it finished loading. Luckily, he took my money and sulked off. At the door he turned around and said, “But you need to sign the receipt.” I shouted back, “Go fuck yourself.”
I moped into my room, frazzled and bitter. After almost three weeks of dealing with such nonsense, I was reaching my wit’s end. I would not be surprised if I ended up punching someone over something menial soon. I lost it with the taxi driver. And when I did the math in my head, it was just $4. I freaked out over $4.
Luckily I was leaving soon, heading to Singapore in a few days, back to civilization. I laid out on my bed, took a deep breath and opened my laptop. In the inbox was an email from my mom: “Thanks for the rug, I love it!”
Obviously, I’m no Mother Teresa. And it’s just as well; Mother Teresa couldn’t save this society from itself. Sometimes human systems become so large that they hurt people, not by design, but by inertia. And it’s beyond any of our ability to grasp, let alone control.
The townspeople had seen what I had just done. And within seconds, a boy approaches me and asks me to buy him a soccer ball. I tell him no and begin to walk away. He follows. Then another man comes up wanting to sell me pirated Bollywood DVD’s. I also tell him no. He gets upset, “You give food to a beggar, but you won’t even buy a DVD from me? Why not?” He felt like I committed some terrible injustice against him.
A crowd was beginning to form around me, looking for handouts. I quietly put on my headphones and sunglasses, turned my iPod up to full blast, and walked through the dust.
Update: I want to thank all of the Indian readers who commented (yes, even the criticisms). I have promised to return to India one day and give it another chance, this time doing more research about the country and spending more time in the non-urban areas.