India: Examining the Other

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I’m writing this sitting in a cab on a noisy, dusty road in New Delhi, India. I’m watching scenes of morning hustle and bustle pass by: rickshaw drivers zigzagging with confidence in the rush hour traffic, honking frantically; a man peeing directly into the gutter; a barber vigorously covering a customer’s face with white foam; a stray cow sniffing a pile of rubbish; a street vendor pouring cupfuls of steaming milky tea; a thin woman in a sari balancing a heavy load on her head; a homeless man sleeping with arms outstretched and face to the sun in the middle of a busy pavement.

What I enjoy most about travelling is the opportunity to step out of my daily life to be immersed in the unfamiliar, the exotic, the unknown, and to be confronted with the Other. The Other is what I am not: different appearance, a different way of life, a different set of cultural reference points, a completely different set of rules. The Other draws and fascinates me. The more different from me, the more interesting it becomes.

India offers endless opportunities for examining the Other. Everything is different, everything has an aura of mystery. My friend patiently explains the new reality to me: what the food is made of; what exotic spices it contains; what the temple rituals stand for; what the different colourful garments worn by women are called. I absorb the knowledge with eyes wide open. But my friend’s middle class reality is ultimately still very close to mine: similar living conditions, similar clothes, similar lifestyle (minus the domestic servants that I of course don’t have), similar aspirations. Perhaps a middle class Indian is confronted with the Other in their own country as much as I am.

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I’m fascinated by the lives of the poorest sections of Indian society: the housemaid, the cycle rickshaw puller, the street fruit vendor, the beggar. I want to know where they sleep, where they get essential supplies from, how they make ends meet. I wonder where this strange compulsion comes from, the desire to see and to know rather than avert your eyes like most would do. I want to say it is compassion, but it is certainly also the irresistible pull of the Other.

I’m painfully aware of the imbalance of power though. I come from the world of affluence; I have money in my wallet and food in my stomach. I examine the Other from behind dark windows of an air conditioned car, while the object of my scrutiny is completely exposed, often squatting by the road, on display. Vulnerable.

I like to think that this is not preying. After all, I buy the street produce, I give five rupees to the beggar, I smile at the street barber and the scruffy looking barefoot urchin. But I do feel a sense of discomfort and guilt – because I have so much and they have so little, through no fault of theirs and no merit of mine. By pure chance, granted by birth and beyond our control. I like to think that examining the Other will make me a better writer and a better human being. As I meet the gaze of a man whose all possessions are the clothes on his back, I need to convince myself long and hard that the encounter with the Other is in fact a good thing. That knowing is always better than not knowing. That my presence does no harm.

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However, there is more to the Other than the Westerner staring at desperate poverty that India is so full of. As I examine the Other, the Other examines me.

Jaipur. I go for an evening walk and within seconds I get followed by a dozen children shouting in excitement and wanting to touch my white skin. A group of Indian tourists ask to take a picture of me, ignoring the stunning floating palace behind me. When I perch on a bench to seek refuge from the scorching sun, a group of women and children surround me wanting to know my name, my country, wanting to shake my hand. Their approach to the Other is direct: they come so close their faces are practically touching mine and they stare shamelessly. The children tug at my sleeve with little concern for my privacy. I distribute smiles, shake hands, answer the same questions over and over again, I accept sticky sweets even though my hands must be swarming with germs. I enjoy the attention, but I feel slightly uneasy. I am the Other on display, a source of entertainment and finger-pointing.

I can’t object though: it works both ways. The concept of the Other is floating and ever shifting. I examine the Other and the Other examines me. We are each left with a sense of wonder, a reminder that the world is built on difference, that our own way of life is not the only one. Or so I hope.

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