Tales From India: The Memphis-Mumbai Connection

Tales From IndiaThis is the fifth and final installment of my blog series Tales From India.

Get caught up by clicking here, here, here, and here.

Three weeks in India burned images into my mind I am not likely to ever forget. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we saw signs of the well-known slums. Squatters build shacks that bump up against each other, row after row. Most are not more than 8- x 10-feet in size, yet each one houses about six people. Somehow they have electricity, and satellite dishes for television pop up all over this self-contained community of people whose way of life is poverty.

At the other extreme were places like the Taj Mahal Palace, the hotel terrorists attacked in 2008.

I understand why they chose it. Built in 1905 in the British colonial style, it is the most opulent place I have ever seen. The hotel sits on the Arabian Ocean and lacks for nothing. The terrorists sailed down from Pakistan, hijacked small fishing boats, came ashore in a fishing village near the hotel, entered the hotel, and began killing people.

And then there are the lavish structures built by today’s wealthy. The CEO of the Reliance Group has a house that cost two billion dollars. There are 650 full-time staff, yet only five people actually live there.

Everyone in India seems to accept the waste and disparity. But I don’t understand it.

We also visited a preschool. Shala, our friend who lives in Memphis but whose family lives in Mumbai, helped the school get started. A couple in their 50s opened the school less than a year ago to serve 120 children. The families, Hindus and Muslims, all live in the slums. The parents wash clothes, drive rickshaws, and serve the wealthy.

students in IndiaThe children were waiting for us when we arrived. They looked so much like the beautiful children of Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center operates in a Memphis public school. They sang and danced for us, just the way the Perea children do at Christmas. They all wanted their pictures taken. The boys were messing around and the girls were serious.

A banner on the wall said, “Memphis—Mumbai Connection.” I am so hoping we can connect Perea to this school.

Memphis Mumbai connection

school in Mumbai The principal talked with us about how the school works. They focus on teaching English, knowing English improves the children’s ability to go to better schools as they get older. Some of the parents told us their hopes for their children—to be policemen, nurses, even one doctor. It costs $200 a year per child. My mouth fell open when I heard that. The cost is so low because the teachers are paid very little. Everyone who works like this is paid very little. For $20,000 a year, they could start a new school. In Memphis, it would take a million dollars a year.

The disparity is so hard to process.

When we walked near our hotel, women holding their babies and begging lined the street. I had been told not to give them anything. There are places they can go for help. We say the same thing about panhandling in Memphis. I know that is true in Memphis in some ways. I was not sure it’s true in Mumbai.

This was the end of our trip. We had one last dinner. The fixed price menu was 6,000 rupees for a buffet.

I wasn’t all that hungry.

India flower


Tales From India: On the Banks of the Ganges

Tales From IndiaThis is the fourth installment of my blog series Tales From India.

Get caught up by clicking here, here, and here

People and more people. Every night they surge to the banks of the Ganges River in Veranasi, India, the holiest place on earth for followers of the Hindu religion.

The streets are too narrow for buses, so we walk. Motorcycles beep and pass on the right. Rickshaws pass on the left. Beggars, old women with outstretched hands, people with terrible burns, holy men—they all come. A little boy named Babu, offering to sell us postcards and not about to take “no” for an answer, keeps pace with our group.

Cows, sacred and ubiquitous in India, make themselves comfortable on the steps of a stage lit by lights resembling icicles we hang on our houses at Christmas. We press through the crowd.

And suddenly the waters roll before us.

The Ganges.

Ganges River view from Varanasi

At the river’s edge, we balance ourselves in small wooden boats and push out to watch the service from our undulating vantage point. A young woman lights candles and hands them to us. One by one, we set the candles in the river. As I lean over the side of the boat, I say a prayer for a gentle spirit.

About 300 yards downriver, a fire burns bright—a funeral pyre. Cremation is one of the central practices of Hinduism. With the burning of the body and retiring of the ashes to the Ganges, life revolves to the four core elements of existence: fire, water, air and ether. Ether represents our consciousness and leaves the body headed to the next life during the cremation. Three hundred cremations happen every day on the banks of the Ganges.

Soon loud bells, placed high up near the lights, ring out from the stage in front of us. Seven priests step up onto the dais and began to chant and swing metal pots spewing incense. After about ten minutes, they change out the incense for very large containers lit with flaming embers. They swing these up and down, around and over their heads. It was clear why all of the priests are young men; I don’t think I could physically do what they are doing. At one point, a priest blows a conch shell the way the ram’s horn is blown in a Jewish service on a high holy day.

This service happens every day of the year at sundown. The cycle of life and death repeats. Babu sells postcards along with all the others who take their places in the drama. The cows lounge and swish their tails. The bodies of the dead are burned, and people dip themselves into the river to be close to God.

It’s surreal, yet I felt at ease. Although I don’t really understand the details of the religious ceremony, it makes sense. The throngs of people who come to the river are searching for God. In the midst of it all, I realize again that I can best find my way to God through the way I have been shown. Jesus is my way. And I must find how my life connects to God. My life in Memphis is where God is to be found for me.

Babu walks with us again after everything is over. We get to the taxis and someone in our group gives Babu 1,000 rupees, far more than he was asking for his cards. She tells him to spend it on his education. He is smart. Who knows what his future holds?

For that day, Babu helped us get through the maze, to experience what almost one billion people consider to be the holiest place on earth.

Tales From India: Why Is the World This Way?

This is the third installment of my blog series Tales From India.

To read Don’t Spit, click here. To read Capitalism, India Style, click here. 

Tales From IndiaDuring my recent trip to India, nearly every meal was a buffet. One day at lunch I sat next to Akash, a kind and gentle soul working with our tour group. He grew up in Delhi and studied hotel management. When he graduated from college, he had five job offers. He worked in London for two years before returning home to work for Thomas Cook, the very large travel agency. He is now married and has a one-year-old daughter. It was clear he was very religious in a subtle way.

At lunch one day, I asked him about how religious education occurs when you are Hindi. He said, “It all comes from learning from your parents until you are a teenager, and then you begin to read the four holy books.”

I continued to pry. “Since you are always working with tourists like us, it must fall to your wife to educate your daughter.”

“No, she is not very religious,” he said. “Plus, she works full time.”

“So how will your daughter learn about Hinduism?”

“We live with my parents and they will make sure she learns.”

“So your parents take care of your daughter during the day?” I said.

“No, we have a housekeeper who watches her.”

Many people my age in the American South grew up with African-American women who worked like nannies. My parents employed Louise Adams, who looked after me but also introduced me to her form of Christianity. Based on my experience, I implied that Akash’s housekeeper would also teach his daughter the values of being a Hindu.

“No,” he said, “she is from another place and does not speak Hindi. We only communicate with her through sign language, but she has worked for us for six years.”

Then, the full weight of what he was telling me began to come through. The housekeeper is from Bangladesh and works seven days a week from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. She is entitled to four days per month off at the employer’s discretion. Her salary is equivalent to $100 a month. She lives in a one-room apartment with five other people. She is married, but her husband lives far away. She cannot work and have children.

I was stunned. “Are you okay with this situation?”

He looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Of course.”

“But isn’t this close to slavery?” I asked.

Clearly, Akash was startled with the comparison. “Of course not. We offer an opportunity for work. She is unskilled and would have nothing if not for our work. In fact, she saves money and sends it home to her family.”

I could tell he was irritated with me, but I am sure he did not see my point. It is the way of India. Many middle class families have housekeepers who are paid and treated the same. It is just the way it is.

Several years ago, an Indian diplomat in New York got in trouble for the way he treated his housekeeper. I now realize why India was so outraged by the American reaction. What he was doing is culturally commonplace.

Later, I told my friend Mason what I learned. Rather than being shocked, he said, “Isn’t that what we were doing with tipping the people in the bathrooms 10 rupees?”

When you enter a public restroom, at least one that is fairly clean, someone stands at the sink to turn the water on and offer you a towel. This is not something I have ever needed help with, but there he is and it is expected that you tip him 10 rupees—about 16 cents.

Mason said, “I did that for a few days because that is what I was told to do. I just wasn’t thinking. But then I had to do what I knew was right.”

I agreed with him, but I knew I had kept tipping only 10 rupees a lot longer than Mason. Only during the last few days of my time in India had I started doing what I would normally do in the States. I asked Mason, “Are you familiar with the idea of always over-tipping the breakfast waitress?”

“Goodness, yes. I sometimes tip more than the bill.”

Thank you, Mason, for reminding me that the norms of society may not be right. Going along because of the cultural norm may not only be questionable but wrong.

Throughout our trip, we negotiated with street vendors about the price of what they sold. It would go like this: a man would rush up to me when I stepped off the bus. “I have a special price just for you, 400 rupees.”

If I had any interest in what he was selling, I feigned disinterest and started to walk away. I might offer 100 rupees. The seller would look offended and counter with 350.

I would keep walking. He’d ask, “What will you give?” I say 150. He counters with 300. Just as our game of marketplace cat-and-mouse had reached a crescendo, we would agree on a price of 200 rupees. For under $5, I had bought a curiosity. At Pier 1 in the US, this same item would have cost me $20.

I got a good deal, I guess.

Why is the world this way? Although I am not wealthy by American standards, I am one of the most fortunate people in the world by chance of birth. If I had paid 400 rupees, what difference would it have made to me? Yes, I would have been a dumb tourist, but so what?

Stanley Hauerwaus, a well-known theologian, has repeatedly said that what you believe as a Christian matters little if it is not reflected in how you live. I have preached that same idea all my career but constantly find myself not living up to it.

It is very frustrating to be found so wanting.

Tales From India: Capitalism, Indian Style

This is the second installment of my blog series Tales From India. To read the first post, click here.
cow rests in busy Indian roadThe cows in the middle of the street are cliché but true. So are the beggars and tragic poverty. This is India.

But there is so much I was not aware I would feel.

From the day I arrived in India, whenever someone learned I was an American, I was immediately told, “Obama is coming for Republic Day on January 28.” I knew neither that President Obama planned to visit Delhi nor that India’s version of Independence Day is January 28. My first thought was, “Thank God we are leaving on January 26.” I didn’t expect the president’s trip to affect mine, but it seemed to mean something to the Indian people that the American president was coming.

Everywhere we went, capitalism was obvious. People were selling everything you can imagine. Endless shops. Food vendors. Young men and boys who pounced on us with their trinkets when we got off the bus. If you buy something, then 10 more salesmen appear out of nowhere.

Very early in our trip my wife, Mary, was taken with a street musician in Jaipur, an historic town in the northwest part of the country. He was playing a stand-up stringed instrument that resembled a string bass. Soon she found a vendor selling a similar instrument, and after negotiating she bought one for about 10 dollars. She was very pleased with her prize and carried it all over the country on trains, in buses, and through four airports. Our group laughed at her as she carefully kept it from damage.

When we went to Calcutta, it was surprising to learn that the state of West Bengal democratically elected the Communist Party as their leaders for over 25 years in a row. They were defeated three years ago, but red flags with the hammer and sickle are still all over the city. I suspect Obama would see that as what a true democracy does.

The newspapers were full of front-page news about Obama’s trip. The US State Department had requested a no-fly zone for those areas he would visit for the entire time he was there. India refused.

Western couple rides camel in IndiaThen the papers reported that 1,600 people would be traveling with the president. Oh my. That seemed like a lot, but a week earlier we had been near the Pakistani border. It was a desert. We rode camels for fun, but it looked like everything I have seen on TV or in movies about the Taliban. Security is reasonable—or so my Western mind says.

Eventually our itinerary took us to the south, far away from where President Obama would be. But to get there we had to fly through Delhi. As we prepared to board the plane, security officials pulled out the instrument Mary had toted around the country.

Of all things, they considered it a potential weapon.

I began to argue, but Mary stopped me. Our friends who speak Hindi tried to intervene, as well as our guide, but to no avail. Obama’s visit to India cost us our most treasured souvenir.

Indian architectureBy this point, two and a half weeks into the trip, I had learned that while capitalism abounds, religion rules the country. On Tuesdays, the Hindu equivalent of the christian Sunday, going to worship was on everyone’s mind. Yes, they sell things incessantly, but finding a path to God is what matters most. Modi, the new aggressive, capitalist prime minister, must develop the country fully aware that faith governs the country far more than love of money.

Or so it seemed to me.

I couldn’t help speculating whether that had been made clear to President Obama. The instrument Mary lost is used mostly to sing songs about and to God. I understand why they took it, but I hope that the president was not coming just to talk about aid and wars.

We can learn much from the Indians about the richness of life itself.

Indian woman looks at flowers in garden