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.

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