I’m warning you now that this is not going to be a happy light hearted post. I wondered if I should even write about it, but it’s been on my mind so I thought I’d share. This is about the contradiction that is innately woven in to the fabric of Indian life.
Last night my husband parked the car in front of a very busy medical shop and I went in to buy some medicines. As I came out I saw a very poor child, hardly a year old, wearing only a sleeveless vest, with its hand on the front wheel of our jeep. There appeared to be no one looking after it (which shockingly is not shocking to us anymore) but as I approached the car a woman snatched the child away and the child clung to her leg, quashing any doubt that the child belonged to her. I got in and was saying to my husband, “I can’t believe she just let that child play near the wheel of the car…”, when the woman pushed the child in to the hard, dusty ground. The child of course, bawled and when it managed to pick itself up again, the woman pushed the child to the ground again. And really hard. Everyone was just watching and I have to admit I was frozen in shock.
I asked my husband, “Should we do something…?” He was instantly out of the car and went up to the woman. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Be careful.” I thought that she had to be a not quite with it and might lash out at anyone who came near her. My husband’s approach was a bit different from what mine would have been had I had the civic sense to actually get out of the car and do something. He sort of shouted at her saying in Hindi, “The fault is yours, the child is helpless, don’t blame the child.” She ignored him while she was helping the still screaming child up and in to a pair of pyjammas. There were mostly men around and no one, not one single person did anything. Two older men who were standing nearby put a one rupee coin in to the baby’s hand.
I am no longer shocked that no one did anything or said anything to this woman. In cities, we have become more afraid of what might happen to us if we come to the aid of someone else. The recent killing (October 2011) of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes in Mumbai, as they came to the aid of their female friends who were being harassed by a man at a paan stall, is testament to this fear. The man backed off but returned with three others who stabbed the two young boys, killing them instantly. Unlike in Britain ( I quote this country because I’ve lived there) where people tend to keep themselves to themselves and respect people’s privacy and tend not to intervene in a public squabble, it’s not that way in India. If there’s an accident, hundreds of people will gather. Whether they are helping or not is questionable but there will always be people there. In a country of so many, it is hard to find places without people and without curious people. But perhaps this has changed in Indian cities and we have become complacent to people’s suffering because there’s just so much of it around us.
As for the hitting of children, I have seen people of all social classes hit their children, hell, I’ve even smacked my dog for misbehaving. I’ve only ever been smacked once as a child and I really really deserved it (I would have smacked me much earlier). But I have never actually seen a woman push a baby to the ground and then do it again. Hitting children is hotly debated in countries like the UK and now it’s become a hot issue in Indian schools as well. When I was in school, being hit /tapped with a ruler or duster was very common. But I think more Indian parents have less angst over hitting their children, than parents in the West. In one of my recent ethnographic projects, we gave a family a Handycam to film all their “food moments” – every time food was prepared or eaten it had to be filmed. Very quickly they forgot about the camera and their behaviour appeared totally unforced. I needed no further proof of whether cameras interfere with behaviour, when the father of the household stood in front of the TV (scratching himself) blocking the 5 yr old daughters’ view. She asked him to move. He walked up to her and slapped her across the face, incredibly hard, you could hear it above the sound of the TV.
We were talking about what could have driven this woman to push her child to the ground and perhaps she was “insane”, not quite all there, whatever you want to call it. Or she was completely consumed with frustration of her lot in life and so stretched by her poverty, a poverty that this child, another burden was pushing her further in to, that she snapped. Maybe she snaps every day, twice a day. She probably had a few more children and this new one is just another a burden to her and would one day become another commodity to be sold ie. sent to work and would bring in some money for the family.
We had been on our way to make the payment on our car – the cheapest car in the world – when this incident took place. I couldn’t help but see the contradiction of India: we see poor woman who pushes baby to the ground, then we go and buy a car. What does it matter how many IT specialists we are churning out, or what our GDP is when we have people who are so desperate or worse still, when our civic sense is so vacant?
And then I ask myself why I am so shocked by this. Contradiction is a daily Indian story, branded in to the backbone of the country. Traditional Rajasthani village woman who can’t read or write talking on a cellphone; Mumbai’s most expensive real estate has a slum for a neighbour; a barely clad old man walking through Fashion Street as young twenty somethings shop for clothes they don’t need. India is rife with contradiction.
And then this morning I hear that India might boycott the London 2012 Olympics because of sponsorship by Dow Chemicals. Dow Chemicals bought Union Carbide in 2001, who infamously were responsible for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy leak of 1984 where 15,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more still suffer from the effects of radiation, have got hardly any compensation and no one from the company has faced prosecution. Not that we are major medal winner at Olympic Games but a boycott would be highly symbolic and powerful. I feel incredibly proud that a boycott is even being considered; proud that we might just stand up for the victims of this terrible tragedy. But then there was the incident of last night’s glaring hardship. What’s to be proud about there?
And what of my behaviour? Although I’m not a mother ( of a human child anyway) I am a woman and I froze. However, if I had seen a dog or a child hit by a vehicle, no question I will spring in to action and get it to medical help. But this incident seemed so much bigger and unfathomable. It brings me to a new advert by StayFree about how women should not complain about the state of the nation, about what others are doing or not doing but as Gandhiji said, “Be the change you want to see” (cannot find said advert on YouTube though). In reality, what options did we have yesterday to change that child’s future or that woman’s? Not many, we had a car to buy after all….