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August 5, 2008 / calebdresser

Artist’s Colony

It was early afternoon when I met the puppeteer. Clouds of dust and diesel fumes filled the crowded Ismail Marg, a deafening chaos of buses and cars and all manner of wheeled conveyances. The streets of an Indian city are a truly competitive environment – everything and everyone wants your attention, from the rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers to the endless advertisements and honking motorbikes that try to come as close as possible to one’s knees without collision. It is my usual policy in big cities to ignore everyone who wants to talk to me, on the assumption that most of their interest is in getting their hands on my limited supply of cash. Its sad, really, that this is the attitude travelers fall into after a little experience. One man with whom I did chat briefly in an alley near the OM tower, did not want any money and seemed truly disappointed that none of the foreigners ever talked to him. I explained the reality of the scams and beggars and salesmen and hustlers as best I could, but began to realize that this must be a little like trying to explain what the experience of being black in America to a white boy from Massachusetts – the same street can be totally different depending on the color of your skin.


There are other reasons we foreigners come across as antisocial, of course. Nobody says hi to strangers on the streets of New York, but here it is normal, especially if the stranger looks like they might have an interesting story to help break up the time. In addition, subtle differences that I am still learning to recognize help the Indians tell which people they are comfortable talking to. We blundering Westerners are left to our luck – which for me means ignoring everyone, since even when I try to act my coldest, every day is still filled with odd little meetings and conversations. India is not for introverts, though of course there are long stretches of time where you are left with your own thoughts.


All this you must know, as I did, before you meet the puppeteer. He is is skinny and looks fourteen, though he says he is twenty and wants to practice his English. Uh huh. That’s a tale I’ve heard before. I keep walking and so does my new shadow, a brilliantly adorned marionette under his arm. A man already tried to sell me one two hours ago, so I remain skeptical of this chattering apparition. Like the man in the alley, he asks me why I don’t want to talk to him, and my heart softens. I am fully aware that willful rudeness is sometimes the only way to deal with people here…and yet… it is still rude. I slow my pace and begin to explain that most people are more interested in my money than in me – he grins and says he is not looking for handouts, he just wants to practice his English. With a slow sarcastic smile, I point to the puppet under his arm. He quickly passes it off to a silent, patient friend of his who follows in his wake. A string tugs at my ankle.


Like everyone else, he wants to know my business and my thoughts on India and my life in the States – I give him my usual carefully edited canned response. With a deft flick he lifts the corners of my clownish mouth, telling my the scraggly unshaven stubble on my chin makes my look like Shah Khan the Bollywood star when I wear my sunglasses. The artistry is complete – he of the puppets and the half-darkened peach-fuzz upper lip can play on the ego of a young man whose half-beard is as uneven and ragged as a nematode-infested vegetable field.


He lowers me by the bits of twine on my knees and elbows, and I find myself in a chair outside a barber-shop. We sit and talk slowly, for as usual I have no truly set plans other than catching my train to Chandigarh later in the evening. Another friend of his appears, and for a half-hour we talk politics and culture before he moves off down the street.


An hour has passed, and the show is about to enter its second act. He has asked repeatedly if I want to visit the “artist’s colony,” and I have answered no, though with limited resolve. For all my caution, I am curious and feel reasonably safe. The culture here is very peaceful, and on a rather brutish level most people here are smaller than I am; the battles seem to be mostly an issue of wits, not force. The walk to the artist’s colony, after I agree to go, hardly breeds fear – we pass government buildings and are on major roads the whole way. The puppeteer and I talk; his friend, still silent, lopes along behind with a half-dozen magnificent puppets draped from his shoulders, mirrors and metal sparkling in the dusty sunshine.


We crossed a street and slipped into a narrow space between buildings of brick and plaster and wood. I was instantly alert, sharp elbows and heavy boots, thanking the good graces for aligning the alleys east-west and giving me an afternoon sun for a compass. As we walked I stayed in back and turned frequently to memorize intersections as they would look if I came back toward them alone and in a hurry. Landmarks were hard to find over the low, uneven shanty rooftops, but I had no intention of getting disoriented and every intention of being able to find my own way out if necessary. Thankfully, it never became an issue.


After passing a little further into the dreary neighborhood, I was ushered into a tiny rickety-looking hovel filled with nearly a dozen women. The one man in the room was holding a large-print book written in Devanagari script; I concluded that this was an elementary-level class for women who never had the chance to learn to read as children. The man appeared to be a social worker of some kind, but he spoke no English and my oft-neglected Hindi is not at the point of being particularly useful, so the details were lost on me.


Our second stop was a concrete cube slightly smaller than a double bed. Together with a roofed courtyard of similar size, it comprised the total real estate of the puppeteer’s uncle. There was no furniture, and so I sat with the family on a small mat of dirty sacking material that had been spread on the hard floor. Looking around, I was surprised to see a TV on a shelf in the corner by the door. This implied a great deal about the actual amount of disposable income this family had, and also meant that electricity actually came through the wires that ran to some of the houses. What had at first seemed utter desperation to my untrained American eye was beginning to take on a different hue.


The uncle offered tea, and then suggested I might like to see a puppet show. At this point I was detecting the signs of being “buttered up,” and so I politely declined, though I must say I still wonder what the puppet show would have been like. Had I had another person along, I might have made different decisions, but I was alone and had a train to catch and didn’t want to get in too far over my head. I was saved from further attempts at subtlety by the appearance of an unhealthy-looking eight year old daughter, who was clad in worn, un-mended clothing made of faded cotton print.


I was hardly surprised when the uncle chose this juncture to ask me for money, pointing at his daughter’s oddly-shaped protuberant stomach and looking directly into my eyes. It was an eerie moment. Hard realities and layers of illusion and make-believe and responsibility and uncertainty mixed in my head. Rather than try to sort them out while sitting on a stained mat in his tiny house, I told him I would only discuss it with his nephew, and only after I had left the artist’s colony. Besides giving me time to think, this had the very practical advantage of giving everyone involved motivation to ensure that I made it out of the maze of alleys in one piece and also prevented me from having to display cash to the onlookers. I an fit of I said that I would write about what  I had seen and try to explain it to people in my homeland. It sounded trite and hollow as I said it. Words do not a healthy daughter make.


Still, under the surface I had the sense that I was not speaking to truly desperate people. The women had better saris than the field laborers in Modipuram and there were electrical wires running to many of the houses. Most of the people also looked reasonably well-fed – I’ve seen starvation here, and this group was definitely not anywhere near that category. Poor? Certainly, by my standards, but there are different levels to poverty which are hard to differentiate with an eye accustomed to a first-world lifestyle. Imagine three men my age. The first does not have enough to eat. The second does. The third can buy as much high-quality, tasty food as he wants whenever he wants. I would argue that the difference between the first man and the second is much greater than the difference between the second and the third. The difference between enough food and not enough food is starkly qualitative, an issue of black and white, yes or no.  However, once one’s basic needs are met, there is a spectrum of increasing comfort and prosperity, and people always want to move further up, no matter how high they are already. This is as true among barely-educated Indian laborers as it is among the champagne-drinking American business elite. The part that applies in this case is the fact that an American, especially one who can afford to travel, will see the dirt and tiny houses of the artist’s colony and immediately think “poverty,” without being able to discern whether the people are really desperate or are simply living in limited circumstances.


Several days and hundreds of kilometers away though monstrous mountain passes lay a conversation in which I would learn from a vacationing NGO worker that he considered anyone who spent more than 2000 rupees per month on expenses other than rent to be effectively upper class. Thats $1.60 per day to pay for food, transportation, clothing, medicine, religion, and everything else. What appears to be a rising middle class in India is really a wealthy class that appears middle class because it has the trappings of middle class families in developed nations. These trappings, however, are so valuable by Indian standards that anyone who can afford them is in effect upper class. Such was his opinion, and I have to say its believable. The implication is that in the bottom of the economic ladder there are a lot of different layers squished tightly together, so that a difference of twenty rupees (forty-six cents) per day in earnings may separate two distinctly different income brackets. I left the colony with muddled thoughts, emotions and instinctive reactions clashing with what my eyes and intellect were telling me about the reality of the situation.


In the end, after we had walked a few hundred yards down a wide avenue and I was feeling in control again, I did give the puppeteer a little money – but only a little. I told him I was breaking my own rule, which I was – I don’t think handouts are a very good way to solve anything even if they get to people who need them, which they usually don’t. It was a sum of money that, if they were in fact desperate, would make some difference in their lives for few days – but it was also a small enough amount that I would not feel too foolish about the possibility that I was merely subsidizing the consumer habits and possibly alcoholism of some artistically inclined Rajastani. I had the sneaking feeling that this was not a situation of life or death for anyone involved. When the puppeteer saw the amount, he looked disappointed and said that if I didn’t trust him to make sure it was spent appropriately I could come with him to the store; he would be happy to take no money if I would instead buy him some groceries. I would have liked to do just exactly that, but the time for my train was approaching, and so I bid him farewell and good luck.


As the puppeteer walked back toward his home, I saw his uncle drive past on a shiny if rather old-model motorbike. A wry grin hovered on my lips. I had guessed right.


One Comment

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  1. bengolas / Aug 6 2008 2:09 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I don’t know what weird feeling has hit me today, but reading your latest entry has helped. We’ll have a lot to share when you return in December.

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