Namaste from India!
notes from india to my comrades in usa
I landed in Delhi three weeks ago. All of the familiar elements of this ancient land came flooding back into my senses as soon as I deplaned, most especially, the smell of India. I was surprised that I could have forgotten such a pungent odor. While waiting to go through customs I kept inhaling a little deeper with each breath, both to try and figure out what made the smell of this country so peculiar and to also try and keep it from becoming a normal part of my senses too soon. But alas, the smell left me before I had a chance to decipher it, not that I know that I ever really could.
I stayed in Delhi for a few days before making the long journey north to Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and many exiled Tibetans. A favorite place of mine in India, it felt like home the first that I visited, over four years ago.
I arrived in the early morning hours, in the dark rain with nowhere to go. I had heard that due to the Dalai Lama's teachings there were no rooms available. So, I ended up going a mile or so out from the main area of upper Dharamsala (or McLeod Gang as it's called) to a smaller community called Bhagsunag. I had been to this area before, but only to visit briefly during the day. I figured that I would remain here until a room opened up in McLeod Gang, since that is where I had Indian and Kashmiri friends, and where I wanted to hang out.
Now, more than two weeks later, I remain in Bhagsunag. The McLeod Gang that I once knew and loved has changed. Busy, noisy and growing fetid, the magic of this place is largely gone for me. I am sure that much of the chaos is due to the volume of people who are here for the teachings of His Holiness - an event that I did not know was going to be happening - but some of it may also be that the secret is out, and now there are too many tourists for the size and resources of this place.
But there seems to be a deeper issue, a sense of unrest in those who remain here when we all leave, like they are just 'doing time' in this place. Of course, this makes sense considering that it is mainly Tibetans and Kashmiris who inhabit McLeod Gang, both groups of people exiled from their homes (Kashmiri's needing to work in other parts of India due to the insurgency that has killed employment opportunities).
One of the biggest appeals to being in India is being out of the u.s.a. It is hard to describe how utterly free I feel with not having the daily barrage of u.s. politics in my psyche. Since I've been here, I've been engaged in a couple of political discussions, one with a Kashmiri who asked me about 'our president'. He said that he had heard that the election was rigged. I'm sure that the whole world knows this, all except for those americans who are sleeping.
The other discussion was with a French couple (our allies!) and an Australian woman. To be honest, it was a discussion that I would have preferred to skip out on, and at some point, did excuse myself from. Not that it was not an interesting dialogue; we fervently talked about everything from 9.11, my own personal, political views of the tsunami and the role of John Kerry in the election, and everything else in between. But while in the heat of our conversation I felt like a junkie who had been a few weeks clean and then opened up and plunged the black tar of america's dirty political poison deep into my veins.
I'm still at activist at heart, but I am not involved to the degree that I once was, or at least not in the same way. One day I woke up and realized that my body was polluted with the toxicity of rage and contempt. I knew that I could not go out into the street with a poisoned heart while trying to promote a message of love and peace. Not to say that anger does not have its place; indeed it is a fuel that catapults us into action. But when anger burns too hot without a proper outlet, it is injurious and can become dangerous.
About a year ago I ran into a good friend that I spent time with in the streets who told me that she too had shifted her energy into other activities. Her husband held a mirror up to her one day to show her what an enraged and vengeful woman she had become. She did not like what she saw so knew that she had to step back.
Many activists get burned out. Fortunately, when this happens there is new blood to carry on in our footsteps. The most important thing is to not lose sight of the truth and to not fall into apathy. There are many ways to continue being an activist, and certainly this is what our ultimate goal is, to find our own personal protest so that we remain a dynamic part of the solution.
The form of activism where I feel that I can make a difference is in photojournalism. It never felt enough to me to run through the streets shouting slogans. In gathering, writing and sharing important stories, I feel that the world can come to know of the many injustices that are occurring. Stories can provoke people and can contribute to change.
Not that I don't enjoy a rousing peace protest but I now generally attend as a photojournalist rather than a sign carrying activist, to document the dissent that is going on. I think that being visible and verbal is very, very important, if for no other reason than to let the rest of the world know that we are not sitting blankly in front of the television.
As for television, this malign force is changing the world, quickly. A few nights ago I was visiting a home that had a t.v. I found the imagery shocking. For american television maybe (though I do not watch it so am not sure where it is today) but in India!?
They have Mtv here; with magnificent Indian music, but the video portion is definitely american style. The women are dressed in scant clothing while sexually writhing around, bumping and grinding to the music. It surprised the hell out of me, a country where women dress very modestly, with even their faces covered if they're Muslim.
I asked some of my Indian friends about the television imagery and they said "India is no more", meaning that it is all changing. The giant tentacles of western influence has permeated this country. The swoosh, as well as Adidas, Reebok, Levis, and Tommy labels are everywhere. Chemical hair dyes are pushing natural henna hair coloring off the grocers shelves, young men have their ears pierced and are growing out their hair while women are cutting their braids off.
I think that we can safely applaud some of the changes if it means there is less cultural control and more autonomy, but I am afraid that, with things in full swing, it is only a matter of time before much of what has been in existence in India for thousands of years will be lost and forgotten. If this makes me feel sad, I can only imagine how the elders must feel.
I have Indian friends back home who tell me that the younger generation has lost their respect for their elders, that they used to stand to greet someone when they entered the room, now they sit slumped and unaware it front of the t.v.
The villages still retain a more primitive way of life; the most profound changes are occurring in the cities, especially Mumbai, the heart of Bollywood. A city that I visited 4.5 years ago, it reminded me of L.A. with its skyscrapers, billboards and fast pace. There was one redeeming quality that I found about this big city however; there was garbage service, a rarity in India where trash is simply thrown in the street and then later pushed into piles where it rots.
Or in the case of plastic, it lays scattered everywhere; especially discarded water bottles, yet it is imperative to drink bottled water here. There are a few places in McLeod Gang where a plastic water bottle can be refilled with boiled, filtered water, so steps are being taken to reduce the plastic pollution.
On a positive note, there is a ban on plastic bags in some parts of India forcing the shopkeepers to use paper. The fruit that I purchased last night was put into a bag made of newspaper, a great way to reuse resources. One of the problems with plastic bags is that the cows, who freely roam the streets, are choking on the plastic that gets mixed in with the piles of garbage that they feed off of.
India is rich in so many ways. Family life is paramount, and seems to be one of the few things that remains stable and vibrant in this ever changing landscape. I read a newspaper article today about an Indian mother who took her life to give her eyes and sight to her two teenage sons who were born with corneal problems. In the same section of the paper I read where Pres. Bush forced the reconnection of the feeding tube that is keeping the Floridian woman stuck in her 15 year vegetative state. The story of the Indian mother is one of sacrifice, while the other is an issue of control.
I love the simplicity here; life moves at a very different, nonlinear, and much more relaxed pace. India is by no means a utopia, and certainly has its share of problems, as does any land inhabited by humans, but it offers a freedom that I will never know in my own country.
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