Poverty and Pressure – a brief look at an Indian woe

When I talk about travels in India I am often being asked how I deal with the poverty in the country (and I do feel tempted to quote Sir Mark Tully and say quite bluntly “I don’t have do, but they do”, because to assume that poverty is the problem or nuisance of the onlooker is, frankly, ridiculous and callous) – this is an attempt to give an answer, unsatisfying as it may be. This focuses on a segment of society that is ignored in the debate about India’s newfound prosperity – which is, however, just as true and consequential as this.

One undeniable aspect of India is the abject poverty that is on display. People sleep in tiny, makeshift huts on the street, cab drivers often have no roof over their heads and sleep in their cars, scores of beggars, little girls with ragged hair and women whose bones seem to rattle underneath their bright saris, men whose limbs were broken and twisted at birth to force them to make their living from the pity of others, stretch out their hands, pluck at shirts, wail and demand. The challenge is not to deal with this poverty as if it were some obstacle that the individual has to overcome by hardening oneself and losing all sense of empathy, but to see it and to realize that a majority of people live in poverty and under an immense pressure, if not to get food for the day then to pay back loans or to fulfill their perceived role in society. Pressure, not poverty, is the defining aspect of Indian day-to-day society. One can face that fact in several ways, the most common of which is a brief feeling of guilt and a rationalization that someone is to blame (caste system, government, etc.). Another way is to reflect for a second and then come to the conclusion that we (the privileged Europeans) are well off after all and do our petty problems really mean as much as we believe they do? Both ways are grossly superficial and are little more than looking away. We are afraid of tarnishing ourselves by looking at misery for too long. We are used to have everything pass us by, nothing sticks and if it does no thorn is too deep not to be loosened by lengthy complaining.

The fact is there is no one to blame, no one to complain to. One can analyze the situation and come to the conclusion that corruption is to blame or that there really shouldn’t be any social differences, but as soon as one looks at individual situations everything becomes muddled and human. The beggar girl has lost her family and fell in with people who treat her as nothing but a way to make money, but she is resigned to it and believes that this is the way life works because it is a way for her to retain dignity; the man with the broken limbs was the seventh kid of a piss-poor family and they thought to break his limbs would mean a safer future for him than to work fields that bear too little for four people; the cab driver who overcharges you has a family to feed, debt on his car and no hope to ever escape from his creditors. Almost everyone around you is under enormous pressure.

Those are aspects of existence that are very hard to look at for longer, no doubt, but this is what one has to do if one wants to understand properly. A poor man and a poor woman are nothing to be scared of. Refusing to accept them or to look at them directly is a terrible thing. Neither my guilt nor my sympathy do them any good.

To accept that also means to look at yourself in a different way. Most of the things you think you can’t live without are luxuries. You can live without every single one of them. That is not meant to be a wisdom, it’s simply a fact. As money becomes increasingly unbalanced in this world one may want to reconsider values – the printed paper isn’t the only thing that makes a life worth living, especially not for those who have enough to feed themselves and keep the roof over their heads without holes.

Where Westerners react with guilt or fear, well-off Indians, especially people who know the comforts of the West, react with indignation and sarcasm. Emotions are not hedged, like we Westerners prefer to do. Rigid structures make social maneuvers more easily calculable. This is without doubt a world that makes you harder, harsher and less sentimental. After spending time in India and experiencing poverty and instances of social cruelty first hand, I cannot be sentimental about it. It often strikes me, like a blow or a dagger, because it is real and impossible to ignore. But I hope that instead of sentimental it has made me more human.

When I travel the country in search of images to photograph and stories to tell, I pick out those that are uplifting and insightful, but there are just as many stories that are cruel and hopeless. It’s a challenge to find a mental balance between those two sides of nature and humanity. But ultimately one must resign oneself to this. It does good, in the words of the Dhammapada, to strive to do good and to avoid evil. But no person can avoid suffering, and sometimes all we can do is to keep our own peace while we’re suffering or witnessing others in pain. For someone growing up in a social system protected by egoistic complaints, bureaucratic immovability and an underlying and slow socialist materialism the Buddhist words may seem either seductive or callous, but faced with daily physical and spiritual suffering, they become a way of life rather than ultimately empty words.

There are many things I could suggest to improve the situation of poverty, especially caused by starvation and the lack of resources, and there are many people who work hard to improve the situation. There is no question that – in theory – it is possible to feed and clothe every single human being on this planet (and it is not just possible, but deeply necessary)…the practice is another matter and as long as we remain short-sighted and self-centered in our goals nothing will change.

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Ein Jahrmarkt zum Ende der Welt – der Bahnhof von Old Delhi

(Apologies to my English speaking readers – this post is in German only – I’ll make it up with another English-only update for the next one…the images used are not my own, so thank you for the permission to use them)

In Indien ist nichts ereignislos. An einem Ort zu stehen und allein nur zu beobachten, kann schon zu Reizüberflutung führen. In Indien zu reisen, das ist etwas ganz Besonderes. Eine Zugfahrt vom Bahnhof Old Delhi – die ist etwas Extremes. Old Delhi ist so ziemlich das Epizentrum des weltlichen Chaos. In einem Buch des italienischen Journalisten Tiziano Terzani wird der Bahnhof von Old Delhi durchaus treffend als das Vorzimmer der Hölle bezeichnet.

Wenn man in der Nacht in Old Delhi unterwegs ist, kann man leicht glauben, sich in einem endlosen Strom von Flüchtlingen zu befinden, die verdammt sind ohne ein Ziel auf ewig durch die Welt zu schlurfen. Kalkiges, blendendes Licht von den generatorenbetriebenen Lampen strahlt aus winzigen Geschäften in denen sich Schatten in energischer Arbeit über Maschinen oder Stücke aus Leder, Stoff und Metall hermachen. Und auf der Strasse überall Leute. Überall. Schultern streifen aneinander, Hände streifen über Stoff oder Haut. Man riecht Schweiß und den süßlichen, betäubenden Duft von Paan. Es ist unmöglich Distanz oder auch nur die Illusion von Distanz zu wahren. Halbbeleuchtete Gesichter tauchen aus der Menge auf wie in verzerrten Momentaufnahmen – alte, zu alte Rikshafahrer denen die Anstrengung ins Gesicht geschrieben steht; fette, schweißüberströmte Männer, ihre Gesichter voll von selbstzufriedener Verachtung; eine Gruppe lachender Kindsbettler; sariverhüllte Frauen und aus den Falten taucht für einen Moment eine Wange oder ein goldringverzierter Nasenflügel auf…eine Szene irgendwo zwischen skurrilem Horror und freudigem Tummel. Wie ein Jahrmarkt zum Ende der Welt.

Der Bahnhof selbst wirkt überrannt. In der Auskunftshalle klettern Leute durch ausgebrochene Fenster, informieren sich kurz auf der überraschend modernen Infotafel, auf der alle Züge rot aufgelistet sind, und klettern durch das Fenster wieder hinaus. Coolies, Träger mit roten Halstüchern, die sie bei Bedarf zu einem Turban knoten und auf dem drei, vier übergroße Koffer balancieren, hocken in Gruppen zusammen und suchen in der Menge mit stillen Blicken nach Kundschaft. Auf den Bahnsteigen findet man oft ganze Dorfgemeinschaften, auf yatra, auf Pilgerfahrt von den entlegensten und winzigsten Dörfern. Imposante Männer und Gruppen in sich gekehrter Frauen, die oft nur untereinander flüstern und so verschlossen wirken, als machten ihre blassen Saris sie unsichtbar.

Wenn man zu lange und zu unschlüssig herumsteht, dann wird man geholfen. Ein Träger erscheint aus dem Nirgendwo und greift sich alles an Taschen, was nicht an einem festgezurrt ist und trottet wie ein geisterhafter Führer durch diese Zwischenwelt vor einem her. Vielleicht murmelt man den Namen des Zuges, den man will, vielleicht weiß er es von so, aber man trabt hinter dem Mann her und wenn es nur darum geht das Gepäck wiederzubekommen!

Man blickt sich um und sieht die Gesichter der Menschen, die um einen gehen, warten oder kauern so leer, dass man nicht weiß ob sie zufrieden sind oder hoffnungslos oder gleichgültig. Es wirkt als ob sie alle warten, nicht nur auf einen Zug, sondern auf ein unmögliches Urteil, einen Freispruch, eine kosmische Intervention.

Eine Frauenstimme kommt ab und an aus den Lautsprechern, teilt den Wartenden in melodischem Hindi und Englisch mit, welches Schicksal ihren Zügen beschert ist. Ein Schreck durchfährt einen, wenn man hört, dass dieser oder jener Zug siebzehn Stunden Verspätung haben wird. Aber hier rechnet man nicht in Minuten oder Stunden. Eine Reise ist eine Reise und die dauert nun einmal so lange, bis man ankommt.

Hindi hat viele englische Lehnwörter, so zum Beispiel auch train, der Zug. Es gab den Versuch, diese Worte zurück auf Hindi zu übersetzen und in Hindi heißt der Zug, sie, die auf Flammen und Stahl reitet. Wenn der Bahnsteig zu beben beginnt, weil so ein Monstrum, das dem indischen Ausdruck weit näher ist als dem Englischen oder Deutschen, einfährt versteht man warum.

Züge sind streng in eine Vielzahl von Klassen unterteilt. First Class Sleeper AC, First Class AC, AC Sleeper, Sleeper, Second Class, Third Class…mit Klimaanlage oder ohne? Wie viele Betten in einem Abteil? Ein immer vollgefüllter Wagen für den man keine Reservierungen braucht? Glasscheiben oder ein winziges, oft vergittertes Fenster, das als Notausgang dient und mich sehr froh stimmt, dass ich mich beim Essen zurückhalten kann? Aber egal, ich habe meine Reservierung schon lange vorher gemacht. Ohne Reservierung kann man nur dritter Klasse fahren, was keine gute Idee ist, wenn man schlafen und im Besitz seines Gepäcks bleiben will. Verkäufer, deren ganzer Körper mit Ketten und Schlössern behängt ist und die entlang der Bahnsteige patroullieren wecken eine Paranoia die halb-berechtigt und sicherlich halb gut fürs Geschäft ist.

Sie, die auf Flammen und Stahl reitet, ist eine ungeduldige Dame und so rennen Gruppen an Reisenden kreuz und quer über den Bahnsteig, suchen mit steigender Nervosität nach ihrem Wagen oder suchen auf den Sitzplatzzetteln, die auf allen Türen kleben nach ihrem Namen. Der Coolie schleppt einen auf den richtigen Platz, man feilscht um den Preis, versucht nicht derjenige zu sein, der aus der Transaktion mit Zorn hervorgeht, verstaut das Gepäck (Wertsachen zwischen einen und die Abteilwand), stimmt sich schnell mit allen Anderen ab, mit denen man das Abteil teilt, in der Hoffnung sich schnell gut zu stellen und eine ruhige Zugfahrt zu verbringen. Wenn alles erledigt ist und sich der Zug in Bewegung setzt, kann man endlich das einzige tun wodurch man in Indien in den Genuss der Einsamkeit kommt. Augen schließen und träumen.

Travel books for people who miss the road

Travel companions for people who miss the road – nutcases, artists, poets, soldiers…the voice at your side shapes the world around you, whether it’s in a book or in real life. This is a selection of books to be read when the travel bug bites hard and you can’t follow the itch but only, feebly, scratch it.

Colin Thubron – pretty much anything from the somber and poetic Englishman, offspring of a Poet Laureate. Thubron travels to the timeworn city of Damascus, through the forbidding snow-wastes of Siberia or follows the Silk Route from China into Russia. His voice is the voice of the solitary traveler, the person who becomes his surroundings and transforms them with clear melancholy. The people he meets speak clearly of loss and joy, frozen in time, ephemeral…beautiful. The closest he came to India was a journey to Mount Kailash, and it is hard to imagine his perception in the maelstrom of quotidian India, but one can imagine him crossing the Himalayas and the Hindukush or walking through the jungle valleys and hillsides of tea of Sikkim.

Tahir Shah – son of Idries Shah, the late Sufi grandmaster who lived in Britain, Tahir has inherited the flavor of language from his father. His writings mix observations and fantasies, deliberately blurring the line. I like the idea of not knowing at what point the writer decides to walk into his own head, although purists of “realistic” or observational travel writing might disapprove (although of what is not so clear to me, unless it is their own inability to separate fact from fiction). The descriptions of India and how it appears to a bemused outsider (one can find them in Sorcerer’s Apprentice) are recognizable and hilarious. His books mystify those who have no sense of the mystical and lie to those who cannot separate truth from fiction, a perfectly regular Sufi behavior, I’d say. He goes to India to become a sorcerer or rather his apprentice, so that should give you a hint to the level of humour, detachment and fantasy you should expect…as well as the level of self-importance of the author (fair warning if you’re sensitive that way).

Helena Drysdale – she moves us away from India (although she has written a book on her solitary travels in Nepal and Tibet, which I haven’t yet read), but her book Mother Tongues is a excellent account of her search for tribal communities in Europe. In a time where the Euro and maybe the European Union itself are about to scatter, this is a timely reminder of cultural uniqueness, personal identity, diversity in a continent that finds it just cannot pretend equality for too long. Drysdale travels with her husband and her two young daughters, so this becomes a family account as much as a travel book or an anthropological study. It’s fascinating and personal and leads the mind far away from the trappings of globalization and corporate identity.

Simon Allix – after the death of his brother during an accident on a road in Kashmir, Simon Allix, a graphic designer by trade, decided to create a memorial to his sibling. Mandala Mountain or Rivers of the Mandala, a beautiful picture book (for grown-ups, if you need that disclaimer) about the two brothers’ multiple journeys to and around Mount Kailash is the result. It is filled with snapshots, memorabilia, sketches and drawings taken from their travel notebooks and put together in a wonderful zany way that evokes both a bande-dessiné and a travelogue.

Olivier Föllmi – a Swiss photographer (one of my favourite photographers) who founded a vast project called Sagesse de l’humanité. He travels the world photographing people, cities, places. Having lived for several years in Tibet and the Middle East, he understands the worlds he moves through better than an outsider would and his photographs are vast and personal, calm and assured. You can pick them up in beautiful oversized hardcover books and travel through them for a few hours…or days…or months…

Image Selection X – The Solitude of Mountains

Work and illness have kept me from updating this for a while – my apologies. Here is a new Image Selection taking us, once more, into the Himalayas:

The colours are what comes back to me when I close my eyes. I am at home in these colours.

The shadow fingers of a tree reach out, partly obscuring the bone-white silhouette.

The rivers mean so much here, one cannot take their roar for anger. We threw bottles, a damaged sandal and sticks into it, not to pollute, but as offerings and to watch – like children – the passage of the strange object and to wonder where it might be found again.

The houses of the gods are man-made things and therein lies their beauty and their solitude.

Please refrain from using these images without my permission. All images copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner.