My recent tour of Rajasthan was a most self-revealing and humbling experience and I will tell you why.
I am a traveler, always on the look out for company for travel and often when that does not happen, even alone. I have visited various parts of India in company of friends and family. But the recent short visit of my Dutch sister-in-law (L) and her friend (N), was my first experience of traveling with European companions.
I am some what familiar with life in Holland as my brother lived there from 1975 and I have made innumerable visits over the years. I am familiar with the meticulous organization of public services (which is not without occasional disadvantages), the cleanliness and order of public spaces which is in abundance, the orderly, quiet (in terms of decibels) and courteous interactions among people, who are not so abundant (still far more than in many other European nations). And so, I became more conscious of the many aspects of our daily life that we seem to have just come to accept – the lack of public spaces, which where available are far from clean, the high decibel at which we interact even in public, and lack of common courtesy among people, in our overcrowded (and even when not so crowded) public spaces.
My sister-in-law has made innumerable previous visits, but always buffered by the presence of my brother. Her friend had visited, also with her husband, a few decades ago. This was the first time they were traveling alone, and like many visitors from Western countries were probably prepared for the crowds, the jostling, the chaotic traffic and general mayhem that pervades our public spaces – I am not sure how different it was from their expectations. The density and nature of the traffic in the NCR and the air quality were both worse in real time than it was in their imagination I am sure!!
And as we took a weeks tour around Rajasthan (Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer), they were struck by the color and vibrancy, admired the beauty of the historical spots we visited, the varied skills exhibited by the craftsmen (the local silver jewellery, miniature painting, patchwork, embroidery, textiles etc.), and much more. The Indian cuisine also threw up new experiences at every meal. Of course, even I was exasperated at the general squalor, especially in the towns (swachh Bharat?), the lack of decent toilets even on the highways (the roads themselves have definitely improved in recent times), and the pushy nature of our fellow-Indians – at one narrow stairwell in one of the havelis at Jaisalmer, L would have been standing politely at the landing for a very long time, as a large noisy Indian group barged up the stairs, paying no heed to the elderly foreign lady letting them pass. I became more aware than I usually am, to the decibel levels of conversations at airports, the hurry and pushing to disembark when the plane lands – and much more! They of course, reserved comments, not wanting to maybe sound critical!
And so what was humbling and self-revealing? The absolutely status/class neutral and easy, friendly and spontaneous interaction that L and N had with all the people they had interaction with – which apart from me and my friend, was mostly with those providing services in the hotels we stayed (doorman, housekeeping staff etc.), the driver of our taxi and miscellaneous traders and shop owners!! And it left me feeling small and how deficient I was in my interactions with my fellow Indians. I have always made efforts to be polite, helpful and supportive with all my staff (at home and at work), and enjoy the interactions with various vendors and other service providers that I deal with. And having worked in public hospitals all my life, there have been interactions with people from all walks of life and the effort was always to treat each individual with respect and with total class neutrality.
But, this week made me realize how far I was from that in reality, and that talking nicely is not enough! I do it only when I need to interact, often not even registering the presence of a person, leave alone acknowledging their presence. And even more shamefully, they do not expect their presence to be acknowledged! And when they do and demand that equality, the fall outs are there all around to see!!
So the week in Rajasthan,was more than just a holiday – it brought home to me, how far we were from an egalitarian society, but even worse, how few of us even accept the truth of this. And unless we do, and pro-actively work towards such a goal, we should not be surprised at increasing discontent and the resultant fall outs.