Our first stop on our first day in India was the Bombay Exposition Centre. The show didn't start until tomorrow, but we wanted to get our booth set up and an idea of where to go before the actual event. Our driver dropped us off at what I could only hope was the wrong place. It was a warehouse behind another warehouse. The place was crawling with male workers and I think every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at us the second we stepped out of the car. It was just us and them. They watched us find our booth through the construction dust and noise. They watched us look around. They watched us pretend to prepare our booth by pushing our little desk around, establishing where the metal chair should go, and making halfhearted attempts to arrange where our sign should go. Then we got out of there.
Our cab then proceeded, literally at the pace of a snail, to what felt like a hundred miles south but was actually just the other side of the city. We sat in traffic forever. Once forever finally ended and we started moving, we made it to the Prince of Wales Museum--a museum of artifacts and art, which I'm ashamed to say, I only partially attempted to appreciate. I was hot. I was tired. I was suffering massive culture shock. And I was sick of everyone staring at me. I wanted to get inside asap. Nevertheless, after some brief souvenir shopping, we stood on the street waiting for our cabbie to show up and had to fend off a guy selling what looked like giant inflated bowling pins (their purpose mystified us, but the man was positive we needed at least two), a guy who wanted us to sign a petition in favor of nature (I refused because he bugged me, not to spite nature), and a kid fanning a book of Mumbai postcards relentlessly in our faces.
Finally the car showed up and we headed back. At one busy intersection, I noticed children walking between the stopped cars. I realized they were beggars. They stopped at our windows, tapping and motioning to their mouths for food, their words unenthusiastic from overuse, dull and muted by the glass between us. One was a young girl. Another was a mother with a baby balanced on her hip. I saw the rest of them gathered on the sidewalk. Women and children. But that wasn't the rest of them, as I would learn in the coming days. They were hundreds, thousands maybe. Populating the underpasses and busiest intersections. They lived there. Their homes were strung up hammocks where the babies slept when they weren't sitting in the gutters. Piles of rubbish, jars, and bins. They crouched in circles when they weren't begging and looked at us, languishing. Rush hour was the worst. They combed through the traffic selling junk or simply begging. The abjectness of their poverty was beyond my scope of understanding heretofore. They were brown all over--the layer of filth on their hair and clothes lent them an almost velveteen appearance. I looked in their eyes and I didn't know what to do. I just didn't know what I was supposed to say. So I said nothing and prayed they wouldn't spot me next time, like a coward cowering. This haunted me every day when we'd pull into our luxury accommodations and eat our fine cuisine and sleep in our crisp sheets, and when we flew home to America on our jumbo jet. In the darkness of our midnight flight home, I cried and cried thinking about them and how helpless they were, and how helpless I felt.
That night, after our first full day, I was done with India. I wanted to get out. I was overwhelmed by the press and rush and pace and reality of life.
And yet by the time we left, I felt the most inexplicable affinity for the place that even I couldn't really understand. But I think it had a lot to do with the people. For three days we stood in our booth and talked to people about silicone baby toothbrushes. Hundreds of people. And they were lovely. There was a warmth, a sincerity, a generosity about them that I absolutely loved. Not everyone was polite, not everyone was sweet or nice, but I think the key to understanding any place is getting to interact with its people, and interact we did; and that's where I felt I saw India. And I loved it. We made friends--with the guy in the booth across from us. He gave us some dresses for our kids. And with the girl working as a model in the booth kitty corner. The guys at the food court could guess I wanted a Diet Coke without saying anything by the last day. I guess we were memorable, being the only Americans there, but they were memorable, too, for me.
Before we left for India, I had a girl who lived there tell me it was, "both terrible and wonderful." And when she'd said it, I didn't know what she meant. But by the end of the week I did. For that week, nothing was normal. I lived so far outside my normal realm--seeing the basest of poverty and thousands of people existing in a way, in a place so foreign from anything I'd seen, all from my luxury car and fine hotel. And then getting to interact with those people. There was something enchanting about it all, as much as that seems like a cliched ending to every movie you ever saw about a white person who went to India.
To sum it up, India doesn't hold back. It is generous with its display of life, in all its shades.