Yesterday was a long travel day, beginning in Delhi and ending in Jaipur. In Delhi we hired a local driver, which is not at all a strange rich lady thing to do. Except that it is. Sort of.
I am not a wealthy woman by most American standards. I come from a middle class family (probably upper middle class, depending on who’s asking) where the household income is higher than the average American household income, but quite far from doctor-lawyer territory. Like I said: not rich.
And I am certainly not rich by the standards of the wealthiest Indians who live here. From what I’ve gathered in various conversations with locals, their lifestyles are impressively extravagant (and our driver, Mr. S., and I had a good laugh over the horse polo-playing habits of a former maharaja of Rajasthan.)
However, and this is a HUGE however, I have to acknowledge that I am a wealthy lady here. Me with my dwindling savings account and state-sponsored healthcare, my funemployment and my indeterminable cover letters. I am a rich bitch.
I was chauffeured (a word I’ve only used before in jest to describe my dear papa driving me to and fro, or maybe the one time I sat in a hired car for my grandmother’s funeral) from Delhi to Agra, and then to Jaipur: the Golden Triangle. At the Taj Mahal, my photograph was taken on innumerable smartphone cameras and I became a souvenir for many visiting Indians. At the ruins of a mosque, I was followed by vendors and children with outstretched hands.
This is a kind of western privilege I have never experienced before. Many times, the color of my skin, a warm, easily sun-burnt beige, a vast swath of whiteness, was immediately conflated with wealth. Even when I said I did not want the items being thrust toward me, 2000 rupees became 1500 became 1000 became, “What do you want to pay? I can give you a very good price, Ma’am.”
A young boy of 11 or 12 attached himself to us at the mosque. We had chosen to forgo a tour guide and this boy made it his mission to impress us with his knowledge of six languages and the history of his home. K. said he had learned all his facts by following around older tour guides and listening to their speeches. He also said he attends an English school in the mornings and an Islamic school in the evenings. Satisfied with his answers, we let him take us through the mosque in an informal way. I hope this bright, articulate boy does go to school, and that, like he said, he may not be topper, but he’s still number 2 in his class. I hope that’s all true. I don’t know.
It’s very difficult to discern what is real and what is a show for tourists. Sometimes the show is funny and both parties are aware of the absurdity of the situation. Sometimes the show is less funny, like the begging boy whose leg had been twisted with the sole of his foot facing forward in an unnatural position, a bend unlikely caused by a deformation at birth. My mother last traveled through India in the late 1970s and she said she saw more children like this then. I have only seen the one boy: I hope the organized groups who maim these children have found other ways to extort money from tourists.
Much of what I’ve seen has been tied up in this idea of hope. Many things are going well for India, from new initiatives in expanding digital technology to preservation of important monuments. From what I’ve read in news articles and blogs, there is a lot of forward movement in this country.
I’m here as a tourist and it would be easy to focus on the progress and reforms that are slowly changing Indian society. But it is hard to reconcile political advances with broken children. So I do hope K. is number 2 in his class, and I also hope he spends his pocket money on chocolates, which is what he said he likes to buy when I asked him. I hope and press on, uncertain in the veracity of my experiences here.