Impressions of India: Jaipur

Taking a walk around a medium-sized Indian city, such as Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is a sobering experience. India has almost a billion people, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line, and at any given time most of them are on the street with you. It is almost impossible to be alone in India, except in your hotel room. Everywhere you go are people; people hurrying, people standing around in groups talking (two or three at a time, at the tops of their voices), people sitting on the ground, people lying on the ground (some of them completely bundled in blankets and apparently asleep, even in the middle of the day,) people trying to lure you into their shops, people standing around eating, people standing drinking chai, an endless swarm of humanity milling and swarming everywhere you go. As a photographer who enjoys taking pictures of people in the street I like to be anonymous, and fade into the background. This is impossible for a Westerner in India. Everywhere you go you are the center of attention. Indians are extremely aware of their surroundings, and are friendly and welcoming people. In many cases, of course, there is a commercial motive for their attentions, but often it is just a desire to say hello. Children can be a real problem. You are liable to attract quite a following, and they all want something. “One rupee, one sweet (candy), one pen, one dollar, one photo, what is your name? Where you come from? Where you going? What you looking for? You give me something?” endlessly repeated as they follow you down the street. The best response is to simply ignore them, and eventually they give up, but they could give an insurance salesman lessons in persistence. This is mostly the boys. The girls tend to cluster in groups, giggling as they steal glances at you from the corners of their eyes. A smile and a greeting will usually get a smile back before they hide their faces in their hands and turn away blushing. Adults will often walk along beside you and engage you in conversation, and are sometimes quite hard to get rid of without seeming rude.

Indian cities are noisy, dirty and smelly. Music blasts at top volume everywhere, people are shouting, radios and TVs blaring, horns are blowing, engines roaring and belching black smoke, bells ringing, hawkers with portable PA systems screaming their pitches; India has no concept of noise pollution. Curiously enough the only silent creatures are the cows. Though they are everywhere, getting in the way of traffic, rooting around among the garbage, they never seem to make a noise. One would expect a constant chorus of mooing, but I have never in all the time I have been here, heard one make any noise whatever. Garbage is everywhere. The normal way to dispose of trash is just to throw it on the ground, and of course the cows (as well as all the other animals that roam the street, such as goats and pigs) do perform all their other bodily functions, so one has to be very careful where one steps. The sidewalks, such as they are, which is not much, are also cluttered with the aforementioned sleepers and sitters, as well as vendors with handcarts and vendors with blankets on the ground. The gutters are minor rivers of foul-smelling black liquid. All of this makes walking quite hazardous, especially when you add the potholes and sudden changes of level and of course the traffic coming at you from all sides whenever you have to venture into the street to avoid some obstruction on, (or complete absence of) the sidewalk. 

The stores are mostly concrete boxes with shelves and racks and low glass display cases for the merchandise. The owner and usually three or four hangers-on sit around on mats or directly on the floor. Often there is a low padded bench for customers, and all business that extends beyond a simple purchase is conducted over a cup of chai. In a country with so many people and so little commercial activity, competition is intense, especially for the attention of any passing tourist. Everywhere you go merchants are touting their wares. Again, the questions. “What is your country? How you like India? What is your good name? Where are you going? Come and see my shop. No need to buy, just look. Looking is free. Best prices.” You will find a friendly person at your elbow engaging you in conversation that soon turns to “My uncle’s store, just around the corner” These are touts, who roam the street and get a small commission for each customer they lure into someone’s store, more if you buy something. Inside the store you are sat down, given a cup of chai, and merchandise is paraded before you. Endless shawls are unfolded on the counter with a flourish; “Which ones you like? What color you prefer? Very fine gifts; you have wife at home? Girlfriend?” If you express any preference at all, the rest are swept aside, and several more brought out similar to the one you liked. And it is hard not to express any appreciation, as much of the work is stunning. India excels at hand-made goods, embroidery, weaving, rugs, carvings, miniature paintings, exquisitely executed in very fine taste. All the while you are protesting that you just came in to look, and all the while more and more things are piling up on the counter. Of course you ask the prices of things, and then you are treated to a five-minute description of the work that went into the item, how many weeks of painstaking work went into the making of it, how fine the workmanship is, how much better this one is than all that rubbish you see in the other stores, what fine taste you have to pick this particular example, before a price is named. You reiterate that you are not intending to buy anything, you are just curious to know what is available and at what cost, and immediately the price drops by 20 percent. “You are my first customer of the day, not many tourists this year, I have to make money for my family, I give you special price, just for you.” “Thank you, I appreciate it, but as I say, I am not buying anything today, I told you that from the start.” “Well, how much would you like to pay for it?” It is all you can do to extricate yourself without succumbing. The problem with all this is that it makes window-shopping or comparison-shopping quite impractical. As soon as you show any interest whatever in something, even just by looking at it, you are set upon. This has the unfortunate result of putting many tourists off buying anything at all, since they cannot stand the pressure, and so avoid entering any store whatever. The best solution is to find someone you can trust who knows the best place to go, and then go there, but finding someone you can trust is not easy in a strange place where everyone is fighting for your attention. It is really quite a puzzle. 

There are also the actual professional beggars, usually disabled, often quite grotesquely. Here the situation is quite different. For one thing, they seldom do more than look piteously at you. In India begging is pretty much of a recognized profession, and since a large proportion of the population are practicing Hindus, who give alms regularly, beggars make a reasonable income, at least by local standards. Though some came by their disfigurements naturally (or accidentally) many were deliberately disfigured in infancy for the very purpose of eliciting pity. The begging trade is actually a fairly well-organized industry; they give a portion of their take to a beggar-master who performs much the same function as a pimp in the prostitution trade. An excellent book dealing with this subject is the novel A Fine Balanceby Rohinton Mistry, a well-known Indian author. However I would suggest reading it somewhere other than in a large city in India, as it has a very depressing ending, and seeing the actuality while also reading about the background does not make for a very good night’s sleep, as I discovered! The hardest beggars to deal with are the ones, mostly women and small children, that wait at places where traffic backs up, and look piteously at you through the car window, until the traffic starts moving again. They are very hard to ignore. 

All of this poverty and dirt makes traveling in India a decidedly mixed pleasure. On the one hand there are some stunningly beautiful places, and for a photographer the opportunities are endless. On the other hand one spends a lot of time wrestling with one’s conscience about the conditions in which so many of the people live. One cannot help realizing that he food that is thrown into the garbage every day by any restaurant in the US would feed a family here for a month. Spending time watching people literally scratching a living out of the dirt certainly gives one a heightened consciousness of the wastefulness of the Western lifestyle. I certainly have no answers to this dilemma; I tell myself that just by coming here and spending what little I do spend I am making a contribution, but it is hollow consolation. I have to make a conscious effort not to brood on the situation, since that does not help anyone either. The best solution seems to be to avoid such cities, and concentrate on the good parts, which are certainly plentiful.