While we were in Phnom Penh, we ate a meal that brought tears to my eyes.
I admit I am a bit of a foodie and really good eats can honestly make my day, but this was something different. This was the taste of a whole country – and my myriad of experiences there – in my mouth: India.
We’d eaten “Indian” food other places since we left India at the beginning of the year, but the meals we’d had were sad shadows of the glorious food we enjoyed so much as we traveled through that country. The flavors we experienced there were a significant and visceral part of our travel experience in the country that began this whole big adventure we are on.
So suddenly tasting the “real thing” again brought me right back. It was a reaction that I was not expecting and I was frankly shocked at its strength. The meal was a delight but I mostly ate in a stunned silence, flashing back to many scenes and vivid emotions with each bite of tikka or spoonful of raita.
The first destination of our world trip and the place we’ve stayed the longest and seen the most (so far), India is a bit like an impressionable teenager’s first love. For better or worse, the next few locations inevitably get held up against India for comparison. Is it as intense as India? As dynamic/ demanding/ dramatic/ dirty?
While it’s natural that our first stop in Asia was bound to make a deep impression, and our tendency to hold everything the standard of India is lessening as we take in more and more sights, sounds, tastes and experiences in other countries, the fact remains that the country has got a special place in my heart (and my stomach apparently feels the same way!), and I suspect that on our travels we will encounter no place quite like India.
The why and how of these strong feelings are hard for me to articulate. I know that as much as I tried not to, I had huge expectations at the outset of our big trip – for the trip in general and specifically for India. My assumptions and expectations have given way to actual experiences and the (ongoing) process of letting go of what is in my head to simply being more present where I am has often been uncomfortable. A lot of my lessons on this topic were in India, where I thought I would be floating through the country like a perfect, serene yogini, filled up with the beauty of the place but in reality was often bogged down by self-criticism and doubt, frustrated by emotions I didn’t want to look at and challenged by things like societal restrictions on women and how to feel about the massive class divides that dictate so much of people’s lives there.
The amazing opportunity we had to spend so much time in my friend Ritu’s home in New Delhi was a big part of this. I am incredibly grateful to her and to the women in her household who welcomed me and Roman like family. Our time with them still gives me a lot to think about.
On women in India
We were with Ritu and her family while they were going through some significant difficulties. That whole situation is not my story to tell – suffice to say there were legal issues and family dynamics particular to the Indian culture and judicial system at play.
My friend Ritu is smart, independent, and extremely well-educated. She is better off than most Indian women. Seeing what she and the women in her family had to go through in their situation – all the dead ends they ran into and the near-brushes with violence they thankfully managed to avoid as they had to play within a system of appearance versus reality (the external ‘noble’ tradition supporting behind-closed-doors abuse of power, the spheres of women’s movement and influence being limited to the men they can trust to act for them) sometimes made me despair for the state of the majority of Indians who are poor, unconnected, uneducated.
At the same time, I was in constant awe of the strength, grace and burning nobility of women we saw in India – from Ritu’s infinitely elegant mother to the gorgeous spunky, outspoken girls I danced with at the Pakistani border to the rural women doing backbreaking farm work in gorgeous, bright saris.
I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I am struck by the instinct towards fierce but graceful survival in some of the women I have witnessed here.
Circumstances that would have left me defeated ten times over are approached with an attitude that combines strength, patience, faith, integrity and above all, dignity. No matter what the burden, their backs remain straight, their shoulders poised, heads held high. Seriously, I believe the women in India, with time, could achieve anything. 🙂
On service in India
One thing that was really tough for me upon arriving at Ritu’s was the fact that her household had servants. This is totally normal in India; cheap household help is the norm in all of Asia in fact. But this was my first time encountering it in my life and I had no idea how to act or how to feel about it.
The fact is that in the beginning it made me incredibly uncomfortable and it felt wrong to have a young woman who was probably 30 pounds lighter than me lugging my massive pack about or waiting for me and Roman to go to bed so she could go to sleep on the floor of the living room where we were hanging out.
Because of this I am even more grateful for all the time we had at Ritu’s. The relationship between employer and employee in India is far more complex than I could imagine, and I’m glad I had the chance to see some of the nuances for myself.
Ritu’s mom employed three women. Two live-in and one part-time. As I got over my discomfort and got to know them better, I was able to see the shades of grey in the situation and understand the deep interdependency. For me the initial instinct was that “rich” people with servants = bad bourgeois (it took me a year to get over my internal angst and finally hire a cleaner back in Switzerland which made my life SO much better (even now though I feel the need to explain that I was working crazy hours which is why I couldn’t keep up with the cleaning myself!) 🙂 ) and I should feel bad for the women she hired.
But I was able to discover the deep love the women had for each other. When Ritu’s mom got into a dispute with a neighbor, all three girls were at her side in an instant, shouting insults and defending their mistress with all the fire in their big hearts. When the family situation got really tough, the girls were in the kitchen, crying in sympathy, or rubbing Ritu’s mom’s shoulders in support.
On the flip side, Ritu’s mother was more than just an employer. She taught the women to manage and save their money. If they were ill, she managed and paid for their medical care. Most of all though, her employment helped to get them out of desperate situations. Sheela left her abusive husband and was raising her children as a single mother. Pushpa escaped an arranged marriage to a man with psychological problems who had tried to kill her. Reeshma came from an impoverished rural family; with no education her job allowed her to send necessary money back home. How could I still pity these amazing women for working as servants in a household knowing what the job meant for them?
It makes me rethink the confusing feelings I had about other Indians working in service as we traveled. The countless hotel employees we saw sleeping at night in the lobbies or restaurants we sat in during the day. The rickshaw drivers’ whose homes were their vehicles. It seems like such a tough existence to me, but what was their alternative, what were they coming from?
We met one tuk tuk driver who said something that stuck with me. “The customer is God.” This is in contrast to what you hear a lot in the west where “The customer is king.” In India, it’s the customer who determine’s the fate of the guide, the driver, the porter. Our decision to employ them determines if they will earn any money that day, if they will have enough to eat that day or can care for their family. The employer is God.
But the employee can choose how they feel about and treat their “God”. I loved how many of the transactions in India were on the terms of the people in “service” – the number of tuk tuk drivers who refused to take us or the waiters whose attention we failed to get. That tuk tuk driver might have viewed customers as gods, but gods can be ignored, railed against, called on only when needed… It’s certainly not a simple, one-way relationship.
So, it’s a bit late now, but I don’t really know what the point of this somewhat rambling post is, other than to make it clear that India is still on my mind. I am loving our experiences in Southeast Asia, and there is lots that we have seen here that has made an equally deep impression in my heart, but I also love that India lingers and keeps me company as we move forward in our travels. I love the thrill my heart feels when I hear the pulse of the tabla or the breathy strum of a sitar. I love the jumble of emotions that well up if I look back at my photos from our time there. I love the associations that dance through my head when I’m some really good palak paneer or parantha. And I love the hope that I can go back to that country again some day.
PS – The restaurant in PhnomPenh that started all this was Mount Everest. I’m happy to report that we’ve found another Indian place that’s nearly as good in Siem Reap called Curry Walla. Also, I’ll post some photos of the lovely women working at Ritu’s home in my next entry.