Monday, August 13, 2007

Walking In Others' Footsteps

This weekend was not an obviously eventful weekend. There was no Taj Mahal, nothing that would make it into the travel section of any newspaper or airline magazine, no one would recognize any of my pictures from an India tour book; yet my experience was at another level, a level that transcends checking off a list of to-do’s or taking smart pictures to put on the wall. It is a level of understanding that can only be earned, and cannot be frivolously acquired, and can be achieved only through walking in the footsteps of another. I am lucky that I have had other people to help guide me in their footsteps, to lead me to experiences that I could never have on my own.

I think that the only way I can do justice to my experiences is to describe them as I experienced them and as I understood them from my frame of reference, and attempt to bridge the oh-so-deep gaping precipice between western and eastern perception. I hope that my opinions can reflect the insight that living here for almost 5 months has imparted, and hopefully that insight has developed beyond what a little holiday to see some pretty monuments can provide. I suppose that my multicultural, multi-national audience will let me know if I have crossed the line, or if I have proven myself to be as impartial a witness to these experiences as I can hope to be.


To Truly Understand, You Must Walk In The Footsteps of Another

Friday night I did one of the most elusive and interesting tasks that my imagination could cook up- I went to Charminar in a Burkha.

Parveen borrowed one from her “really tall” cousin so that it would fit my height, and she and her friend, Nazia, dressed me up like a real Muslim woman in the bathroom at the office. The most interesting takeaway from the experience is that once I was in the burkha, no one noticed that I was clearly not Indian (if they did notice, they didn’t say anything to Nazia or her male cousin who escorted us). I wonder if wearing the burkha really makes you that anonymous, or if people just assumed I was a light cousin from Persia and it wasn’t their place to comment.

Nazia asked me where I got the idea of wearing a burkha, and I had to think hard about the first time it creeped into my mind. I’ve always been fascinated by the Muslim world as an exotic and entirely foreign place. I used to read National Geographic articles about veiled Muslim women and memoirs by foreign women who live in Muslim countries, and think about how doing such a thing would be the ultimate foray into foreign culture.

Usually when I’ve read about something and thought about how exciting it is, when I’ve finally done it, it doesn’t seem that special- if I’ve done it, it couldn’t be that hard. But this, even after I’ve done it, still feels like I’ve done something that most people don’t have a chance to do. Something that it so different that most people wouldn’t think of trying it- indeed, even the other die-hard expats thought that it was a crazy idea. Now that I’ve done it, it doesn’t have the same mystique, but I still recognize that it is something that is unique and not a common cross-cultural experience that most people can have.

One of the common western questions is: Why do Muslim women wear burkhas? Why do they allow themselves to be “oppressed” by covering themselves completely. Now having worn one, and walked the streets of the laad bazaar in the shoes of both a white firangi woman, and a veiled Muslim woman, I understand where my friends who tell me that it is “freeing” rather than oppressive are coming from.


For those whose jaws just dropped at that scandalous assertion, do read on.


Burkhas allow complete anonymity and complete freedom from unwanted attention and advances. This is something that may not seem like a big deal to people in America, Australia, or Northern Europe (Italian men, however, do seem to have a knack for unwanted advances so I’ve removed Southern Europe from the analogy), where daily life for women is not characterized by a constant stream of noisome attention from the opposite sex. However, freedom from being hassled as you go about your daily business in public is very valuable in a place where the alternative is being stopped every 5 seconds to be solicited for everything from begging to group photos to buying electric fly swatters, Indian flags, and “street roasted” corn on the cob.

A question I must ask is why have men been allowed to create societies where women feel free when hidden because when they are not hidden, they must deal with the constant frustration of unwanted attention. Shouldn’t society just exist so that women don’t need the purdah and all men can control themselves enough to not make life uncomfortable for women? But, that society does not exist here, and so it is a mute point. The burkha is an escape and a sanctuary that allows women to go out and do their business in a society that otherwise requires a strong personality to wade through the throngs of constant undesired attention.

That said, I was still so hot that sweat was dripping down my back 2 hours after sunset, when the temperature was about 80 º. When I was in the car wanting to drink water, I had to lift up the veil to be able to drink it. These are things women just get used to, like wearing high heels or plucking your eye brows, but that I am grateful that I don’t need to think about on a daily basis.

We walked around Charminar and the laad bazaar and shopped for bangles and scarves. I got fantastic deals, with pashminas for only 90 Rs. ($2.25). Nazia’s cousin accompanied us, both for our protection and to help us bargain, and Nazia was a shrewd bargainer herself. We agreed that women are better at bargaining than men because we are always underestimated ;) But the best thing that I got from our trip was something that only a woman can have- the ability to walk the streets of India completely unnoticed, and to participate in daily life unobserved.

Another interesting observation I mad was that my car was approached by beggars in the old city far more when I was in the burkha than in previous trips when I was obviously foreign. This seems odd at first, but I attribute it to the fact that I appeared to be a Muslim woman in a nice car (thus with money). It is part of Islam to give alms to the poor and the beggars must have expected more bakhsheesh from me in the burkha when it would be my obligation to share the wealth than they expected when I was my white foreign self, with no obligation to give them anything. I am grateful that I have reached a point in my knowledge of the world that I can make an observation like this, and that I can realistically think about what the cause of it may be.

My second experience this weekend was walking in a different set of shoes, that of my Great Aunt May (Mabel Needham) who came to India on a steamer ship from England during World War One, in the height of British Imperial India, and stayed for 20 years.

May has always been a family legend- the spinster auntie who never married and went off to India to start a school. The Steens in Eastbourne South England have an ornate silver box given to May upon her retirement from the Maharani Girls High School of Baroda in 1937, which contained a scroll thanking her for her work, signed by the trustees of the school. May was part of a movement during a golden age in Baroda, when the Maharaja Gaekwad instituted all sorts of liberal social and infrastructural improvements, including standardizing and promoting education, particularly for girls.

May went from England to Jaffna, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to be a teacher, and after a year made her way to Baroda where she stayed for 20 years until she left India and returned to England. When I told my 92 year old grandfather that I was going to India, he produced a copy of May’s diary from 1916-1919 which describes her journey from England, her time in Jaffna, and the beginning of her long time in Baroda. It includes first hand accounts of the Maharaja’s daughter’s wedding, the plague that devastated Baroda, British daily life in the outpost of empire, and the 1918 flu epidemic that has become so famous recently with the warnings of what avian flu could do.

Reading this diary has been absolutely fascinating because some of the observations May makes are strikingly similar to today. I feel like I could have written many of the observations May makes, and even her tone and writing style are strikingly similar to mine. My favorite line was an exaggerated “Oh Gujarati [local language of Baroda]- If only I could master thee!”

But in addition to her observations, May breaks the imperialist British stereotype and endeavors to get to know Indian India- staying in Indian homes, learning the local languages, eating Indian food, learning how to sit on the floor and eat with her fingers gracefully (sound familiar?). And I think in some ways, it was easier for May to adjust to life in India as an English woman during that era, than it is today for foreigners to adjust to life in India, because parts of May’s India were little pieces of England, much more, I suspect, than even the most modern shopping mall is a reflection of America.

That said, it cannot be overlooked that although there is no official foreign power ruling India anymore, much of India’s modern development is due to foreign investment, many investors of whom have moved into former British Imperial buildings in Bombay. The parallels between the old political imperialism and today’s economic imperialism cannot be ignored. But, modern economic development, mostly spurred by foreign investment, has allowed a vibrant (yet still small compared to the population at large) middle class to form, and with it, the development that goes with a large group of people who have the spending power to enjoy and demand modern amenities- even if they aren’t maharajas or billionaires. The Barista cafes popping up in all big cities around India are a testament to the growth – they mean there are enough people with the cash and the free time to enjoy a mocha (even if it can’t be a half-caf mochachino with 1.5 inches of foam at 120º). And this middle class is what will bring India into the modern world, and bridge the gap between the ever growing void between rich and poor. But I digress…

So early Saturday morning (4:30 am to be precise), I ripped myself out of bed to go to Baroda via Ahmedabad to visit May’s school. After months of trying to figure out how to best go about this reunion of the Needham family line and the Maharani Girls School of Baroda, including attempts at contacting the current Maharaja of Baroda via a friend at google who contacted his old army buddies who knew a relative of the Maharaja, I ended up depending on Anupam (my flatmate) to call the school (whose phone number I found in an online listing) and tell them in Hindi who I was, that I was coming, and to find out if it is even the same school.

When we arrived in Ahmedabad we became quickly aware that not only do most people there not speak English, but most people don’t even speak good Hindi (only the Gujarati- which so eluded May). We got to the school at about 11 am via one of the only super-highways in India, on which we sped past rice patties and banana plantations with remarkable efficiency passed entertaining signs with messages such as “Lane Driving is Safe Driving,” “Do Not Stop on Expressway,” and “Speed with Safety is Our Motto.” Occassionally there were still villagers in the median, collecting grass and farm animals running along the side of the freeway, small reminders that we were still in India.

When we got to the school we had to get past an army of people wondering what we were doing there before we could get to the principal, whom Anup talked to on Friday. When we got to her office, she had no idea why we were there and had no idea who May was. When I showed her a copy of the scroll, she read it thoughtfully and gave me a copy of the prospectus which had “founded in 1916” written on it. When I told her that May had been the first principal, she pointed to a painting on the wall and told me that the first principal of the school was a Mr. Patel in 1954. When I pointed out that her prospectus said that the school was founded in 1916, we discovered that all records and information from the British era had disappeared/ been destroyed. The only remnants of the original building of the school was a brick wall around the outside of the modern compound, and the only reference to May was a scholarship in her name, dug up by one of the secretaries, and only described in one line of Gujarati.

This may sound very anti-climactic and disappointing- that a school which was founded and developed for 20 years by May no longer remembered her or what she had done for them. But as they gave us a tour of the campus and we saw hundreds of girls playing tag in the school yard and learning in classrooms, May’s legacy was there- whether or not her name was attached to it.

Every single girl in that school, thousands of girls over the 20th century, were educated because of May’s work. Anupam’s friend, Gita, who served as our guide for the rest of the weekend, graduated from that high school. How many children were given futures by the work done so long ago that no one remembers who did it? I think May would have been pleased, even if the Soviet-style removal of all British Indian history removed her name from her work.

It is a poignant and important observation to make two days before India’s 60th anniversary of Independence, that nothing is black and white, nothing is entirely right or wrong. There are positive and negative things about purdah. There were horrible atrocities done by some British imperialists and wonderful things that help support modern India done by others. Imperialism was bad for many, many people. But to paint every person, and every situation from an entire era with the same brush, when hundreds of girls a year are continuing to receive good educations because of the work that one British woman did, does not do justice to May and it does not do justice to India.

I know the injustices done to this tiny piece of written history within the last 70 years, but when this diary disappears along with the school’s records, and I die and no one remembers this blog entry, there will be no record of where that school came from. I can only wonder what other kind of historical injustices permeate our cultural consciousness. I hear no one wanted the French to eat cake, nor did America’s founding father cut down a cherry tree. What other falsities and omissions inform our judgment and prevent our true understanding of the past?

We can’t rewrite our history, as hard as politicians, academics, and journalists may try. We must acknowledge it for the complicated compilation of differing experiences that comprise it, and only then can we truly develop our global consciousness to a point where we can truly claim to learn from the past and create a more hopeful future.

And if you got to the end of this loquacious blog entry, you may be the world’s last hope.


'I don't know what weapons World War Three will be fought with, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones'- Albert Einstein

2 comments:

Doris said...

Hi Ashley,
We're finding your blog fascinating and quite insightful. I suspect that living in India will be a life-changing experience for you. I remember wearing a chador in Iran when we lived there in the 1970's and feeling an appreciation for the invisibility much like what you describe. You're a good writer!

Doris Simonis

steve said...

Nice words, what ever you do, please check out the music in India is it sublime and you need your eyes and your ears, id leave the burka home. Steve Hanks Galway