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10 Feb-10 Mar 2019 and 10 Feb-9 Mar 2020
Rishikesh, India

India’s unemployment rate of about 7% is lower than France’s and slightly higher than Canada’s. The good news is that extreme poverty in India, defined as living on less than $2 per day, is declining at the rate of about forty-four people per minute. Forty-four people per minute in India are moving beyond extreme poverty! This is such good news. Extreme poverty around the world is also declining according to the World Poverty Clock where you can watch the numbers go down.

There’s a massive middle class in India now who live in relative prosperity and comfort. Nevertheless there are many people who do backbreaking construction work for ten or more hours a day. They often live in very minimal temporary housing that’s basically camping for months on end, cooking simple meals over a small fire, and washing in the river or at a communal tap or pump.

Then there are people like Mohan and Lakshman, the servers at Flavours, one of our favourite restaurants in Rishikesh. They work fifteen-hour days and seem always cheerful. They are both so open, so gracious. We are welcomed like family. Mohan has shared with us that he follows the same spiritual teacher that we do. He’s not just the cheerful server; clearly there is depth here, an inner seeking, a gravitas beyond outward appearances. This is true of so many people in India. How else could this impossible country work?

Many years ago we did a tour of Chowri Bazar, a huge wholesale market area in New Delhi. Our tour guide told us how much the chai wallahs make. It was a surprisingly large amount that I suspect only applies to the chai wallahs of Chowri Bazar. More than 1.5 million people pass through the area every day, all of them wanting chai. But what I remember most is him saying that they work every day and that they don’t take vacations. That simply wouldn’t occur to them. Taking vacations is not part of the Indian culture, particularly for working-class people, yet statistics show that even most middle-class people don’t take their allotted vacation time for various reasons. India ranks fifth in the world for unused vacation days.

We walk around Rishikesh every day. Like any other place we see people at work – the daily grind, or the daily occupation. Life unfolding. For many people here life is tough. Really tough. Tougher than I’ve ever had to face so I can’t presume to know anything about it other than I think I would break under the unrelenting weight of it. And no doubt some do. But many don’t. Like most people they toil away surrendering to the inevitability of their life. This surrendering is a part of the Indian psyche, and is a part of what makes the country work despite so many reasons why it shouldn’t. Should it be different? Could it be better? That’s not my place to say. It is what it is. India shows itself in all its confounding colours.

From Camille Framroze: A part of me felt as though I ought to give thanks after every journey through Mumbai’s traffic that I survived unscathed. We all routinely confront the same fork in the road, over and over again, everyday: fight the bedlam, make sense of the disorder—or surrender to it. In my surrender to India, however, I remained acutely aware that I had the luxury of choosing it. Most do not. I passed by streams that had turned a milky green, dogs and children playing in scattered trash, villages without electricity. I met a 12-year old boy who told me he wanted to be a doctor and in the same breath added cheerfully that of course that was not possible. India’s poverty is so abject and so pervasive that it has been twisted into a kind of normal. The surrender that allows us to share our home in relative peace is the same resignation that inhibits so many from demanding more. That I, with my hiking boots and harem pants and broken Hindi, was met with warmth rather than contempt both filled and broke my heart.

Mine too.

Sitting in the Shambala Cafe, another of our favourite restaurants, Don asks our server how he is. Happy. Always happy. It is God’s gift. he replies with a wide smile. This acceptance, this surrendering to what is, as it is, makes the lucky happy, and the not so lucky at least able to endure. Don quietly tells me that interactions such as he just had with the server, make him love India all over again. Me too.

Here then is my visual ode to the Indian worker:

The launderers.

The bag lady.

The chai wallahs.

Chai wallahs, proud of their heritage and secret recipes, brew their chai fresh all day using tea, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and many other spices. And of course milk, and bags of sugar. Throughout India the chai wallahs get the population caffeinated one small cup at a time, a unifying force in a wildly diverse country.

Don and his new best friends at a Rishikesh chai stand.

I usually warn people who’ve never been to India: India is filthy. Not the people, who as far as I can tell, wash every bit as often as people of any other country. It’s that for the most part there are no sidewalks, or only small ones outside each business. Between the business front and the road is a gulf of gravelly dirt. It is hot and dry for many months of the year and the dirt turns to powder, and wind and the passing traffic, both foot and vehicular, disturbs it. It rises swirling up in a gauzy haze and gently falls down sprinkling a fine dust over everything indoors and out. Unfortunately it’s not fairy dust. The fairy dust comes from a deep spirituality and faith that pervades the land giving everyone an injection of at worst the ability to tolerate, at best a contagious joy. There is a raw realness about this country; India has not been paved over.

Every day the dust and debris is swept up either by the home or business owner or by street sweepers who collect it in big metal wheelbarrows and wheel it away to the garbage dump. Sometimes the cows help with recycling.

Every morning the dust and debris from the day before is swept off the ghats by the river, only to have more return and be swept up the next day in an endless cycle. India’s dust keeps a lot of people employed.

The ghat sweeper.

There is a chain restaurant in India called Chotiwala. A choti, or sikha, is the small area of hair remaining on the back of a shaved head to help with connection to the divine. Thus the symbol for the restaurant chain is a cartoon-like image of a well-fed man with his choti gathered into a kind of spike sticking up from the back of his head. There are three Chotiwala restaurants in Rishikesh, two side-by-side, and a third across the river. At the entrance of each of the two that are side-by-side there is a man dressed in a traditional golden dhoti, each with a spiked choti and elaborate face make-up. The make-up is different each day, except one of the men always has a pink face. And there they sit all day. It is their employment. Sometimes Indian tourists stop to take a selfie with them. Otherwise they sit there, living symbols silently welcoming people into the restaurant. I worry about them getting skin cancer.

On our daily walk last year we passed by a construction site next to the river. There were people hauling stones around and laying them in straight rows.

There were women, in saris and flip flops, delivering rocks one by one.

There was a cement mixer powered by a generator and there were several people, both men and women, who were carrying pans of sand on their heads to the cement mixer, back and forth in an endless loop feeding the machine.

And then the cement was poured on top of the rows of rocks. Eventually we figured out they were building a new ghat. And that this was their temporary housing right by the construction site.

This year we arrive to find, sure enough, the tents are gone, and there is a shiny new ghat where once there had been only sand and gravel.

The dosa cook.

The itinerant musicians.

The electrician. No hard hat, no safety harness, no boots.

Horses and donkeys are used for hauling sand to, and from, construction sites. Most mornings we’d see them down by the river being loaded up with gravel and then marched promptly off to one construction site or another.

This woman has been collecting feed for her milk cows. These leaves apparently make the milk taste sweeter.

Today we met Hanuman the Monkey God. We’d seen him on our walks the past few days, but this morning we met him. He blessed us with an orange bindi, and tied red and yellow string around our wrists while saying a prayer. I am the monkey god! he said importantly, and followed the words with raising one “paw” and screeching like a monkey. Really, it was exactly like a monkey. It was mildly scary how right he got it. I said to him This is your job isn’t it? He smiled brightly and agreed, saying proudly Yes, this is my job clearly pleased to have his occupation recognised in this way, and then he posed nicely for me. I said You just made this up, this job for your self! Yes he agreed, pleased that I could see what he had created. So cool! Then he charged us 100 rupees each for the photographs, the blessing, the prayer, and the conversation, which we happily paid.

And lastly, the beggars. On our first visit to India, back in 2012 I wrote this: I have been aware for a long time of a small but persistent inner contraction each time I see a beggar, as if I somehow have to arm myself against them. Then one day last week I suddenly could see it in a whole new light.

It appears that we have choices in life. According to the choices made some people sink, some swim. Some thrive, some barely survive. Some make good choices, others, not so much. But where we apparently don’t have a choice is the circumstances we are born into, and the circumstances we are born into have a huge impact on the range of choices available to us later in life. So according to our circumstances, when we grow up hopefully we get the best kind of job we can. It suddenly occurred to me that beggars spend all day asking people for money. That’s their job. That’s the best they are able to come up with given their circumstances. Of course fund-raisers also have the same job – asking people for money, usually including their own salary, but it’s all dressed up in a much more attractive and socially acceptable package. Anyway I suddenly could see begging in a completely different light. These people are just doing their job. I was also faced with what I knew – that for me to give ten rupees to every beggar I saw every day would be nothing for me. Nothing. Ten rupees is twenty cents. Why on earth was I being so tight? So now when I go out I carry a pocket full of ten rupee notes and give one to anyone who asks. Don calls it my Lady Bountiful money. It feels great.

We’ve continued doing this in Rishikesh. Like the street vendors, the beggars have their spot and since we walk more or less the same route every day we support the same people. A young mother with such a heart-breaking depth of sadness and desperation in her eyes that I can hardly bare to look contrasts with a man who has lost a leg. When Don asks him how he is he puts his hand on his heart, smiles widely, says he’s fine, and points to the sky, to God. All is well. And then there is the quite badly deformed woman who has a smile that outdoes the sun when she sees us. And this young mother with her sweet child, who, like most Indians, is delighted to be photographed.

They are all just doing their job, and we keep our pockets stuffed with ten rupee notes to honour them and their work.

I don’t know how else to be with the poverty here except to do as the locals do: accept it as it is. It is as much an integral part of India as chai and dust, the howling insistent traffic, and a sense of imminent calamity. I can’t change it, or fix it. I can only surrender to the fact of it, and live in gratitude for all the wealth Life has given me. I am humbled by India. And I have mad respect for the way people here make life work amid, and despite, the bedlam.

Next post: Ganga Aarti: the nightly Hindu ritual and prayer to the river. 

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.