Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taking in the Paradoxes - Observer's Guilt

I did not go to India in search of my soul, but just to be a foreign correspondent. But somehow from the beginning, I understood in India, as never before that virtue lies in rushing toward each day with its joys and adventures, and even its pain. […]
-A.M. Rosenthal, "India's Gift: The Discovery of Each Day"


My time in Delhi has been one of realizing juxtapositions and navigating paradoxes. I have seen the Delhi of women washing clothes in monsoon water and hanging them to dry on road signs. The Delhi of children picking up uncooked meat to eat from a butcher’s trashed leftovers, of slum living and glaring thinness to the point of visible bones, in humans and animals alike. This image of Delhi coexists with that of a site of development and opportunity. Workers are drilling the roads at all hours to complete the Metro expansion before the Commonwealth Games of 2010 and there is construction of work buildings, residences, malls, entertainment centers and other facilities everywhere – a stark contrast to the photographs of projects abandoned before completion due to the recession elsewhere in the world. My first introduction to Delhi was through the eyes of my generous hosts, a man who has lived in India for over 20 years and his girlfriend who moved here from Europe just two weeks ago. Driving around the city and in subsequent conversations, the man pointed out that you can feel different parts of Delhi as you move from North to South. There is the Delhi of “old money”, the area populated by the professionals on the rise (an Indian version of yuppies, by his description!), the haven of bureaucrats, administrative buildings and few residences, the corner of and craftsmen and artisans, the refugee center, and the oasis for 40-somethings and beyond who “want to live a good life”, in his words.

Understanding how a city can change faces so rapidly and distinctly, how development and opportunity can coexist with destitution and decay, has been challenging. I do not quite know how to reconcile being privy to the astounding beauty with witnessing the glaring need. And hence, a sense of helplessness has reigned supreme. Bearing witness has indeed sparked questions: How do you assess need? How do these people feel about their situation – do they perceive of inability to change, inevitability, lack of welfare and hope, or have they resigned themselves to their fates? In a city of nearly 15 million people, of whom at least 8% live below the poverty line (compared to nearly 27% in India on the whole), what is the best intervention to improve the living of each target group? And how do these approaches to development interact with the Indian conceptions of social problems and bureaucracy for resolving them?

Filled with questions, I find myself here as an observer; indeed, no better than a tourist. My initial plans were to work on female empowerment in partnership with a local NGO as my first fellowship placement, but my choice to go to Egypt has left me in India for too short a time and in too irrelevant a position to actually have any kind of influence—and given my already skeptical and complicated thoughts on how humanitarian workers can effect the most impact, it is questionable that more time or a job would have changed my feelings. All I can do is take it all in, process it, and retell the story, with the knowledge that once my first placement begins and I start working with UNIFEM in Egypt, some of the helplessness will dissipate, while other parts of it will magnify themselves in the face of yet more need. For now, I am troubled by the environments I do not feel comfortable photographing, by the stories I have not quite found a way to sort out in my own head or to retell.

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