In Vicharimalnagar, a poor district in Kolhapur a half-mile north of my hotel, a walk on Saturday morning, Jan. 23, was uneventful. A man said hello, I stopped, and a crowd formed. I walked on. A man waved. I stopped. A crowd formed. Boys. Another crowd. A mother and her baby… Finally, back close to my hotel, the prosperous owner of an animation/rotoscopy business said hello and invited me in for tea:
Kananagar, Kolhapur–Kolhapur, sometimes spelled Colapore, is an ancient city ruled until Independence as a princely state. It’s at the southwest edge of Maharashtra less than a hundred kilometers from the coast, and this January, at least, the weather has been beautiful: sunny mid-80s during the day, low 60s at night.
Indian cities, sadly, are much alike: noisy and filthy, with few amenities such as sidewalks or–laughable–crosswalks for pedestrians.The main roads are clogged with unregulated traffic. The air is foul.
Pedestrians walk in the street in Indian cities
But enough of that. I prefer the slums. For one thing, they make me feel rich, a new and pleasant feeling. And no traffic. Life spills into the street. Women wash clothes by dipping them in soapy water and banging them on a flat stone. They get water from the common pump and hear what’s going on, and they stare in groups, not unkindly, as I walk by. They bathe their small children outside from a bucket; the old men sit, and the crones. Workers wash in their underwear with dippers of water over the head, and children in uniforms make their way to and from school in the neighborhoods where school is affordable.
The little kids look at me with big eyes. Cows and goats, listless dogs, an occasional cat, chickens, all go as they wish. A cow pinned me softly with her huge head today against a dumpster. I smacked her! Again! Holy Cow, hell! She turned away as indifferently as she’d come.
The age-old squat of the woman at work, Kananagar, Kolhapur
That was this morning. I’d walked back into Kananagar (“nagar” approximates what we would call a ward). It’s poor, ringed with sewage trenches, and the streets are dirt. I was there last week, just walking, taking pictures and talking as I could.
I met Agnes Francis that trip, and her neighbors. She invited me in for a cup of tea. Pictures of Christ looked down in Hindu array. The room otherwise was nearly bare. I took my sandals off at the door, as one does, and sat on one of two plastic chairs. Eight or 10 neighbors casually came in to get a look at a foreigner. Agnes Francis was quiet, and the others liked her. She touched them with kind pats.
Agnes Francis, left, and two neighbors
The neighbors were curious, but they didn’t gawk, nor did they ask questions. My story is that I’m a journalist traveling around India talking to people, writing about what I see and taking pictures. I use it though I’m writing only for myself. It gives me an excuse for wandering into neighborhoods where tourists never go.
I was drawn at first because Indian slums are spectacles, but they have become familiar. They are a refuge from the trafficky outside, and the people are far more pleasant than elsewhere.
I generalize, but here and in the States and Europe, though not in the Middle East, the poor are nicer than the rich. Here, they are a relief. India head-on is not otherwise a polite or hospitable country.
Today, mid-month, I met a gaggle of teenage boys, all with a hoodlum air–unwashed hair, dirty shirt, sunglasses dangling, a Brando sneer, gaudy watch band. They, too, have become familiar, so I said hello and spoke my little spiel, slowly. One of them told a little boy standing nearby in an orange hoody to go get someone, maybe the gang leader.
Confronted by teenage hoods, Kananagar, Kolhapur
It was a small, reserved man who appeared. He eyed me, I thought, as though I were fair game. I looked for a wall to back against. He introduced himself: Pastor Suraj B. Kamble.
He took me to his small house, along with the squad of hoods, all eyeing my American stuff. I sat on the bed in the front room and soon a pretty teenage girl brought two cups of tea, one for him and one for me, and a plate of new biscuits from the corner grocery stall. He had a bit more English than the boys, but he had to reach into memory to find the words.
He was concerned I am not a Christian but openly shocked that I am an unbeliever. No proof exists of God, he said, but just as we can’t see the wind yet know it’s there, we must acknowledge God’s existence from the evidence of the natural world visible to us. And Christ taking human form to speak as he did was further evidence of divinity.
But he didn’t proselytize vigorously. He wanted me just to enjoy my tea and cookies. The boys, it emerged, were his–he smiled–disciples. They had become Christians in the last year and stopped fighting each other and making trouble.
The nagar was mixed: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and one atheist. Everyone got along, he said. No problems. It was a neighborhood of workers, manual laborers, which is what Agnes Francis told me last week. Day laborers earning $2.50 a day when they can find work. Carrying. Digging. It was difficult at times to make ends meet, Agnes Francis said.
The Indian Express this morning had an article about retirement income. They discovered that Indians currently need about 35,000 rupees a month ($530) for a secure retirement. The workers in Kanan earn about 7,000 rupees a month when they have work, but that’s hit or miss. The money must support the old, too, and the young, and workers wear out early here.
In India, different worlds live next door. Just down the dirt road from Kananagar is GreenField complex–high new apartments behind a guarded gate. The girls walking there all have shoes.
I took some pictures. They took some pictures, and then Pastor and the boys walked me to their church on the southern edge of the cluster of houses, fronted by an open sewage ditch. It was a small, bare and airless room at the end of a much-divided pole barn, rented from a Christian “aunty” we met as we walked to it. He has 40 to 50 parishioners and is raising money to cut a garage-door opening in the end wall for comfort.
I waved goodbye, they waved, and I headed on the lane west toward GreenField, jumping two sewage trenches on the way.
They have no email, but they were pleased pictures of them and the village would go today to the United States.
A Phaltan cart vendor of cooking oil said something similar the other day. I’d motioned with my camera, Could I take a shot? Sure, he said, it’s as close as I’ll ever get to America.
The village, Thakuraki (pronounced Thak-rooki), lies just west of Phaltan, past the long-abandoned British airport. Chickens and goats are common, a few buffalo are staked out, but the men aren’t farmers. They work as day laborers when they can find work, carrying, lifting, making Rs 300 in a ten-hour day, about 40 cents an hour.
The houses are small, mostly brick with solid roofs and two or three rooms and here and there a portico. They were built illegally, on government land, according to my tuk-tuk driver Baba. Subsequently, the government provided electricity and water pipes. “Because of human need,” he said. Short of going to City Hall, I had no way of checking his story.
The Nikalje family, the mother and her married daughter, Sukanya (Sukan-eeya), insisted I come in for a cup of tea, then daubed my forehead with a red Hindu mark of welcome. They touched my feet in welcome and presented me with a coconut, a white Nehru cap (they had a tiny cloth stall on their porch) and a nice piece of cloth to drape over my shoulders as a shawl. The men were off working.
The foreign guest
“You honor them with your visit,” Baba said.
I stopped because Sukanya of the pretty smile had pointed inside to her nephew, Amand, about 7, and said he was studying in “English medium.” I said hello to him, but he ran inside to hide, to shy to speak and then too stubborn to come out. While I took pictures of everyone in the family and of neighbors who came over to greet me, he hid in the back bedroom, poking his head around the corner but disappearing when I aimed the camera at him.
After half an hour, I was comfortable enough to follow him when he ran, to the delight of the other little boys, and I got a few shots of him burrowed in a corner as Sukanya urged him to emerge by tugging on one leg. Finally, he came out, but he never found the courage to speak.
That was the job of Prasad Khude, about 11, a neighbor. He wore a purple T-shirt with the legend “cotton candy.” I was his first native speaker, but he was game and after an hour he was talking enthusiastically.
He is not a good student, he told me, and he doesn’t read much: “It makes me sleep.” He wants to visit America when he grows up.
When we left the Nikalje family, telling them abhari ahote, thank you, I grabbed Amand’s hand and said thank you again for the hat, the coconut, the shawl, the friendliness, and for Amand, and began to walk away. He came along for a few steps, comforted by the family’s laughter, and then his eyes got big. Take him, take him, Sukanya said.
I gave him a wave as Baba and I turned the corner. He smiled and raised a hand.
It was a beautiful day, Christmas Eve, with good-looking chickens running free (“one egg a day”). They retreat at night to a chicken house or are eaten by dogs or cats. During the day, the danger is from hawks.
On the far west side of the village, a shy woman accompanied by several teen-age girls appeared with a thin black kitten, stroking it affectionately. Its name was Money, meaning in Marathi not “money,” but “lucky.” “Black cat in home good luck,” Baba explained.
The kitten, Lucky
He is not comfortable with animals, and when a little boy brought out his two-month-old white puppy, jumping and biting as puppies do, Baba retreated, annoyed. I also admired a pretty green parrot in “the jail,” as Baba put it, a small cage brought outside for the morning sunshine.
Down a narrow lane on the north side, another family wanted to say hello, men, women and children, and I was drawn to a girl of about three, who puckered with anxiety as I patted her shoulder.
That happens from time to time. When it does, it eases the formality of welcome. I apparently make familiar soothing sounds. This little girl retreated to her mother’s hand and smiled from a distance; up close, I was too much.
Wary of a stranger
I posed for phone pictures with several men and for Prasad, an emphatic stager. He presented me with a plastic baby in a yellow karate outfit, a key ring, in return for my autograph.
“Read,” I told him, trying to pay my way. “Read.”
We left the village to friendly waves, smiles, as though I’d brought something of value.
I arrived without warning or reason and was welcomed as a visitor and a foreigner by villagers who didn’t think to question my humanity, a generosity now in retreat in my own fearful culture.
Such experiences, unexceptional here, raise the question of how valid our sense is of “backward” or “underdeveloped,” how descriptive of tone.
It was a good Christmas Eve.