Walls – life in India through a foreigner’s eyes

It is 5.30 am and my neighbour has started cleaning a large amount of metal dishes very loudly. I have been awake since about 3.30 when a pack of dogs started howling on the street and this, mingled with the chipmunks who are becoming decreasingly cute by the second, is bordering on pandemonium. As the minutes roll on, more instruments join this cacophonous orchestra. The stray dogs have united with the domestic dogs to try and mimic a pride of angry lions. A couple next door seem to be consummating their relationship very loudly, or singing whilst being strangled. I am really unsure which it is. Then the driveway sweeping starts, which is seemingly the first thing every family does in the morning. (First thing in the morning being 5.30 am.) Then at around 6.30 the sellers come. Yells echo through the streets as well as the pillows I have over my head and the earplugs I have wedged into my ears. Now, it is important to note that I am a first class sleeper. My accolades include sleeping through a marching band playing a concert outside my window; sleeping through an entire nine hour flight to Bangkok from before take-off to after landing; sleeping through a flood whilst camping and having to be woken up because my mat was floating away with me on it; and waking up at 7am on holiday, starting to make breakfast etc. only to discover that it was 7pm and I had missed the entire day. However, the noise that goes on outside my window is like nothing I have ever known. It has rendered me powerless. It has overcome my gift. The quest is over, the question answered. What can conquer my ability to sleep; Indian domestic life! That and the fact that our apartment is mostly made of windows yet has no window panes, so the only thing blocking out noise are the mosquito nets. (A device I was cursing during my seven days in hospital with the mosquito-carried Dengue Fever. Well played mosquito net. Is it though?) As I lie there thinking about how much I like sleep, I reflect on when I first arrived in this neighbourhood and comparatively how unexpected this turn of events is…

Behind us is the frenzied dual carriageway that is 100ft road, the main road of Indiranagar. In front of us is a comparatively quiet street which is still bustling. At first glance it looks chaotic but after a few minutes the chaos moves aside and I can see lives being played out. On our right are a lady and a man sitting comfortably on the pavement on a large cloth selling bags of milk and chatting. Walking towards me are two ladies and a man. One of the ladies is sweeping up the street rubbish from the previous day using a broom crafted from two large handfuls of slim twigs tied tightly at one end leaving enough room for a handgrip. It is effectively a broomstick without the stick. The second lady is pushing a cart stacked high with rubbish as the gentleman scoops piles into it and controls the rubbish already on the stack. This is a daily process for this trio, coupled with collecting the rubbish from outside people’s houses. I have noticed that there are few bins in India and, perhaps as a consequence of this, throwing rubbish on the floor is an ingrained and widespread practice. In this large city, with its culture of street food and pavement restaurants, theirs is a never ending job.

Looking down the pavement, along the imperfect rows of broken concrete, a few open fronted shops are trading in magazines and food. There is a sprinkling of autorickshaws either parked up enjoying the comings and goings of the street or driving up, down and around trying to find business. Bikes are revving their engines aggressively to no obvious end and various people are carrying pales of water and other objects adeptly on their heads. Ahead there is a crowd of men on the street outside a juice bar, eating snacks and drinking juices out of glass half pint tankers. They are either chatting and laughing with each other or sitting back and relaxing into the day on plastic stools. The dearth of children playing in the street is a giveaway to the reasonable wealth of this area and if we were to veer off onto the side streets we would find a plethora of private schools and playgroups where these children spend their days. In amongst these people, 10 or so stray dogs are lazily enjoying the early morning sunshine, their serene, content faces and peaceful eyes incongruous next to their bony frames and haggard, dirty fur. In addition to these are the ubiquitous cows that are found grazing on most Indian streets. I was once told by an Indian friend of ours that to Indian people cows are as precious as their mothers and receive the same veneration.

Before the end of the street, to the left, is a road whose entrance is marked by a huge tree on one side providing a natural archway. As we walk under this canopy we find ourselves transported to an entirely different environment. It is like we have moved through an invisible barrier, a wall blocking the lives behind us from entering. The contrast between the two streets is immense. The invisible wall is clearly unsurmountable for some. India is a country of walls. Some of these walls, like ours, are based on money. Some are based on caste, religion, education or age. Some I am on the inside of and some I find undefeatable, such as those based on gender or language. As I am new to India, when I come across these walls they surprise me, I am not expecting them. You see I am lucky to have experienced very few in my life to date, and in order to climb any that I have faced there have been many hands to help get me over to the other side.

This side of the money wall, the noises of a community at work disappear; there are no zooming vehicles, no people, no shops, no broken paving stones or stray dogs, no rubbish to be swept or milk to be sold. Initially the quiet and tranquillity envelopes us and then sounds of nature start to emerge; birds chirping, chipmunks chatting, other animal sounds that I do not recognise. If the noises of the previous street were a war zone, this street carries the birdsong that follows the white flag. The houses on either side of the road are immense displays of wealth that would put the streets of London’s poshest suburb, Hampstead, to shame. Each of them has a bespoke design; a statement about its owners. As we continue, the sun shines down on us warming our faces until shade is needed, and then, in perfect contrast, a tree provides the much needed respite. At the far end, randomly, I can see a cow dressed up ornately with jewels and metal with drawings all over its head and body. It is being pulled by its owner who is playing the trumpet and asking for money from passers-by. I am not one to judge, but is it appropriate for him to dress his mother up in fancy dress and parade her around the streets of Bangalore for money?Well, only the man with the trumpet can answer that question and unfortunately we didn’t exchange cards or Facebook names so we shall never know.

The near absence of moving vehicles from the street is opportune as there are no pavements for us to walk on. In front of each house, in place of pavements, huge tropical plants and flowers burst out from the ground reaching up towards the tree canopies and out towards our path. Any pavement that is not a flower bed has been filled with massive pots of plants. Intermingled with these are palm trees of all sizes and heights and coconut trees. A jungle has been created in this urban calm. This is the street we live on, on the top floor of a split house. I love this house. Amongst the grandeur of most of the architecture on the street it is a humble home, the shack among palaces. It does not have a balcony wrapping around each of its four floors or stairs that scale up to a terrace that covers the whole roof. No pillars frame the royal balconies overlooking the street. The driveway is not heavy with BMWs or Jaguars. They do not hire a superfluous security guard to sit outside the house all day in this crime free neighbourhood in this safe city. Much like its owners, it is proudly Indian, natural and honest. It has moved with the times enough to be modern and comfortable but has kept its charm. We are lucky to have been invited to live this side of their wall.

We all face walls at one point or another, and hopefully overcome at least some of them. But for those who face many walls, at all stages and in all aspects of their lives, their climb seems never ending. Every day I work with brilliant minds from Bangalore-based NGOs who are trying to break these walls down by helping people overcome them, and by showing those who built them the damage they are doing. These walls are coming down slowly but surely as more and more people want them to. So far on our street the stray dogs and decorative cows have made it over the money wall. We will never get rid of all the walls though and there will always be people building more, so I think we should all keep an eye out for people who need a leg up to help them get to the other side.  

About Claire Graham 3 Articles

Claire Graham is from the UK. She is currently living in Bangalore putting her marketing and development experience to good use by volunteering at Action Aid and enjoying the adventures South India has to offer.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks Meera. Good to know. It doesn’t really make sense to me that they removed bins just because they introduced door to door collection. Do the two need to be mutually exclusive!?!

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