“Do you love your husband, mam?” “Yes, very much.” The little boy asked me again, on our way across the sands, “Do you love your husband, mam?” “I’ve loved my husband since the day we met.” I said.
And then as we’d had enough of treading across the Gange’s silt, and made our way back to the boats where Kevin was filming the boy’s uncle, he asked a third time, “Do you love your husband ‘mam?” “Yes, I do.” Nodding, at Kevin looking towards us, I teased, “And I’m pretty sure he loves me to.”
It wasn’t until later, when I would be flipping through the bride and groom wanted sections of the Indian newspaper that the full context of the little boy’s question hit me. “Wanted groom: High caste. Fair skin. Good dowry.” “Wanted bride: caste not an issue.”
It had seemed almost a given to me when he asked that question what my answer would be. I forgot that here in India it wasn’t. Here arranged marriages were still the norm. Here a women’s family pay to have their daughter taken off their hands, and they pay a lot, a lifetime’s worth. The money goes to the matriarch in the new family, the husband’s mother. Greedy in-laws have been known to torment the poor new wife, even harass her for more money. If something happens, and the husband dies, it is not unheard of for the in-laws to find this new women and her children (read: their own grandchildren) a burden. They might throw her out on the street. (Can’t throw her on the fire anymore.) If her own family will not take her back in, that’s when she might have to resort to begging or prostitution to make ends meet. That same newspaper also had an article about two girls who had run away from home to avoid getting married to the men their families had chosen. Their own families hunted them down and killed them in what they call an honor killing. Where the honor is, I’m not exactly sure. And what happened to the murdering parents? A slap on the wrist. This, too is a part of India. And it confuses me that for a country so proud of its families, it is so easy to get rejected from one.
But all that seemed far away as I walked across the river silt with this little boy. He was happy and excited to be talking with the two Americans he had come across while trying to sell his skin paint. (jars of glittery color that come with different shaped stamps for the body) Kevin had been looking for some fisherman to film, as part of footage he needed for the piece he was doing on the Ganges and the Indian connection to Holy Water. The boy introduced himself as Rahul. He had some of the best English around, as did most the street children in Varansi. Turns out that Rahul went to school in the late afternoon for a few hours after the end of his workday and on Saturdays, in a program set up especially for the working street kids. The kids were told by their teachers to practice their English on the foreigners as they sold their goods during the day. Suddenly the ever-present conflict between the poor parents needing their kids to earn money, and the kids needing to be in school, didn’t seem so insolvable after all.
In a great example of utilizing his English skills, Rahul had set us up with his uncle, a fisherman with teeth stained red from the betel nut (a narcotic many of the Indians sucked on. I wasn’t sure of its exact effect, but it was supposed to be addictive). Rahul had been quite useful working as a translator between us and his uncle… telling us about India and his life, as we made our way across the Ganges in a small wooden boat. During monsoon season, the Gange was much wider in Varanasi, as evidenced by the leftover stretches of silt that we settled upon on the other side of the river. The view of the ghats is beautiful from that side, in the distance the temples look clean. The setting sun behind them gave a striking view of the river.
I started to relax out on that river, happy to have real contact with people, find out what their lives were really like, and make real connections. Rahul talked happlily about the ghats, the burning of the bodies, his schooling. He told his uncle what we needed for shots, and translated for him on camera. The time on the water was sweet. And so as we finished up filming and rowed back to the steps of the ghats, I didn’t mind so much the large crowd of men that had formed waiting for us. Kevin reached into his wallet and offered the uncle five hundred rupees for the trip. It was a lot for that hour, but we were happy with the filming and their helpfulness in the river. The crowd of men had moved in on us and I felt a lot of discomfort at the stares as Kevin turned to Rahul and said, “Here Rahul. You were very helpful for us today. You did most of the work translating and you earned this too. You save it and use it for your bicycle.” Rahul had told us of wanting a bicycle for the 3km trip to school that he currently walked.
To our surprise Rahul shoved his money away, “No. No, sir. I need a bicycle.” Kevin hesitated for a moment, then tried to give the money back, “I’m sorry Rahul. I can’t buy you a whole bicycle today. But this will really help, you save this and get a bicycle.” The crowd of men around us started closing further in as Rahul burst out, “No! You take it back.” And pushed the money back into Kevin’s hand. It seemed incomprehensible that he would be refusing such a large sum of money.
The uncle nodded, as if in total agreement, but Rahul was sobbing now, “No, don’t give him the money. He won’t give it to me.” Kevin turned to the uncle, raising his voice now, “This money is for bicycle. You understand me. Bicycle.” The crowd got closer as the uncle nodded, “Yes. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” And we left the money with him as Rahul cried desperately. Would Rahul ever see the money for his bicycle? I had a sinking feeling not.
It made me sad, this experience of India, this predominance of greed. I took pictures on the boat that day, and one of the best ones was of Rahul and his uncle, sitting in front of each other, rowing the boat. They both had wide, happy smiles in that picture. That moment had seemed so genuine, but it’s charm seemed tainted now, as was the experience for all involved.
The whole experience left me rather unsettled, and angry really. We get in arguments daily with rickshaw drivers, hotel staff, and aggressive motorcyclists who almost run us over. Trying to find your way around without help is madness, yet every time you look like you need help, the sharks come swimming. I was really disappointed at myself for not handling it better, the grace I’d always thought I’d show in these situations was more like anger and withdraw. Three months was sounding like a really long time to be spending in India.