Rickshaw Ricochet

I was born in Long Island, New York, in a town called Manhasset. Being raised in an upper-middle class family, in a wealthy, predominantly Jewish town, I never had to work in order to earn luxuries. My financially comfortable life was static, yet I never questioned why it never became difficult.

My mother went to medical school in India, then began working as a doctor in America. From the moment she landed here, she knew how to create a relatively easy fiscal life for herself, and for her future family.

My father, on the other hand, did not create such a life for himself; he was disillusioned, for he thought what he had been doing for work in India would fly in America.
It did not, but I’ll get into that later.

We were set to leave for Agra this morning, so I woke up early to have breakfast. There’s a maid that lives in my grandma’s house who cooks. There’s also one designated to clean, and then another that strictly washes utensils. I feel uncomfortable having someone wait on my every need, but having servants seems to be the norm here.
DSC_4694Cooking maid & her daughter

At breakfast, I asked my cousin Kunal if he planned on joining my father and me for the day trip to the town of the Taj Mahal, but he said he was busy. Kunal is my father’s brother’s son; he’s 25 – a bit of a FOB, with a dedicated accent and all, but completely harmless. He fulfilled the role of mediator between me and the rest of my older, much more conservative relatives. He did promise me, though, that he would take me riding on the back of his motorcycle one day, into the crowded streets and everything.

The towns just outside Agra are like nowhere I had ever seen before. They’re not so much towns as they are villages; the locals rely heavily on subsistence agriculture. The layout hardly makes sense: there’s a barber cutting a boy’s hair on the street divider, and pigs mingling with cows mingling with goats mingling with children, and a Ford dealership two feet away from a straw shack on a mound of rocks.

There are so many people that there are some riding as “passengers” on the backs of trucks and cars, clutching on for dear life in the nearly unnavigable traffic; the cars drive so close to each other that even when I held my nose, exhaust fumes found a way to bombard my nostrils. Following the drawn-up lanes on the road is optional.

Barber cutting hair on the street
Barber cutting hair on the street
Passengers hanging on the back of a car
Passengers hanging on the back of a car in motion

Like almost everything else I’ve learned about the country of my descendants, I had read about the wealth disparity in school. But I had no idea it was as outlandish as what I was seeing in front of me. My grandmother lives in a less-than-average quality home – hot water in the shower is a good day – but her next-door neighbor has marble statues in his front yard, and a gunman-watchdog combo situated at the front gate.

On the way to Agra, we had driven by a five-star hotel, then a minute later we stopped to let a woman in a sari cross the street. She was carrying sticks on her head so that she could finish building her hut. There were three small children, all naked, waiting for her on the other side.

These kids are nameless. Faceless.

The roads? Lawless. Limitless.

On either side of the highway, there are stone-makers standing next to their beautifully-carved crafts; they weld their statues right where they try to sell them. But these craftsmen are situated in desert lands, interwoven with sheep herders and civilians scraping by to make it through the day. To whom would the craftsmen ever be able to sell their stuff? Perhaps the occasional white tourist that comes by the area every three days. If they’re not selling food or clothing or shelter, they might as well not exist. Ghost market.

We reached the Taj Mahal, and the line to see it was thousands of people long. We should’ve planned more accordingly. People don’t have anything better to do on a Saturday.

The world wonder is just as beautiful as I remembered it (I last came when I was nine). Inundated with Asian and white tourists, it’s become less authentic than it used to be – the experience, that is, not the structure itself. All of the white people flock here first, even though there are so many other beautiful places in the country to be seen.

But Slumdog Millionaire has led people to hold certain preconceived notions about India, therefore leaving them to visit places only that the American cinema has taught them to be both trustworthy and noteworthy. I didn’t like that movie. It threw a pity party for India, for all of the world to see, and that doesn’t sit well with me, or hardly any Indian person I know.

Arabic text on side of Taj Mahal
Arabic text on side of Taj Mahal

Our driver took us to a hotel after we finished our Taj stint. The driver is a middle-aged man, like my father, and he lives in a one-room shack with his wife and two sons. He is always content, no matter what the situation; he could be doing something completely menial, like handing us water from the trunk of the car, or crossing the white dotted line on the road to pass the truck in front of us.

Still, he never ceased to smile. His smile wasn’t contrived, nor pretentious, nor suspicious. Rather, it’s naively genuine. It’s a refreshing smile that doesn’t grace the faces of too many New Yorkers I’ve come across.

The following morning, we had plans to go to the largest bird park in the world. We rode in auto rickshaws across Ghana Bird Sanctuary: a rickshaw consists of a man riding a bike, pulling passengers (sometimes it’s one person, other times there are five people sitting in the seat cushions) in the hot sun for as long as they desire. There is no hourly wage for this service, and no official tipping system. At the end of our excursion, my father bargained with the rickshaw driver and brought the price down from 450 rupees to 375, which is about $6.00, minus some change. $6.00 for three hours of bike riding on bumpy terrain, dragging along a spoiled American girl.

Auto rickshaw

I guess this means, then, that I spend the same amount of money buying frozen yogurt at Red Mango that this man made in half a day.

I can only hope I don’t forget to remember that.

About Sheena Sharma

Indian-American writer in New York. Inherently curryous about first-generation Americans, Gen-Y and love.

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