Sunday, April 6, 2014

An American Perspective on Indian Life

     I've written entries about my travels and my medical placements, but very rarely have I mentioned my observances of Hinduism, healthcare practices, daily life, or the general culture here in India. So here it goes, an American 12-week perspective:

     In regards to my family, they are Hindu.  It has been difficult gaining much knowledge about how or what exactly they practice because they do not flaunt it nor do they always know how to thoroughly answer my questions about things (For example: why they cant have eggs certain days of the week. I asked and got the response "because its our god's day." When I asked "but why eggs specifically?" My host mom said "It's just our religion.")  They belong to a sect of Hinduism that are vegetarian. Although all Hindus do not eat beef, not all are vegetarian.  Meat cannot be purchased at all in my neighborhood, which is called the Sainik Colony.  My family particularly worships one god, which I have gathered to be Lord Shiva since the Sainik Colony is home to the biggest Shiv Mandir in Faridabad and it is right down the road.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are their particular god's days, and on these days the family does not eat eggs for whatever reason.  On Thursdays they always go to the temple.  The first bit of whatever is cooked at every meal is given as a gift to the gods and placed in the shrine, located in the grandfather's room.  The shrine has a picture of a god in it (probably Shiva, though I havent spent much time looking at the shrine so I am not certain), as well as a picture of Dr. Prabhat's deceased mother.  The grandfather chants every morning in front of this shrine, and an oil candle is always burning.  Since being here, there have been a few holidays.  The bigger ones that I've seen are Shivratri, Holi, and now Navaratri. There have been a few more that we got days off of volunteering for, but the family didnt do anything special on those days.  For Shivaratri, so many people came to worship at the Shiv Mandir.  The street perpendicular to the Shiv Mandir that led to the market had a small festival with a mini ferris wheel for the kids, juice stands, food stands, and a few people selling things on blankets on the ground.  Sam and I walked down to check it out, and saw the line to the temple was ridiculous so gave up our ideas of going there.   For Holi, I already wrote an entire entry: Holika bonfire the night before, then a day of happiness and color play.  For Navaratri, the family fasts for 9 days.  Fasting is different here though, because it doesnt mean no food: they are allowed to eat potatoes, certain vegetables, and milk, they just can't have chappatis or rice or other vegetables (and most likely not eggs either).  On the last day of fasting, my host mom said the family won't eat anything, but will offer food to women on the street to honor females because the god celebrated during these 9 days is female.

     In regards to healthcare, India does have a system of public and private care. From speaking with a doctor at the surgical placement hospital, I discovered that there are public hospitals where the poor people go (but anyone can go), medium-sized hospitals that the middle class normally go to, then large upscale private hospitals where the rich go to.  The "rich" hospitals have the better doctors, better medications, and better accommodations.  The surgical placement hospital (Ghai Hospital) is a middle level one and has some decent doctors and okay accommodations, though they lack the funds for everyone to wear gloves or have other materials we would call standard.  The public hospitals supposedly have doctors with questionable degrees, some questionable sanitary practices, and get cheap items provided from the government.  At Ghai Hospital, there are 40 beds and no specialty wards; some patients do get their own rooms, but there are also rooms with 6 beds.  The doctor was telling us how it is especially dangerous treating tuberculosis patients since they dont wear masks or have any way of quarantining the patient. I would not call the surgical procedures at Ghai Hospital completely sterile, but I do give them credit for keeping things aseptic and trying to be conscious of those practices. The surgeons do scrub in using proper technique, and their scrubs are put on warm after having been sterilized by pressure in large silver cylinders.  Gloves are worn by all involved in the surgery.  The equipment used is sterilized in a solution of Cidex.  The operating rooms get fumigated every 2 weeks.  However, cell phones get answered all the time, the doctors and surgeons drink chai in the OR following the surgery, and its no big deal for people to come in and out. You must remove your boots and put flip flops on in order to enter the OR, and if you are not the surgeon or his immediate assistant then you dont need your hair pulled back, to wear a mask, or wear scrubs.  I have been in one government hospital, working in a lab with a lovely bubbly woman who lets us actually do the tests and draw the blood when needed.  Though she thankfully wore gloves, the methods of testing were ancient, creative, and sometimes questionable.  Basic pregnancy tests were given, and the women had to pee in the little pouches that the tests came in since there werent any sterile containers ( I thought that was pretty creative, working with what you have).  The blood-typing test was the same one I did in lab at school: 3 drops on a micro slide then drop Anti-A, Anti-B, and Anti-D and look for coagulation.  The lancets were all sterile and came from an individual package, which was good. The hemoglobin test especially worried me, though: she used an old method where you drop in 4ml of a HCl solution, add in .02ml of blood, then drop in distilled water until the blood solution matches the color of a tinted tube next to it. The test being old part was fine. The scary part was that she used the same glass pipette to drop in the HCl, blood, and distilled water...quickly rinsing it in the same little cup of distilled water in between solutions. She also used the same pipette for the HIV tests.  This was conflicting for me: is the risk of cross contamination here more dangerous than the help they could provide from the results of this test? The people getting these tests wont get them done unless they are free, but the free facilities dont have the materials to do the test any other way. Its a tough situation.  I personally wouldnt let her do that test. But if I was living in the conditions of many of these people, and this was the ONLY way I could get it done, then would I? Would I even know that there was a risk, or would I assume the water cleaned it sufficiently due to my lack of education?

     Daily life in India is going to be a few paragraphs of miscellaneous things I remember to tell.  The most familiar part I have participated in is transportation. Modes of transportation include walking (yo legs), rickshaws (a small seat-cart pulled by a man on a bicycle), auto rickshaws (the famous tuk-tuks I talk about), bus (crowded, smelly), metro (train through the city with stops every few minutes. mostly aboveground), taxi (usually a van), and train (various classes, for long trips).  A typical trip into Delhi from Faridabad would involve walking to the gate of the colony, catching 2 different tuk-tuks to get to the nearest metro stop, then taking the metro where we need to go and mostly likely having to switch metro lines at least once. A typical long weekend trip would involve all those steps except either getting off the metro near a bus stand or a train station, then getting on the bus or train.  I have not taken a city bus around Faridabad, as I am too nervous to do so. The roads in general are pretty terrible. If taking a tuk-tuk, expect to gain a few bruises and end up with crazy hair. Even the few paved roads are rough and in need of repair, which makes even a car ride quite the jostling experience. And the traffic....oh boy. Road rules are mainly suggestions, the honking never stops, and it seems to always be the other car's fault-even if you're the one in the wrong lane about to hit oncoming traffic. I am both terrified and impressed whenever riding through it because there seems to be almost choreographed chaos amidst the cutting people off, overtaking at any point, and constant near-misses of pedestrians and cars alike.
     There is not much to do for me to keep busy after placement, but my host mom (Sushma) is always busy.  Most women are housewives, though some hold jobs (like Subhi, the lab tech) and some opt to go to school and have a career rather than getting married (like the girls that live on the top floor bedrooms at the IVHQ orientation house).  My family's daily routine consists of the family getting up when the boys have to get ready for school, the boys go to school, Sushma makes breakfast, Dr. Prabhat and his Dad go to work, we manage to roll out of bed and eat breakfast, we go to placement, we get home, lunch gets finished by Sushma, we eat, Dr. Prabhat and his father and the boys get home and eat, Dr. Prabhat and his father leave, Sushma and the boys nap while we amuse ourselves, late afternoon chai, Sushma makes dinner, Dr. Prabhat and his father get home, we all eat dinner, the grandfather watches TV at volume levels causing ear damage, we amuse ourselves some more, the boys might study, then bed time. When a woman gets married, she moves into her husband's house, so that is why the grandfather also lives here. The grandmother did as well, but she passed away years ago.  Some families have large houses where they all live together as multiple nuclear families, but I think its just this small immediate family here since they need room to host volunteers.
     This now brings me to FOOD.  Everyone keeps asking me about how great the food is, or if the food is even more amazing than what you eat at Indian restaurants at home, or if real chai is just as awesome as they imagined it. If you're one of those, please sit down for this.  Food at Indian restaurants is pretty much the same.  The flavors are more authentic of course, but the dishes are the same.  The biggest shock to you, though, will be to know that Indians do not make restaurant food at home. Yup, that's right. Naan, a lot of rich paneer dishes, anything tandoori,'s only something special you order when out.  Food in the home is very simple, though it is spicy as you might expect.  Breakfast is always different for us (toast, paranthas, potato sandwiches, noodles). Lunch and dinner are interchangeable: one will consist of daal (lentil soup) and rice or chappati, and one will consist of mixed veggies with rice or chappati.  Sometimes Sushma will switch it up and make stuffed bell peppers, fry the chappati, or do something different like that. Dessert is not common, but we have been given rice pudding or sweets from a sweet shop a few times.  Sweets are very different here, and contain spices like cardamom or cloves. They are either very pasty, or soaked in a syrup. Cake isnt common, but we have discovered a few Western style bakeries that do cakes and recognizable confections.  Chai is also different: American Starbucks has played up the heavy spices when in all actuality the spice is pretty subtle.  Sushma makes hers using milk, normal black tea leaves, and ginger; that's it.  But it IS still delicious.
     I also feel the need to say something about the clothing. On men, the most common thing to see are pants and a nice long-sleeve shirt.  Very rarely do the men dress traditionally.  Women, however, all almost always in traditional dress: a sari or a punjabi suit.  Some will wear jeans and a shirt, or leggings and a tunic, but it is still mostly traditional.

     As far as general culture goes, I am going to focus this on noticeable progress as well as continued concerns.  Of course I have a pretty narrow view, having not spoken to many people to ask them personal questions, but this is just based on my observations.  To an outsider like me, women seem to be improving their station in life from how things used to be.  India has a long way to go, and this is by no means good enough, but it is a step in the right direction.  On the metro, there is a women only carriage so that they can feel safe when traveling alone; there are also a few seats in every other carriage marked for ladies, which men will sometimes get up to let them sit in.  Dowries still happen even though they are illegal, but ads now exist shaming men into being good enough to support his wife on his own and encouraging him to say no to a dowry.  The caste system is still in place in people's minds, but it is more common for parents to be won over and allow inter-caste marriages for love.  Because of past issues with aborting females, it is now illegal to reveal the sex of a fetus before it is born.  Women can gain a stronger voice in some families: in the case of my orientation host mom, she now just takes the car and goes somewhere rather than having to ask her in-laws and her husband for permission.  I have seen a few girls driving scooters or cars around alone.   I could sit here and be infuriated at the still-present injustices, but even slow progress is something, and all we can do is hope the momentum continues as more independence and confidence is gained among the female population.  
     As for continued concerns, I am beyond infuriated in regards to the treatment of the LGBTQ population.  It is not only taboo to admit you are homosexual, but also dangerous since it is a criminal act to engage in gay sex.  But I have never been more enraged than one specific situation at the small slum clinic: a man dressed as a women came into the clinic. Words were exchanged, then a man (our driver, who speaks some English and is friends with the doctor) angrily drove him out. He turned to me and said "That man is crazy."  I asked him "Does he actually have a disability, or is that just his life choice?" to which he looked at me very confused and said "He's just crazy."  It is absolutely baffling to most Indians that sexual desires can be towards the opposite sex, that gender is different from sex, or that some people simply feel better when cross-dressing.

     I've just hit some highlights here, and I'm afraid I may bore my few readers by continuing.  But feel free to message me asking for my reflections or observations on anything else :)

Much love,

1 comment:

  1. You will never bore me! Please write us more of your travels.
    The social changes you observe are most interesting.