Beyond the spices, saris and sunshine: Florella Scozzafava writes about the reality of life in India compared with her earlier preconceptions.
On 15th August, I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal Three and, after almost accosting a group of boy scouts, correctly identified my UKIERI Study India Programme companions and began the most hectic and fascinating three weeks of my life to date.
My enthusiasm for the programme was born from curiosity to learn more about non-western culture.
India captured my interest because of its links and chequered past with the UK, the huge potential of its population of 1.25 billion and the intense vibrancy of the culture. I arrived open-minded and keen to discover.
During our two weeks in Delhi and one in Mumbai, we visited heritage sites, engaged in debates of India’s most topical issues, participated at Delhi University, spent a week in work experience placements, saw urban and rural life and learnt about the music, dance, religion, business and history of India.
Whilst lots of the trip lived up to the magical (if clichéd) images of a colourful, animated and friendly country, there were times where my preconceptions were not in line with reality.
The openness and hospitality of students and staff at Sri Venkateswara College (a member college of Delhi University) gave me a unique insight into what it means to be an undergraduate in India but it was not what I had expected.
I had a fantastic time with the students but was shocked to find that so many female students are frequent victims of eve-teasing, an Indian euphemism for public sexual harassment.
The situation in Delhi for women is dire. The horrific case of a 23 year old student who died from injuries sustained in a gang rape in central Delhi in 2012 raised the profile of the issue, but it persists unchecked.
Almost all of the female students I got to know had night time curfews, some as early as 8pm, and the college’s halls (all single sex) have a strict 9pm curfew.
I was shocked to hear that the 2012 gang rape happened at a shopping mall where students from Sri Venkateswara College frequently go.
Hearing the quotidian manner in which they spoke about the daily struggles of avoiding unwanted attention prompted me to think seriously about how societies come to accept abuses of human rights as the norm.
Delhi is a huge city of over 17 million people and violence towards strangers is naturally more frequent in such densely populated areas, regardless of nationality.
But, to me, the apathy of witnesses is what makes the problems of Delhi different. Time and time again I heard stories of girls’ harassment on busy public transport going unreported.
The everyday, laissez faire attitude that seemed so pervasive was exemplified by the experience of one of the students I met.
Stopped at a red light in an auto-rickshaw (small motorbikes encased with roof and a bench behind the driver for passengers), men were leering at her from a parallel vehicle.
Her auto-rickshaw driver did nothing until they arrived at her destination when he told her she should have hit her harasser! Although she described it, in a slightly exasperated tone, as ‘the funniest part’ of the whole thing, to me it seems the most disturbing.
Although some women are gaining the courage to challenge this behaviour, they are in a worrying minority.
A pervading acceptance of the risk to the safety of women was also evident in my experiences at Pathways World International School.
The school buses stop right outside almost every child’s house and, as well as the driver, there is always at least one female attendant in addition to the male conductor to ensure that abuse is prevented. The school has to provide an adult of both sexes on the coach at all times to prevent the opportunity for sexual attacks.
On arrival to the school, G4S security guards can be seen on each and every external door and children are not allowed off-site.
Shalini Sharma, the senior school counsellor, explained to me that because the children come from such rich families they can become targets, which is why the security is so high. She seemed to be implying that hostage situations have occurred, but didn’t elaborate.
Shalini also emphasised the attempts by HR to recruit as many female support and security staff as possible to try and counter balance the issue of male-dominated work places.
As I knew from what I had read in preparation for the visit, poverty in India is rife and the two extremes live side by side.
On the one hand you’ve got children attending Pathways whose parents drop them at the bus stop in sports cars, each member of the family has an iPad and regularly holiday in Europe and America.
On the other, you have homeless families who have set up shelter only 50 metres from the very same bus stop.
Crucially, though, because the bus stop is on a road corner, the displaced families quickly become out of sight and I fear that for many this also means out of mind.
The cliché of this divide, is, however, turned on its head by what’s happened in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum where over 1 million people live in an area half the size of New York’s Central Park (1.75km).
Its appearance in Slumdog Millionaire only increased the stereotypes but the reality was explained by my tour guide (a 21 year old slum dweller and a university undergraduate); ‘you are not poor if you live here’.
The slum has a thriving business sector which produces, at some estimates, £350 million a year. To live, property must be rented or bought for considerable amounts of money, up to £35,000.
These figures are often contested, but to a certain extent wealth is literally visible too. On walking around the residential area we saw BMWs and SUV’s parked outside dwellings.
Our guide explained that many people work as businessmen and doctors but choose to remain living in Dharavi. They may have the money to move away, but are reluctant to give up the sense of community unique to this slum.
Two UKEIRI Study India participants had brought cricket bats and face-paints to entertain the children, but felt sheepish and embarrassed when we saw that although none are rich in western terms, they already have what they need. They chose to retain the gifts to give to children of the rural village families who we visited later in the week.
The community spirit is undeniably strong. I was surprised to learn that many inhabitants would rather stay in Dharavi, and benefit from the happiness and security they find there, than be rehoused into sanitary high rise tower blocks and lose it.
This is not a slum as I had understood the term and it made me seriously question my previously held views about this aspect of Indian life.
I feel honoured to have had an ‘insider view’ of India and I am glad that I have been challenged in my preconceptions.
I have come back to England with a kaleidoscopic sense of the country. Although the current government is working hard to improve safety for vulnerable groups, to reduce poverty and roll out education for all, India continues to be a dangerous place for women.
Despite this, the incredible enthusiasm and humbling kindness of everyone I met has made me keen to go back and see what else this beautifully complex country has to offer.