When I first came to Gaighat, I thought to myself – this is the farthest I have come from my city-girl American life. Well-traveled as I am around the Indian subcontinent, familiar as I am with scenes of the poverty of the developing world, even the very construction of the home in which I was to stay came as somewhat of a surprise to me. The openness to the elements, the cement ground of the first floor, the ditch on the side of the ground through which ran used water from the hand pump, the hand pump itself, the squat toilet, the alarmingly small doorways, the wooden ladder up to the second floor, the corrugated tin roof… It all seemed so far away from anything I’d ever known.
Now, however, as I write this, it is a struggle for me recount how I felt in those first few moments. It seems to me that I was so ignorant to have had those thoughts then – almost embarrassingly ignorant. Because to be honest, at this point my life here seems close to luxurious to me. I have solid and excellent meals every day, I take actual showers instead of bucket baths or bathing at the handpump, half of my walk to work is on a paved road which is actually well-paved and doesn’t have too many potholes, we have electricity for heaven’s sake, I have a fan in my room, the bazaar is only a few blocks away and I can find any basic essential I might need . . . what was I thinking, when I first got here, that this life would not be luxurious? It is entirely luxurious. I am so comfortable here – I have everything I could want or need.
Today is Wednesday, and Ajaya was telling me that apparently Wednesday is market day in Gaighat. Today, he said, you will see many people at the bazaar, selling their vegetables. Near Gaighat, there are looming hills on which the Pahari live (‘pahar’ means mountain, so ‘pahari’ refers to the people of those hills). In order to reach the bazaar in Gaighat, they must leave on Tuesday morning and walk all day long with their vegetables in a large woven basket which they carry on their backs, or on their heads. Late in the evening, they finally reach Gaighat, and they sleep in the doorways of the darkened shops until morning, when they head to the bazaar to sell their produce and to buy whatever necessary goods they need, such as rice (which doesn’t grow on the hills), oil, and salt. This evening, as I was walking home from the office in the gathering dusk, I saw many men and women heading southward on the paved road that leads out of Gaighat, huge baskets on their heads. The bazaar is over for the day, and the people had begun their long trek home.
In the hills, there is no electricity, and food is very scarce. For a meal, the people will eat only rice without dal and maybe some saag (spinach), or if there is no rice, perhaps only a few boiled potatoes with salt. If they have any medical needs, they will make do with what they have – a deep wound will be tied with some herbs, for example – and sometimes it gets better and sometimes it gets worse. If there is a very serious illness, perhaps if a woman is pregnant and very sick, the same woven basket which they use to transport their produce is used as a form of ambulance – the ill person will be carried on the backs of others for the full day long trek to reach Gaighat, where there is a hospital (and from some places, the trip can take up to three or four days). Often, though, women will give birth alone, or surrounded only by neighbors and friends without any medical knowledge. Not surprisingly, maternal and infant mortality is high.
For these people, Gaighat is the metropolis which they look to for their livelihood or for assistance when they are in need. Here, electric bulbs burn wantonly in shops (although not in shop windows – I don’t know if there are any windows in Gaighat, let alone shop windows). There are phone booths where you can call halfway around the world for five rupees a minute. The roads are easy to traverse, there are many stores, most homes are solidly constructed. Gaighat is the New York City of Udayapur District.
And it is amazing to me to think that electricity arrived here less than 20 years ago. Ajaya was a teenager when it arrived – he grew up studying by candlelight, and he remembers the excitement, the sense of celebration on the day when it was first supplied and people turned on the switches in their own homes for the very first time. Now, it is already in many of the villages – and the wires are reaching further, into more and more remote areas.
During one of my first few days in Kathmandu, I had a long talk with Heather, another AP fellow based in Nepal, about industrialization and the march of technology. She was arguing against the sort of neoimperialist discourse that insists that technology and its implementation through infrastructure is unconditionally good. We went back and forth a bit, she expounding on the adverse effects of rampant industrialization, I demanding to know the negative side of a good sewage system and mentioning the bubonic plague. Finally, I threw out the fact that while we could argue about whether or not it is good for the developing world to have infrastructure and technology thrust upon it by the profit-seeking corporations of the developed world, the two of us could agree that we ourselves would choose turning on a faucet over lugging water a mile from the nearest river. Maybe this is only a result of our conditioning, true, but I find myself more wary of Western discourses seeking to preserve traditional culture than those that want to install a water pump in a village without drinking water. Culture will continue to adapt, as it always has, to suit the environment in which it is situated. And it is not a fixed thing, and it cannot be controlled, at least not for very long. And electricity is coming, and the water pumps are coming, and culture will flow around them like water around rocks in a stream – although the course may be slightly altered, the stream will not flow with any less force. This is what I hope, in any case, because it is the way that the world is going, and there is a great deal of good in it – enough, I hope, to counter whatever evils it may bring.
Posted By Raka Banerjee
Posted Jul 18th, 2008