10 March 2015

Privileged but not Entitled

Recently, I was taking a walk through the city streets on a busy weekday late afternoon. Traffic lights here are exceedingly rare, reserved for only the most traveled and convoluted intersections, and stop signs are virtually nonexistent and universally ignored.

The way it works is something like what happens at a 4-way blinking yellow light in the States, but far more chaotic; each vehicle slows down as little as possible, beeps like an angry sheep, and tries to avoid being hit by cross traffic. This applies to pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, three-wheeled autorickshaws, small cars, big cars, small trucks, big trucks, and the occasional fisherman on horseback. As per tradition, the largest vehicle has the right of way, and pushes itself through with a deep beeping that is more threat than warning. When a rickshaw does find a gap, it moves in deftly, followed quickly by others close on his tail, as if they could create a new vehicle, a serpentine train that collectively could overpower the trucks and cars. Fortunately for pedestrians, these vehicular exchanges often result in a stalemated gridlock, and those on foot can easily scurry across.

So I was walking around, and came to an intersection. From the right, a fancy car was approaching. From the left you could hear a siren, and then an ambulance came into view.

In the US, of course, cars generally get out of the way of ambulances (although I have seen drivers in LA freeze sometimes in the middle of intersections, unsure of what to do). But here, to some, an ambulance is just another vehicle. I stood and watched as the car coming from the right cut in front of the ambulance and came to a stop in front of a shop, blocking the ambulance (and other vehicles) from moving past. Out of the back seat a well-dressed young woman emerged, on her mobile phone, seemingly unaware of anything around her. I was a little shocked. It was like no one else existed, or mattered.

I have encountered this sense of entitlement before in Mumbai. Only a few days before, I was standing at my favourite local street dosa stand, ordering a delicious dosa, when a similarly new and expensive car pulled up right behind me. Out from the car emerged what we call an India Auntie; a woman in her 50s or 60s, well dressed, exuding an air of self-importance. She pushed me aside (not kidding) as if I wasn't there, and started barking orders to the dosa chef inside the stall. No one else in the world mattered.

Where does this come from? It''s related to the extreme class (and caste) differences here, where some of the wealthy are used to having lower caste cooks, drivers, maids, and other workers catering to their every whim.

As a foreigner, I realize I have privileges that are unknown to some locals. Although there are times that I'm charged more for things than locals, in general, I have access to opportunities that some locals simply never will have. From the ability to splurge on good meals and imported candy, to the demand for voiceover artists with American accents, to easy admission to clubs and shops, I can go places and see things that many locals never could.

I only hope, despite this privilege, that I don't cross over into entitlement. I hope I can appreciate the ways in which I'm fortunate while never taking it for granted, or taking it out on those in a less privileged position.

There is a story of a teacher who sat his students in rows, put a garbage can at the front of the room, and told his students to ball up a piece of paper. He then announced that anyone who could throw the paper into the garbage in one throw would get an A for the semester. As the paper started flying, the students soon realised that those in the front row had a much easier time hitting the garbage can, and the further back in the class the student was, the harder the task was. Not everyone in the front made it, and not everyone in the back missed, but it was clear where the advantage was. Only the students in the back complained. The students in the front were focused on their goal.

The teacher told the class that's what privilege is like. It's not a guarantee of anything, but it gives some a head start, and makes it harder for others to achieve the same. “Your job", the teacher said, " — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”

I realise I'm at an advantage in some ways being a white foreigner here with a clean English accent. I appreciate that fact that it's easier for a Westerner to come to India than the other way around. I acknowledge my privilege, and will use it to be the best I can be. But I hope I never become complacent about it, and I hope I never feel entitled to that privilege.

And now, some pictures from Holi.I played colours in my old neighbourhood of Khar Danda, and then we had a little party on our terrace at home. Holi really is such a sweet holiday, the way friends and strangers approach you and gently apply colour to your cheeks. Adults drink and dance, teenagers flirt, children run around. Courtyards of neighbours gather, play music, and prepare communal meals, and everyone lovingly douses each other in water and colour.