In planning the trip to the world’s largest democracy, I had assumed its rigid class structure would hold few vocational mysteries: world-class physicians and engineers at the top; an expanding middle-class; and millions of poor men, women, and children performing all kinds of manual labor.
Below all these were the Untouchables or Dalits who, along with other extremely vulnerable castes and tribes, were beneficiaries “scheduled” by a 1989 parliamentary act to receive relief and rehabilitation from their position at the economic and vocational bottom of Indian society.
Perhaps not quite a Dalit, the cleaning woman clearly was from the lower levels of the economy, but she defied a stereotype. She was too strong, too ambitious. If there were many like her in the state of Tamil Nadu, my assumptions were in danger.
A flood of impressions had begun on the taxi ride from the Chennai airport to my hosts’ modern apartment building. As if staged to demonstrate India’s complexity, at one red light were clustered a bus, taxi, truck, motorized rickshaw, bicycle, and an ox cart.
An early walk the first morning became a real-time pageant. Streets of substantial private homes eventually led to crowded, clearly impoverished areas. A man bathed in a vast pool’s emerald water near a soaring Hindu shrine. A toothless barber shaved her first customer. Aromas of morning meals drifted from charcoal braziers as children played by tiny scrap-wood and palm-frond squatters’ shacks. Free-roaming cattle and goats somehow reported to their owners for milking.
Back at the apartment building the neighborhood awakened. Adults caught buses for work. Children carrying stainless-steel pots purchased milk from cow and goat owners. An impeccably dressed mother and father escorted two striking daughters to a chauffeured car waiting to whisk them to a private high school. A father peddled by with three children on his bicycle.
Those who attempt to understand diverse cultures encounter what writer Pico Iyer calls “the conspiracy of perception and imagination.” One way to solve the conspiracy is to plunge into the local culture as fully as possible. But into which vocational India should an outsider plunge? A land of:
• Self-sustaining agriculture or beggar-ridden cities?
• Asia’s largest railway system or draft-animal carts?
• Cutting-edge computer innovation or trade schools for poor, orphaned, and disabled children?
• Schools based on English or on 57 other languages?
• K.R. Narayanan, a Dalit, elected president of the Republic or charismatic sectarian leaders who incite murderous violence?
• Aristocratic Brahmins or diligent cleaning women?
The cleaning woman was wearing her usual faded green sari, covered by a gauze-like apron. “Where does she sleep at night?” I asked my expatriate American host.
He pointed out the window, “There.”
I looked down at a wooden sidewalk in front of a weathered stucco building. Monsoon rains had soaked the unpaved street.
“Where does she change her clothes?”
“She sleeps in them.”
I marveled. The woman was scrupulously clean even though, I assumed, like other street people she had to bathe and squat where possible. I recalled Southside Chicago tenements, Zimbabwean cooperative fields, Navajo hogans, and Manila squatters’ huts where impoverished women keep themselves and their children meticulously neat and clean.
The Tamil-English language barrier forced us to mutely exchange information. Observing her as much as courtesy allowed, I learned that the cleaning woman was actually an entrepreneur who employed several relatives in a custodial business. She worked to survive and to provide opportunities for others. What differences of intellect and heart were there, I later wondered, between her and the businessmen who hosted us at a sumptuous banquet in a fine hotel where we spent the evening discussing how to help the poor. Who represented India for my purposes, affluent charitable businessmen or diligent cleaning women?
“Why don’t we raise her wages?” I asked my hosts after watching an especially impressive cleaning assault. I offered $50, knowing that it easily would cover a year’s increase.
With alarm they chorused, “We can’t do that!”
As if reciting a rehearsed presentation one explained: “If we increase her pay, others who work for our neighbors will want more and our neighbors will be upset.” (They later solved this by bonuses, well earned in my opinion.)
My search continued.
Chennai is renowned for its many educational institutions, three of which are YMCA-sponsored and represent the Indian vocational spectrum from higher education to manual labor.
On the Eden-like campus of the College of Physical Education the academic dean and I observed future teachers on their way to undergraduate, masters, and doctoral classes as they stepped around a resident water buffalo.
At the vocational campus a few miles away orphaned and needy children and young adults learned manual trades. In the carpentry shop amid modern German-donated power lathes, drills, and saws, an instructor knelt on thick sawdust showing students how to use string-driven hand drills. At a construction site women carried sand and mortar in baskets on their heads.
Monsoon rains had left inches of water in several classrooms at the third YMCA campus, a middle school.
Questions multiplied until, one restless, muggy night, my mind returned to Manila. In that city’s numerous squatters’ shanties I had met intelligent, hard working people and their bright-eyed children. Sensing perplexity, my guide explained: “Many of these people have jobs. By living here for little or no rent they are able to clothe, feed, and educate their children.”
This recollection began to shift the cleaning woman and India’s contradictions from puzzles toward solutions.
In his global analysis, The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto reported the successes of hardworking, creative poor people around the world. He found that governments often fail to understand “the arduous achievements of those small entrepreneurs who have triumphed over every imaginable obstacle [and created] enterprises where nobody imagined they could.” Instead of being the problem, de Soto concluded, they are “the solution.”
Such was the cleaning woman. Her small business testified to entrepreneurial achievement and burning intellect, but she was one illness or accident away from begging. She needed opportunities and resources to improve what she had created. She needed what Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for in launching United Nations’ campaign to help “the billions of people who are now trapped in extreme poverty, untouched by the digital revolution, and beyond the reach of the global economy.”
To compete in the global economy, poor people of all nations, including those in the Northern Hemisphere, need workplace English, access to jobs, and basic computer literacy.
India is well able to provide these. English language instruction is readily available. There are jobs in cities. And India is a digital world-leader.
What would the ambitious cleaning woman accomplish if she learned workplace English to manage and expand her little business or qualified for better employment through computer literacy and access?
Among India’s many promising innovations is an experiment based on assisted self-improvement. Sugata Mitra, the head of NIIT Technologies’ research department in New Delhi, had been concerned for years about the widening chasm between the poor and the benefits of the computer age. Rory O’Connor reported Mitra’s efforts in a Frontline segment The Hole in the Wall.
The initial experiment cut a hole in the NIIT wall, giving its slum neighbors access to a high-speed computer connected to the Internet. Curiosity led one youngster to explore and others followed while Mitra and his associates provided tutoring. Already survivors in the harshest of situations, the “slum children were browsing the Internet within hours.”
This was the vocational India for which I was searching, where ambitious poor people and resources were brought together in simple, streetwise ways. The economic and social return to India and her poor would be beyond calculation.
On the last day of my stay, by gestures I asked the cleaning woman for permission to photograph her. With severe dignity she granted it by tipping her head from side-to-side, a gesture which to Westerners indicates disagreement. She stood sturdily as I took the picture and then, in her faded green sari, accepted my admiring bow.
Victor Brown, a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City, UT, draws from his experiences as an international humanitarian administrator.