Knee deep in the smoky water of the Ganges they sieve through the earthly remains of every body cremated here. There are teams of six, working in shifts around the clock. Scooping, sieving, flushing, scouring. Their job is to collect the jewelery of the dead. It belongs to the owner of the Ghat. It is the work of the untouchables. Except they don’t exist. Anymore. They say.
Our jeep hurtles along a dusty outback track. Attempts are being made to seal sections of these roads. By hand. It is women who do the bulk of this work. The dry horizon is dotted with saris in every colour. Labouring in 45 degree heat with baskets of rubble on their heads. Their job is to pave the way of the future. The future that belongs to all people. Because the caste system doesn’t exist anymore. They say.
Returning from a night of feasting, our guide insists on stopping for a Jaipur delicacy at a road side stall. Our tuk tuk pulls over and he jumps out. I move to follow him and see that next to the stall is a small child, naked, sleeping. She is vulnerable and unprotected. His foot lands precariously close to her tiny form. I recoil, hiding in the shadowy darkness. Wrapping my sadness and indignation around me. Because this doesn’t happen where I come from. Anymore. They say.
I’m in the modest kitchen of the Gurdwara Sikh temple in New Delhi. Volunteers move around me. Stirring, chopping, mixing, rolling, serving, washing, measuring. Working. Without clamour, a mountain of food is being prepared and served. It is aromatic and nutritious. I ask how many are fed here on a daily basis. 20,000. Per day. I ask again. I cannot comprehend the arithmetic of this generosity. Because this doesn’t happen where I come from. If 20,000 people needed feeding in one day we would declare a state of National emergency.
And then I’m striking a deal for a beautifully embroidered kurta. It’s a well choreographed dance. He sets an astronomically high price and I say ‘I got two for less than that elsewhere’. He asks me where. I name another Indian city. He says ‘it’s different here’. ‘Not so much’ I say. ‘People are still people. Everyone is still trying to get by’. We move out of the temporal momentarily. ‘Ah yes’, he says, and nods his head. ‘But it’s not really about the money is it’? And he eyeballs me. ‘It’s about the dignity of the exchange’. And I nod my head and say, ‘yes, it is different here’.
And I’m losing my place in the dance. Because like Marion Milner says “Everything that one thinks one understands has to be understood over and over again, in its different aspects, each time with the same new shock of discovery.”
And I’m shocked. That doesn’t happen where I come from.