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Living Kerala Series: The Shocking Side of India

Since we arrived in June (a whole four months ago, time flies) we have had a range of experiences from completely normal, to super wonderful to quite shocking. Today’s post covers the last topic, in ascending order.

1. The Constant Interruptions

In general, India is one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. There are reduced opportunities for education and work, almost non-existent protections against sexual assault, and daughters are less desirable. There are clear ways to dress and showing ones ankles or shoulders is just not on. From experience it must also be the worst country in the world for a woman to finish her senten—

(For family reading this, don’t worry, we’re in Kerala which is quite different and is one of the safest places for a woman to be!)

Specifically, I am interrupted constantly by men. When I am speaking, I very rarely get to finish my sentence, even when it is answering a direct question. For example, as part of our immigration procedure to obtain Overseas Indian Citizenship (OCI), we had a house visit from a detective. He needed to fill out a police report on us and asked me, “Madam, what is your job in the UK?” As I began to reply, “Business development consultant…” he interrupted and said, “Housewife.” And then he wrote this down on the official government form.

When I started to point out that that wouldn’t match any other form I had submitted, he interrupted to say, “Madam, in India you are a housewife. Also, biscuits – do you have biscuits to go with my tea?”


This is also a general thing. Keralites seem very chatty, at least when we have a common language. They are so eager to advise and help out to the point that they don’t listen much or can accept we might have any clue about anything in India. If you weren’t born and raised here (and visibly Indian), then by default you are ‘fresh-off the boat’ no matter what you say to the contrary.

Note: I could write a whole piece on my experience as a woman in Indian society; that will have to wait. Let me know in the comment section, though, if I should bump this topic up the list. :-)

Result of Indian Postal Service on envelope

Caption: Indian Post's service is also shocking. That envelope had clearly been in the wars...

2. The Poor Life Decisions

We live right on the Marine Drive promenade in Kochi, and as such take frequent strolls along this long pedestrianised walkway. It is quite peaceful: large buildings separate it from the busy road, wide trees provide ample shade and the steady sea breeze removes most smells and helps cools the air. However, alongside the dozens of ice cream shops and souvenier stands is an incongruous group of vendors: the street tattooists. They display large laminated sheets of designs and sit waiting for a customer.

Marine Drive Promenade + Tattoo Parlor, Kochi

Caption: The Marine Drive promenade, seems like a good spot to get a tattoo.

The tattoo ‘pen’ tends to be grimy and clearly multi-generational. I do not wish to speculate on the age of the needle or how many people it has gone through that day without cleaning. The ‘parlour’ is simply wherever they happen to be standing, and both artist and client will sit down on the pavement and get to work. When there is no foot traffic, like at nine in the morning, they even approach the most unlikeliest of customers (us). When it’s busy, there tends to be a roaring trade of young men queueing up to sit on the ground and get a tattoo. When someone is getting a tattoo, a large crowd forms with everyone rubbernecking to see the pattern and the blood welling up from the traumatised skin. Usually a friend or two has been enlisted to hold the person and provide comfort in their time of terrible decision-making.

3. The Poverty

This is a well-covered topic by most visitors to India, so I will only briefly touch on it with the two most vivid vignettes, both in New Delhi in July: The first was in the old market area, where there are many tourists from all over India and the world. Four well-to-do middle-aged Indian women were eating large bowls of ice cream on the street, standing just outside the ice cream shop. At their knees was a small girl, maybe three or four and skinny as anything. She kept tugging on their churidars and holding up her scrawny hand, and they kept eating their ice cream. They studiously ignored her, and she studiously carried on begging.

Leela Hotel Mumbai

Caption: Does this image seem incompatible? It should, and is. A country of 1.3 billion people offers the full gamut of abject poverty to incredible opulence and the contrast can be difficult to reconcile. This is the Leela Hotel in Mumbai, by the way.

The second was at a set of traffic lights below the Delhi Metro viaduct. It was maybe 2pm on a workday, and there was heavy traffic. Shops and vendors lined the three-lane road and exhaust swirled through the air. In the wide, raised median there were maybe 12 people sitting, sleeping and otherwise living, set apart from the hustle on both sides of the road. As we sat in our air-conditioned Uber looking out our window, we noticed that one man was propped up against one of the viaduct columns. He was calming tying a cord around his forearm, preparing a needle and then injecting himself before leaning back and closing his eyes. The light changed and we were pulled away, while he remained slumped against the pillar, the intersection of our lives over.

4. The Need to Not Care

One night in August we were taking an auto back to our hotel deep in the middle of the Kerala countryside. It was around 10pm so the roads were dark and empty. The only smells were the crisp scent of vegetation at night and smoke from the periodic piles of burning rubbish. The only noise was the spluttering of our auto as it struggled up the latest hill.

A car appeared at the top of the hill, temporarily blinding us with its lights, and then accelerated down. Suddenly, a Rottweiler leapt out from the other side of the road and straight out in front of the car. It braked hard, but there was no chance: there was a meaty thump as the front bumper hit the dog, and a horrible shriek from the dog as its body went under the tires. The car continued on and away into the night. Our auto driver meanwhile had swerved to the side and slowed down; we peered out and saw the dog, powered purely by adrenaline, run back across the road dragging its hind legs and then somersault into the ditch, yelping and screaming. Our driver pulled back out into the road and we drove away as well.

The instant transition from peaceful night to the sudden destruction of a life (that dog would either die or be maimed) was difficult to process. As I wrapped my thoughts around what we had seen, it hit me how much we had adjusted to India; neither of us had seriously considered stopping to help. In the UK or US we would have. But here? What would we have done? Our phones had no signal, we don’t speak Malayalam, rabies is a major risk in India, an injured Rottweiler would be incredibly dangerous, who knew how far away a vet was? It was unlikely the auto driver would have accepted a large injured and bleeding dog into his vehicle, and what if it belonged to someone? We thought we remembered seeing a collar on it, so what if they came out and thought we had hit it? What if our auto driver left us in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? Instead, we had both instantly calculated that this hit-and-run was not our problem. Empathy for the dog made my heart hurt, but not enough to turn around. I comforted myself that with the sound the poor creature was making and assuming it had an owner, it would be found and they would figure out what to do.

And then we thought: what if it had been a child? What then? We would have stopped, and surely the auto driver would have leaped out to help. But then the same questions come up, with rabies replaced by TB, hepatitis and HIV. We are trained in first aid, but part of that training is to keep oneself safe before helping someone else. Without gloves and a mask, we wouldn’t do CPR even if it might save a life. My mind then went further: what if the child was living on the street, with no family or home? What then? And once involved, how easy would it be to simply drop the injured child off at a hospital and continue with our lives?

5. The Cheapness of Life

We visited Mumbai for a few days in September and one evening after dinner we visited the Gateway of India. After taking some slightly blurry photos we continued walking, past the Taj Hotel with all its heavily armoured vehicles and guards due to the 2008 terrorist attacks, and on along the bay. There were many people leaning on the wall peering out at the dark water. At first I thought they were anglers, as that’s a normal sight in most countries, and then we realised there were a lot of people and no one had fishing rods. As we walked further, we noticed several police and many police vehicles parked with their lights on. I approached one of the police officers, who was also peering over the wall next to his colleague with a torch, and asked what was happening.

“Dead body, Madam.” He then turned back to the hunt.

Suddenly feeling like we had walked far enough, we turned around to go back to the car. With a shout, someone pointed out to the water and everyone leaned further over the wall craning their necks to see: the body had been spotted. He was floating face down about 30 metres away. All we could see were floating jeans and a pair of bright red trainers reflected in the searchlights.

There, just there out in the black water, was the remnant of a human life. However many decades of experiences, investment, familial care, time, food, education, conversations, ambitions, plans and regrets were ended, and the only thing that continued was bobbing up and down and wearing red shoes.

It was very unlikely that that ex-person had wanted to die. Whoever they were, they probably had hoped to wake up the next day and not be another John Doe (or Ashok Kumar which is the term in India). Now all they were was a thing to be pointed at by curious passers-by. No one knew who they had been, and the crowd seemed excited rather than subdued by the spectacle.

Gateway to India Mumbai

Caption: The Gateway to India, right before the dead body was found.

The next day I Googled ‘dead body Mumbai’ and a range of permutations. I found a horrific series of news pieces on Mumbai murders, including the ongoing hunt for body parts of a young woman (her right arm had been found the week before in one part of the city, and her head had been found in August in another area). Nothing about our Ashok Kumar though, not a mention.

A friend who is from India said that it was likely a political killing, and that the person may have been a government ‘goon’ knocked off by a rival. Perhaps killed for doing his job, which in turn may have been killing people. Or perhaps he was simply somewhere at the wrong time. Who knows.

And then two days later, after our departure, there was a stampede in a Mumbai metro station overpass with two dozen people killed and dozens more injured. There was also a building collapse that killed 33, and floods that killed 21 people. But as a few Indian friends have since observed, “Mumbai has 22 million people – it can afford to lose some.”

And from reading the national news, it seems that this is a national consensus.

Neither extreme is good for all parties involved: desperately trying to help end everyone’s suffering or intensely ignoring all the problems and accept their inevitability. Finding the balance between the two is necessary anywhere in the world – the painful adjustment in India is moving one’s personal fulcrum closer to the latter.

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