One of the books I’ve read and particularly enjoyed (on my Kindle!) since arriving here in Goa has been Sanjeev Bhaskar’s account of his trip around India in 2007. A second generation British born Indian, Bhaskar had visited the country many times as a child on family holidays, but decided to return (with a BBC film crew in tow) and see the modern India at around the time that the country was celebrating 60 years of independence. He specifically wanted to see the area of the Punjab from where his family had fled at the time of Partition; they were Hindus, living in an Indian village which became, overnight in August 1947, part of the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan and so they left their homes and became part of the Hindu Diaspora migrating to India – passing on their way hundreds of thousands of Muslims making the same journey in reverse.
Other books (I particularly recommend Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelman, which I blogged about here earlier this year) cover the politics and history of this turbulent and tragic period of Indian history in more detail and context, but Bhaskar’s wonderful book provides a human story and brings it alive – he’s a fine writer.
“… those of us born as second generation Indians in England are the children of Partition – it’s odd to think that without that tumultuous moment of upheaval 60 years ago, my family might never made the journey that brought my sister and me into being as the modern Britons we are today.”
A favourite feature of the Kindle is the way in which you can clip and mark sections of your books as you read them, and I did this a lot with Sanjeev Bhaskar’s India. When he described India as:
“ … a country that breaks your heart in a new way every day … fractures you in ways you didn’t even realise you could be broken …”
… it very much resonated with me. I had my heart fractured the other day when I met Jyoti and her friend Anita on the beach. It was about 4.30pm and I was just considering packing up and heading back for a shower, when a shadow fell across my sun lounger. I looked up to see a small girl holding a large basket filled with newspaper wrapped twists of peanuts and packets of crisps. Just as the words “no, thank you” were forming on my lips, she laid the basket down and asked, very politely, if she could please have some water?
(This happens a lot on the beach, and I usually buy an extra bottle of water for the kids whenever I buy one for myself).
Of course, I said and handed it over. To my surprise, she didn’t drink the water, but instead put the bottle down, and removed first a plastic bag and then several layers of grimy, bloodied newspaper from her right foot. She then poured the water all over her foot, and attempted to clean it up with fresh newspaper. When I asked what she had done to her foot, she showed me a deep gash in her sole – a cut which looked dirty and inflamed; a cut which would have any one of us at the doctor, asking for stitches and antibiotics. She had cut her foot on a piece of metal (“I think, from a boat?”) whilst walking on the beach and of course, was unable to keep it either clean or sterile. All she could do was keep it covered with her improvised bandage and hope it healed.
Her name is Jyoti and she is 11 years old. I felt very helpless, but I helped her to first clean her foot with some of my baby wipes and to then dress it with Savlon from my capacious beach bag. She then re-wrapped it with fresh newspaper and a different plastic bag; I bought her a sandwich and a Fanta, which both disappeared in an instant. Whilst all this was going on, her friend Anita (12) appeared with her matching basket of goods and showed great concern as to the state of poor Jyoti’s foot. At no point did either of them attempt to sell me anything or to ask me for money; they just seemed grateful for the rest in the shade of my beach umbrella and for the food and drink. I bought Anita a Coke and gave them my remaining fruit (scrupulously divided between them both by Anita) and a bottle of water each.
“Do you go to school?” I asked, almost knowing the answer.
“Yes!” said Anita, proudly. “School is good. Better than beach. But in Karnataka, not here. When we are here, we must work.”
Further questioning elicited the fact that they each travel with their families to Goa every October and work on the beach during the season – so until May. They then return to Karnataka and attend school for almost 6 months, before taking a 19 hour bus journey back to Goa, back to the beach.
Jyoti was clearly in some pain at this time, and she curled up on an adjacent sun bed and went to sleep. Anita, older, more confident and chatty, told me the somewhat amazing story that she is one of SEVEN sisters and one younger brother. She, her parents and sisters all travel to Goa to work, but her brother remains at home with an aunt so that he can continue his education.
Further proof of the (lack of) esteem in which girls and their education are held in this huge, bewildering, heartbreaking country. Here’s the last word from Sanjeev:
“India remains a dizzying edifice of extremes. Goddesses are worshipped and women have occupied the most powerful positions in the land, and yet it is a male-dominated society. It is the largest democracy in the world and yet a significant proportion of the population are illiterate. The wealth divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is increasing dramatically as India becomes a global player. The destitute number almost 500 million – and that’s a hell of a lot of ‘have nots’.”