Besides the historical architecture and amazing food, the thing that has interested me most about our stay in India is the country’s complexities and paradoxes. As the culture of India changes and transforms over time, the country finds itself tangled between traditional Indian values and a more Westernized version of society. As is the case in many parts of the US, the struggle of inequality – through caste, class, gender, and race – is quite present and is something we have seen through exploring New Delhi and interacting with community members.
The loud and bustling streets are a main contact point for this view of stark contrasts and economic inequality. When driving down the street, to one side stands plush towering hotels with greenery and impressive infrastructure, while on the other side, there are homes covered with plastic tarps for protection from the elements. On the road itself, there are a wide variety of vehicles, each one fighting for its space, ranging from high horsepower Mercedes to man powered rickshaws whose drivers must actively avoid pedestrians, a variety of animals, and puddles of water that form during the monsoon season. Motorcycles carefully weave between lanes, often fitting two or three people, sometimes even a family of four; the father driving with the mother sitting sidesaddle behind him holding her baby to her chest in an intricate sari, while their toddler sits just behind the handle bars watching the diversity of street life zip by.
The loud and bustling streets are a main contact point for this view of stark contrasts and economic inequality. When driving down the street, to one side stands plush towering hotels with greenery and impressive infrastructure, while on the other side, there are homes covered with plastic tarps for protection from the elements.
This street dynamic also subtly reveals common differences in expectations for men and women. Very few women are seen alone, and for this reason, women almost never drive. Our program director shared with us that in this male-dominated society, the male-female ratio is about 890 women for every 1000 men. When a woman is married (usually around the age of 25), she is seen as an exchange of property from her father to her husband and is expected to stay home and tend to the children. However, on our daily commute to our volunteering project, we see many women on the metro heading off to work. During rush hour, I like that women have the option to ride more comfortably in the “women’s only” car at the front of the train.
Fashion is another medium that expresses India’s dynamic cultural transformation. Despite the region’s scorching heat and high humidity, women traditionally cover their bodies with a “Shalwar Kameez” along with a scarf draped around their shoulders, as we see when we are exploring the city. I have found that wearing this loose clothing keeps me cooler while protecting me from the sun. Similarly, although three piece saris often expose a women’s torso and back, an SIT staff member from the area shared that they are considered more conservative and are usually worn by older women. Despite these customs, younger generations of girls often switch from their school clothes to a tank top and jeans before going out in the afternoon and night. Depending on the environment, it is common to see a combination of all of these forms of dress in the same area. Men are not held to the same traditional dress code and wear nearly the same clothing that is seen in the US, usually long pants and a short-sleeved shirt.
One major struggle is the preservation of the caste system. Many believe that people from higher castes are wealthier; however, the caste system and class gradient do not go hand in hand. With education and land reform, many lower caste citizens have been able to break this trend and earn a good living, although their respect from others does not improve and is still determined by their last name. Despite this progress, my NGO advisor shared that as India progressively adopts more Western views and practices, the caste system and other traditions are becoming more rigid, especially in rural areas of India, in an attempt to uphold values of the past. Arranged marriages within a caste system are still very common, and if women are past the age of 30-35, they are seen as “expired.” If a man and a woman from different castes get married, they are basically exiled from their communities and face severe consequences. In big cities like New Delhi, relationships are more Westernized and younger generations can be seen going on dates in public parks or popular restaurants; however, it must be done in secret and with minimal displays of affection.
This movement between modern and traditional ways of life shows contradicting perspectives and great diversity within a single culture.
This movement between modern and traditional ways of life shows contradicting perspectives and great diversity within a single culture. Naturally, people like to do what they know and what is comfortable for them. The people of India hold the power to pick and choose which aspects of other cultures they want to take in as their own while honoring their existing background and beliefs. It has been really fun over the past week and a half to experience this dynamic and complex culture first hand, and I cannot wait for what the next few weeks hold.