On Edge

Living with Fear in India

A friend of mine who lived in India and Nepal for many years wrote to me recently from Geneva. She works there with the World Health Organization. She said it had taken her some time to identify what it was that was missing from her life after she left Asia: tension, anxiety.

I know exactly what she meant.

Living in India for the past thirty years, I have grown accustomed to feeling uneasy. Usually it is mild, a background white noise. Its vagueness is part of its power. When I try to analyze it, to trace its source so I can name it and deal with it, it eludes me. It is no one thing. It cannot be pinned down. It’s in the air.

The cooking gas is about to run out and the new tank might be delivered tomorrow, but just as likely it won’t. I have a report due and it’s raining, which means the electricity could go off any moment and my laptop has only fifteen minutes of battery life. My daughter Moy Moy is down to the last bottle of her anticonvulsant medication, and the pharmacy has no idea when the new stock will arrive. The local college is holding student elections and the streets are full of slogan-shouting young men (in an election a few years ago, a student politician was murdered).

Things almost always work out, but we have developed an elaborate safety network. I can borrow a gas tank from my office. Our home is equipped with a backup generator. Friends in Delhi will send Moy Moy’s medicines. I know all the side roads to get home, should I run into a violent mob.

But the tension is always present.

In September, my sister Lucy came to India with her two sons, nine and seven. It was her second trip-she had come before, at the age of twenty-five, and loved it. She traveled alone all over the country, and since then, she dreamed of returning. She planned to stay for three months. She enrolled the boys in school and tried to settle into the rhythm of life here in Dehradun.

She was prepared for things to be different this time. She knew, for example, that with young children, she wouldn’t be as footloose and casual as she had been in her youth. She knew she wouldn’t be able to jump on the first train heading in the right direction and figure out the hotels as she went along. She expected to take a more measured approach, but she did plan to travel, showing the boys the places in India she loved.

She didn’t reckon on Enzo. Enzo is Lucy’s younger son. He is bright, sensitive, and highly observant. He took the measure of the country soon after arriving and came to the conclusion that he wasn’t safe here.

During the day, he was fine. He horsed around with his brother Owen, climbed trees, went swimming, and did his homework. It was at night that his fears and anxieties emerged.

Enzo developed night terrors. He had dreams so intense they frightened his mother. He lost weight. He was afraid to walk the short distance between our house and where they were staying because he was certain that all the dogs on the street were rabid and out to get him. He refused to travel because he had heard about the bomb blasts in Delhi, in the very markets he would have been visiting.

Lucy finally decided that it was too much to expect Enzo to cope with India. With regrets, she packed their bags and returned home six weeks early. We all agreed. It was too much for a little boy to deal with bomb blasts, street dogs, and a host of other uncertainties and dangers. Sad, but resigned, I took them to Delhi and saw them off at the airport. Enzo looked like a new boy, his face alight at the prospect of being home again, safe with his parents, his brother, and his dog.

The next day, driving through Delhi on my way back to Dehradun, a child—no older than Enzo—came to beg at the car window when we stopped for a red light. She showed me her hand, which had been recently and horribly burned. Her skin was raw and bleeding and she was trying bravely not to cry. She said she had burned it while cooking, but it looked too even and localized to have been an accident.

I got out to talk with her. At first she answered eagerly, probably thinking that I would give her money. When she realized that I wanted to take her to a nearby hospital for treatment, she grew visibly frightened. She backed away, crying in earnest now, and began to run, dodging the cars and finally slipping into a crowded marketplace.

I chased her for a while, but finally understood that it was futile. Her fear of me revealed a far greater fear of someone else, quite likely the person who had hurt her. And that person, while easy to detest and judge and reject, was also a victim, caught in a web of poverty and violence, with almost no good options.

Enzo’s analysis of the situation was spot-on. No one is really safe. He, of course, was safer than he thought, given his family and his economic status, but he saw to the precarious heart of life in this country: A place where children have to be maimed to move the wealthy to pity them is a place where anything might happen.

A bomb blast would be one of the logical choices—random and pointless yet conveying the rage that simmers beneath almost every surface here. Social inequities and exclusion are built into the system, and the unease and tension that result are inevitable.

Enzo could escape (though 9/11, drive-by shootings, and drug wars are part of his own country’s version of the problem). The little girl with the burned hand is here to stay.

Published in the 2008-12-05 issue: 
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Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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