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I spent the night at a hot, humid hotel hosting a wedding party. Gunfire, fireworks, music, dancing and noise were my companions for most of the night. It was only in the early morning hours that the wedding party began to wind down and I was able to snatch some troubled sleep.
It seemed only minutes later that Nagendra knocked loudly at the door. Nagendra seemed surprised that I wasn't dressed, and waited patiently as I stumbled about and threw on some clothes. A smallish man with probing eyes accompanied Nagendra. I saw him run his eyes around the room, lingering over anything belonging to me, as if he were taking in my foreignness. Rais, as he was called, was Nagendra's assistant, and a Muslim. In an area beset by religious tension, Nagendra, a Hindu, was trying to be a force for inclusion by hiring Muslims. It was a dangerous thing he was doing, as religious riots can break out at any given moment in India, and only end after thousands have been killed.
We had an early morning meeting, at the end of which I saw a glimpse of Indian culture. Rais balled up a piece of paper and, with Nagendra watching closely, threw it, basketball style, toward the waste basket across the room. He missed by a wide margin and the paper ball rolled into the middle of the room. Nagendra and Rais then gathered their things and made for the door, leaving the ball of paper for someone of lesser rank to dispose of later.
I couldn't help myself, picked up the paper ball and placed it in the trash can. Nagendra and Rais both noticed this and gave each other a look, puzzled by my odd behavior.
Five soldiers lay, still asleep on the sofas outside my door, their rifles lying on the floor. They had been the security for the wedding of last night. I paused and observed them in their sleep. Nagendra and Rais didn't give them a second look.
I smiled at my driver and settled into Nagendra's care, ready for another frightening drive, which came as promised. But on this day I wouldn't notice the danger as much as I would the desperate poverty all around me.
We would drive through the beautiful countryside and then come upon a village, which we would race through at high speed. Houses--can I call them that?--lined the street scant feet from the roadside. The noise inside them must be terrible, the smell of exhaust fumes pervasive.
I want to take photos, and at the same time, not. I've never seen images like these before. A man in rags squats on a roadside table in animal-like fashion, his bare feet touching the over-ripe bananas he is selling. We are caught up in traffic and have stopped before his home. The man takes a long drag from a lumpy, handrolled cigarette, its long end drooping, and turns to face me, his face close to mine. He gives me a look of utter hatred and hostility. His eyes locked on mine, he takes a long pull from the cigarette, his gaze never leaving mine. He despises everything about me.
I've seen poverty before, often cloaked in humility, forced upon the poor by years of beating down. Not so in India. I could feel the anger.
It would remain like this for hours. One village after the other.
One desperate scene after the other. Don't believe what you read about India's emergence as a world economic power. It is unquestionably taking place, but there are so many challenges ahead. Here, in the countryside, I see no progress being made. But Nagendra corrects me and says great advances have been made in the countryside. My only thought is: if what I see here represents progress, what could it have been like before?
The countryside, however, is bucolic and beautiful. The roads are narrow and don't dominate the landscape like the freeways of home. I regularly see monkeys indifferently crossing the road, and ask Nagendra if they are ever hit by cars. "Yes," Nagendra replies. "It doesn't often happen, but when it does it becomes a big problem and traffic gets stopped."
"How so?" I ask.
"It's usually a baby monkey which is killed," Nagendra says. "Whenever that happens, all the monkeys in the immediate area race from the jungle and gather around the body. They scream. They attack the people. They attack the cars. They will stop traffic until the body can be retrieved by the mother."
Nagendra sees the look of disbelief on my face, and asks something of our driver. A translation isn't required. Nagendra's asking the driver for verification, which comes with great exuberance and the mimicking angry monkeys swarming across our van's hood and windshield.
"The mother will then gather the baby's body and, accompanied by all the monkeys in a group, will take it into the jungle. I have seen this many times," Nagendra continues.
Monkeys aren't all I see. A score of miles further I spy an elephant in the middle of a river, children swimming just upstream from it. I find the sight amazing: an elephant's free and loose. Nagendra explains they are tame and won't hurt anyone. I ask for the car to be stopped and walk right up to the beautiful animal, not eight feet from it, and watch it eats vegetation growing along the river banks. I listen to this beautiful animal eating. Notice how gracefully it moves. This is not something I'm going to forget quickly.
At long last we pull up to Nagendra's factory. Though we've only travelled a negligible number of miles, the bad roads and terrible traffic explain why the drive has taken hours.
I'm led inside and introduced to the factory manager. I have the impression the "factory" is nothing more than his house, a belief which is reinforced when I am led upstairs to an area open to the sky covered by an awning, beneath which people are working on Music Makers. Two adjoining roofed rooms are where the finished zithers are stored. This is unlike any factory I've ever seen.
Nagendra explains the various processes which take place here. Two men are busily drilling out the tuning pin holes, the quality of which I am invited to inspect. They are doing good work and I nod my approval. Nagendra leads me to another station, then another. And then a small movement on the floor to my right catches my eye. I turn and my heart leaps in my throat. I see them...
Two children. Looking at me with big eyes. Neither older than ten. Working on Music Makers. Sanding them. Sanding my Music Makers.
A deep ache settles in my stomach. I feel sick. Nagendra continues with his tour of the factory, but I don't hear a thing he's saying.
My mind is fixed on what I've just seen.
Is this what it has come to, I ask myself? Am I now involved with child labor?
Conflicting thoughts race through my head. Is it wrong to apply my western standards to the situation? Is this how these children help their families survive? I've seen the poverty this morning. It's real. If I speak up now, and they are dismissed, will I cause them greater harm than if I stayed quiet?
Nagendra continues to speak, showing me the musical wire they use in the stringing process. I brusquely interrupt him. "Nagendra," I say, "We have to talk. Alone" I nod toward one of the storage rooms.
Nagendra joins me in the room, puzzled, worried. "Why are those children here?" I ask him. "Why are they working? They should be in school."
"I can't accept children working on my zithers," I pause and then add, "It's wrong."
A look of worry crosses Nagendra's face. He has no answer for me. He's been caught out.
Wordlessly, Nagendra turns away from me and approaches the foreman. They speak. Nagendra then returns, smiling.
"One of the boys is the foreman's son, and the other is his friend," Nagendra says. "Today's Saturday. It's the weekend. You must have forgotten this because you're travelling. These kids are working for an hour or two today so they can earn a little spending money for candy. On monday, they'll be in school."
I give a great sigh of relief.
That evening, as we drive to the airport in the dark, Nagendra, who had been quiet for a long time, suddenly blurts out. "I've been thinking about what you said about the children at the factory today. Most people wouldn't have said a thing. I'm glad you did. I'm glad that you care." He smiles.
The terrors of the road are suddenly replaced by a deep sense of well being. And I smile too.