Yesterday I went to the village of Poondi, about 20 km from Thanjavur town. I went because my friend R., who is a Ph.D. student in the Tamil University here invited me to visit her and see her family home, and her village. I went and ate lunch with her and her mother, and we also took a walk around the whole village, 4 parallel main streets, about 3 blocks long. I have a lot of pictures, especially of the wildlife, and not so wildlife, of which I'll post some here and more on flickr.
This trip made me think of two important things: one, when someone starts telling me the story of their life's tragedy, especially a dead husband or father, or other close family member, I have no idea how to react, or why they're telling me their story.
The second thing is, everyone assumes I'm rich. And yes, in a way, simply by virtue of being American (or from any other "developed" country), one has more money, and general resources, including education and cultural capital with which to affect things. But I am a student, I have lived on a crappy graduate student stipend, or without employment, scraping by, for many years now. Even though the amount of money I make as a teaching assistant sounds like a lot in dollars, and even more converted into rupees, I always try to tell people how much things cost. How rent takes up a third to half of my salary, other basic costs, food, transportation, clothes, etc, take up most of the rest. I have a little expendable income for going out to the movies, or going out to dinner with friends, but only because I live very cheaply in everything else.
So when people look at me like I'm rich, and expect that I have infinite amounts of money to give away, it's difficult to convey that it's not really the case. And even though many Indians, even wealthy Indians don't give beggars money, they sometimes give me a dirty look, if I don't give a beggar change. Suddenly I'm the bad person, for not giving my spare change to someone begging. And I do give to beggars. Most recently, I literally didn't have any change. Other times, I've made a decision based on the number of beggars in a particular bus stand or other location. I was once in the unfortunate situation where I decided to give a small pack of biscuits to a child beggar of about 7 or 8 years old. I was in a bus stand, and that child produced 2 more, who also got biscuits, and they produced 4 more, and so on until a mob of shouting, pushing, reaching and grabbing children had surrounded me. Generosity is hard. And I believe more in supporting development programs, education, etc, than simply giving out food or a few rupees. It's that whole "teach a person to fish" thing.
So when my friend R's mother told me about how her husband died, my first thought was whether or not she was going to ask for money. I feel bad about that. I feel terrible, actually, but the issue of my "wealth" relative to others' misfortune is an issue that I face every single day. Anyway, I should have realized that money isn't the issue, since I've already hired R., who is a very smart young woman, to be my research assistant, to help me re-write bags and labels for artifacts, and enter data into spreadsheets, and a variety of other things. I already paid her, for her first weeks' earnings, and I'm sure I'll continue to have work for her for a while.
But if money isn't the reason why R's mother was telling me about her husband's death, and all the troubles that followed it, then I don't know what is. Is it sympathy? If so, I don't know if I'm expressing my sympathy in ways that are culturally appropriate, or even enough. Perhaps my exclamations of "Oh that's terrible" (in Tamil), and "Oh no, that is awful, I'm so sorry" should be more dramatic, more emphatic (as seen in Tamil soap operas)? I don't really know. I've spent a lot of time here in Tamil Nadu, in this culture, and there are still a lot of things I don't have figured out. This feels like an important one. I really should know how to respond appropriately, when someone tells me that a family member has died.
In any case, aside from what felt to me like an awkward moment, because I didn't know how to react to a widow telling me her difficulties, I had a wonderful time visiting the village. I should start asking friends who I know better, and who understand some of the cultural differences, about the appropriate way and level of response to these things.
As a final note, I realized a couple of the reasons I don't like to take and post pictures of ordinary city streets in Thanjavur and other cities... One it's so chaotic and densely filled with images, angles, lines, colors, that it's almost impossible to frame a good looking shot. Second, it is dirty, dusty, muddy, sometimes covered with garbage, and generally not very attractive. I guess my concept of photography is that it should show things that are aesthetically pleasing, and a lot of the really ordinary city streets, I don't find aesthetically pleasing... I should work on that though. Maybe this weekend I'll take a walk around town, and shoot a lot of pictures, just to see what comes out.