Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Epilogue: The Ironing Man

I wrote this on the plane last night. It's the last of my posts from India, but I want to keep the blog going, both so I can keep writing about the trip and so others can use it as a way to stay in touch. We had an amazing time, and I grew to love all of my travel mates, a great group of people!. Thanks to them for making the trip so special.

p.s. Click here to read the article about us published last week in the Express India.

The Ironing Man

Today marked the end of our five weeks in India. It was time to fly home and pick up our lives. We had a short business meeting during breakfast, packed our bags, then left the hotel for a few hours of shopping before heading to the airport. We drove for about 20 minutes through the crowded commercial districts of Chennai, but then turned off into a solidly middle class residential neighborhood filled with nice two and three story homes set in thick tropical vegetation. It was overcast and grey, but there were lots of birds whose chirps and squawking cut through the humid quiet of the morning. We pulled up in front of a handicraft store, a shop full of locally produced goods that seemed like the only commercial business in the neighborhood. It must be geared to the tourist bus trade because it’s way too far from the business district for any shoppers to just wander by. We trooped in and over the course of about 45 minutes we all made a few last minute purchases. I decided to bail out of the shopping a little early and ended up taking a walk around the neighborhood. As I set out down the steps of the store I noticed through the thick trees across the street that there was a man in a shirt and sarong, ironing clothes just inside the gate of the home across the street on an old push cart while his dog slept underneath. I looked a little closer and noticed he was using a huge old iron that was heated with hot coals. At first I thought perhaps he was ironing clothes for himself, or for someone who lived in the very large house outside of which he was working. But then I saw that some people were entering his yard, either to pick up bundles of shirts he’d ironed, or to drop some off. He appeared to be running a little business ironing the clothes of people who live in the neighborhood, and his work was being done with tools—the old hot coal iron and the push cart—that seemed to date from the 1920s.

My walk in the neighborhood was short, but it was a pleasant break from shopping. I enjoyed seeing the neighborhood, and it was nice to have a few solitary moments as my trip wound down. Many of the homes had security guards sitting just outside the front gates on plastic chairs. Most weren’t doing anything at all, just reading papers or looking quizzically at me as I passed by. The tropical vegetation surrounding the homes was beautiful, and with the exotic sounding birds singing in a kind of cacophony and the architecture of the homes just different enough from what I’m used to at home engaging my curiosity, my little stroll made for a pleasant break. When I returned from my walk in the neighborhood and strolled past the ironing man I noticed the large house in whose yard he was still working was in pretty bad shape. All the other houses I’d passed were quite well kept and dignified, with an abundance of trees, shrubs, plants and flowers that made each home a pretty colorful place. But the exterior walls of the house where the ironing man was working were darkened with dirt that had run in the rain into dark streaks that stained its peeling paint, and the stain on the wood windows had long since chipped and fallen away. The windows seemed thrown open but the house looked largely abandoned. Clearly no one had taken care of the place in years, and I wondered why all of the vegetation was dead and brown, why the house, if was abandoned, hadn’t become overgrown with plants.

This was my last image of India, the final scene of so many that made for me a special moment the power of which was a little mysterious and a bit elusive. I saw much of the India that had become familiar to me later as we drove out to the airport. Teeming streets full of autorickshaws, cars, trucks, bicyclists, the occasional old wooden cart being pulled by bullocks. The ramshackle cobbled together little commercial sheds by the side of the road that competed with more established and prosperous businesses housed in proper buildings that lined the business districts. The vendors selling roasted corn or full meals off carts or from stalls where fires burned and huge, old, darkly burned steel pans sat atop open fires while the food cooked. Men, some dressed in western wear, others, Muslims, all in white with white caps, Hindu men in traditional garb, the occasional turbaned Sikh, and women in colorful saris walking everywhere, many with pots, huge containers, or large packages on their heads (or thinner, troubled and disheveled looking women with nothing but an open hand wending their way through stilled traffic hoping to collect a few rupees, often with small children set on their hip). People in rags lying on the street or propped up against short walls, many of which supported small shelters carefully put together with cardboard, metal sheeting, wood, rags, and materials from old tarps. Some of these had morphed over the years into structures framed out of wood with thatched roofs. Many lined the river and wound down to its banks, enough of them to form little villages that looked livable but squalid to my eyes and which contributed inexorably to the pollution of Chennai’s main river, which flowed less with water than with a dark, murky, oily substance full of floating debris.

This was an urban India that had become familiar to me, a country bustling and full of paradox where grinding poverty existed along with a dizzying range of ingenious and tenacious commercial activity, people finding a way to somehow get by selling old locks or metal pots or roasted corn or used luggage or recycled bicycle tires or outdated electronic gadgets, or who made a living repairing bicycles or autorickshaws right on the street from small little enclosures and old tools. There seems to be an economy within the economy, a vast, impromptu, unregulated chaos of commercial activity among the impoverished who somehow scratch out a living amidst the more established, prosperous, glassed in formal stores that line the streets. An economy of the impoverished alongside an economy of the newly prospering middle classes, the one tied to what we usually call globalization and westernization, the other tied it seems to me to an older and more traditional set of commercial activities that service those who haven’t gotten swept up into the new prosperity. I imagine these parallel economies existed to some degree under the Mugal Empire and the British Raj, that the split world globalization has created has replaced these earlier divided empires.

And where does the ironing man fit in all this, and why did he capture my imagination now, at the end of my trip? He’s part of India’s vast service economy of course, but not the one we’re used to in the U.S., the one peopled by those who work in clean stores, nicely lit restaurants, or who handle our dry cleaning or repair our iPods. This is a service economy made up of an impoverished underclass who live in slums and who take care of the rudimentary needs of the middle class, driving their cars, cooking their food, beating the dust out of their rugs, or ironing their clothes. He’s a guy who has found a niche for himself and a way to get by, with an ancient coal powered iron (at one point I saw him walk away from the clothes he was ironing and blow into it to heat its coals, ash flying out into the air), an old wooden cart, and a steady clientele. I can’t imagine he makes much money at this. Perhaps he lives in the dilapidated, crumbling house outside of which he worked, but I doubt it. It’s just as likely the cart sits there for him to use every day in this island of prosperity and quiet tropical luxury, and that he goes back to one of the slums off the road we passed as we drove in, where he eats and sleeps and perhaps helps tend to a family. It can’t be an easy life, but as I watched him work, saw the steady careful rhythm of his ironing and how he neatly folded and stacked the shirts he had finished, as I saw his dog sleeping peacefully under his cart, as I saw people pick up or drop off their laundry and chat with him for a moment or two, observed all of this through the warm tropical foliage with the birds singing and no horns honking, no cacophony of traffic, it seemed to me he was doing alright given everything I’d seen I my 5 weeks in India. In comparison with the prosperity, even the modest opulence around him he wasn’t well off, and if I’m right about him spending the nights and mornings in a slum, then his situation borders on desperate. But even though I run the risk here of sentimentalizing the ironing man, taken as I was by the simplicity and dignity of his work, the romantic setting of the crumbling house and the humid tropical environment and the singing birds, still I think I saw something powerful and ancient and Indian in the ironing man. The house reminded me of the Jamughoda Palace, that dilapidated monument to a still crumbling colonial structure I wrote about in an earlier post, and the ironing man recalled entrepreneurial Indians like the women on the sidewalk in Pune whose business consisted of a weight scale, people who consistently impressed me with their calm, even cheerful way of scratching out a living under desperate conditions. The ironing man gave me a little gift at the end of my journey, more valuable than the handicrafts being sold just beyond the steps from which I observed him. He was for me another reminder of the tenacity and beauty I saw among everyday Indians on a continent Gandhi helped make independent, but which still struggles to be free, a nation bursting with economic development that allows many to prosper but which adds to the suffering of many others, and whose cultural traditions are threatened by the kind of homogenization that accompanies globalization. The ironing man in the yard of the crumbling old mansion seemed a steady presence amidst all of the chaos and change. I wonder how long he’ll keep ironing there, what it means that he does, what it will mean when he stops?

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