A contemplative boat ride – musings on littering & identity

An hour-long ferry ride from the Gateway of India to Elephanta Island (home to an amazing array of caves devoted to Hindu deities…as well as a group of wild and evil monkeys that prey on tourists) gave me ample time to ponder.

This trip is constantly challenging my ideals of right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and bad. Let’s take the concept of littering. To me, it seems ingrained that littering = bad, but then I watch a father show his two young children how to unwrap their snack and gleefully throw the wrapper into the already polluted Arabian Sea. I am not here to judge or criticize anyone….just to note that such instances challenge my preconceived notions of right vs. wrong.  Is it dilluted accountability that makes people act this way? The sea, after all, washes away trash with the tide and it is never seen again by the perpetrator. But does that make it any less wrong? Or just easier to digest? (I know I’m guilty of this delusion at many times during the day) Or is it just that nobody taught this man that littering is bad? That trash in the ocean does not go unnoticed by its inhabitants…..

Life is full of assumptions.

Why did the man  selling tickets to Elephanta Island (15 rupees ($0.30) for Indians, 250 ($5.00) rupees for foreigners) assume that I wasn’t from India? Technically, if you look at my ancestry, I am. But I didn’t want to pick a fight…well actually, I couldn’t (not in Hindi at least) But how did he know? I didn’t say one word – just held up one finger for “1 ticket”. What about me prompted him to ask me where I was from? Was it because I looked him straight in the eyes? Was I dressed like a “foreigner”? Was my expression too open and inviting? Who knows. All I know is that I paid the foreigner rate of 250 rupees . It’s not about the money, it’s about the fact that even in India I am considered a foreigner. At best, a Non-Resident Indian (NRI). 

I feel like I have opened up Pandora’s Box (if her box contained questions about identity). Why are we so obsessed with this concept or defining or not defining ourselves? Why do we feel this need to belong to a particular group? Why do we let ourselves be herded into socially constructed identities? Does it even matter?

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5 Comments to “A contemplative boat ride – musings on littering & identity”

  1. Nice to read your blog 🙂

    Not gonna comment on the huge Pandora’s box you opened with the identities thing (requires too much thinking right now haha)…but about the littering:

    1) Some say that people used to village life litter more because in the village they just litter biodegradable stuff like banana peels. But now with plastic bags, littering is more costly, but they’re still stuck in their old ways. I dunno…

    2) I read sometime back about this study done in Denmark on vandalizing bikes, and they found that if the surroundings where the bike was parked were more dirty, then people didn’t think twice about vandalizing it. Maybe since the Arabian Sea is already pretty nasty, he feels “what’s one more wrapper going to do”. Kinda makes sense with my room too, if it’s just newly cleaned, I think twice about throwing my clothes on the floor. But once it’s dirty, I don’t really care…haha

    anyhow, hope you’re having fun in India!

  2. I think the man charged you the foreigners rate because you don’t look like a typical Indian. I don’t mean in the way you dress because nowadays many Indians dress very “American” (whatever that means), especially in Mumbai. But your fair skin and green eyes (wait are they green or grayish?? I’m forgetting :o( are probably what made him ask and assume.

    As for the question of identity and fitting in, I think the answer goes back to your quote about Ubuntu: we are who we are in relation to others. I think that has a lot to do with identity because we need to have some level of “fitting in” to interact and form relationships and to become ourselves. Since who we are is (by your own confession) defined by our interdependence isn’t finding/needing an identity an integral part of that?

    I struggle with this much myself as I am sure many Indian-Americans or really any immigrant does. We label ourselves or others as “FOBs” or “ABCDs” thereby segregating ourselves even further. I constantly ask myself where I fit in while at the same time wondering why the labels even matter. I don’t really have an answer to either of those questions and while at times I am content to just be other times I struggle with the societal definitions. All I know is that it does matter no matter how much us independent thinkers wish to abolish it.

    I could probably babble on for longer but I should study and I am sure my lack of coherence is increasing :oP

    Hope you are enjoying yourself and not being too contemplative! :o)

  3. hmm it messed up my smiley faces. I was not happy that I could not recall the exact color of your eyes!!

  4. There’s a passage in Shantaram where the author, Gregory Roberts, addresses the reader directly and tells us to consider what a huge deal 10 (or, in your case, 235) rupees is to someone in India versus someone in the US and that sometimes, as “foreigners”, we should allow ourselves to get ripped off-even paying 5 dollars for that ferry ride is a steal for us.

    I read this passage after I came back from Delhi this past Winter and it helped me to sort out how disturbed I also was at the huge difference between admission prices for tourist attractions all over Delhi. Is it fair? No. But its a way we can help put some money into the economy of India, I suppose. Like you said, the lines between right and wrong get blurred really quickly in India.

    Also- it’s easy to mark us because of how we carry ourselves and even the way our hair looks- we use different products that leave our hair thinner, shiny and smooth. Also, American girls tend to look people directly in the eyes and smile a lot- we stick out like a sore thumb 🙂

  5. “Why are we so obsessed with this concept of defining or not defining ourselves? Why do we feel this need to belong to a particular group? Why do we let ourselves be herded into socially constructed identities? Does it even matter?”

    I think that’s such an important question that many of us fail to ever consider. Like you said, creating an identity for ourselves has become such an obsession. We strive to achieve this “identity,” and if anything happens to tarnish or damage it, we are left confused and scared. Maybe letting go of this deep, ingrained desire for an identity would allow us to achieve a greater peace of mind. By always seeking something on the exterior, are we maybe neglecting something more important? In reality, is this “identity” providing us with anything other than a way to feel fulfilled, to receive others’ approvals, and to boost our own egos?

    More questions…

    Hope you’re enjoying your trip Apu… keep us posted 🙂

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