Newspaper article International New York Times

How Indians Get Attention of Authorities

Newspaper article International New York Times

How Indians Get Attention of Authorities

Article excerpt

Indians express their anger in public gatherings because that is the only way they know to get a response from the government.

During my first months in India, I was constantly mistaking one thing for something else.

The natural world baffled me. I would occasionally look up at the tree growing in my neighbor's front yard and notice that leaves had appeared or vanished, and I had no idea whether this meant it was spring or fall. I didn't know what kind of tree it was, any more than I knew the names of the birds that warbled weirdly in its branches.

People were equally unreadable. The cluster of men that gathered around our car after a fender bender -- were they reaching consensus on a fair penalty, or bullying our driver, or enjoying a half-hour of free entertainment? The transgender beggars vamping outside our car window, were they sweet or menacing? I had no idea.

One day, something happened that helped me understand at least a little. We were returning to Delhi after a day of sightseeing in Agra with three small girls buckled into the back seat. We left the city in half-light, past ruminant humpbacked cattle and fruit sellers with careful pyramids of mangoes, past women crouched over hearths and onto the six lanes of the Yamuna Expressway.

I was beginning to doze off when I saw that something was wrong. As we approached a tollbooth, the cars ahead of us were making U- turns and racing the wrong way down the highway.

Our driver pulled onto the shoulder, but it was too late: A crowd of men was running toward us, waving sticks and hurling stones at vehicles they could overtake. It was hard to see their faces, but their undershirts stood out white in the darkness and I could see that many of them were wearing flip-flops. Something hit our car with a crack.

I felt a kind of sick fear, and our driver sped forward. But as we drove, I realized that men with sticks were running alongside us on the highway, and that ahead, all six lanes were blocked. "Who are those guys?" my 6-year-old asked, and I didn't answer. I had read a great deal about mob violence, neighbors turning on each other with scythes and rods, and I ran through the possibilities in my mind. …

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