Here is a post from my time in India last fall:
Penny once told me that India brings you to your knees. If this is true, I am face down in the gutter right now.
Today we visited the Dharavi slums, where 1.5 million people live in a 1.75 km block. When we got to the train station, bony girls approached us holding out their hands, imploring with their eyes, snapping a piece of plastic to get our attention when we carefully locked our gaze on something in the distance. My heart is knocking at my good judgment, saying “Remind me why you can’t spare 50 cents, enough for these girls to eat today, you miserably greedy blob?”
There is an understanding among tourists not to pay the beggars, the way zoo signs tell you not to feed the animals. But these are babies, little girls like the ones you babysit, or the ones you see trying on shoes in the mall, or starting kindergarten with a lunchbox stuffed with apple slices, PB&J and a yogurt to trade around with all the other well-fed fortunate babies. Except to these girls, I must say “No, sweetie, I’m sorry, but if I feed you once, you will want me to keep giving you money. You’ll think you are entitled to a meal, entitled to survival and I am just too attached to my cushy lifestyle to let you experience a shred of comfort today. Go find another white person with a bigger heart.”
My heart is broken in about fifteen different ways. I contributed to the suffering when I want nothing more than to take it all away, to assume some misery (God knows I haven’t known my fair share in life) so these baby girls and baby boys will have a chance—not a chance at being President or a successful lawyer, the path we view opportunities leading to in America. No, all I want to give them is a chance to wake up tomorrow morning at all, to forget the ache in their stomach for long enough to lie on the sidewalk with a little less discomfort than they have grown accustomed to every night since their birth.
Who am I kidding by coming here? I can do everything and nothing simultaneously. Any money won’t last or even make a dent in their needs. Nothing would sustain in this metal and mud heap of garbage.
We enter Dharavi Slums with two other tourists and a local tour guide. Built on a swamp, Dharavi is a winding series of tunnels and caves made of sheet metal, rags and sewage. Starving faces poke through every crack of wall, sunken bodies of human beings stride through the narrow passages, misery hanging in the air like the smell of death. As we walk down the broken concrete steps into the slum, a monsoon rages out of nowhere. The atmosphere is dank, hot and loaded with the guilt of our full stomachs and clean clothes.
As we start walking, I am overcome by the urgent need to get out, to run as fast as I can and never look back because inside this place lies all the misery of the world and I am not ready for my soul to cope with this much suffering just yet.
I do not run. I shut off the receptors to my brain and walk ghost-like through this dying place, seeing but not thinking, trying to put as much mental distance between pink delicate me and brown drippy Dharavi. My mind and heart take action out of sheer self-preservation instincts to protect me from taking this in, where it will surely infect my heart like a cancer. I step gingerly through this hamster maze of holes in the wall stacked five stories high. My waterproof vegan-material Garmount hiking shoes are doing their job, keeping India at bay, physically and metaphorically keeping the grief and disease out and away from me as much as man-made materials can. These boots, I realize, cost more than these people make in at least half a year working 8-12 hours in stuffy cubbies with dangerous fumes that rapidly knock down their life expectancy. I am an aggressively-needy consumer, surrounding myself in a bubble of security and comfort and dry feet, walking through the most depressing, disgusting landfill of life imaginable. Toddlers run barefoot through filth and nails and all sorts of sharp things— a parent’s worst nightmare…but my feet are snug and comfy, thank you very much. The most amazing thing, though, is that no one seems overcome with their unhappiness. I don’t see anyone just sitting on the ground blubbering in self-pity, which is an understatement of the emotional state I would be in if I found myself stuck in this cesspool. The kids are playing badminton in rags, smiling their little loving hearts out as though they are kings of a golden palace. Groups of neatly dressed and combed children walk past us to school, calling out “HI HOW ARE YOU WHAT IS YOUR NAME WHAT COUNTRY??” We hold their little hands and respond playfully, all smiles and friendly talk, trying to mirror their enthusiasm with their lives as though we are not internally weeping for them and cursing all our gifts. We pass men recycling materials by grinding plastic and mending fuel containers. Others sculpt clay pots for a dying industry, as more expensive materials like ceramic or plastic push them out of their already-precarious jobs. Women sit rolling pappadams on a round wheel.
We visit schools and orphanages, some of which were established by Reality Gives, a local NGO that teaches women to work in the schools and establishes a small-scale education system there. Outside the schools, though, tangled electrical wires snake through the trash in the streets, and alleys are just the crawl space under the next sheet metal home. We have to watch our heads for the sharp metal corners poking out, temple-level, from the different layers and stories of this haunted tree house maze. It’s hard to tell which is thinner, the starving kittens hiding in dark corners or the community’s elders. Dying crows pick at the bodies of flat dead rats. In the more crowded streets, people stare at me shamelessly the way the subconscious stares at an intruder in the movie Inception (Please tell me someone gets that reference).
A word on religion. In the slums we saw a shrine made out of white bricks, and on each side of the cube-shaped structure were pictures of Gods from each locally celebrated faith. Ganesha and Jesus and a boy reading the Koran, all sharing the same sacred space. I think America has much to learn from this. Our fear back home regarding anything different than our own dimensions cripples us into unanimity and keeps us closed off to the beauty of sharing thoughts and beliefs openly. Fear is often justified or understandable, but it also keeps out the people who don’t fit their cultural or religious stereotypes and who have much to show us about their way of life. We are the ones who are missing out.
So after witnessing so much suffering and denying spare change to starving kids, what does my clunky American self want to do? Shopping. I am more than a little ashamed of this, but I recognize that I am a person in need of change and this is only the beginning of that course. I am trying to be forgiving of myself and to take this whole thing slow. I’ve put my body, mind and heart through the ringer. I am going to start volunteering as soon as possible to quell my rich kid guilt and to try to make some sort of peace with this massive crime against humanity. But for now, I need to baby myself back into my comfort zone and buy a piece of jewelry.
Trying to shop is a fiasco. Every time we stop to browse, a man with his chest inflated imposes himself on us, declares himself our tour guide, and demands we let him show us how to shop for a fee. We protested profusely, but this just wasn’t acceptable to them. One even tried to drag us across a busy street, all the while saying “Please, no problem Mama.” Oh yes, problem. We finally paid him off, broke away and hauled ourselves back to the hotel room.
Mom turns to me with a mischievous grin. “We could watch an American movie on TV…”
“Maybe they showed us that because they know everyone gets to that point after a couple of days…”
I bury myself in a book because India on paper is a little easier to navigate and digest than real India. So many of the buildings here look like a city in the aftermath of a bombing, with no signs of life except the colorful clothing that streams from windows and balconies to dry. If it wasn’t so dirty and miserably poor, India would have the most beautiful people, the most beautiful clothing and jewelry and temples… but everything is covered with 6 inches of filth, rotting and dying and smeared with sludge.
For more posts from my trip, refer to my travel blog, www.same-elephant.tumblr.com.