This post is a (lengthy) excerpt from a letter I wrote to a good friend summarizing some of my impressions of the poverty of India and reflecting on the work I did with the kids at the school. I’ve chosen to share what I wrote to him rather than re-tread the same ground as a blog post, as I don’t think I could treat the material with the same passion a second time around.
Apologies for the extraordinary length of time it has taken me to respond to your message. It’s not that I forgot about it–quite the opposite, actually. I thought about your message frequently over the last few months, and kept thinking about how to respond, when to respond. It was a desire to write something meaningful that kept me so long–I didn’t want to jot down premature thoughts and pass it off as a response. I think the wheel has turned a revolution or two by now, though, and I can answer your question.
India… was challenging. I’m surprised to say that I’m finding Nepal an easier place to be, despite the terrible infrastructure. I thought for a long time how to best describe it: India is bursting to the seems with life. Not in the poetic sense of life, that lends itself to imagery of laughing children and kissing in the rain. I mean life in the sense of living biological matter, people and animals living and reproducing and creating more of themselves, filling a country faster than anyone in it can deal with.
One of the things that struck me early on is the way the animals look here. In the US (and presumably in Canada as well), animals are mostly an aesthetic phenomenon. They are kept clean and groomed, and tended by owners much like you would tend a potted plant. They are spayed and neutered, and thus cut off from the life-cycle that all other living things are a part of. For many years (i.e. my entire life), that was my image of animals. I thought it was natural.
In India, I was stunned. The dogs have balls! The bitches have nipples! Huge balls! Huge nipples! The balls are used to create puppies! The nipples are used to feed them! All the dogs participate! Not simply the chosen few selected to generate the needed supply of bonsai animals for this year’s children. All the dogs participate, and seeing that amount of reproductive capacity on display was kind of jarring.
Of course, that leads to the inevitable outcome: more and more living creatures, fighting for life on the streets. It’s strange to think about, but I never actually saw one starve. There must have been starving dogs–Malthus practically guarantees it. But I only ever saw living and (relatively) healthy animals (mostly lounging around and sleeping). Eventually I realized that the starving ones have gone elsewhere to die, out of respect (for themselves or for us, I never quite figured). I thought about that–how the society we see on the surface is only one dimension, the tip of the iceberg. There are mechanics and rhythms that go far deeper, that an individual can only make out of they listen soooo carefully.
That was kind of a long tangent, and a bit macabre, but it sums up a lot of my reactions to India. Unfortunately, a lot of what I said about the dogs applies to the children I taught. They just keep flowing into the world, into homes that aren’t quite ready to receive them, into a society that can’t even dream of being able to make room for them. And yet they exist–they don’t just disappear–they exist and struggle for as long as they can, however they can.
That said, kids, unlike dogs, can make room where there wasn’t before. Society isn’t some fixed value, but is itself growing, after all. And I was struck by the abilities of some of these kids. Even with all the crap in their lives–broken families, abuse, malnutrition–they still showed up to school every day and gave it a try. They weren’t always paying attention, they weren’t always trying, but they came, and when they chose to, they could be pretty amazing.
It was also interesting seeing the range of their abilities. There were some kids who just couldn’t comprehend what was being taught. Of course, I don’t KNOW if it was their ability or something about their circumstances. Growing up in the liberal world, I was taught that kids are basically all the same and all smart, and it’s circumstances, the school system, and “labeling” that makes us think some of them are smarter than others. That’s probably true to an extent, but I also think that kids are just different. After all, some people are taller than others. And some kids had better memories and faster comprehension. Much faster. I was happy to see that such abilities could survive such difficult circumstances, and also sad that such abilities would likely be hindered by those same circumstances.
I also thought at length about the value of doing something like volunteering at a school for slum kids. I thought about how while on one had, each kid is a unique and whole individual, and any effort to improve their lives makes a huge different (the “to that one starfish, it mattered” perspective). On the other hand, though, each kid is a manifestation of a tragic international economic system, which creates the circumstances that gives birth to these children. From that perspective, the whole teaching this is a huge waste of time, since these kids are being “created” at a faster rate than can ever be addressed through education. I thought about that at length, and what role I might play there.
What else about India… lovely people in general, although I got a bit jaded by all the touts. I struggled to see every Indian as a unique person after getting accosted by so many people trying to scam me–it got to the point where I would by default assume anyone trying to talking to me was a scammer and just ignore everyone. In social settings though, they were absolutely lovely. I was struck by the cultural divide between the upper-middle class Indians and the lower class Indians. The upper-middle class ones were SUPER westernized. The lower class Indians were, well, traditional and Indian. That’s a simplification, of course, but I was surprised by the extent it held up.
Delicious food, unbelievably cheap fruit juice. Cheap trains, although a little overwhelming until you get a hang of the system. Also, the Taj Mahal is as beautiful as you think it is. Really, just majestic.
As far as me…”