North Tour: Kolkata: Something India shouldn’t have

Saturday, 26 March

NAGPUR: It’s impossible to deny the speed at which India is evolving.

India’s growth is a phenomenon you’ve probably heard about in the news, and the results are visible across the country. Smoother and better paved roads. The rise of cell phone use across caste and class. Projects by organizations like Rotary to sanitize water and quite literally build bridges.

Unfortunately, there’s something else still quite visible in India.

Suffering.

What is it about India that makes people see the world differently?

From Buddha to Mother Teresa, historical figures from North India have regularly been motivated by the pain they see in the people before them. Even in the richest areas, you’ll see children begging on street corners. At train stations, you’ll see ladies holding babies, asking passersby for spare change. Walk the streets of almost any city, and you’ll intermittently see homeless sitting with arms outstretched, begging passively because they don’t have the energy to get up.

Not that the poverty is especially bad in Kolkata. It’s striking everywhere you go in India. And it makes for some painful internal conversations:

“What can I do to help these people?”

“Nothing”

“But I should be able to do something!”

“What?”

“Something”

“But how do you help? How do you relieve the suffering? What can be done?”

It’s a vicious cycle of nothingness that usually ends in pity and a morose turning of the head while your arm is poked softly and persistently until the beggar decides some other rich foreigner can provide better luck. You’re almost conditioned not to feel anymore, to tune out their calls of “Hey Baba“, look away from the hand to mouth khana [food] gesture, and pretend the rapping and tapping on your forearm isn’t there.

Occasionally we do give – perhaps a piece of candy or a two-rupee coin. But the initial delight of doing good is almost always mitigated when larger crowds gather around us. What makes the small child to whom we gave a Parle-G any more special than the others with outstretched arms? Besides, there’s a hierarchy within each beggar family, one where males and elders always come at the top. Pathos is pointless when so often the sad face before you doesn’t reap the reward of your good deed.

A terrible internal fight ensues between mind and heart every time a beggar comes around. Give in to immediate gratification and reward their begging? Or look the other way and do nothing but hope that they’ll one day become self-sufficient?

Here is where I really start to hate India, because there’s a solution to this problem – just not an immediate one.

Education.

No country in the world today can claim it is great unless it adequately educates all its children. I’ve written about school in India before, however inaccurate a bellwether my college may have been. But at the very least, school is a place to study. Whereas American students might complain if they’re made to wear uniforms, Indians wear them with pride, a symbol of the fact that they, at least, can study. So many children in India don’t go to school, can’t go to school, or are barred by their family from going. And it just irks me.

I wonder what my life would be like if my education had been cut off at grade five, or cut off entirely. You certainly wouldn’t be reading this, as I’d never have learned to write. What would I do all day if I had to beg to ensure my stomach was full, nothing to do all day but search for spare change? What if I came home to a slum, and not a well-furnished 2,000 square foot home? What if I had no place to call home at all?

I wonder, and I can only ever wonder, because I’ve lived an astoundingly good life by these standards. I’ve been lucky enough to have. To own. To eat. Every day.

I’ve never had to beg.

What can I do? What can I, Chris Yoder – of privileged background, privileged host family, and privileged life – do to help those begging for it?

What can anyone do?

Steps have been taken to abolish poverty. The rate of it, at least, has decreased in recent years. Projects have been completed. Fundraisers have been held. Items have been donated. Organizations and NGOs have done what they can. Rotary is right there, its logo splashed throughout India, a marker of progress.

But what progress? A lot of times, it’s hard to think of progress. When you see a man finish his meal and use the ground as a trash can. When flies and mosquitoes are buzzing loudly around your head, sometimes landing on it. When the taps on your arms, shoulders, or whatever part of you the beggars can reach don’t cease, it’s hard to think of progress.

But India has progressed.

I know this, even if I haven’t been around long enough to see it. Perhaps hanging with the same circle of privileged people has just created an illusion in me, but I can’t forget the people I’ve met with good lives. I’ve met scores of people who do good things, who can earnestly say, “I’m proud to be Indian.” The world has changed since Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya and Mother Teresa ventured to the slums of East India. India is now much more than a pitiable mass of humanity. Much, much, much more.

The perception has changed. And it’s still changing.

Our two month-long tours have taught me plenty about why we are envied in India and what India has to be envied. They’ve shown me what India is lucky to have and what I am lucky to have. India has come a long way.

But I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve shown me India still has quite a ways to go.

🙂

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2 Responses to “North Tour: Kolkata: Something India shouldn’t have”

  1. John Says:

    Good post, pressing questions, not-clear answers. What do you plan to do, or envision yourself doing down the road, may I ask?

  2. currybadger Says:

    There was one road with beggars on it I remember in Mumbai. I always thought they were scamming, but then one day coming home from work I saw these same people bathing in a water filled ditch on the road, about 2 feet from moving traffic. It rattled my brain.

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