Let Them Eat Cake

First, I was so dazzled and besotted by India... It’s terribly easy to get used to someone else’s poverty if you’re living a middle-class life in it. But after a while, I saw it wasn’t possible to accept it, and I also didn’t want to.
— Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I've recently discovered the writing of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and it seems that everything she says strikes my own thoughts so deeply, putting into words the experiences that I'm trying to process. India as a place, a culture, a concept is difficult to grasp. It is a relationship that grows deeper and more complex, always changing and always re-defining itself. It is not always easy to be sensitive and receptive to the culture here. Beyond the palaces and temples there are some cold truths that are impossible to lose sight of.

In some ways, being here for a while is just like living anywhere for a period of time; you start to create routines and develop habits, partly through convenience and necessity, partly as a way of turning an unknown environment into a familiar one. I tend to walk the same way most days, and as such I have the opportunity of transforming this regular commute into a way of getting to know some characters around the city. Most days I'll pass through the Jalebi Chowk gate at least once, and over time have become close with a couple of families that are homeless but that spend their days in this area.

When they speak to tourists the families here are similar to thousands of others in India: the little English that they know comes out in direct and repeated requests for help, pleas that tend to sound more like forceful demands because they might lack the vocabulary to soften the tone. As visitors who are exposed to these interactions it's all too easy to want to turn away -the peoples' desperation somehow comes across as aggression and so we can find it difficult to relate to the person who is speaking to us. On hearing their requests or feeling the hands of children tugging at your clothes, we can sometimes close up and feel a need to protect ourselves; to look away and pretend not to see, all the while trying also to ignore the inner turmoil and distress that arises deep within. At one time I might have observed and accepted these people as part of the makeup of India, another unfortunate family that are living below the poverty line. Previously I might have just felt that deep sadness combined with a hopelessness of not knowing how to actively help.

But this time things are different and I think it is due to language. It seems that learning and speaking Hindi has opened up my world here... by understanding some of the local language, I have found that I can shift my experiences in India and I have the option to see things in a very different light. These days my judgement is different because these interactions are no longer limited to the same old scenario as scripted in English. By being able to speak with these families in their own language (however awkwardly and however bad the grammar), we are able to move past the simple asking/giving transaction, past the awkward roles created by status or wealth, and into a place where we can get to know each other. It seems we have found a strange little world where we can interact daily in a neutral way, and can actually share information about our lives.

I've been taught about the structure of the Jalebi Chowk families, the tasks they do each day, and all the details about the little boy Ganesh who broke his leg when a tourist car hit him. I've been invited to go with them to hospital when he gets his cast removed -and not because they want me to pay. Just to be there and share in his ability to walk properly again. In fact they don't really ask me for anything. In English they only know how to beg, but in Hindi they are dynamic human beings and are generous, hilarious and dramatic as we all are. Their lives are interesting. The children love the camera, the mothers love introducing the babies to me, and I love being invited to share in their lives.

And so seeing this crowd regularly is now something I look forward to and as someone of such stark comparative privilege I do my best to try and help them. It's not easy. When you see such poverty and such layers of suffering, it's hard to know where to start, how to even make a dent. And just because I see their moments of joy, it doesn't make their daily suffering any less real. So far I haven't discovered any fool-proof way to make a big change in their circumstances, but right now I figure the small things matter as well as the big gestures, and so I try to think of something that will elevate their day just a little bit. Sometimes that's money to the parents, flour for chapatti. Sometimes that's English lessons all round, or a big box of sweet treats for the kids. And most times we play with the camera too.

I'm not clear on my thoughts on altruism, how to be effective, how much I 'should' be doing. But what I do know is that I can't accept the poverty that I see and as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala said, I don't want to. I'd rather be doing something small than giving you my best excuse for why it was better to hide away. 

So for now we'll just keep hanging out and sharing food, selfies and stories. I still genuinely enjoy their company and am glad to have been invited into their world -it's not really a selfless act at all. And I also still don't find it easy, every day I see or hear something new that is distressing and that can completely shift what I thought I understood. But it's an adjustment and it's better than looking the other way and closing my eyes. And those days when the kids are running around on their crazy sugar high, dancing in the street and grinning wildly... there's some kind of magic in there somewhere.