Look, I don’t know what the most arresting trait of India is. I was in the southern agricultural part of India, not the touristy parts, so I remember the vast countryside that stretches out forever very clearly.
It is rhythmic in the most chaotic way, sort of like a Tool song. The individual components are irregular and perplexing: a cacophony of distressed elements. But together they are electrifying, like every cell in your body has to move fast, through night, through the unknown, through the seas of tuk-tuks. You have an urge to dance in fluorescent saris with gold jingly fringes that ching ching with each step. You want to give money to every beggar on every street. But the poverty gets boring. At least that’s what each one of us would think… at least a little.
Poverty has saturated our televisions so much that it is just another dreary sight. And you’re left with this inescapable feeling of guilt. After travelling to India a few years ago and spending time in some extremely poor communities I know that this guilt is not what India’s poor want. It is what the advertising charities want. I give to a charity that does not advertise. And my India trip was with them, to see where my money goes.
India was exquisite. Not just in all the stunning places you’d think, like the temples, elephants, clothing, dancing, food, singing, children and spirituality but in all the rough places. I held a three-day-old orphan who had Aids and lesions all over her face. Her head was almost bigger than her body. I could feel the hunger of her bones on my large hands. Her long eyelashes blinked up to me and I melted. I wanted to feed her. I wanted to bring her home. Adoption is the first feeling. Until you look around and see the endless smiles, generosity and love around you. These communities, these people, extinguished my pathetic guilty feelings. They don’t want you to feel bad. They just want to live to their fullest. And they are genuinely joyful to see you. This girl may have had very tough beginnings but there was a whole community there to love her.
They had a school there and they were all learning English. The women told me the baby’s name was Lucky. Every school and orphanage we travelled to, put on performances for us of singing and dancing. My cheeks cramped with the smiles. My cheeks were completely out of practice. There was nothing to do but smile. And in the quiet spaces, there may have been a tear or two that trekked from my eyes down to my chin and to my abyss of confusion. All this time I thought it was shit to not be able to afford new shoes. To not have a brand new surfboard. Not be able to afford a new car. All this time, I’d realized I’d got this thing called life totally wrong. Lucky, may just be the transcendental crossroad that I needed. She’d be 5 now.
The poverty does go on. But that is not what you notice the most. There was this one school I went to where my job was to interview students about how they had got to the school and how their life had changed. It was a boy’s school and because many of the boys were orphans they also lived there. I remember feeling like I was just one big mass of sweat as I walked through the school. The heat was thick. Yellowish dirt whirled in the wind across the playground. The teachers all smiled and waved to me. I sat down with a boy of about 12. His name was Aadesh. There was a translator who stood behind him. Aadesh was very small for a 12-year-old. He had a bowl cut and wore a white t-shirt and grey shorts. His sandals were extremely dirty but, gosh, so were mine. Aadesh sat, cross-legged facing me. I wanted him to relate to me and feel comfortable with me so I too sat cross-legged with my small notepad. Aadesh told me so many things there on that ridiculously hot day that I won’t forget. He said that a couple of school reps had found him one year ago standing at a bus stop in the centre of Madurai. He was begging. That is where his father had told him to beg when he was very young but one day his father disappeared and the lady in the shop told him he had died. So Aadesh decided to stay at the bus stop. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. The bus stop had shelter and tourists passed through often who sometimes gave him money. But he worried about his future. Then he was brought here to this school and now he can learn new things and one day have a real job. And his house is very nice. The translator then came over and whispered very quietly in my ear, “he wants to show you house. Very special to him.” Aadesh reached for my hand. I took it. There’s something pure and special about a child holding your hand. It makes you feel like an adult and a kid all at the same time. His chest was puffed out with pride. He had that guppy look on his face like a kid with a new Xbox or a new bike or a new game, smiling so hard but continually trying to straighten his mouth as if he wasn’t. The edges of his mouth danced upwards so often I knew this was a massive deal. I’d stopped writing ages ago. I could never forget Aadesh.
The house was the size of a classroom. It had dirt floors and no glass windows just cut out squares. There were about 40 gouged holes in the dirt floor, each one the size of a body. On the side of the room were bag hooks where bags of belongings hung. Aadesh went over to his bag. It was white canvas. He pulled out a soft piece of red silk, quite dirty, but pretty, and showed me how he makes his ‘bed’ to sleep. Aadesh kept saying “Sundar, sundar”, as he showed me how his bed worked. He laid down in it. There was no pillow. I repeated “sundar” back to him not knowing what it meant. He was so proud of his dirt bed. To think that over 40 boys slept in that small room in dirt holes was startling. And here was I wanting a bigger bed. The human being can exist off very little I realized, and what’s more, the human being can be happy. I shook Aadesh’s hand and I thanked him. He was very excited. He put on a dance show later. He danced by himself; so animated, so energetic. He was clearly very popular among the other students because when he finished the applause went for a very long time. He’d be 17 now.
I ate curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I miss those curries.
Sometimes when you’re living the life Western culture has taught you to desire, you forget to be thankful. India taught me to be grateful every single day. So what is it about India? I can’t tell you. I can just tell you that it changed me. Each little hand hold, each damaged laugh, each torn sari, each floor-less home, each school, each orphan, each dance, each song that drifts across the cities in the early mornings, changes who you are, one bursting smile at a time.