Why does any foreigner come to India? Well, there are a few popular reasons. Let’s begin with why I didn’t come: I didn’t come for a job with a multinational company. I wasn’t offered a fantastic package with an air conditioned flat in a highrise apartment, a car or driver or a maid to cut my watermelon. The softness of that sort of life would have been nice, but not without its setbacks: a subject for another article. I didn’t come on a two week ‘internship’ for an NGO or to build a school or paint a school’s walls. I didn’t come to India for a spiritual journey. I was lost when I left Canada, but had no spiritual programs that I wanted to complete in India to resolve my lostness. I didn’t come to India to learn yoga, or Sanskrit, or meditation, or tanpura, or anything else aside from how to stomach a lot of sweet tea. In short: I came to India to be challenged, to witness a different way of life and to better understand my own experience in contrast. In a little greater detail, and because this article wouldn’t be much if it ended now, I initially came to volunteer. First a month in Kolkata in a Mother Teresa home for disabled kids; later, five months in Varanasi in a school and girls hostel. In Varanasi, I lived with a lovely Bihari family, ate dal rice roti subji with my hand and was home by 7 every night, completing the ‘local’ experience as much as a foreigner can. I also didn’t hold any grand illusions about changing the lives of children I was volunteering with: my intent in spending time with them was much more selfish and simple. I learned very quickly that these extremely disadvantaged children actually had a lot more to offer me than I had to offer them. Anyone who has volunteered or worked with kids who have grown up in difficult or uncertain circumstances will know that these kids have an otherwise rare amount of affection and trust to give. Why was I, who had been given every possible opportunity in life, more empty than kids who had built their lives from the charitable scraps other had thrown at them? I wanted to know how they did this, and so surrounded myself with them. I let the hostel girls, girls who had been abandoned on trains between cities or sold by their parents, comb and style and re-style my hair. I sat for hours with boys who had been dropped off in front of Mother Teresa homes as infants: kids who were nearly vegetables due to severe physical and mental disabilities, but had sparks in their eyes. Whatever I gave kids in hugs and alphabet songs, in baths and feedings, they would give me ten times in perspective and honesty. Honesty means a precious five year old daughter of a sex worker year grabbing your cheeks and saying ‘Didi, aap gudiya jaisi lagti hai’ (You look like a doll). Honesty means a twelve year old girl starting her menstrual cycle while you give her a bath: her full blown physical and mental disabilities have not affected her biological clock and her body is preparing for the possibility of pregnancy, a possibility that will never be realised because she will spend her life in care centres like this one. This honesty showed me plainly that the human spirit is stronger than the conditions to which it is sometimes subjected. I moved to Mumbai after these volunteer stints to carry out communications and resource mobilisation for an educational NGO called Atma, because I wanted to continue my exposure to the development sector and to people who are making the most of life against all odds. In Mumbai, it’s not unusual for a working mother to wake up at 4AM to wash clothes by hand, prepare breakfast and pack lunches for her husband and kids. She might then work from 9:30 to 5:30 in an office, come home to prepare dinner and help her kids with their studies before sleeping at 11PM. Others commute for up to five hours a day on trains and buses, coming from as far as Pune and Gujarat to work in Mumbai. When the lift stops working in a ten story building slum project building, even the elderly tenth floor residents have no choice but to walk the stairs for the month or so that it’ll take to fix. In contrast to the people at my work and the people who live in my building, my life has been extraordinarily easy and streamlined. I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity that’s been offered to me, and there have been many. The lives of those around me keep me aware of how holistically privileged I am. More than being educated, I’m empowered. More than having a good job, I have choices and can be proactive in solving problems, setting goals and arriving where I want to go. However… even despite being able to think critically and make decisions by myself, living in Mumbai is challenging because it’s not what I grew up in. Doing things like taking twenty hour train rides and finding a flat to rent are not as simple as they sound if you’re a single white woman in any Indian city. Even simple things like obtaining a sim card or mailing a package aren’t items on a long to-do list that could be done in a day: each is its own project which could take a whole day, or (probably) longer. I came to India for the challenge of figuring things out on my own. The struggles with the Visa In-Charge, the immigration authorities and the endless red tape and bureaucracy around trying to do ANYTHING as a foreigner in this country feel to me like a personal challenge: if I make it through, there must be something good on the other side. I made it through, and I was right. I came to Mumbai because this city is fascinating and rich and offers as much as one could take. Because anything challenging and difficult is healthy and good for growth. Because the expanse of experience available to me here eclipses the comfort and cleanliness of Canada, and for me, for now, that experience is worth more.
Photo credit: Nicola Romagna