January 14, 2010

The hard life

Dola has so much to teach. She compares India to Germany, her son's current home. He moved there to become a car salesman, where he has gotten quite successful. "He always had brains," she keeps saying. But when I hear the whole story, to make it in (or should I say out of) India takes much more than intelligence. The lack of education is tragic. Poverty propels poverty, as people live day by day, with such tiny incomes that their children are sent to work instead of class. "This is what you call child labor," Dola told me, as she paid a 6-year old kid to get us chai from down the street. It provoked a strange paradoxical feeling of hypocrisy and love: does giving this child money support a system of child labor and exploitation? Or is rebellion for the sake of justice useless in a place where such a practice is sure to still exist whether or not I utilize it? Does not paying him only deny him work for no reason? It is the same for rickshaws. At first, this human-driven form of transport appears unjust and cruel; indeed, the bodily-powered carts meant to seat and carry 2-3 passengers as the driver pulls the weight behind him is dangerous, and by Western standards, demeaning. But really, the truth is that these people have both the knowledge and the bodies that equip them to be excellent at rickshaw-driving, taking people from place to place by their own free energy. It is environmentally friendly and exceptionally convenient. And it is the way they make their living. Is it then so unjust? By what standards am I justified to judge? It almost seems insulting to call these positions in society wrongdoing despite my instinct to condemn them. Today, I took my first rickshaw ride out of necessity--I had no idea where the clinic was, and I could either wander, take a cab, or ask a rickshaw driver. This was a bicycle-rickshaw, and I was quite impressed by the apparatus itself, a bicycle with a chain attached to a cart and its axle, besides being still in shock at the mere concept. I don't think I'll do it again, but I have a deep respect for this form of transport that relies on manpower rather than fuel.

When I step back, I still see the lack of education here preventing a child from becoming anything more than a manual laborer. It is not that I don't have respect for these difficult and highly skilled professions; what bothers me is the lack of choice, of being born into a situation entirely out of one's control, where finances dominate one's life through necessity, and the nonexistence of opportunity.

Today, traffic was blocked up because an industrial gas leak caused a fire that killed over 300 people in the nearby slums. The ambulances were on strike, so the people all burnt to death. "This is Kolkata," Dola said.

"It's not like this abroad, no." She referenced the ease with which people can access health care, the cleanliness of the streets, the availability of education and employment, the quality of goods, the infrastructure, nevermind the running water, all things we so often take for granted. But, she commented, they work so hard for it. I see it as a different type of "hard." As I watch people carrying loads over 100 lbs. on their heads, running pushing carts with several people on board, and scrubbing and sweeping sidewalks for hours, it seems right now to me that these people have to be working harder. And for what reward?

"Life here is so hard," Dola says over again. It feels like the hard work we do in America has a completely unfair exchange rate for success. In India, it is like all jobs are static, there is no such thing as success besides survival. Even that is difficult to achieve due to the complete inconvenience and unfairness of daily life. Our luxuries in America allow us to be so efficient. Our supermarkets, our cars and well-made roads, our reliable elecricity, our running water, the pleasant climate, low incidence of disease, our laws that require school and protect children, and even government welfare, make life in the US almost uncomparably easier. Indeed, everyone I have met so far has become "successful" only by leaving.

Thus, what strikes me today is the gut-deep feeling of guilt. Though I simply have a roof over my head, water, clothes, and food, that is infinitely more than the people I pass on a daily basis. Life was so easy for me, I had a house, food, parents, and school, things I finally understand are so far out of reach for so many people in our broken world. Nevermind that I have had two wonderful parents, the advantages of an elite education, and the opportunities granted by a country where possibilities are endless and that, comparatively drips with luxury. As I trot by street dwellers on my morning run, I must ask,

Why do I have the right to trample through these people's bedrooms? Does running flaunt my privilege in a thoughtless insult of my have- on their have-not? Shouldn't they condemn me for my arrogance and insensitivity? How can I justify affording the energy to go running when obtaining even one nutritious meal for these people demands an entire day's work?

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