The plastic glass of water teetered precariously on a simple metal tray. An unknown amount of eyes were glued on me, riveted to my every movement. The water before me was mixed with lemon; I could see the seeds floating in the water, along with pieces of pulp. No doubt, it would clench my thirst. It was around 90 degrees, with the sun’s rays beating down mercilessly. But the decision had to be made in hundredths of a second.
To paraphrase the Bard: to drink or not to drink, that is the question.
Adam and I knew we could not refuse to drink the water in front of us. We also knew it was non-purified and could make us very ill. It was definitely not safe to drink. But, we had no choice.
To decline would have been a serious affront to Dalit hospitality and to the very idea of eradicating discrimination and untouchability that Dalit Foundation stridently tries to end.
So began my visit to a Dalit village located about 50 kilometers outside of the Indian city of Lucknow, in the largest state in the country, Uttar Pradesh.
After a three-day workshop with Dalit activists, Adam and I, along with our guide Naheed who works in this particular village, visited for a few hours. I had yearned to visit a Dalit village since I began work with DF to view the situations and people that DF works with.
Some people would say that rural India is the “real,” India, but I would not agree. There are many different “India’s.” Posh, South Delhi is just as Indian as the village I visited in the middle of nowhere. Likewise, the majesty of the Taj Mahal is just as “Indian” as the never-ending traffic in Mumbai. There are many facets to this country although it’s true that the majority of the population lives in villages and small communities and not her mega cities. As I mentioned here, poverty and extravagant wealth live side by side in this country. There are rarely lines of demarcation between the two extremes.
I will betray my naivety when I say I was overwhelmed by the poverty of the village. I cannot ever remember being in a more desperate social situation. But in the midst of soul-crushing pitiful conditions, the people I met, especially the kids, were full of life and joy.
Before I go along further, I will say to my detractors who think I was taking some sort of “sightseeing tour” of this village, that I was emphatically not doing that. This was no slum tour of Dharavi in Mumbai, but rather a site visit organized by a woman that DF funds, with personal relationships in this particular place. I was invited to join her and meet people she cares very deeply for and helps in a variety of ways.
After we drank a few precious sips of the water, we begged off the rest of it saying we had just finished one liter of water each on the way, which was partially true. Then we were given cold peas with spices garnished with sliced red onions. We ate it quickly, as it was tasteless and incredibly dry. We didn’t want to have to resort to drinking more water.
After taking some food with the Dalits, Naheed said she would translate any words we had for the villagers. I told them I was born in India, but had lived in the US for 30 years of my life. I also thanked them for their hospitality and said it was an honor to be a guest among them. Since my Hindi is still very poor, I was not sure that Naheed translated correctly, but everyone was beaming smiles when she finished.
After the brief introductions we went on a village tour. One thing immediately struck me, there was no electricity anywhere. We passed hut after hut made out of mud. The only water came from hand pumps set up strategically around clusters of huts. Water buffaloes were milling all around, tied up to fences outside each dwelling. Women who looked to be about ten years younger than myself, huddled with children inside dark doorways, watching us attentively and smiling. Most of the men walked with us.
The young men of the village were extremely proud of their corn oil machine. So they wanted to be sure I saw it, as it was in a closed shed. I pulled out my mobile, used its light function and some of them did the same, in order to see it. It resembled something out of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. I’m sure the accident rate when using it is alarmingly high.
Our entourage was nearly 50 people. The kids were fascinated by us, the foreigners, even though I looked just like them. They were especially interested in my camera. As I was taking snaps, that unfortunately weren’t coming out because the sun was going down, I kept saying “ not good” or “good.” A group of boys picked up the two words in my accent and repeated them incessantly as they ran around me the rest of my time there.
Even now days after walking through that village, I’m still at a loss for words. I was overwhelmed by two things:
One was the massive poverty in which these people lived and comparing just the basic things like running water, electricity that works when I flip a switch, not having to worry about where my next meal is coming from, etc…But at the same time, they cannot miss what they don’t know about.
Are they happy and content with their lives? I don’t know and I cannot judge. Who am I to say that my life is “better” than theirs because it has material possessions? For example, if they don’t value money and “stuff” as more important than community, in their eyes, I’m poorer than them, because the US is one of the least community oriented societies I know.
When I first arrived here in India I felt guilty and a sense of shame about being so wealthy in comparison to the poor I saw here. But after a bit of time, I realized, my life circumstances are different. I have no reason to feel bad about all that has been given me, but rather realize that I have been blessed in more ways than I can count. I am aware of how my privileged upbringing compares to the majority of the world, that’s the important thing for me. And knowing that makes me want to use my education, passion and material resources to help others attain a base level of development both socially and economically.
I’ve heard some people get really angry with NGOs in developing countries and claim that “you’re just pushing your Western values on them.” This is my response. I believe in human dignity and the right to have a choice for your future. If a group can help a farming community in a more sustainable way, get their crops in a more efficient manner, but at the same time not destroy the fabric of that village, what is the harm?
Similarly, if “imposing” Western culture is ensuring that women are not marginalized, but instead are free from the horrors of sexual violence in a patriarchal society, is that “imposing” a Western mentality?
There’s a slippery slope that us “outsiders” go down when we begin to accuse one another of “imposing” It’s one thing to want to make a group of people like us, it’s quite another to believe in their dignity and self-worth and fund initiatives which help make that possible. At the end of the day we are all human beings. We need to remember that. But back to my internal thought process…
Two, I was thinking about the futures of the myriad children who surrounded me. What would become of these cute, curious youngsters in the next 10-15 years of their lives? I knew the answer for the majority of them would be to work in the fields like their parents and never leave the village. Perhaps they would marry someone from a nearby community. But their lives would remain essentially the same, mired in poverty, without the opportunities which material wealth provides.
After the village tour we rendezvoused at the temple steps, where our visit began. By this time, darkness had completely descended. One of the villagers found a light bulb, attached some wires to it and connected it to a car battery.
It also marked the first time since being in India that I have seen the stars here.
We sat down and the cultural performance segment of our visit commenced. For the next hour we were serenaded with traditional Hindi songs by men of the village. A blind man brought some instruments to add to the festivities as well. So we had a tabla, cymbals and bells which accompanied the singing. By the last song, all the people were singing heartily along, while Adam and me, clueless to the Hindi words, clapped our hands, caught up in the enjoyment.
At one point they even asked us to sing. Again, we didn’t have another option, and haphazardly sang an awful version of “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash , since that was the only song we could both think of that both of us knew all the words to. I will stop embarrassing myself, but we absolutely butchered the iconic song from the “Man in Black.” However, given his own views on re-humanizing downtrodden folks, I’d like to think he would have been proud of us.
The last song was sung by nearly everyone, including the children. It was such a beautiful experience. To see the children’s faces full of joy as they clapped and sang their hearts out was a wonderful testament to the strength of the human spirit. Following the song, the youngsters were all shuttered off to bed, as a long chorus of “good nights,” followed us as we made our way to the dinner table.
After a simple meal of roti, rice, potatoes and hot pickle, we regrettably said goodbye and effusively thanked our hosts for the wonderful visit, and for sharing a bit of their lives with us.
We went back to our reality, one in which light came from a simple flick of a switch, the water flowed plentifully, and more importantly, was safe for everyone to drink.