There are some strange things to note when you are visiting other countries. The peculiars are even more thrilling when the country speaks English. Here in India I daily encounter interesting combinations of English words which for my Texan lexicon are quite a thrill.
I loved being asked by Yahoo!India, “Is Obama redefining the cool quotient?” I was thoroughly bemused when encountered by a billboard for “Theism Braingym”. It beckoned, “Experience the nurture of Theism!,” in neon green font next to a giant baby head. And today, I had a doubly cultural and linguistic excitement: I road through the rich neighborhood of ‘Space Town’.
I believe the place to be aptly named. The apartment complex sits next to a similarly named residential edifice, ‘Space City’. I suppose that the complex together make up Space Place or something. Now, in Space Town you are not likely to receive your dinner from your robot cook or hover to your friends place on the 179th floor for a game of telepathic air hockey, you will be able to play tennis on spacious tennis courts, dive in an indoor pool, watch your kinds bounce through an indoor playscape, and sit back and soak in the cool A/C. These amenities are so far removed from anything enjoyed in the residences around them, so literally untouchable, that they might as well be in space. A five minute walk will take you to homes known more intimately by a far greater Indian population.
After leaving Space Town, I rode through a different place, a galaxy away. Kilshed is a new slum. Though my friend, the motorcycle-driving NGO director I live with, did not know much about the place, he gave me a brief run down as drove the dirt lanes. The slum grew up only 5 years ago and already stretches for miles. It runs the perimeter of North Kolkata’s garbage dump and the lake where the oldest part of the dump used to be. The residents are Bangla; poor enough to choose the lake for a cooking water source, a sewage receptacle, and a dish and clothes washeteria. The shacks are not unlike those of most North Kolkata slums. The materials are scraps of metal and plastic, some mud, and some women grass.
Here the big bad wolf would have no problem huffing and puffing and blowing the place to pieces. But you are more likely to see the slum’s preservation based on the interest of various groups. The slum is a vote bank for interested political parties looking to get their bills passed. It is a cheap labor force, in this case it seems, for stone breakers and brick makers (every street has four or five piles of stone and brick and one or two people beating them to pieces with crude hammers). The young girls are hard to find at night because they have likely taken to their ‘disreputable’ and cyclical night work. And beggar rings have likely already employed unschooled boys and girls for pitiful supplication to the city-center middle class.
There are no social services here. There is no sewage system, no school, no law enforcement and water and electricity only if you are the first to tap them.
There are certainly no tennis courts.
And that is only the disparity I’ve seen here in the city by motorbike. As the picture of this city’s destitution continues to be engraved on the walls of my heart, they mesh with paintings of grand places. I gazed at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, rode bikes through Salzburg, cuddled a Koala in Sydney and literally gorged myself on deluxe ballpark food in the owner’s box at a San Diego Padres game. I grew up with more books than I could ever read, teachers who filled me to the brim with encouragement and useful knowledge, private percussion lessons, marching band competitions, Survivor parties, a church that meets in a multi-million dollar building, and a washing machine. I have a family that loves me, a mom and a dad at home. I learned to type because there was a computer in the back room on which I could instant message my friends, who also had computers in their homes. I went to a university with cable, computers, and washing machines in every dorm as well as security systems, mentors, and locks. I studied with wonderful professors, was privileged to study any subject I wanted, and had Bible studies. I went to coffee shops for crying out loud. I graduated and worked a job that I loved and made in the tens of thousands of dollars every month. I went to Panama for two months and sat on a beach reading. I came here to the slum because I wanted to.
I could go on and on and on. But this is what I’m experiencing everyday. I don’t hate myself for having such a wonderful life. I’m so happy and absolutely grateful for my experiences, for my computer, for my good dear friends and family, for the security and joy in which I have been blessed to live. I do feel some guilt for choices I perpetuate at home, but what I’m feeling is, for me, much harder to articulate.
How can you put into words the feeling of having to worlds inside you? How do you show that somehow your mother whom you love so so dearly, who lives a truly blessed life, who gives from her finances, who teaches in a school with thousands of books, thousands of sheets of many different kinds of paper, who has an education on educating, who looks great in her different outfits, who always gives a gift and makes your friends feel special, how do you show that somehow inside you your mother sits next to a beautiful young Indian girl, who’s one room house is made of trash, who doesn’t have a toilet but walks through other people’s sewage to leave her own, who is beaten in the morning because she wants to go to school instead of work, who wears the same tattered shirt everyday, who carries the platter of chai which your hosts have ordered for your visit to their ten by ten slum school? Inside me sit these two and so many others. How do I make sense of it? How do I find answers for these gut-wrenching questions?