Finding a New Consciousness in India

And what were you doing three days ago?” I was sitting in a bus in the flaming heat of Mumbai, India, and Mr. Mundra’s question made me think. Three days ago, I’d been sitting in Andover at my dining room table, eating take out from Bertucci’s to the soundtrack of crickets chirping and turning on the air conditioning. Three days ago, I had been taking off makeup and contacts and falling asleep in a bed big enough for three. I had been comfortable then. A lot had changed. Now my ears were screaming for relief from the incessant chorus of car horns blasting through the window and my eyes were itching behind my glasses from the air pollution. I was on my way back to a cramped room that I shared with two other girls, one from Andover, one from India, sleeping on a bed barely big enough for me. If I wanted to get clean, I had to brave icy cold showers. And beyond those physical discomforts, there were the emotional ones: the sight of beggars, of silver high rises casting shadows over slums, of flies nesting in barrels of rice that I knew would be someone’s dinner. I was out of my depth in every arena, and it was only day three. It wasn’t going to get any easier. Over the course of the next three weeks, my experiences on the Niswarth program in Mumbai, India would never cease to challenge me, frustrate me and make me question everything from the privileges I had taken for granted for as long as I recognized that I had them to the real-world applicability of my Andover education. India was a country of opposites, a gumbo of juxtapositions that highlighted the vanity of the rich and the plights of the poor. This stark contrast was evident at every turn, and I felt caught between the two extremes. I rarely went without in my own country, yet here I was, halfway around the world and pretending to be able to comprehend the problems of poverty like I had never seen. We only scratched the surface of Mumbai’s grievances, and while I accepted that little more could be expected in the three short weeks we were there, I still felt (and feel) aggravated that all I got was enough time to become overwhelmed by the city’s troubles, but not enough to feel capable of facing them. Part of me faulted my years at Andover for acclimating me to a life of privilege while making me feel that I understood poverty simply from RelPhil class readings and weekly trips to Lawrence for community service. And although playing with kids in Mumbai schools was much the same as playing with kids at the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrence, the levels of poverty were incomparable, as were their causes. It was therefore difficult for me to imagine how I could share my experiences with my friends back home, most of whom had yet to be exposed to the kinds of issues I was grappling with. How do you write home about a program like Niswarth? The typical postcard lines of “India is great, miss you lots, Love, Anabel” wouldn’t work, because India wasn’t great. There were too many people hurting for it to be great, too many dirty sidewalks and hungry kids, too many water taps in one-room apartments that ran dry for days at a time. I knew people didn’t want to hear that on the back of a postcard and I didn’t feel that my words would be adequate to convey the difficulties I was confronting on the trip, anyway. But just as there wasn’t enough room to describe the pain, there wasn’t enough space to describe the hope I witnessed at practically every turn. My most vivid memory of one such encounter is that of a visit we paid to a woman who welcomed us into her home and produced a bottle of Thums-Up, the Indian version of Coca-Cola. I grimaced my way through the first few sips as my taste buds tried to remind me how much I hated soft drinks. But then, another student leaned close to me and whispered, “Oh my God, that bottle of soda cost as much as half her monthly rent.” I was shocked. I was drinking away this woman’s livelihood in the form of a soft drink I wasn’t even enjoying. But soon the guilt melted away, and in the hospitality she was showing us I found the reason to keep asking questions and doing whatever little I could do to repay her kindness, even if my efforts usually felt frustratingly inadequate. I drank the rest of the Thums-Up, humbled and freshly appreciative. Why, I wondered, could people from backgrounds like these have so much hope, when many people I knew at home could find so little joy in the immense privileges they already had? Why did my friends at PA moan about papers and college counseling questionnaires, when I saw now how those “burdens” were actually a gift and the instruments of opportunity? More to the point, why did I? I quickly grew angry at the pettiness I perceived in my own community and in myself. It made me not want to return to Andover, because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the lack of appreciation among my peers for the lifestyle we had been given. This article is the first of a two-part series on the Niswarth trip to India. Anabel Bacon is a four-year Senior from Andover, Mass. and a Commentary Senior Associate.