There is an ancient Chinese curse which roughly translates to “May you live in interesting times”. At first glance, this seems like a compliment; who wouldn’t want to live in interesting times? But interesting times are full of surprise and chaos and very often, pain. Rarely, in history, do we remember times of peace. Instead we usually glorify more interesting times. Times of war, famine, and death. So this phrase is a curse because most humans just want a comfortable life, what we in the West take for granted, and comfort is often uninteresting.
A few days ago, I got the opportunity to visit a slum near Nadihatharga, the village where I was staying at the time. The sheer level of poverty in this area was something that I struggled to comprehend. It left me completely shocked and kind of disheartened. There were sometimes up to 3 people living in an area smaller than my bedroom. Where they lived couldn’t even be called a house. It was just 4 sheets of metal for walls and some fabric for a roof.
The “school” was a flat patch of dirt near a tree where one of the more educated slum dwellers would teach the kids their alphabet and times tables for one hour every day. They would then learn some songs and play around for another hour. That’s it. That’s the full pseudo-education that was provided in the slums for these kids. What hurt the most to see was how much potential these kids had. When I asked why the kids don’t go to the local free government schools, I was hit with a whole host of answers including caste-related documents that the parents were too uneducated to find out how to make and admission fees (due to corruption) that the parents were too poor to afford. “Even if our children did gain admission”, one man told me, “there are no solid roads here so the school bus can’t come and pick them up. And we don’t have any way of dropping them off”. These were all problems I hadn’t thought about and didn’t know how to solve. It made me feel very helpless.
I can’t imagine how these families feel to be as helpless as this for so many years. For them, every day is a struggle. The women of the family often sell hair products and the men tend to beg for a living. One man told me about how he smuggles his kids onto the 10 hour train to Mumbai. He says begging is much more profitable there and that, although he doesn’t see them for a few days afterwards, they always make enough money to feed themselves and hop on a train back. That is more than can be said for the kids that stay in the village.
When I went to the 2 hour school, the kids were extremely welcoming. They sang songs for me, gave me flowers and told me about their lives. A fight then broke out between some wild dogs and I asked whose they were. The kids told me how the families tame wild hunting dogs in the slums so that if food gets scarce, they can go into the jungles and hunt wild boar. Their lives are just so different to ours yet we relate to each other in many ways. One of the more tech savvy kids asked me what phone I have. I told him, and showed him some pictures of London. He seemed very excited about it afterwards.
As we left the slums, the children waved goodbye and asked me to come back when I have more time. I left wishing I had brought some money to give them but later, I considered how temporary that would be. The money would, at most, make the next few days easier for them but what these people really need is housing, infrastructure, and a steady source of income. They lead extremely varied lives, much more dangerous than ours and I wouldn’t swap my life of comfort for theirs in a million years.
The last few days at Sanvedana have been a little boring for me. Not much has happened. However, when I get bored, I remember the lives of those slum kids. I cherish boredom because boredom means safety: it means I know my next meal will fill me up and I know I will have somewhere warm to sleep at night. It means I don’t have to worry about my basic survival needs. I remember the curse, “may you live in interesting times”, and pray that one day these kids will, like me, live in boring, comfortable times.