The bounty of affluence trickles to wet the lips of the have-nots while we applaud ourselves for our generous contemplation, tightly held in clenched white knuckled fists that protect the tokens of our prosperity, that grant fortune to the fortunate upper, that let drip the fluid remains to the tolerated middle, that deposits the soft dung for the bottomed masses who persevere on a desolate patch on a parched plain in the center of an Eden despoiled by the gluttonous interests of despots, politicians, and the high priests of industry whose blindness protects them from their ugly satisfaction, but not the eye of ordinary vigilance that sees a stupendous paradox of hope coexisting in the humiliation of squalor, in the midst of the pretense of ignorance, as to where one’s orbit of obligation circumnavigates despair at distances sufficiently safe to exculpate the rich and powerful–after all if I soar above the cries of grief how can I be indicted for crimes of greed?
TRAVELING THE GLOBE I encountered people that gave me a perspective only gained in seeing each in their own environs. Our memory produces an enduring souvenir, but it only projecting a shadow of the subtly that attends indigenous life in the place visited. Well into my 30’s I would remain naïve about so many things. Unless we spend time in a foreign place, we fail to see what casts the outline of every day existence for the people that lived there. When we glimpse reality, we likely overlook its significance. We may look out and around, but cultural biases inevitably blind us.
I traveled to India in the late 1980’s arriving during Divali the Festival of Lights. For the Hindi, a joyous time in the holy month of Kartik, in late October, when the new moon first appears. From the altitude of a plane in a landing pattern, the city looked much like the hundreds of cities I’d flown into–, whether in the Americas, Asia, Europe or Africa. We touched down just outside of Bombay. From there I was taxied to a hotel in the center of the massive city. The way was not well lighted except for thousands of small ghee lights, similar to Christmas lights. In the shadow of the dim illumination thrown off by these and other occasional lamps, I saw miles and miles of what looked like corpse wrapped in white linen. Later I learned these were homeless men, women and their children. It remains a persistent shock to my conscience, a record of inhumanity laid bare, mile after mile.
The hotel was well appointed and my room spotless. I slept well. The next morning I woke about 7 a.m. I washed and happened to looked from my hotel window to see a group of tattered kids across the street seeking the smallest change to survive into the next night, when they would return to place along the road, wrapping themselves in all that god grants, a white linen sheet. India had perhaps one of the worst reputations for abandoning children to the streets. Except for cars, trains and airplanes, the city otherwise gave no sense of having arrived into the modern era. The buildings were old and worn. Much of the population lived not in crisis, but a permanent state of squalor of the kind that we in the U.S. would have to search hard for (although I would find similar conditions on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota). My itinerary took me into Madras and finally Calcutta.
Calcutta rivaled Bombay in its impoverished ambience. It accented the smells from tens of millions of close quartered humans, puffing factories, goat, sheep, cow and horse manure, the din from rattling trucks, horn blowing taxis, the pattering of thousands of feet, men clinging to outboard bus rails, rickshaws weaving a thread through maddening traffic, cart pushers precariously stalled at intersections, a breathtaking mixture of humanity, machines, and natural and unnatural chemistry contributing to a living organism (a plume of dust seen from passing airlines), which merged into other plumes of sulfur, diesel exhaust and brown dust to paint a hazy impressionism of the average Calcuttan’s reality.
One morning I walked into the street from my hotel. Immediately, I was met by an onslaught of men, women and children going hither and yon. Human traffic was no different than say New York, Seoul or Tokyo. I took a side street to avoid the masses. The hubbub decreased sufficiently to form a nearly stilled picture of women modestly dressed in brilliant saris of vermilion, turquoise blues, browns and whites. Each woman adorned in little else, except for a smudge of scarlet, aquamarine or soot black on their forehead symbolizing one or another blessing, demon inoculation or simply to accentuate the face beneath the mark. Diaper less children played, sat, ate, urinated, defecated or jumped into water spewing from an open faucet. Others were bathing and drinking from the same source. No one looked at me suspiciously even though I was a stranger intruding the neighborhood. Some men squatted along the street. A barber shaved a man in that position. Across from him, a beggar pushed his tin cup into the path of oncoming pedestrians. One man rummaged through a garbage heap on the side of the street and another darted around the heap and then dodged traffic in getting to the other side. I spied a woman sweeping the sidewalk. She swept briskly with purpose. Her arms were frail, slightly thicker than her broom, her body lost in a faded orange sari. She looked seventy by western appearances, but perhaps she was forty.
My first impression had been that of a prosaic city, struggling in its last stages of extremis. But in retrospect, I saw human vibrancy; one many Americans may not quickly appreciate. In the people I met, admittedly lawyers and business executives, I sensed optimism. And, if not optimism, enthusiasm for what they were doing. Although, when there seems so little, what choice does one have except to be optimistic?
But vibrancy appears to modulate the real crisis beneath the surface, beneath what I, a first time visitor cannot sense on my green walk down some back streets. Empty cupboards, high unemployment and disease stalk the millions here who live in a repetitious subsistence. This remains especially the case for the multitudes stuck in one or another caste.
On another day, I meandered down the same side street and observed a cart drawn by two horses. It stopped abruptly to allow several passing cows the right of way. Stacked up in the well of the cart were white linen objects. The same kind of objects I saw the night I drove to Bombay proper from the airport. I stopped, I stared. I realized that the objects were the dead collected from the last night—their destination a funeral pyre. The shear volume of corpse staggered me. I felt weak. I felt sick. I wanted to puke. Years later, I would travel to Uganda, where I would see this inventory of death again. In a similar way, Uganda’s dead get high visibility, not directly as in Calcutta, but in the miles of wooden coffins stacked up for the casualties of the ever widening AIDS epidemic.
Calcutta for the most part is steeped in a dreadful, gruesome, and degrading filth. When I left, I felt terribly guilty, not empathy, but guilt. However, in truth, can anyone help? I played no actual part in what I saw. Finding something repugnant is one kind of reaction and guilt another; and empathy and compassion yet another. In times such as this self-interest (there but for the grace of god go I) outweighs my desire to come to grips with the problem, to devote my life to helping to fix it. For the person suffering, he must feel something. He must feel the pointlessness of his strife. Moreover, from those of us who would seem able to help, he receives our alienation. For these wretched souls, life must border on the absurd. I must see as well as look. I must inform as well as write. In truth, I choose to remain a cowardly observer. It takes a saint to choose otherwise.
In parts of the world like Calcutta, it seems that death serves as the penalty for birth. I could not feel the pain of the people and the bodies that I passed that afternoon any more than I could at that moment feel my own dismay. I tended to be just an observer, because I resigned myself to the bare truth that I could not change one molecule in the vast universe of a place called India. Acts of kindness as demonstrated by Mother Teresa are but a few raindrops in an ocean of agony. During her life even she could not stamp out the ancient diseases of leprosy, small pox, cholera and what would soon become nature’s twentieth century innovation: AIDS. India will change as the culture slowly transitions from the Middle Ages into the future.
The India I failed to see exists behind a Hindu spirituality that honors creation, preservation and destruction. To understand required me to understand the context, the importance that Hinduism plays in the everyday life of its adherents. I did not know that all I saw was my western notion of birth, suffering, chaos, futility and early death. My shadow imposed upon theirs. In the Hindu religion suffering and poverty must be viewed in the cycle of Brahma’s production and Shiva’s perpetual dance to dissolve and renew not only this world, but in time for Brahma to produce a new world. Meanwhile, the souls of those who die after that epoch Westerners call a lifetime transmigrate into other beings to continue on a path to perfection and ultimately towards Nirvana. Millions upon millions of souls have thus passed in an uninterrupted transmigration that involves the present world and the world of worlds, as products of cosmic oscillation that expand, contract, die and miraculously regenerate upon reaching the end of the periodical epoch referred to as a Kalpa, repeating cycle upon cycle over and over within an infinity of time.
So my reaction that death was a penalty for birth was borne of ignorance. The Hindu understands the circularity of things, the evolving and dissolving of natural process upon natural process, birth spawned from death, and death spawned from birth, one life itself—nothing, nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing again as Karma swings back and forth, winds and rewinds, reaching in time that final purpose, that perfect soul. Before I visited India, I had never thought of my soul that way.
However, as much as the present world is temporary, its state of health nonetheless continues to decline. Perhaps we are nearer the end than even the remaining 400,000 odd years the Hindu predicts. This is apparent from levels of pollution, global warming, wars and over population (7.7 billion by 2020). Unless we respond to the pressures brought on by progress and over population, a new world order will emerge with greater political restriction, greater accumulation of political and economic power among a privileged class and a general degradation in the quality of life for most. Our entire world may someday resemble Calcutta—not tomorrow, but in the century to come. The worst scenarios show a planet incapable of sustaining the richness of species, the bounty of natural resources, or a modicum of life having quality for the world’s masses. We have no choice but to find some way of averting the inevitable demise of civilized life by choking on our own greed. Regardless of one’s religious leaning to accept suffering as the way, whole continents such as Africa, Asia, and South America must receive a proportionate share of world’s bounty, otherwise we stand to lose what order our economically powerful societies have achieved. We know that other civilizations quietly disappeared when the pressures either internal or external were not governed.
The 80’s through the mid 90’s sobered me in a way that no other time in life could. I saw through the courts of these United States men of poverty, men of impoverished souls, and men plainly evil all sent into prisons where we heap psychosis, hate, anger and social sickness one upon the other. I saw through the eyes of others how men in war brutalize each other for an anthem none could recite. I saw people denied universal freedoms and people left to the ravages of starvation in countries whose leaders rationalize poverty and illness upon class, caste and the myth that we will be born again. Who can we blame? Evil, ignorance and neglect remain amorphous unless we become active in its abolition. I do not believe I have done enough to root out, assist or comfort those who may be victims. In spite of what I have observed, I largely have not acted! Instead I chose to feel guilty. Not to feel guilt compounds the crimes which Mankind (mostly though terrorism, state action, governments, religious zealotry, and criminal elements) perpetuates throughout the world.