September 01, 2009
Questions answered but more raised
Well, I begin this last post where I began my first, in my bedroom in New York. I could say that I don't know where to start, but, seeing as I've already begun, I'll say that I don't know where to end.
I'd first of all like to express my dear, dear thanks to the department and the donor for allowing me to have taken this trip. I can't tell you how much I appreciated you selecting me before I went to India, but now that I've gone and returned, it is be impossible to adequately show my appreciation for the countless laughs, contemplations, interactions, relationships, and memories the trip has inspired. It will be an experience I remember for the rest of my life, and who knows yet what type of effect such an experience will render in me as a person.
I can say already, however, that from my first day in India and throughout the trip, I've felt more and more like a citizen of the world. This association is not encouraged enough in America. I've begun to question where my responsibilities lie, as an individual, towards my fellow person. Where do my commitments lie to myself, to my family, to my community, and to humanity as a whole? I obviously don't know the answer, but I'm immensely thankful for having experienced the necessity of the question. Thank you so much. I can't wait to present my project on October 2nd, and hopefully clarify what all my ramblings are really about.
I must mention that in between paragraphs there's been a pause, and I've had a conversation with my father about the trip, and now I know I'm going to say. I'll begin by mentioning that a fantasy of mine has always been to write a story, short or long, and the trip has given me an idea for one. The topic of that story would be living in wealth in Calcutta, and the social contradictions that I think one would have to reconcile in order to do so.
The Friday night before I left, I had dinner with a friend of a friend of my father's, a successful Calcutta businessman. We ate the members-only "Saturday Club.” The club, with tennis courts, a large lawn, and a pool, is located right in the heart of the city, just off of Park Street, one of the city's ritziest drags. During the British Raj it was apparently a British Club that excluded "Indians and Dogs." The club’s existence, which I was perceiving in the midst of my experiences volunteering, seemed somehow absurd.
While eating, the man asked me what my first impression of the city was. I told him of my first night and morning, and how horrified I was initially at the poverty I saw. He laughed as if I had fallen for a common trick played on foreigners. "Well, you in America live one way," he said, "and this is just another way people live." My first responsive thought was that at the present moment we were living just as we live in America, but as I continued to think on his comment, I found that I believe it to be true only to an extent. While I certainly have not had a chance to understand much of the culture of Calcutta that could presumably qualify or explain some of the poverty, I feel personally that despite everything, even the happiest beggar should not have to live in a pile of garbage. I'm sure the man I ate with would agree, but the simplicity with which he dismissed my reaction to the poverty really bugs me. It leads me to feel that he either ignores it or has long ago reconciled himself with it as a fact of life, and moved on. I think is is a reaction really common and probably necessary among most people in Calcutta. I find this totally interesting, and would love to know more about the history of the upper classes in Calcutta in relation to the poor. Next time.
But now to relate all this to my project. Through interviews, books, observations, and about two hours of writing a day, I've been thinking a lot about the spatial mechanics of CRAWL and the Daya Dan house. I've written about the numerous difficulties CRAWL incurs at Sealdah station in trying to establish a sense of order. CRAWL's lack of its own space leaves it exposed to the same hazardous environment as the station's homeless. There are problems with the police, the weather, the commuters, the drug addicts, the bullies, and the station in general. All of these factors prevent CRAWL from establishing the order it needs to work at its most effective capacity. The environment causes volunteers and workers to make mistakes. Supplies are often forgotten. An errant photograph has kept us banned from Dum Dum Station after three appeal attempts. Looking at all of CRAWL's problems in public space, one can see the advantages of its plan to buy its own space near Sealdah station and run a wound care dispensary and a soup kitchen.
Yet my dinner Friday night inspired me to understand CRAWL's public presence in a broader social sense. CRAWL always has spectators. They are old and young, men and women. From their dress one can tell that they come from many different professions and income levels. Some stay for a minute--others for an hour, but all simply stare. At Sealdah station I often walked around with three or four children hanging on my arm. I got many different looks from the surrounding people, none of which were readable to me. I wondered what the Indians thought, looking at me. Did they approve of what I was doing? Did they think I was a stupid tourist? Were they offended that I was helping out their poor people, in their station? After all, walking around with homeless children, one becomes more than a tourist: one is a tourist making a statement. That statement is NOT an accusation blaming the Indians for ignoring their poor; it is a statement that these poor are being ignored. It is a statement implicit in CRAWL's actions, and it garners different reactions.
Sensing my own conspicuousness from the perspective volunteer, I felt all of the aforementioned self-consciousness. But since my dinner on Friday, I understand that CRAWL's pubic visibility is doing a social good as well. It does not matter what the spectators are thinking when they look, but simply that they look. CRAWL's activities at the stations bestow the conspicuousness of foreign tourists onto the homeless people they treat. Illuminating their plight is necessary, because despite their ubiquity in the city, homeless people are so regularly relegated to society's margins. Thus CRAWL's activities become not only personal or charitable, but demonstrative. I do not mean to say that they assume any sort of a didactic tone, but they simply provide something to be seen by the people, and thought about.
I came into this project with a main question: how are children’s aid organizations in Calcutta able to protect children from the harsh conditions of the street. Volunteering with CRAWL and Mother Teresa has revealed two distinct answers. In the case of Daya Dan, one could simply remove the street, and all the hazards with it. The children at Daya Dan were found alone and naked on the streets, and the sisters bring them into an enclosed, secluded, and protective space where they can be cared for and rehabilitated. Behind the walls and fences of Daya Dan nothing can threaten them. Their time is structured and uninterrupted. Mother Teresa offers these children complete protection from the streets by placing them in a different environment.
In comparison with the kind of care at Daya Dan house, CRAWL’s efforts seem ineffective. Yet one must look at Daya Dan both from within and without. Daya Dan does not have any sort of public presence. Located in a small alleyway, the Daya Dan house is unassuming and secluded. No one sees the type of care given to these children. A more public Daya Dan would allow people to see an alternative to leaving their disabled child abandoned. Instead, the parents who abandoned their children (and all parents like them) will never see their children again. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity is renowned not for this convent-like privacy, but rather for the opposite instinct, which is to take the streets. Indeed, the sisters are seen in public, as all of them must leave their house and serve the community. But the children remain behind closed doors. Many stay within the Missionaries of Charity system for all their lives. They move from house to house, and with a generally shorter lifespan than those without mental disabilities, never return to the streets. It is not this insular protection alone, but the Missionaries’ of Charity dual functions both on and beyond the streets that earned them their enormous presence in Calcutta as well as their fame around the world.
But CRAWL is a much smaller organization, with no donations other than volunteer fees, and no government sponsorship. As the organization begins the process of acquiring land, it must first reevaluate how it perceives itself as an organization. CRAWL must know what it sacrifices by moving into its own space. There is a reason why some of the wounded we treat have said they prefer CRAWL to the Mother Teresa dispensary, in a small building right across the lot. It is because CRAWL offers a different kind of protection than Mother Teresa. It is the protection of the attention, affection, and general care with which CRAWL treats the station community. It is the protection of knowing that on Saturday and Sunday mornings that someone will come to you to help, rather than you having to go to them. It is the protection of knowing that an organization doesn’t care about the environment you live in, because all that matters is your person. CRAWL expresses its protection through the love (this is my first time using that word) it brings to these communities. It is a love that is willing to make spatial compromises and suffer many inconveniences in order to serve street people in their homes. One can argue against this policy with theories of creating a dependence among the homeless or enabling them to continue their lifestyle, but I will choose to look on the bright side. By operating in public space, CRAWL builds personal relationships and creates greater public awareness.
On Saturday morning at Sealdah two things happened that I found of great importance not only to myself personally, but to my conviction that CRAWL can be a successful organization. While I was walking with the kids to the water station, a man walking by me smiled at the sight, and gave me a pat on the shoulder. It is the only sign of approval I’ve gotten on the trip, but it validated my work. Secondly, after we had finished food distribution, a ten or eleven year-old girl who we had fed (and who I noticed had to deal with a pestering 16 year old boy) came up to me on her own volition and just gave me a hug for about a minute. She came back three more times to do the same. By meeting the children in their own communities, they feel comfortable enough to extend affection to us. Her hug was the moment when I, and hopefully some of the people watching, realized that she was not a homeless kid or a beggar, but merely a little girl who just wanted a hug. And how can one ignore that? I can’t tell you what that moment and that realization means to me.
I’m thrilled that my project idea actually fit so easily into CRAWL’s organizational situation, and that I was able to see and learn so much. I can’t wait to share my work with you on October 2nd. Though my questions have not been fully answered, merely having a perspective and a direction with which to observe the organizations has been so interesting, and has led to many of broader social and historical questions which perk my interest even more. It is the first “field work” that I’ve ever done. I look forward to continue thinking about my project, whether that means for the October presentation or in future work. I came home yesterday having acquired for myself a new perspective on the meaning of being human, which I think is the most one can ask from any learning experience. I’ll never forget the trip, nor that traveling to India was an opportunity afforded to me by the U of M. Thank you so much.
Posted by cheyman at September 1, 2009 02:24 PM