Sunday, August 26, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young God of Wealth (Part 2)

After spending a while in Uluberia and Calcutta, I realized that I had not arrived in another country, but another planet.  

Moments after my arrival at the compound and I mentioned my need to go to the bathroom, I was motioned to a small room with a hole in the floor.  I wasn’t sure what to do with that hole, and the bricks on either side didn’t seem to help in sitting on it.  Most people there spoke some version of English, except for my roommate who only spoke Nepali (being from Nepal, I guess that would make sense).  Everyone there ate enormous helpings of rice with some amounts of either dal or curry,3 neither of which I found palatable.  Okay, in reality, it was just about impossible for me to eat. But I soon learned how because I found that if I refused to eat such powerful substances my diet would consist exclusively of rice of such a quantity that were it water I would have drowned.  Desperate for Western food, I scourged Calcutta for months, eating spaghetti that tasted like Chinese food and a “cheeseburger” that consisted of a half-inch slab of strange-tasting cheese between two slices of bread.4 

            I remember sitting on a public concrete seat once, with my feet on the seat.  An older gentleman yelled at me in English with a noble Hindi accent, “Why do you put your feet on the place where people sit?  You would not do this in your own home!”  Out of politeness, I didn’t mention that, yes, indeed, I would.

            I learned that I was different and that no matter how much I fit in, I would always be different. I learned that going down the street I would always be followed by children running after me yelling, “OK, OK!”  I learned how to haggle with the rickshaw drivers and that, no matter how fair or generous I was, because I was American they would always assume that I was always cheating them.  I learned that the warm buns in the morning were delicious, especially because of the pieces of fruit they placed in them, but you needed to watch out for the black crunchy ones (because they were flies).  I learned that bulk rice had to be picked through so the white stones that were used to weigh down the merchandise could be removed.  I learned that it was very difficult to wash jeans with a bar of soap and a rock. 

            And I learned that no matter how secure you thought you were, there was always someone to steal from you.  I was pretty security-conscious.  I recognized that I probably wouldn’t know if I was pickpocketed, so I would put my cash, travelers’ cheques, passport and other items in different pockets in my jacket. The room I was given at first was really secure because there were bars on the window.  (Really, the only downside of the room is the strong smell of wet cow manure from the patties that were placed on the back of the wall for them to dry for later use as charcoal.)  One day, returning to my room, I found that the bars of the room had been bent back just far enough for a skinny four year old to squeeze through.  And that my jacket and boots were stolen.   To replace these, I spent more time in Calcutta, dealing with the various bureaucratic institutions of India, from police stations to banks to embassies.  Because of one of the lessons I refused to learn—paying bribes to have your work go through faster—I spent a lot of time bouncing from office to office.

            But a huge part of my experience was dealing with the beggars and poor of Calcutta.  After spending a bit of time there (outside the airport), it is impossible not to notice the poor.  For one thing, if you go there as a Westerner, you can almost see the dollar signs roll up in their eyes like in a cartoon.  Once they see you, they won’t let you go. I had one woman follow me for a half mile, yelling something incoherent (in a language I couldn’t understand—whoda thunk?), then stand outside the place I was eating for a half hour, only to yell at me again when I stepped outside.  As a beggar, she was “making her own luck” I suppose.   And, as an unjust judge of old,5 I finally gave her something just to get some peace.  Don’t be fooled, extortion works.

            But the beggars weren’t the only sign of poverty.  Millions people daily washed themselves and their clothes in public at the water pumps.  Of the twelve million people in the city at the time, a million of them lived on the street.  And millions of others only had running water in their homes for a couple hours every other day. Thousands would scour the already picked through piles of garbage on the street. You could see about twenty people climbing on these mounds as big as a small house, reduced considerably by the hundreds of eyes and hands that have already scoured it.  Poverty and homelessness wasn’t just “an issue” in Calcutta, rather it was a slap in the face insisting upon attention from every person who lived and visited the city. 

            For me, though, while I was there, the poverty didn’t stir up wells of compassion that were full to the brim. Poverty was just a problem that I had to deal with quickly, and ignore just as quickly so I could get on with my business, whatever that business happened to be.  Dealing with poverty wasn’t a religious deed or dealing with my pangs of guilt—it was a matter of getting it out of my face so I could deal with my real life.  Every time I entered Howrah Station (the main train station of Calcutta) I was constantly tempted to take a handful of almost worthless coins and pitch them behind me so that the group of child beggars would just get out of my way and stop touching me, stop staring at me with puppy-dog eyes that quickly turn to knowing glances after money was given. 

            This isn’t to say I didn’t feel pity at all.  That emotion, though rarely experienced, did creep up on me as I heard the Dickensian plight of many of these child beggars:  These children were often kidnapped from other cities in India from their parents, to other towns, and young enough that they could not find their way home on their own.  They were forced by their captors to beg on the streets, for the cute and pitiable make much money.  Should they not bring in enough money that day, they are beaten and not given food.  If the children are not wise enough to run away on their own, and their captors realize that they aren’t making as much money as they “should”, then an arm or a leg would be hacked off, in the hopes to make them more “pitiable”.  After they are old and ugly enough to not even make enough for themselves to live on, then they are thrown out of their captor’s house, and they beg on their own—too crippled to work, too ignorant to do anything else but beg.

            This was told to me to let me know that I shouldn’t give to the child beggars, because the money just goes to these super villains.  But does this mean I shouldn’t give to the children?  Does this mean they should be beaten each night and starved?  I said that I just give them money to get them out of my way.  My tutor explained the situation to me again, as if I didn’t understand what the money was going to.  No, I understood.  What he didn’t understand is the difference between us: he was Indian, and not especially wealthy.  He was ignorable.  I, however, with my white-white hands and blonde hair and blue jeans and French hat—I was the epitome of wealth.  These beggars would rarely see such an ideal stereotype of Western wealth.  There I was, the god of Rich Boys, incarnated and walking among them and they were damned if I and the financial salvation I represented just walked by them and ignored their plight. 

            By the end of the first three months there, my wealth was drained—I had nothing left.  Not giving to beggars, mostly, but giving gifts to those of moderate wealth who were my friends at the compound.  Giving myself restaurant food, when cheaper food was available.  Attempting to gain the passport and money I had lost. 

            Eventually I traveled to BangladeshEast Bengal—and learned of their poverty, although I saw little of it.  The poverty there wasn’t urban as much as rural, and I stayed mostly in the cities, praying, evangelizing, learning about Islam.  We returned to Calcutta and I assisted in an evangelistic campaign.  But I mostly had time to think.  I thought of much, of the spiritual need of those around me.  But I also couldn’t forget the beggars.  For some reason, they stuck in my head.  They still stick in my head, today.

            At the time, as part of my young aspirations, I fancied myself a poet/songwriter.  My songs stunk, of course, and I think I suspected this, for I almost never showed them to anyone.  I had done enough reading of Emily Dickenson and T.S. Eliot to know what real poetry sounded like, and I didn’t have the muse’s gift.  But just before I left Calcutta, I wrote a song trying to voice what that beggar woman yelling at me was saying:

            Don’t turn your eyes from me, don’t turn away
            I see the wealth you hide within, share it I pray.
            You don’t have to squeeze my hand—you know I am poor.
            I only want a little, I don’t ask you for more.
            My clothes tattered, my flesh torn, flies fill my face.
            You reason I’m unworthy of you—but I need your grace.
            Your wealth abounds and begs release, please heal my sore
            Your pockets full, yet sown with greed—do you need it more?

            Don’t give me pictures from your cameras, movies nor magazines.
            You have the life that I need to live.  Give me bread, don’t give me jeans.
            You turn away from my sadness, but what would Jesus do?
            Would he give me dust and say “go away”, or heal me and say “be true”?

Through a customs error (on my part) I ended up spending a week in Delhi that I did not expect.  This allowed me with ample time to meditate on my experiences as a young man in India.  I thought about wanting to go home, about the differences between home and India, about the warmth and friendship I had experienced.  And I thought about the beggars and garbage-pickers in Calcutta.  In the Delhi airport, I met a man with a slight Southern accent and a large ten-gallon hat, who felt that it was his right to inform me of how idiotic he felt India was, from how they went to the bathroom, to how the people smelled.  I was disgusted and found another seat.

I arrived back home the day after Christmas, after spending my Christmas on three planes.  I was glad to come back the day after “present-day” for I don’t think I could have faced the orgy of wrapping paper and present-lust.  I received some few presents—clothes, and some cash.  But I realized I wouldn’t receive much, for my gift was going to India.  But I don’t think my parents realized what such a gift would mean.  It wasn’t just a toy that one plays with a couple days and then casts away.  Rather, my experience in India was a rough jewel that required much polishing and scraping to discover the wealth that was truly underneath it. 

            Being Christmas, the tree was up and trimmed beautifully and huge plates of leftover food was available, as well as candy dished filled with peanut M&Ms (as a treat I would occasionally purchase myself a bar of Cadbury chocolate in Howrah Station).  I remembered the years of Christmas’ I had received enormous amounts of gifts, and most of these gifts had been trashed or wasted or ignored.  I remembered my extended family and their gorging of food and the fact that the majority of excess weight gained was due just to overeating.  That night, as laid on my bed a foot off of the ground, with a padded comforter over me, I turned my well trained righteous prig eye on myself.  Remembering the beggars and the garbage-pickers.  And I wept.

            Not only that night did I mourn.  It took me almost two years to process what I had learned in India.  As a corollary to my lessons learned in India, were the more important classes of the mind I partook after I returned to the States.  In the syllabus: Privilege 101.  I am rich and there is nothing I can do to stop that now.  Even if I gave away all I had, I could gain just as much and more just by being who I am—an educated white American male.  Next semester: Justice 103.  The majority of the world is poor and is suffering in ways I cannot imagine or experience. This is a blight on the world and it is getting worse each passing day. Theology of Justice 204.  God loves the poor and wants to see their needs met. 

            Having passed these classes with high marks, I realized that there was a huge disconnect.  God’s desire for justice and the world around us.  Why, I cried in my prayers.  Why?  WHY?

1. Balaam’s story is found in Numbers 22-24.  Samson’s story is found in Judges 14-16 and Jonah’s story is found—surprisingly enough—in the book of Jonah.

2. YWAM (pronounced like a question word followed by the 80s pop band) is still around, working all over the world.  And it isn’t only for youth—many retired folks do work through YWAM.  If you want to experience God’s power through provision and a different culture, I still recommend them (in any continent outside of North America—the cultural assumptions strangle one in North America.)

3. Dal is a lentil soup that one pours over rice.  Usually it’s pretty bland, unless you get some in Bangladesh.  Curry is, theoretically, any kind of stew.  However, in Bengal—East or West— you would be hard pressed to find a mild curry.  I would think that fire-breathing dragons go to Bengal to get charged up.

4. Meaning that the menus declared them to be “spaghetti” and a “cheeseburger.”  I would have labeled them “sweet and sour noodles” and “a big cheese sandwich”.  So much for truth in advertising.

5. Luke 18:1-7.

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