It’s funny how the people who have the least usually tend to be the ones who are the happiest.
It’s difficult to write about individual people because every person is made up of such beautiful, intricate details that sometimes cannot be expressed through writing. I wish I could have the ability to write about each and every one of the forty students I befriended in my days in India, and about every other human I came across in that country that touched my soul in their own ways.
My work in India was with an institution which provided skill development courses for graduate students who came from lower caste backgrounds. Caste in India is a serious issue, and creates many barriers for those in lower caste communities to succeed. Those from underprivileged backgrounds are given benefits and reservation programs through the government but also end up being defined by their castes and social status.
It sucks because they miss out on opportunities that those from higher social standing get, which lead them to more opportunities for success. It sucks because they get marginalized and excluded from opportunities which other students get. It’s just an extremely unfair social structure that is rooted in old cultural practices that just doesn’t make sense to me.
When I was writing my thesis paper on my experiences during my placement, I cringed every time I had to use the word underprivileged or lower caste to describe the students I was working with, students who became friends who became family.
The term underprivileged is not a false one or an exaggerated one when it comes to the students who were involved in the program. I had the opportunity to be a guest at a few of the students’ houses and villages, and while their conditions varied in terms of wealth, they almost always tended to be in the lower margins.
As a matter of fact, I stayed in a home once, where the water used for cooking, bathing and drinking would be fetched out of a well.
It took me about 20 minutes to fill 4 buckets with water so I could take a bath. Imagine doing that every day, every time you needed water.
The ground they would step on was just concrete, with no carpets or covering, and where the living room couch was a bench weaved with straws, with two plastic red chairs accompanying the setup.
Bugs wandered in and out of the home freely and ants had comfortably made their colonies in the walls.
Chickens squawked and screeched right outside the door as they chased one another, and the night was lit up with candle light.
As a person who loves to travel ‘authentically’ and really immerse myself, I was elated to be able to experience a few days in ‘rural life’ and have an ‘authentic experience’.
But I also had the privilege to leave when I wanted to, and return back to my life with toilets and washing machines and taps with both hot and cold water.
My friends, however, don’t have that privilege.
But what bothered me a lot, back then and up until today is the fact that the students whose souls I fell in love with, were defined by their caste or their social standing, and only that.
Their personalities, talents, intelligence, kindness, humor, and experiences were discarded, and the only thing that was acknowledged was their social standing and the help they desperately needed to overcome their shortcomings that resulted from their social standing.
That’s not to say that they didn’t face any limitations as a result of their status. They definitely did, and it was important for them to learn how to overcome these limitations. But their definition of self should not depend on these limitations.
In that village home in which I stayed, I was served chicken and fish along with fresh picked fruits, for all my meals. Meat is a luxury in places like those and I was totally oblivious to the amount of effort it took for my hosts to create such a situation for me.
It was also in that very home that an entire room and bed was given up so that I could sleep comfortably. The people who I stayed with did their utmost to make sure I was given the best treatment they could possibly provide for me and for that I will be eternally grateful.
It was from that experience that I learned humility, humanity, and love. I learned how guests are treated with the utmost care, even in the most remote parts of the country, and that kindness lived in the hearts of every human that I came across.
I still think about that experience every day, and I learned more from living with that family for a few days than I ever have or will, in any lecture hall or textbook.
But on the official government documents and books, that very family is labelled ‘underprivileged’ or ‘lower caste’ and is put into a category that seeks pity, charity and help from those who are more privileged.
This bothers me. A lot.
I believe that we have a lot to learn from each other, especially from those who have faced hardships in life.
Those who have been underprivileged have learned to be grateful for the things that they do have, and have learned humility and humbleness. They have learned to be happy with their minimalist lives and do not seek any sort of pity or charity.
They deserve the same respect as any other person, if not more.
Even writing this piece is uncomfortable for me, because I am forced to confront the labels and categories in which underprivileged communities have been put into, and in order to discuss it, I must acknowledge it first.
I was extremely lucky to have been able to have that experience, not because I got an ‘authentic’ travel experience, but because I got a look into what real humanity, compassion and community looks like.
Moral of the story?
Mass consumerism culture in our world is inflicting so many mental, emotional and physical harms without us realizing it.
Always be thankful, no matter how much or how little you have because there are others who have less than you but are more grateful, more humble, and more kind.