Walking In The Shoes Of Another Brother (and Sister)

Dec 30, 2012

Photo: Rahul Pardasani

Few teenage friends were in town.  Their parents told 'em to come visit for half a day -- although they could stay longer, if they liked.  Two days into it, they had a chance to meet famous cricketers from India's cricket team and instead they chose to spend a day in a remote village without any toilets, faucets, or even much electricity.  Bit by bit, they were getting plugged into the joy of service, as they continued a creative rampage of small acts of kindness through all their endeavors.
Today is day 5, and also the last night of 2012.  In Bombay, where they are from, they would typically party hard but today is a different experiment.  They will attempt to walk in someone else's shoes.  Someone who doesn't live like them, someone who is materially poor,  and someone who might have unanticipated lessons to teach them.
One spent the night at the house of a fellow who runs a road-side tea stall, another with a rickshaw driver, another with a street sweeper, another with a vegetable seller, and so on.  Many others also join in the experiment, including Jayesh-bhai and Anarben.  I also participate.
For most youngsters, it is their first ever night spent in the slums.  All guests and hosts start with an introductory circle of sharing, Wednesday style, and there is certainly some trepidation in the air -- on both sides of being a guest and being a host.   The idea for the guests is to figure out how to build a relationship, do whatever the hosts do, and hold an open heart of learning; similarly the idea for the hosts is to hold the guests as their equals, share their work not as a menial labor of sweat but labor of love, and hold an open hand of friendship.  Just to give you an example -- one of the kids came from a family with 25 cars, while one of the janitors would go from shop to shop to get leftover vegetables for dinner.  Not a trivial bridge to build.
"This is definitely not how we celebrate New Year's Eve in Bombay," one of the teens jokes.
Everyone splits up.  Anar-ben stays at the home of a very elderly Nanu-ma, who was immobile and uses a chair to move around her space -- and yet woke up early to make a sweet dish for Anarben.  When seventeen year old Yash stays with a tea-wallah named Moni, he starts chatting with his kids and helps setup a touch-screen gadget that they had bought but didn't know how to operate.   By next morning, he had served tea to hundreds of people and had the first cup of tea in his life (and he gave Moni an idea of selling chocolate coffee on his stall, since that's his favorite :)).  Audrey walks the alleys of Ahmedabad to sell vegetables with Champa, as passerbys come out to see a Taiwanese girl (who speaks no Gujarati) connect with an village woman (who speaks no English).  Dipa spends the night with a ragpicker, who wakes up at 2:30AM to get first dibs on the trash that others would've thrown in night; his family then sorts that trash all day and sells it for less money than a Starbuck coffee cup.  Sunny spends the evening with a rickshaw driver, Udaybhai, who shares inspiring stories of how he has been able to serve people in time of their need by providing them free rides.  Another teen named Akash spends the night with Manu, who together spend three straight hours in sweeping the streets next morning.
As expected, lots of lessons sprout unexpectedly as relationships deepen.  "I was playing with the kids, and saw a piece of trash, and the little kid of the house picks it up and tells me, 'Oh, we can use that as firewood for our stove.'"  In the house where I stayed, they had a practice of saying God's name before putting anything in their mouth.  "Not only do we say it but it has to be acknowledged and repeated by someone else before you nourish yourself," Chetna told me as I engage in the practice with her.  A woman in her forties observes, "Can't believe how much integrity they retain, despite having so little."  Anita confesses that she went in with so many assumptions and fears, while her host -- who was equally nervous -- rebounded all doubts with utmost love and care.  When Champa casually asks 'How much do you make?', Audrey realizes how many walls she had created internally -- because everything about Champa was an open book.  As Yash saw Tino's tea stall being setup in the morning, a random fellow approaches the cash box to steal a 100 rupee note; as others chase down the robber, Tino calls it off: "Let him go. We'll trust that he does something good with it."  Incidentally, the next day, Tino decides to give out free chai for the whole day in honor of his friend's birthday.  

Maslow's hierarchy of needs states that you need a certain level of material success before you can start to access happiness and spiritual fulfillment.  Yet practically everyone in our experiment had a radically different experience -- those who had the least not only showed remarkable resilience, but also an innate propensity to give, to be happy, and to share that joy with others around them.
Couple folks fell sick and returned before midnight.  The hosts had to learn to not to blame their hospitality, and the guests had to learn to accept their disposition that night.  I also had my fair share of discomfort, as my kind hosts insisted on giving me a comfortable spot to rest, but I ended up with (many) dozens of mosquito bites throughout the night.    At some point, though, love trumps those kind of details -- and that's exactly the point of the exercise.  In my case, we all felt like family and promised to meet again (on the condition that I can do dishes for the whole family :)).  Spending a day like this isn't going to dramatically alter anyone's life trajectory, but it might start to subtly shift our sensitivities.  When everyone is available for each other, unconditionally, there's a deepening of inter-connections despite our vastly different physical, emotional and spiritual conditions.
One of the gentlemen in our group ended up being with an affluent entrepreneur.  He spent the evening with a janitor.  As he left, she (the janitor) offered him a gift of a trashed pencil -- that she collects from the classrooms she cleans everyday, to gift to underprivileged children.  Ironically, the gentleman had a pen in his pocket that was worth a hundred thousand rupees.  The inequity in our world is certainly outrageous, but such experiments in empathy plant seeds for a different world.
"Usually we go out on New Year's to celebrate for our own enjoyment, but today, we tried to be the reason for someone else's enjoyment," 18-year-old Sunny concluded with moist eyes and a crackling voice.  "And actually, we never realized that spending time in this way could be so meaningful for our own self."

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

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