Let’s talk about this for a moment. This is my fourth trip to India, so it’s not the first time I’ve felt the sting of inequality. But I have more time to absorb it now since I’ll be here for a while. The fact is that I live in a fantasy world in America: working roads, clean water, clean air, reliable electricity, public education, and above all: opportunities.
Of course, I know that not all is perfect. Many of our public schools are a disgrace, we have serious pollution problems (e.g., the Mississippi is one of the most polluted rivers in the world), violent crime is high, the recession has been real and many people are struggling to pay the rent, etc. But despite all those issues, the fact is that it is still POSSIBLE for someone to succeed in our country. Even the poorest of the poor can put together a good education from public schools and libraries, and then get government loans to community colleges or institutions like William Paterson University, and from there build a successful life. People do it; I’ve seen it at WP. And the poor in our country still typically own at least a few pairs of clothes, a TV, a cell phone, some basic kitchen items, etc. And we have amazing people out there like my brother-in-law Eric Bender who works with kids from poor and dysfunctional families to show them how to take advantage of the resources available to them.
Not so in India. I’ve been complaining and grumpy about various things the last few days, but this morning I woke up and said “Dude, get some freakin perspective.” Yeah, our roof is leaking badly. Yeah, I’ve been sick constantly. Yeah, we had some tough weeks getting things working. But the fact is that we are living like royalty over here.
What do the people in the slums have? Virtually nothing. Their “roofs” are pieces of scrap tin, canvas, and plastic sheets salvaged from dumpsters. Propping them up is a hodge podge of old bricks and sticks and random metal poles or discarded rebar from construction sites. These huts house as many as six or seven people. Their floors are dirt of course and cooking is done over open cow-dung fires, with various scavenged detritus for utensils. They urinate and defecate in the fields or the sides of the roads. They own maybe one pair of clothes. If they’re lucky they have a bicycle or a few cows. School is out of reach. If they are able to find work it is of the most menial sort and pays about 30 rupees a day (about 80 cents USD). There is virtually zero chance any of them will escape this life.
Monsoon has been hard this year. In Bhopal there’s been over 85% more rain than usual, a record in over ten years. Yes, our house is leaking severely, but complaining about that makes me the most cold-hearted and selfish jerk in the world. I’ve seen the insides of the slum dwellers houses and the “roads” of their areas and at this time of year it is all a mess of running mud, excrement, and garbage. Disease is rampant. The water is foul. They have nothing. It is a living hell for them.
Okay, so here’s the crux of this post: what have I done to deserve this fantasy life of mine? The answer: NOTHING. I was simply born lucky. I was born into a good family that resides in a rich, functional country. Yes, I work hard. 80-hour weeks are nothing for me. But it’s EASY for me to work hard. I have the materials and infrastructure to do so, and the work is rewarding. It was all given to me.
So how do I feel when I see these heart-breaking slums? I feel like a scoundrel. A cheat. An aristocratic jerk.
But I enjoy my nice life and I believe in my life’s work as a musician. And I want to raise my kids well so they can go out and do important things in their lives, which might include helping people in slums.
I know I can give to the poor (which I do) and I also understand that there are much smarter people than me working to solve the issues of global poverty. But none of that erases the fact that so much of our individual fortunes are a result of pure, dumb, blind luck. It’s terribly unfair and brings me to tears. If you have an answer to this difficulty I am willing to listen and learn. (And by the way, “It is all part of God’s plan” is not a reasonable answer. That’s just a glib justification from the rich that maintains the status quo. I’m not ruling out a religious answer, but that isn’t it.) If you’re reading, kindly share your thoughts.