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.






Integration . . .

How does one integrate into a society?  Through the kindness of people who are first helpful strangers, then quickly friends.  Our neighbors in our colony have been exceptionally friendly and helpful.  When we had water problems they gave us clean water to drink.  When our electricity wasn’t working they made us food.  They made phone calls on our behalf, negotiated rickshaw fees for us, and just gave us someone to talk to.

Our neighborhood is pretty evenly divided between Hindus and Muslims.  I don’t sense any animosity from either side towards the other, but they seem to keep their distance from one another.  Since we are the white foreigners we’re in a sort of neutral position.  (And we’ll only be here for nine months.)  Members of both parties have been exceptionally helpful.

My Muslim neighbor Ghofran works for an electronics firm and helped us with a circuit breaker problem tonight.  He also negotiated a good price for us for a backup battery for when the power goes out.  We have three Hindu families in the row behind us who have all been wonderful.  One of them owns the Bhopal Girls School, where our girls now go to school.  They have a 14-year old named Hershi and a 3-year old named Mehta (who is in Maia’s class).  Our girls regularly go there or they come here.  Just next door to them is the Sharma family.  Sanjeev is the father and he is a professor at a university in Bhopal.  He holds a prestigious position coordinating research for ad hoc mobile technology uses.  We had a stimulating conversation about his research the other night.  His wife is Anita and she stays at home and has been amazingly welcoming and helpful to us.  The have two boys.  The younger one is Drew and he comes over every day for a few hours.  He’s become like a son of sorts to me.  His English is very good and on more than one occasion he has served as a translator for us when workers are fixing something at our house.  Just down the street from them is another nice family.  They have a teenaged daughter who really likes my Super Marimba music and has several Western instruments in her house.  She wants to study biology, but she’s passionate about music.  Her father is an engineer for Air India.

So, we’re really doing this!  We’re in India, meeting people, making friends, and slowly but surely getting over the shocks and difficulties of moving here.  If you haven’t already, check out Jessica’s blog  She has some great photos up.

I promise I’ll get some photos up soon!