Kauwa Kunda is a small community on the outskirts of Raigarh in Northern Chhattisgarh. It is populated largely by people with leprosy. The community is on government land. There is an old age home for those lucky enough to gain admittance. But most residents live across the river, connected by only a single bridge, isolated in dismal conditions. Outcast from their homes, but unable to purchase the land they live on, they are forced into limbo--unrecognized by society and government alike. Despite the circumstances, Vipul and I actually had a very pleasant day talking with them, until one woman's question sent me spiraling, doubting everything I have done so far this year.
Lakshmi Bai estimated she was over 80. She did not have leprosy, but had been cast out by her two sons and four daughters all the same. Her husband had been a Patwari, a government accountant with the Revenue Department where they lived. As such, she should have been entitled to a "government family" pension when he died—which is far greater the standard retirement pension, itself only 5 USD a month. But she said that one of her sons burned all of her late husband's documents, and as a result, she gets nothing.
Koera Pradhan estimated he was 85 years old, but he has only been at the home for the past five. He told us he learned of the home while begging in a train station in Uttar Pradesh, India's least developed state. He reckoned that he hadn't lived at home for over 50 years. He left because he was told having a father with leprosy would deprive his sons of their future. While asking him our standard set of questions: do you have Aadhaar, pension, ration, bank account, he interrupted—“When I've never had any money, why would I have a bank account?”
Prabhadevi has suffered a severe handicap for decades, according to the women who spoke to us on her behalf. It had severely limited her mobility. Despite this, she would still spend her days on the street, begging. Only recently, they said, had she slipped and broken her hip. She is now effectively paraplegic; she can no longer walk. She does not live at the old age home. She lives alone, and relies on the community to survive. They help feed, clothe, and bathe her. Her only source of income now is a government pension of 350 rupees per month, or 5 US dollars.
Nothing ever changes
I still haven't figured out how to process my day sitting across from Lakshmi, Koera, and Prabha. There was no ready made packaging to aid my understanding, no authority figure to lead a "debrief session." There weren't going to be any modules for "unpacking caste and class in contemporary India." There wasn't even a friend to turn to and say, "What the fuck, man!?" For Vipul, helping people in abject poverty who have been abandoned by their entire families is just called "Tuesday." His preternatural repose defined everything he did. In other words, he was solid as a rock.
So for the most part, I just tried to act like him: composed, almost nonchalant. We listened, noted relevant details, deduced the situation, and went on our way. The whole thing almost felt... normal, especially at the old age home where everyone went to great length to make us feel welcome. Nobody demanded to know what the hell I was doing there. We were offered lunch. Some one asked if I was married. The idea I had for us being there—ensuring the condemned and forgotten were protected by the government—and the substance of what we were actually doing—chatting pleasantly over lunch—left me very confused. The normalcy of the situation felt incredibly abnormal, with one exception.
Later in the afternoon, we had been brought to a women's house who we'd been told was having trouble with her ration. We never got her name because the second we arrived, more and more women began congregating. Quickly a group of almost ten had gathered, all vying for Vipul's attention. He was diligently asking them questions, translating their responses to me—which was beginning to feel like a more and more useless task after every sentence. He began translating in paraphrase, then not at all. It was just taking too long.
After a few hectic minutes, the initial woman quieted everyone, looked squarely at Vipul, and made one emphatic statement. While he had just talked in Hindi for almost ten minutes, this time he translated immediately, directly, and—I assume—in full.
"She said, 'What can you do to help us?'"
I blanked—trying to parse her words for what they were truly demanding of me. I looked desperately at Vipul, then back at the woman, then back at Vipul.
She continued, and Vipul translated in quick succession: people come here all the time, ask us questions, write in notebooks, and leave. Nothing ever changes.
Empathy and assistance
Until that moment, I had yet to feel "bad," as one would perhaps think typical of hearing such sad stories all day. I think this was because I had convinced myself I was there to do a job. A good job narrows my perception, breeds purpose from confusion, and allows me to abstract myself away from the actualities of the world in front of me. I was using a sense of purpose to insulate both my mind and heart.
When I was in college, I even had a routine with certain friends. If any of them were coming to me for consolation—be it romantic, academic, or generalized anxiety (all three far too common at Pomona)—I would actually ask upfront, "do you want me to listen for solutions or do you just want me to listen to listen?" Essentially, are you coming to me to make a game plan or just to know some one is here for you?
Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but sometimes I did find myself suppressing the urge to empathize—specifically to help coax my peers out of their own sadness. In a way, I thought my lack of feeling could be an advantage. If I felt their despair with the same intensity they did, I wouldn't be able to do anything about it. It was my job to stay resolute and try to bring them up with me.
This whole paradigm has worked relatively well for the past three years, but it toppled like a cardboard cutout in the face of this woman's question. She didn't want option one; my empathy was of no use to her. She wanted option two, she wanted to know what I would do. But option two—the doing—I could no longer provide.
I can help people navigate the smothering demands of hyper-competitive college life. I can help people recover from imposter syndrome so severe that it's driven them into depression. I can help people whose first forays into love have ended in equal pain. I know these things; I've lived them; they are part of me today.
I know nothing of hunger, or illness, or material want of any kind. I do not know how to win government redress or fight for that which I am supposed to be entitled. My life has been defined by entitlement. I have been entitled to the world—quite literally an all-expenses-paid trip around the globe. I am thoroughly unequipped to assist with commonplace issues most people face everyday.
Who's to save the world
Of course, this is all somewhat obvious and unremarkable. It is no one's job to solve all the problems of the world. Even if that were a real occupation, it would be readily obvious I am not the person for the job. There's no fine print in the Watson Fellowship that stipulates world-saving—so why do I continue to feel otherwise?
It's a mindset I have been developing unconsciously for some time, a series of mental jumping jacks that I've learned to perform to justify that perennial question: "What have I done to deserve this?" Because my this is pretty damn good: spending a lifetime exclusively in private education, traveling to every continent before I could drink a beer, simply being in a world that values (over values, really) my potential just by virtue of the way I look. What have I done to deserve any of this, when 99% of the world hasn't even had one of these privileges.
The best of I've come up is still painfully underwhelming: I have a job to do. I have a job whose details are "to be determined" but whose moral thrust is crystal clear: help people, give back, leave the world better than I found it. In essence, I've tried to come to terms with my privilege by promising everyone that something useful will come of it.
The woman's question took my pained mental model and laid bare the stark reality. I was not—really I could not—help them. The only person who would benefit from my being there was me. "Doing good" really wasn't going to be good enough.
I wanted to apologize profusely, put my backpack over my head, or just run. The way the woman looked at me was the way I'm sure she's looked at so many who have come to Kauwa Kunda with a notebook and good intentions. She looked disappointed. Like a surgeon suturing a wound, but in reverse; her gaze sliced through the delicate seams of my self-justification. The hypocrisy deep within was put on display for all to inspect.
I should not pretend to have a path forward from this moment. I talked to many a friend and family member, some of whom have been put in similarly confusing situations directly after leaving the cloistered confines of American college life.
I spoke to a friend who is just beginning a Teach For America fellowship. "The main thing I've learned is how to be mean... how to yell at kids and keep people in line," he told me. "It sucks. It's not what I want to be doing, but it's the only way."
I spoke to a recent Fulbright fellow, who told me that my thinking struck her as commonplace. "I think most 'Fulbrighters' leave the program confident they changed little or nothing." It's about finding other ways of framing the experience, she said.
I found good insight in an email update from a friend of mine who is just beginning the Peace Corps. She described a troubling gender dynamic where her host family exclude all of the women from dinner except her. In fact, they provide her extra food.
I’m simultaneously grateful for my excusal from [the gender dynamic] to some degree and uncomfortable with the reason for this excusal being my American status.
All three of them have an additional complication that I do not have. My job this year is truly no strings attached. It's crazy to say, but my year is exclusively about my own personal development. In contrast, they've all been told their job is to do something, to help improve a situation which they, at best, have no chance of solving, and at worst, they actually help perpetuate. My own experience, taken in conjunction with theirs, is teaching me just how complicated "doing good" actually is.
There's a defensive, bitter part in me that wants to abandon this idea that we should be changing anything beyond our immediate surroundings. My new set of values would be simpler: "Treat those you meet with kindness, ensure your own well-being, lead a humble life." This is not a stance of apathy per say, but it does not emphasize changing much of anything. It eschews collective action or challenges to the status quo. In other words, it is not very political, and for this reason, I don't think I could ever fully subscribe to it.
Obviously, there's a middle ground somewhere in between "stay in your lane" and "put the world on your shoulders," but I am no longer confident I know how to thread the needle.
What about learning
While trying to make sense of this all this, a number of people all made a similar point. "This is about learning," they all invoked. It's about my learning. It's about writing and sharing what I learn with others. They all encouraged me to continue writing this blog, to share Lakshmi, Koera, and Prabha's stories. They ensured me it would amount to some (perhaps small) good at some (perhaps distant) point in the future.
I actually disagree. What I have shared with you are definitively not Lakshmi, Koera, and Prabha's stories. They are meager distillations, obtained through haphazard translation, and reported by an inexperienced narrator. And I don't think your reading these "proto-stories" will do anything, either. I think the woman knew that we she asked me her question. She certainly knew it when I took her photograph.
But I have decided to share these photos and these thoughts anyway. Because while I do not think any of this will improve the lives of the residents of Kauwa Kunda, it has improved my life, and I hold out hope it may improve yours as well. Is that fair? Is it fair that I—the one who entered that day at Kauwa Kunda with everything—was the one who continued to receive, and even worse, continued to take? No, it's not on both counts. But that's not to say no good should come of it.
"It's about learning," everyone kept reminding me. In considering this, I've decided learning is not a finite resource, learning is not zero sum. As such, I think it's permissible to continue trying to learn, even when the conditions are not fair.
This paradigm is so far from the ideal, and even as I offer it, I am not fully convinced. But that is another aspect of learning. It's continuous, conducted through reflection and change. Perhaps in this, the chance for positive impact lies, however small and distant it may be.