Sunday, February 13, 2011

Life as a Train

India does not lend itself to sentimentality.  It is instead a place of blunt reality that is at its best inspiring and at its worst… well… nothing short of horrible.  My new friend Linda, who just got on a plane to head back to the U.S., told me about an experience she had during this trip.  She was walking down the street when she came across a grossly emaciated horse that stood in the middle of the road.  It had wandered there and the cars and motorcycles simply drove around and past it.

“I hated India at that moment,” she said.  “I thought: this country, these people, they don’t care about the beggars, the trash or the condition of the animals.”  She essentially questioned what was wrong with this place that it could allow these things to happen.  “I wanted to feed the horse or guide it away from the street… something.  Then I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.”

You can feed one beggar… today… perhaps.  But you can’t feed them all.  I had the same sensation when I visited Mahabalipuram last weekend.  As soon as I got off the bus our group had chartered, the beggars and street vendors were on us.  The only difference between them was that the street vendors were offering trinkets for sale.  But they were both begging, both offering their hunger and the many mouths they had to feed as a reason for you to give them money.  Among them were children, some easily less then three years old, most about four or five, all of them covered in dust, hair matted, uncombed, clothes torn, patched and filthy with stains from countless sources.  Their eyes were wide, beautiful and longing.  It was difficult to look at them.  In fact some of my friends had to turn their gaze away.

I looked around and noticed that the Indian tourists didn’t get as much attention from the beggars and street vendors.  I would later hear from Linda that they don’t get much, if anything, from Indian tourists.  It’s the Westerners that succumb to pity.

“Indian seem to think that giving money to beggars makes them lazy,” Linda told me.  That and the concepts of Karmic Law and transmigration of the soul, which are embedded in Hindu thought, suggest that the state of these beggars is both necessary and temporary.  What comes across as indifference is maybe best described as acceptance in some, if not most cases.

And then there’s the other side of this.

After the incident with the horse, Linda went about her way, upset about the horse, the beggars, the city, the indifference.  India.  She realized she didn’t know where she was going and asked a man on the street for directions… always a tricky thing here because Indians, in their aim to please, will offer bad directions before they admit they don’t know how to get somewhere.  They see the gesture of helping you get where you’re going, even if it makes the situation worse and sends you in the opposite direction, as a much better option than not getting involved at all.

He gave her directions and she was off.  She was a half a block away when she heard hurried steps behind her getting closer.  She became very aware of them and got the sense that she was being followed.  She picked up her pace and the steps behind her came faster.  She sped up again, becoming fearful and so did the steps, then she heard a voice: “Madam!  Madam!”  She turned.  It was the man she’d asked for directions.  He had remembered the correct way to get where she was going.  “That man chased me for almost a block to tell me this.  Not 15 minutes before I’d seen that horse and hated this place and then this man had gone out of his way to make sure I went the right way.”

This, too, is India.

It offers you its best and its worse and it’s up to you how you receive it.  It isn’t so simple as to say there there are good and bad people.  The same man who chased Linda down to make sure she didn’t get lost had likely done nothing about the horse, the beggars or the trash.  But he had more than a simple sense of decency… an outright sense of responsibility in making sure Linda got to where she needed to be.

The morning after Linda left I was in my Application of Yoga class and a related topic came up.  Our teacher, Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, in whose honor the KYM was established, was asked about the Law of Karma and the concept of reincarnation.  He dismissed both ideas as “rubbish” and stated, to everyone’s surprise that he was neither Hindu nor a believer in those concepts.

The Law of Karma suggests that for every action there has to be a reaction, good or bad.  The easiest way to describe is “what goes around comes around.”  We may do good things or bad but both leave a mark in the universe and the impressions we create with those actions accumulate within us.  We do something bad and we carry that debt until we pay for that action in one way or another.  It may take a day, a week, an entire lifetime, or many lifetimes.  This is where reincarnation plays a part.  If you die and leave this world with an accumulation of this karmic debt, you will inevitably return to life in a different form to pay them off.  It is a strong motivator for right behavior.

“If there is no such thing,” a student asked, “then why bother trying to lead a good life at all?”

Kausthub threw the question back at the class: “You tell me.”  And when there was no answer he relayed his answer with this analogy:

Imagine you are in city A and want to get to city B.  You’re taking a train.  You know where you are and you know where you want to end up.  The train is only a temporary place.  When you get on the train, you know your seat and if someone was sitting in your seat you’d tell them to move.  But once you leave the train you don’t care who takes that seat and the train doesn’t care about you.  So why do you bother managing your behavior on the train?  Why not throw trash on the floor or piss or shit in a corner?  Why bother being decent to the other people on the train?

The answer was clear: because you have to be on that train during the journey and you want to make the journey as comfortable as possible for you and those around you.

We are in this life for a given amount of time and, whether or not we believe we might return, our time here will be more enjoyable if we take the time to be thoughtful, if we commit to behavior that makes our life and the lives of others easier, if we mitigate the amount of suffering we cause and do our best to rectify any harm we do.  We cannot change everything and in fact we may not be able to change much.  But we are masters of how we act and react.

In a strange way, this is India’s philosophy.  In an overcrowded country, it is difficult to not feel suffocated and even more difficult to see people as anything more than an inconvenience that slows your rickshaw drive or walk to where you’re going.  I felt this way, I have to admit, in my first couple of days here.  It was hard to step outside.  The place was so overwhelming; there was so much activity in the street that it was hard to pay attention to it all.  And yet a doorman who saw I was in need put down his doorman hat, took my hand and walked around our neighborhood for almost an hour trying to help me get a phone.  Despite the craziness and inconvenience of this city, much of which is caused by the people themselves (especially their habits), there are few arguments here and when tensions rise people generally remain civil.  Most people will smile at me when they see me and all will smile when I smile at them, and everyone I’ve seen asked for directions will offer their advice, right or wrong.  And some will care enough to leave their task to chase you down a city block and make sure you get to where you’re going.


  1. There are such nice sentiments written here. Really, thank you for sharing.

    As an American-Indian, I do have to say that I noticed that the foreigners were also hassled more by street vendors and beggars. I don't think it had anything to do with indifference as Linda suggests, however. While it may be the case for a few Indians, I think it's the fact that these vendors/beggars know that the Euros, Pounds, Dollars, go a lot farther than the Indian Rupee...

    I was just there for five weeks a month back... Whenever I spoke in my Virginian twangy vernacular, I would get bombarded by the street vendors and beggars. Every single time. When I spoke in the local dialects without my accent, I was left alone. I learned very fast what accent to choose while speaking, asking, or commenting, in public places. I really think it had more to do with how deep the pockets were suspected to be than indifference, ya'll.

    India has been through so much! Before India was "granted" independence, (I think it's so funny that an ancient, thriving, cultured country that has given the world so much in terms of culture, art, music, science, maths, religion, and spirituality, was "granted independence" by a much younger country that had only just learned to bathe with hot water not a few centuries back).

    India was exploited and used for her every resource. For years. After demanding independence and asking the invaders to kindly leave, India has been set with the task of cleaning up her nearly destroyed and looted house from centuries of abuse and neglect to slowly building back her strength, dignity, and power...

    In a way, all of this might sound even more romantic, but I feel India has suffered centuries of physical, mental, verbal, and spiritual abuse, and is just now starting to heal from all of her wounds. Like a battered housewife or rape victim. I know, such strong words. But look at the country! She is so strong. And deep. And caring. And still learning to stand on her new feet...

    So yes, there are animals that are emaciated, children that are poor and unfed, the elderly that are left uncared for, and seeing these things breaks my heart to pieces as well. But I also know that India has been through a lot, mostly due to the greed and thuggery from the invading countries', and that while sore to the eyes now, she will once again be clean of her wounds, literally and figuratively, and stand as a shining and brilliant beacon of light to the world again. The progress India has made in just the past decade is gigantic, so I think this cleaner, greener, evolved, India might happen even in my lifetime... At least, that is my hope.

  2. I enjoyed this so much, it's beautifully written.