Monday 21 January 2019

The Voice Of The Voiceless


The eyes never lie.

When I decided to volunteer for Impact On The Ground, I expected it to be anything but 'eye-opening'. It was a phrase often associated with volunteering in rural communities. But I was sure, to the point of predetermination, that I wouldn't walk the path of cliches. How could it have been eye-opening when illiteracy, poverty, child marriage, discrimination and squalor were evils I was openly expecting in my travels? By tagging along on Project Svara, I was knowingly immersing myself in the vices that exist.

Yet my foreordained awareness was quite asynchronous with the thoughts that arose at that moment, in the middle of a cool November evening amidst the children of Dhargaon. The children, to their credit, didn't do or say much.

They just stared with a wide, unbreakable stare.

Afraid to blink - to miss any move. Their mouths spoke a language we didn't, and their ears heard a language they didn't understand. The eyes were the only sensory channel they had in this discourse, and they were ravenously trying to glean all they could. Trying to satiate their boundless curiosity of the world outside their village with unflinching stares at these outsiders. Often humanity has speculated the existence of life in other galaxies and how they would look and behave. Galaxies that are presently unreachable in a lifetime, across a universe that is impossible to traverse.

Gauging the intensity in their stares, it seemed we too were denizens of another planet, another solar system, a parallel universe. A universe they might never be able to breach in their entire lifetime.

So they stared.

Afraid to blink.

We were the aliens in their presence. The men who dressed differently, talked differently and walked differently. Yet, these differences arose not congenitally. Deep down, if you foraged through the perceived discrepancies, we were undeniably one of them.

Much like them, we were the spawns of India. We spoke regional Indian dialects, ate Indian delicacies, worshipped deities with Indian origins and grew up in, and endorsing, a warped but predominantly Indian culture. We did, naturally, differ in certain traits given India's rich cultural diversity. But if you set our regional discrepancies aside, we were still bound by the omnipresent and unifying Indian spirit.

Yet, we were aliens.

From a parallel universe. There was no denying it, and neither did we try. They knew it and so did we. They felt it and so did we. It wasn't caste, ethnicity, colour, nationality, religion or culture that separated us.

It was privilege.

* * *

Stephen Hawking spent a lifetime trying to decipher a Theory of Everything. To quantify this teeming, varied, mottled and unquantifiable conglomeration of life. A near impossible task given the intricacy of our existence, yet scientific excavations were undeterred. Having not achieved substantial prowess in science, it would inappropriate for me to comment on a grand unified theory (and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't read it as well) (call it a writer's cynicism). I can, however, take the liberty to comment on a universal theory that binds us: not scientifically, but emotionally.

A theory of relativity, but not in a way Albert Einstein intended it to be.

We are all in our bubbles, our own domes of oblivion, coasting through life. Our successes, failures, efforts and struggles are all measured in relation to the benchmarks of our oblivion.

At a time when I was groaning about waking up early for school, there were others crying themselves to sleep wishing they could go to one. 

When I would celebrate above average marks in exams, there are others who internally rejoiced at having passed after studying under street lights. 

I would complain of the slightest of noises distracting my concentration, while there were street children who lived on highways and under bridges, trying to build a future surrounded by the unrelenting cacophony of cars and toxicity of smoke.

It is not in me to disregard struggle, be it of any form. Struggles are relative, and because someone else has different and harsher circumstances does not debilitate the reality of your own struggles. But, if my struggles were to get me a house, a car and a family while someone else struggled to ensure they saw another day... surely we have gone wrong somewhere?

At what point of privilege do we stop trying chug forward and look back? At what point do we stop trying to expand our privilege? When do we look back to help someone else come up to ours?

Where is the tipping point?

* * *

"Aap aaj inn baccho ke liye sattar saal peeche aaye hai. Hum aapke liye do kadam aage nahi aaye toh humari bhool hogi."

(You have come back seventy years in time to help these children. It would be a mistake if we didn't try to come two steps forward for you today.)

I am running.

I haven't stopped for a while. I don't think I have stopped for the last ten years. I can't remember when I started. Yet my feats in physical or mental endurance are commonplace - I am running in a mob of similar runners. In this race I am still considered youthful, inexperienced and raw. As I run along, vacuous shouts of encouragement reverberate from from an unseen source above. It is obviously to the benefit of a strata of powerful beings that we keep running.

So I ran.

There was no sky, just vast emptiness stretching endlessly above. If there were any horizontal boundaries to this racetrack I couldn't see them, as runners like me thronged from one end to another, mile to mile, horizon to horizon.

There were incentives, of course. For every mile we traversed, we were compensated. For those who demanded a purpose beyond mileage renumeration, the omnipresent voices from the heavens above droned mellifluously about our contribution to a greater good.

We were the ones creating the power, or so they said.

Our compensation could be used for materialistic or temporary indulgences. Flashy personalised advertisements littered our path, asking us to buy something we didn't want, eat something we didn't need and own something we would never use. But we wanted it all, so we kept running forward. The greater good was pushed to the back, as we ran incessantly towards small superficial, unimportant and permanently unfulfilling indulgences.

This was the only thing I knew and remembered knowing. A planet full of people stuck in the eternal continuity of ploughing forward. Collectively stuck in an abstruse race towards a 'future' with no noticeable finish line.

When do we stop and look around to question our purpose? Why are we doing this? Going where? Powering what?

We are a decade away from smart cities with electric cars, bullet trains, courier drones, humanoid policemen, re-usable space shuttles, a Martian colony and artificial intelligence.

Yet for all our advancement in the unthinkable, unforeseen and unprecedented, why do we have no solutions for the fundamental issues that plague our existence?

How is it that despite our colossal advancements in intellect, technology and ambition, we are still completely nonplussed and, rather morbidly, uninterested in combating the longstanding issues of poverty, starvation, disease, pollution and discrimination?

When human life, or rather its survival, is prioritised. Isn't that privilege?

A race that my ancestors started running, from the very dregs of poverty, towards an unseen finish line. They kept running, keeping passion and their true calling at bay, just so that when they faltered they would've come a distance that their posterity could carry on from. So my lineage moved from a village to a town, and then from a town to a city, and then from lower class to luxury.

A race run across 100 years or more, across generations until it produced me, now at the point of total privilege, where I was born into a stable home, given a comprehensive education and catapulted into a job. I too was urged to keep moving in the throng. In the faceless, nameless mob, I started trying to enhance my privilege even further.

I am mindlessly moving along with no thought or question of purpose. But for a moment I start to falter. I feel like I'm being watched. Someone behind me penetrating with a gaze so deep, so vibrant, so rich, so pure that I could feel it within me. But I try to dismiss wayward thoughts - they would only hold me back after all. I cannot afford to lag behind in this race, to lose out on my next little incentive that would serve me no lasting good.

The throng pushes past me, shoves me in its desperation to inch ahead. Their faces impassive to my growing discomfort, easily dismissive of any possible impedance in their quest. To earn more, to live richer and to feel validated.

I see myself in them and start to come to a halt.

There are neon signboards around me urging me to plod on. Winking encouragements at me to go nowhere and to power nothing. Personalised flashing advertisements that needle me to seek something I don't want, to desire something I don't need. Authoritative warning signs that highlight the penalty of looking back, or god forbid, taking a couple of steps back.

But a trance is starting to lift and I see the futility in the warnings. The feeling of being watched has grown even further, and I succumb.

So I turn around.

I look back to see a young girl staring at me, eyes wide open. Dressed in a tattered rural school uniform, because that was the only piece of clothing she owned; her parents preferring to while away the misery of their existence and their measly savings with alcohol. She hails from a community that still considers a girl child a misfortune. Education is considered a trinket, as it produces no noticeable value in the family's income. The little boys would produce more output in the farms while the girls would at home.

What good would education do? A mindset that harbours skepticism in education if the children don't get a job after passing 8th grade. Girls are then married off and boys are forced to get to the field.

Today while we are chugging along at alarming alacrity, these villages are blatantly left behind. Not just left behind in education, development and well-being. But left behind in time. Time travel today is as easy as going from a city to a town, from urban to primeval lifestyles.

She is from the past. From my past. A past that my ancestors ran a hundred years ahead to avoid ever seeing again.

A meeting of two centuries, as I crouch down in front of the little girl in the midst of this impassive crowd.

She looks at me, pleading with her eyes. Her arms, even at her young age, scarred. Her feet blistered and bruised. Yet despite her blemishes, there is a certain beauty in her existence. Despite her squalor, she seems to radiate a purity that I couldn't fathom, couldn't sustain. A certain purity that would get squashed by the reality of her existence by the time she reached the age of reason and awareness. When she started to fully comprehend the hand that life dealt her.

I would hate to be there the day she would die inside.

The throng is openly ignoring her, shoving right past. She cannot go ahead on her own, and taking her with them would just hinder progress. Her eyes plead while she involuntarily resonates the incoming, crushing disappointment of another rejection.

She holds out a hand beseechingly, hoping I take it.

We had reached the tipping point. A hundred years and multiple generations in the making. The point of singularity.

I look down, staring at the calluses, prominent in her outstretched palm.

I look up to see a tear on her face.

* * *

A special thank you to Anurag Ram Chandran and Impact On The Ground Foundation for giving me the opportunity to tag along on Project Svara, a media awareness initiative that highlights problems in rural development and sustainable education. 

With phase one of Project Svara currently underway, if you wish to donate funds to help tackle the issues highlighted in the videos, you can do so at this link: Project Svara Fundraiser

Project Svara Episode 1: Education In Rural India: Watch Here
Project Svara Episode 2: Teachers In Rural India: Watch Here
Project Svara Episode 3: Street Children of Mumbai: Coming Soon

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