Just because you smile doesn’t mean you’re happy

It was obvious long before the plane even touched the ground that the difference between the way I live, any Andover student lives, would be largely different from that of the people in the Indian slums. However, none of us would truly be able to understand this difference until we saw and experienced it. Today as we entered Dharavi the difference in my lifestyle and those of the slum slapped me in the face. But after sessions of preparation for this day, I was trying to look beyond the trash and initial disgust. I was looking for the layers we read about in the article by Jim Yardley, In One Slum, Misery, Work, Politics, and Hope, particularly the fourth layer of hope. I tried not to focus on the misery, but it was undeniable. After a year of thinking about how expectations and the feeling pity affects service work I tried to push all of this out of my mind. The smiling children and the fiercely hardworking men provided an opportunity to do this. So I blocked the sadness out of my mind, as I believe many did many other students. After returning to the classroom we began to discuss our emotions and what we saw both with our eyes and our minds eye’s. Everyone seemed to focus on the positive aspects: the smiles. People spoke of the community and the happiness and the hope. At first, when they were contested they argued degrees of happiness relative to ones situation. I thought about the concept and in the beginning it made sense as an idea. But then it hit me. No I thought. That isn’t right. No matter what you are used to no one is happy inhaling toxic fumes as they burn paint cans or carrying huge packs of plastic on their heads. Nobody is happy picking trash from a dirty river or watching children die of malaria. I believe we were validating the way we live by finding false happiness we created. I do think that people are happy in Dharavi but I do not think that they are happy with many of the conditions or harsh realities of the slum. Just because someone smiles it does not mean they are happy. I think this is important complexity to consider as we spend more time in the slum. We can’t say as outsiders, “they smiled at us, everything must be ok, they don’t need or want a single improvement,” and then easily forget the hardships of a million people, and millions more who live like them across the world.  I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong that I have my own computer, or clean warm water for a 20-minute shower, but allowing any human being to live as they do in Dharavi is definitely not right. I think as a coping mechanism we were finding the good, pushing it to the front and trying to forget the bad.

It is important to see and acknowledge all of the layers, not just the final layer of hope. As we go back to Dharavi and interact with the people I am not sure if this will become easier or harder. But interacting with the residents will allow us another layer to consider the situation. In our time here and afterwards it will be another crucial layer to consider when thinking about how one could help and how to let Dharavi thrive on its own.