The Niswarth Parade

It’s Saturday morning, and we’re trekking through a rural village several hours outside of Ahmedabad. Seemingly half the village is following us on our hike from one Anganwadi (government-sponsored community center and preschool) to another.  Kids run ahead of us, giggling with their friends and reaching out their hands to grasp our own as we pass.  Women watch us from the doorways of their homes and men pause their work in the streets to murmur amongst themselves and glance our way.  It’s a show. I’m rounding a bend, trying to catch up to the rest of the group.  A woman reaches out and stops me in place, grabbing me by the shoulders and turning me around. Villagers gather in a crevice of the road, talking amongst themselves and looking at something I cannot see. The woman says something in Hindi, motioning towards the gap widening in the crowd.

The most terrified little girl I’ve ever seen is being pushed into the center of the group.  Her arms are crossed tightly over her skinny chest, keeping the world out.  All of these people are pointing at her with desperation, showing me this prize, this girl in elaborate clothing who looks so dead, her eyes on the ground, unwilling to connect with me.  She’s the first white child I’ve seen here.

I’m suddenly sick to my stomach.  I don't know what’s wanted from me, so I do what comes naturally, which is to crouch down and grin and wave hello.  Her hair is an unnatural shade of red and matted and she won’t acknowledge my presence.  I fumble for words and turn away.

Encounters between our Niswarth group and the communities we’re trying to understand can be awkward.  Saturday, as well as in Dharavi and other places, each “side” awkwardly ogled the other like dogs sniffing each other.  Inevitably our group, being predominantly foreign, privileged, white, and female, attracted a ridiculous amount of attention.  In the few minutes we spent in that village, women held out their babies, tapping them on the cheek, asking me to kiss their children.  This was the first instance where I couldn’t excuse such attention as a warm welcome.  I felt like they viewed me as somehow different, less human. It’s hard not to feel like an outsider in such conditions.  We’re completely alien to them.

It’s weird, because we heavily emphasize the importance of remembering that we are all people.  When we enter communities, we consciously try to see beyond our expectations, to look beneath the surface.  I sometimes catch myself trying to mentally affirm that everyone is as human as I am, even across cultural barriers. Moobi, my friend from the Anganwadi, is eighteen and married and looked at me with a confused, blank expression when I asked her about her aspirations.  She’s awesome and I would’ve loved to be her friend, but it’s challenging to empathize when I can’t imagine myself living that life.  I think we could connect beyond that barrier through interacting on an individual basis, but it felt as if the villagers were caught viewing us as aliens, celebrities, rather than real people.  It’s weird to think that the danger of a single perspective applies not only to our views of them, but also to their views of us.

So what can we, as outsiders, do?  Back at Andover, I work with an organization that provides education enrichment and mentorship opportunities to middle school kids from Lawrence public schools.  As much as I absolutely love the programs, experiences like this cause me concerns about its model.  This morning we talked about resilience – the role different parties play in helping kids to persistently struggle against obstacles preventing them from getting educated, growing up well.  To be honest, what a couple of privileged private school students can do as role models to the organization’s kids is hugely limited.  The fact of the matter is that we aren’t qualified – we haven’t been in that situation. We can’t offer that sort of success or motivation. Sometimes it feels like we take, take, take and don’t give. I mean, we probably aren’t doing much harm either, but it’s frustrating, to know and care about kids as individuals and know that what you can do, as an outsider, is limited.

At every site we visited with our guide organization, Manav Sadhna, they painted our foreheads and pinned cloth flowers to our clothing, looking us in the eyes as they welcomed us.  I’ve never felt so appreciated as a person by someone I didn’t know, invited into a circle of understanding even as a total stranger. Here I felt as if I were somehow taking advantage of the villagers – I couldn’t quite understand what it was I had to offer them in return for their time, food, mendi, and friendship.