Shame and Growth

Yesterday, after playing games of tag and ninja, I watched the nine kids of Akanksha walk away from us. After spending six days over two weeks with them, I felt like I really knew these kids. They had left their impact in colored paints, affectionate smiles, and cheek kisses. Last week, after three days of art class, we visited their houses, which were located in a slum near the Worli Sea Face. Visiting their one-room houses was astonishing. It was hard to imagine that these kids could possibly be the kind of future disaster the statistics and media tell us they are. After years with Akanksha, they were confident and proud. When we asked them to create a collage of themselves, some drew paths towards their future goals, each step of the way laid out in magazine cut-outs. They knew about themselves, sharing their maturity and wisdom. They called out Shakespeare's name after just "what is in a name?" Their intelligence was astonishing, despite the fact that they attended government schools and lived in trash-filled slums. They should not have been so bright and shiny and amazing, according to everything we had been told. Yet because they had been appreciated, cherished, and encouraged to be a whole person, an artistic person, someone whose individuality was worthwhile. Or maybe poverty is not really a tragedy of character after all. Maybe the poorest kids, despite possible abuse or suffering, can turn out the brightest without the help of NGOs. I am not experienced enough to make such a distinction, but no matter what these kids were incredible whatever their circumstances.

Yet at the same time that they were growing and being educated in invaluable ways, I caught them falling prey to a kind of cultural barrier that perhaps cannot be lifted by an NGO: shame. We had explored their identities in art, and I wanted to believe that this had helped them grow stronger. Then, I thought of Ashwini. Beautiful, sassy, and bossy, she dreamed of becoming a police officer one day. Yet when asked to draw herself, she made her hair blonde and colored her skin "flesh color." She told me she wanted to have blond hair like mine, when I inquired about it. This brought me back to the many ads I had seen on massive billboard of Mumbai for skin whitening creams. It brought me back to the Bollywood movies we had seen, with their light actors. It brought me back to how Pooja, my naughty best friend, would pinch my cheeks, fascinated by their changing color. It made me think of Kajal, the sweetest girl in the group, who would always kiss my cheek. In front of our whole art class she had announced that she wished she did not have her curly hair, that she wanted straight hair like the didis. It made me think of my stay in the village, when the Gujarati-speaking women had clustered around me, saying one of the only English words they knew. "White! White!" they chanted. There seemed to be some kind of deep respect in their words, something that went beyond the mere foreignness of my skin. I sometimes wonder if that's the case, or if my assumptions, based on a thin knowledge of Indian culture and my own experiences with race in the US, were skewing my perception. Either way, I felt that while colonialism might be gone, while a poor girl might be able to turn to an organization like Akanksha, if a strong girl like Ashwini still falls victim to the shame of her color and ethnicity, what chance does she have in a globalizing world? If everyone wants to be white, the clamor to be western will continue, culture will fall away, and no amount of ethical education will be able to bring back a culture and a self that is lost in the churning of massive corporation advertising and constant media messaging.

There was another kind of shame, too. They had shame in their poverty, and shame in their parents' lack of education. Before we came to visit, Needa made all her neighbors scrub the path outside because she was ashamed of the dirt they might see. Others of the kids told their teacher, or didi, that they were afraid of what we would think when we saw their houses. Their teacher also shared stories of how they would correct their parents when they faltered in English, how they would respond to Hidi in English. They used it as a power tool, as if they were better than the rest of their culture. In fostering progress, sometimes there is a price. If globalization provides money to create progress, it also fosters images of western culture as a priority over India's own. If English is a path to more job opportunities for these kids, it is also a mechanism that distances them from their own parents and home. If ambition for wealth can drive kids to achieve, it can also make them resent the circumstances they are told they must escape.

How do we strike a balance and find a way to improve live without destroying culture? I am not sure. Gandhi would speak for a self-sufficient India, but that seems too unrealistic in a connected era of nuclear weapons and complicated trade. Isolation is not an option. Instead, I would argue for assertion by the people at the top, in Reliance, in Tata, in the Indian government and power structure. Advertising doesn't have to capitalize on self-conscious dreams of westernization, and the ideal of wealth does not need to create shame in the poor. Or maybe this reinvention must come from the people, who can find roots and culture. Then again, a rejection of culture might be necessary for any given individual to discover themselves. Which is why it must fall to the collective. In America, where values are degrading and culture candy-coated, or in India, where colonial architecture and westernization still have their subtle influences, we all must balance a dual responsibility to build our own identity, while preserving the voice of long-standing culture that creates a diverse landscape of thought on which the progress of the world can best be built.