The ones that walk away
Far away, there is a city called Omelas, the setting of a short story by Ursula Le Guin. I am using her story as inspiration for this blog post. I have posted the link here and I highly recommend that you read it. In the city there are no helicopters or stock exchange. No advertisements or swords. But the people are not simple, they aren’t “dulcet shepherds, noble savages, or bland utopians”. They are happy people but no less complex then we are. Omelas is a wonderfully beautiful city but in some ways is too good to be true. It has a secret. “In a basement room under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room.” In that room with one locked door and no windows lives a child. The child is abandoned and mistreated. It lives in suffering and horrid conditions. It is naked, terrified, and malnourished. All of the people of Omelas know it exists. “Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there...Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of the city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of the skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery”.
The view from the fourteenth floor of the Sofitel is spectacular. The Mumbai skyline features not only the new construction central to the Bandra Kurla Complex (Mumbai’s new financial center) but also a mountain in the backdrop, surrounded in fog and contrasting with the shiny glass windows and steel of the new buildings. If I look down directly below me I see a a well groomed garden complete with stone paths and palm trees. A gardener cuts the grass with a pair of large shears. We’ve been walking around the Sofitel all morning, trying to capture footage for our documentary. Sparkling chandeliers, white cotton linens, the luxury of the elite. The chocolate fountain in the dining room and the two story wine cooler that holds over 200 hundred bottles of wine. I breathe in opulence instead of oxygen.
I appreciate the Sofitel’s magnificence but with a weird taste in my mouth. I can’t deny its beauty or prestige. I can’t deny the fact that I probably wouldn’t turn down an offer to stay there or to get a massage at the well equipped spa. But I also couldn’t deny that I was thinking about Ashish, Mansi and Vaibuhv. About their friends and neighbors and slum communities. About how the cost of a 15 minute massage at the Sofitel is the same as two week’s wages for them. I can’t deny the fact that I am a different person after spending two summers with the Niswarth program. One who can’t justify my privilege as easily.
The Sofitel is built on a system of inequality. The only reason the hotel is able to function is because of disparities in wealth and circumstance. To operate it needs workers who will mop the floors and clean up after the guests. It needs servers who will take people’s orders and wash their plates. Walking around the Sofitel in the daytime gives me a bit more of a glimpse into the reality of the situation. With all the business people at their offices and meeting (the primary customers of the Sofitel) the hotel is largely empty except for us (an odd looking group of three teenagers) and the staff.
As I reflect on my experience filming and touring the Sofitel and filming and touring the three Akanksha student’s communities, I am left between a rock and a hard place: How do I reconcile my privilege with the fact of inequality?
I turn to the city of Omelas for advice.
Omelas is also built on a system of inequality. The happiness of a group of people is dependent upon the suffering of a single child. To live there the people must accept that condition and most of them eventually do. Not only that but the suffering of the child makes the people act nicer to their own children. The system is incredibly complex and there are countless ways I have thought about relating Omelas to my life. Perhaps I will do so in another blog post (this one is getting pretty long).
But the thing to take away from Omelas is that there is hope. Not everyone accepts its condition.
“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home
to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman
much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into
the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of
the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands
of Omelas...They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and
they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to
most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does
not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from
I guess now, after a little over two weeks back in India, getting to know three Akanksha students and their communities a little better, and being more conscious of my privilege and what I can do with it, my hope is to walk away from Omelas.