On our first day in India, we visited the Gandhi Ashram. Still very jet-lagged, I wandered through the simple rooms and found myself in the kitchen, taking half-hearted inventory of Gandhi’s utensils and telling myself to bask in the simple elegance of Gandhi’s lifestyle. This was clearly a lesson I was supposed to learn—everyone knows the transformative power of Gandhi’s ideas and example. At this point an Indian girl in a flowing pink shirt who had been examining the utensils too turned and asked me my name. I told her, asked her what was her own, and proceeded to butcher the pronunciation several times until she finally wrote it down for me. The letters on the page seemed to give shape to what had previously been just a slur of sound to my untrained ear. We talked for a while. I found out that she was 19, in spite of a small stature and narrow frame that told otherwise. She found out that I was from the United States and asked what it was like to be far from home. I decided this was my opportunity to talk about the heat, as this was the one unfamiliar aspect to which I could assign a definitive name. Trying to continue making conversation, I told her I liked her shirt. “It’s an old shirt,” was all she said. Then rather abruptly, she asked, “Will you be my friend?” I responded that of course I would, and she replied, “But how can we be friends? You live far away.”
The logical response to this was to offer some means of contact, but not to be too naïve and give away personal information to someone I’d just met. Unsure if she had a computer, I asked if she had a street address where I could send a letter. She shook her head. “I have to leave my home,” she said simply. Then she gave me her email address and a telephone number that belonged to her parents.
My initial response to her comment was a rapid internal calculus: there was a note of something in her voice—sadness? resignation? shame? She was so thin—malnourishment? Earlier when I’d asked her if she lived in this area, she’d gestured in the general direction of the slum across the street and then told me that she’d since moved somewhere else. And then there was the “old shirt” comment, again with that note of unnamed emotion in her voice. But yet—she told me she was just visiting the Ashram as a tourist. Apparently she had good access to a computer. She could have been gesturing anywhere when she told me where she lived. Maybe she had been evicted from her home, or maybe it was just an ordinary move. I had no idea.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that being in India, or indeed being anywhere, requires great flexibility of mind. I know very little about the girl I met, having talked to her for only a few minutes. I have a few fragments of her life. I can either piece these together into some narrative of my own, or simply remember our interaction and accept that I cannot know her life. I have to be content to let her story remain elastic in my mind. No number of calculations can give me an accurate picture of her life.
So much of my life is based upon calculations—grade point averages, trying to rack up leadership positions, even the vapid social currency of Facebook likes. I think often in the US we base ourselves off of numbers (often relating to money). Traveling through Ahmedabad’s slums, I’ve often oriented myself by numbers or little factoids that fit with a preconceived image of Poverty. A pre-school girl with skin pockmarked by heat stroke passed out on the floor. The fact that my school’s annual budget per student could provide food, clothing, and transportation for 4,000 children within the slum community. Or that a custodian at the local government school makes less than $2 a week.
It’s tempting to see only these things. Yet I have to accept that I cannot know these people’s lives, that calculations can only go so far, and that my image of them could change at any time. For instance, when I see a woman weave intricate quilt patterns with a precision and patience that I couldn’t even hope to replicate. Or butterflies and ladybugs rendered in delicate ceramic fragments on a rooftop tree stand. Or the pre-school that the community worked together to construct partly out of rubble. All these fragments, these images of love.
I may not ever know the full story of the girl I met or the people who live in the Ahmedabad slums. Analyzing every word or calculating yearly income will always provide an incomplete picture. I cannot ever capture the fullness of their existence, of any human existence. And I find this rather beautiful.