Bungee jump into discomfort

Yesterday before we set out for Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, Mr. Mundra and Mr. Housiaux told us to try to see the people of Dharavi as human beings. Later we discussed the question, What is a good human life? A meaningful human life? I kept pretty silent during the conversation, partly because it’s my nature to guard myself by rarely speaking and partly because I wasn’t sure how to answer the question. I had spent two hours on a guided tour through bustling streets and cramped alleyways that made me very aware of my unusual tallness; I had stored away in equal measure images of trash clumps in teal-gray water running through gutters just beside our feet and pristine white Hindu temples tapering up to the sky; but I still struggled to have genuine empathy with the people I’d seen. After all, I was looking at them through a lens, or rather several lenses. I was taking a guided tour of their lives, observing them but never actually speaking to them. I was armed with a notebook and pen, plucking pieces of their lives and scribbling them in a language that few of even the literate among them could understand. And this is how I orient myself: through writing. This is how I interpret my world, this is how I convince myself that my life can have meaning. But here, writing and language are just more barriers, more ways (besides education, culture, financial situation, etc.) in which I am different from the people I am seeing. And I know that none of these things matter. In the end, we are all indeed human. But part of being human is developing familiarity, comfort, home. And then empathy is seeing part of that home within another. And that is very hard to do when you’re halfway across the world, on a guided tour of lives vastly different from your own, and completely unable to talk to anyone.

So I’ve been looking for comfort in the unfamiliar. It’s not that I’m trying to match the people of Dharavi’s lives with my own, because I know we have entirely different experiences and one group should never discount the experiences of the other in the name of unity. I’m merely trying to imagine myself living such a life. Kiran at the Riverside School told us to “bungee jump into discomfort,” and I think this is very important. At the same time, when all you see is unfamiliarity, it can seem more like a painting than a life. So when during our tour we came upon a woman who was visiting Dharavi from a village in Gujarat, and she told us in Hindi that she loved seeing foreigners because she felt like one herself here, I smiled. We had such different ideas of home, but we were both foreigners here. We were both small people trying to understand this vast community. We were both surveying each other, both smiling, both wondering about the others’ story. We were both finding comfort in the unfamiliar.

The other day as we were crossing the bridge into south Mumbai, we passed what looked like a low-income neighborhood right on the coast of the Arabian Sea. The scene was layered: sun-saturated waves, then a rocky coastline, then blue and pink and green and gray houses huddled so close together that they almost seemed to lean on one another, then clean glass skyscrapers. I saw people from the nearby community climbing about on the rocks, looking out at the ocean. And I thought of my home on the coast of Maine, and of climbing on the rocks and imagining whole worlds rolling through the waves. It’s a feeling of pure everyday wonder, of feeling small in the face of a world you can’t fully grasp but you’re still attempting to understand, and I couldn’t help but believe that the people I was seeing on the rocks were feeling something similar. I remembered how in third grade, I spun a globe around and discovered that somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean lies exactly across the planet from Portland, Maine. So driving past that beach on the Arabian Sea, I was probably as close as I’ll ever be to exactly halfway across the world from my home. And if I could tunnel straight through the earth as I always believed I could as a child, I’d find another shore on another ocean. A different people, a different language, a different story. No colorful houses stacked and leaning against one another in the background, no skyscrapers rising up in the distance. Just people picking their way across the rocks, small creatures brushing up against the dancing waves.