“Is there a disease, Ms. D” one of the middle school girls asked me, “where sometimes you are sad for no reason?” I laughed and said, “Yes. It’s called ‘ being human’”. Sometimes I see this girl – a girl who practices her sarcasm with me because she wants to be wittier and knows I will never fault her for being a beat too slow – and I say, “You know, today I have the human disease.” We comfort one another and we laugh. I’ve thought about that a lot in my almost-year here: being human. I think about the things that I have in common with the people around me and the things that I will never understand about their lives. I think about identity and belonging and ‘home’. I think about what it means to be happy. Whether I am happy. Whether that matters. Whether instead – I feel whole.
Towards the end of school I showed the kids my favorite documentary – The Human Experience. It is about two brothers, Jeff and Cliff Azize, who travel the world and live with people who are suffering: homeless people in New York, orphan children in Peru who have been abandoned by their families due to severe illnesses or physical handicaps, and people living with AIDS and leprosy in Ghana. They want to know why people who live with profound suffering bother getting up every day. What makes them keep going? What is the purpose of life? In a world full of violence, when did we forget what it means to be human? Along the way they find more questions and some answers about what connects us all. It has been my favorite documentary for years and I knew I had to show it to Shanti Bhavan kids.
Initially they were skeptical – why should we spend our movie night watching this sad, philosophical documentary instead of an action movie? But soon they were hooked – drawn in by the vulnerability and honesty of those portrayed and blown away by the conditions in which other people around the world live – even though some of the situations are not very different from their own home lives. Many came up to me for weeks afterwards to say how much they had been thinking about the film. How it made them sad to see aspects of their own country reflected in the suffering depicted. But it also made them feel connected to those people – the ones who were suffering like they were – and feel crippling compassion for the ones whose suffering was greater than theirs. Just like it does for me every time I watch it, the film put many things into perspective for them. It reminded me of when, just a few months before, some of the SB kids got to take part in a documentary where they shared their own stories.
In January some filmmakers from the BBC came to Shanti Bhavan because they were making an educational film about India and in order to better reach their target audience – middle and high school students – they wanted to shoot the film from the point of view of three British kids discovering India through the eyes of Indian ones. And they chose Shanti Bhavan kids to be the ambassadors. So we watched – excited and amused – as a group of thirteen year olds attempted to bridge cultural boundaries in a way that screamed ‘diplomatic summit meets middle school dance’. That was day one. Day two was quite different.
The filmmaker, Dom, told me he wanted to break the illusion the children had so far of ‘happy poor’. Meaning, in every village they had visited, the people had nothing but they were happy. The children were laughing, dancing, and playing and the parents smiled, contented. The kids, Dom said, were convinced that this reality – the reality of ‘happy poor’ – was how all poor people lived in India. Materially, they may have nothing, but they are still happy. “It is a lovely image,” he said, “but it isn’t real.” And he wanted the kids to know that.
Five minutes into the first conversation between a UK student and SB kid, the idea of ‘happy poor’ was shattered with alcoholism, suicide, sickness, murder, and despair. The first Shanti Bhavan girl to be interviewed came up to me immediately afterwards – the cameraman’s tears told me to stay away if I wanted to keep my eyes dry – and gave me a guilty look. “Ms. D,” she said, “I made her cry.” She shed a few tears herself after reliving her past, but did so with a sense of distance. She has lived with her suffering for so long that it has simply become a part of her that she copes with because she has to. I went to console the next one but found her clear eyed. “Ms. D, I feel so bad for that girl (referring to the British girl). She told me her story and so much has happened to her and her family. God, I feel so bad for her.” That one hit me harder than tears. These kids, ones who have lost so much, have more empathy than anyone that I’ve met. Maybe it is because they’ve lost so much – or learned to live with never having very much to begin with – that they can be so compassionate.
They have taught me to piece together the little moments. A week before the end of school in the middle of a storm (the kids call them ‘mango rains’ – pre-monsoon rains that help ripen up the mangos) I was stuck in my office doing work when the power went out. A 12th grade girl came into my office shortly after and asked to sit with me. We decided, stuck in the dark, to color. As soon as I suggested it she squealed with delight, cleared off my papers, took all of the colored pencils and markers and poured them all over my desk. “Ok Ms. D, we each get one piece of paper and the rule is that we are not allowed to look for a particular color. You just have to grab one and keep going. Its not about being beautiful, its about being crazy.” We talked about college and about nothing. We listened to music and sat in silence. But without warning, every so often, she burst out in uncontrollable laughter. “Ms. D! Life is just so great and exciting. This is my favorite moment, right now. Coloring in the dark, listening to the rain, listening to music….you know what? I think the key to all of the best moments in life are friends, music, and food.” Without a word, I pulled a bag of biscuits out of my drawer and smiled. We now had the missing piece. Slowly her lips twitched and her knowing smile spread across her face and throughout her entire body until she shouted, “I just love being human!”
I’m no stranger to the uncontrollable swell of emotion. Sometimes it is just enthusiasm, but sometimes it is something more. A moment when you feel completely at peace and your happiness is too great to be contained. One night we were told to go out to the lawn after dinner. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t question it. We gathered in groups and someone started passing out floating lanterns, courtesy of our visiting Italian dentists. A chorus of screams and giggles erupted and I was probably the loudest of all of them. I felt like a child – jumping, laughing, hugging everyone I could find, swinging the little kids around in my arms, ignoring the ache in my neck from looking up at the sky in wonder…watching as the lanterns climbed to the stars.
It is about these little things. Sitting in a sweaty one-room print shop for three hours while the color printer slowly inches out the pen pal letters a teacher in North Carolina sent you. And laughing over deep fried honey treats when one of the letters addressed to a student named Jayanthi says, “Are you a boy or a girl?” And then, after saying goodbye to the print shop keeper – a woman I make bashful every time I wave to her on the bus – you stop to eat watermelon coated in pepper at the request of a woman who owns the fruit stand across the street. Choking through slippery peppery smiles, we can’t help but laugh because when will this ever happen again?
It is when I find myself zorbing for the first time in India, strapped into a giant plastic ball with one of the school aunties, a young woman named Jaya who speaks enough English to tell me she had a very nice day. I already knew that though because you don’t need to translate laughter. It is when the kids see me lying awkwardly on my arm every Sunday for movie night and then one of the girls shows up one weekend with a pillow in her lap, ready for me to rest my head. It is about how I started writing this in a closet sized room after traveling for three and a half hours to buy a new laptop charger and tried to finish it weeks later on a train, looking back and forth between the words on my computer and the images outside: women in every color of sari washing clothes, goat-herders wrangling their flock, and vast expanses of empty land that ironically reminded me of Texas. But then I couldn’t finish writing it because I became best buddies with the two little girls sitting next to me so all I heard for 35 hours was “Auntie, look!” as I gasped in amazement at whatever trick they were doing. And then how I meant to finish it when I arrived in Dharamsala, but then got sick my second day and thought it was food poisoning but then it turns out that I had a parasite AND a stomach infection (double whammy, India) so most of my time in that beautiful city was spent in bed or hunched over squat toilets.
So now I am in Malaysia. My stomach is healing and the internet is finally fast enough to upload the pictures I refused to publish this without. This one month vacation has had its series of ups and downs (namely – going from throwing up on the porch of a monastery to drinking coconuts on the beach), but it is all part of the experience. You laugh, you cry, you grow, you appreciate. To console me in my lowest points of sickness, friends from afar emailed me with their most gruesome travel stories and my friends close by sat with me to pat my back, hold my hair, and make me smile. My family – worlds away on opposite sides of the globe – never once let me feel alone and Meg, my Malaysian host and sister, pampered me with FRIENDS marathons and ice cream. And tomorrow I go back to India where in two weeks I will see the beautiful, exquisitely and tragically human young men and women I have been blessed to know for the past year graduate from high school. Soon they will walk across a stage and, though campus will be dimmer without them there, they will give their light to the world. I was told that graduation is a week where everyone is together all day to dance and eat mangoes which sounds perfect. After all, a wise soul once told me that the ingredients for life’s best moments are friends, music, and food. It is truly all I want – to joyfully celebrate life, the one thing we all have in common. It is all we need and all we have and all we can do to always marvel at what The Human Experience calls:
the breathtaking reality of a new, unrepeatable, unprecedented adventure of a human life.