Now that I am back from India, I am trying to integrate the whole experience, putting it all together in such a way that the diverse pieces form a coherent picture. For me, this is not as easy as it sounds, primarily because I still am struggling to make sense of the grueling, grinding poverty that was ubiquitous at every step of the way. At this point, I still am struggling with the inadequacy of saying things like: “India is an amazing country, except for the terrible poverty.” Or, “India is so beautiful, except for the rampant disease and corruption”—both of which feel akin to saying something like, “Oh, he’s a great guy, except for the fact that he beats his wife.”
Now, there is no doubt that India IS a beautiful, amazing country—and I don’t want to in any way suggest otherwise. I met wonderful people, ate excellent food, saw jaw-dropping temples, and was dazzled daily by the color on the streets around me: bright saris, lush flowers, fruits, spices, bangles, etc., etc.. However, at the same time, it is both dishonest and disingenuous to explain away or ignore the fact that almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line [and by below, I mean, way, way, way below], and that India has the greatest percentage of poor people of any country in the world. [In a recent article one Indian official suggested that the number of poor people is more like 70%–I guess it depends on how you define “poor.”]
This difficult work of integration feels particularly important to me as a Christian, confessing as I do a merciful, gracious God who loves the whole world and at the same time has a preferential option for the poor [and I include here the mangy, bone-thin, disfigured dogs that pepper both the cities and the countryside in India], a crucified God who reveals God’s face in the deepest human suffering, and a God of justice who reminds those of us who have much that much is required of us. And, it is also important given that we live in a world that often encourages us to ignore or skip over ugliness, pain and misery, focusing instead on what is shiny, happy, and pretty.
Here is an interesting example. I flew United home from Dulles to Columbia last Friday, and while I was waiting to be able to use my iPad in-flight, I opened up United’s “Hemispheres” magazine. As anyone who flies United regularly knows, one of the monthly features of the magazine is their “Three Perfect Days” series, in which they pick any city into which United flies, and offer an itinerary for a perfect visit of just three days. Imagine my surprise when I saw that March’s city was Delhi. Eagerly, I turned to the article to see what the author would say about a city I myself had just seen first-hand a few short weeks ago.
I was surprised to find that, according to the article, “as India hurtles headlong from the third world to the first as one of the fastest-growing countries on earth, the throng of hawkers, beggars and tuk tuk drivers that once unfailingly met visitors upon arrival in Delhi is nowhere to be seen at the new Indira Gandhi International Airport, a modern marvel and serene point of entry completed in 2010.” “Serene” is simply a lie, and “nowhere to be seen” is a dramatic exaggeration. The article goes on to say that Delhi is “cleaner and greener than ever…as you’ll notice right away while cruising down its wide, leafy boulevards, where high-end restaurants and luxury shops coexist with centuries-old ruins.” What I can only assume is that the author is describing a situation in which one is whisked from the airport in a nice car and taken directly to some wealthy part of the city that I never saw. Trust me, there was no “cruising” down any “wide, leafy boulevard” in the places I visited—and I was in a pretty nice area, I thought. But then, when I read further through the details of the itinerary, I realized that the trip the magazine was describing was something worlds away from my own. Day One, the lucky reader invited to take a dip “in your private plunge pool”—each of the rooms in the suggested hotel has one. Then, with your trusty guide to accompany you, you spend the day seeing sights, shopping for silk scarves and Kashmiri throw rugs, and then hit the movie theater for the latest Bollywood blockbuster: all, apparently, without ever having laid eyes on a beggar, a slum, or a rickshaw driver using the side of a building for a toilet.
Then you check into another lovely hotel, where you sip Indian whiskey at the “mahogany-filled bar,” to be “transported to the last days of the Raj.” Day Two is more sightseeing and shopping [and good eating, of course]—this time at the Khan Market, “the epicenter of high fashion in Delhi: A square foot of real estate here is among the priciest in India.” Day Three is much the same—a visit to the Taj and a stay at “one of the country’s most palatial hotels.” [The article notes that the hotel has sent a driver and a wreath of “fragrant fresh flowers for you to wear.”] The article ends with you, the lucky traveler, drifting off to sleep “with CNN on the flatscreen.” Sheesh.
I think what bothers me so much about this description of Delhi in particular—and, by extension, India in general—is the way in which it makes the impoverished people of the country invisible, denying their very existence and ignoring the brutal conditions that characterize their daily lives. The idea that you could simply fly into Delhi, enjoy the best that the city has to offer, and fly out again without ever confronting its poverty is more than dishonest, it’s sinful: the self incurvatus in se–curved inward upon its own comfort and luxury, not caring to see the suffering of one’s neighbor. Oh, I know—certainly I am guilty of this very thing: as a Lutheran I am all too away that this self-absorption characterizes all of us, all human existence—original sin reminds us daily of that. Nonetheless, that may be an explanation, but it is not an excuse: near or far, for a Christian, this is an untenable way to go through the world.
So, I am still struggling; struggling to reconcile India’s beauty and ugliness, its wealth and poverty, its joys and miseries—wanting to honor both, without minimalizing either. It’s hard.