Things Get Harder Before They Get Easier
I had been in India, in Mumbai to be exact, for a week and a half when I wrote this. Thinking I had been coping well, I was surprised when I came home after a long day – 6:00 am wake up, hour long train ride to Nallasopara, the second school I teach at, a full day with 6 or 7 classes, an hour long train ride back and all the honking rickshaws and dust and people in between – and my back completely seized up, the city demanding that I forfeit to the constant onslaught of stress on my mind and body. Shortly after I wrote this, Delhi belly decided that this emotional breakdown was a great opportunity to visit for the first (and only?) time. As I lay on my hard and lumpy bed, fighting off tears, this was what came from my fingers through my pen.
Surrounded by the energy of 1.2 billion people, one can really get a sense of life’s persistence, humankind’s relentless push forward…
Things get harder before they get easier.
I have been told countless times that nothing prepares a person for India. The unparalleled energy of the subcontinent finally had me in its clutches, dragging me along.
I have been places, even lived in places where there is great poverty, just as I have both visited and lived in places where the sun is scalding and only nighttime brings hope of respite. I have visited plenty of places where I don’t speak the language, and I have been to countless busy places, noisy cities, filthy urban areas. I have seen slums and animal abuse, and I have said no to beggars around the world… but all of those experiences combined only begin to tease the edge of all that is India, all that is living in Mumbai.
Eventually things weigh a person down.
That eventually happened for me today.
My everything hurts, and there’s nowhere soft to put it. My bed is hard, the wooden boxes I sit on at school are hard. The rickshaws are hard, and the road is bumpy and jarring. There are no chairs in the apartment so my chair is my bed, the back of the chair being the wall – erect and stiff. Or I sit on the cold tile floor, and the bed becomes the back of the chair. The train ride is beautiful, but the seats give no rest or comfort. Today I can’t figure out if I’m sore from the daily conditions or if I am actually sick. My skin is hot to the touch, but it is hot here. My muscles ache like crazy, but I have had long hard days working with children, giving of myself (me, the introvert) so that I might hope to teach them something, that they might learn just one valuable thing while I am here.
This introvert needs her quiet, and there is no quiet to be had in India. If it’s not my chatty roommates in our teeny tiny apartment, it’s the honking horns and shouting people outside in the streets. If it’s not them, it’s the children at school, ignoring me in class and yelling at each other in Hindi. If it’s not all these things, it’s the neighbour who sneezes so loudly I could swear he is in our apartment. It’s the crows outside my window, or it’s the distant din of the constant traffic. The smells and sounds seep in through my window at all hours of the day so that between all the odours and noises, there is no neutral moment in this country.
None of this has become easier.
Everyday, it gets harder to watch the children walking around in bare feet or to know that some of them sleep on the street. It gets harder to go past the slums beside the railway and see how they stretch out endlessly and are stacked one on top of the other creatively, while people hang laundry and brush teeth nearby. It gets harder to see these people, countless people, some practically side by side, squatting over the railway or in a bush beside the tracks or over a cement block in order to have their morning dump. It gets harder to see kids wearing no bottoms, sitting in the dirt and playing. It gets harder to go downtown and have mothers ten years younger than I pawing at my clothes, begging with a small baby in one hand and nothing in the other upturned hand. It gets harder and harder every day to see all the un-cared for animals in the street: the dogs that are just too hot and tired so they sleep anywhere – on train station platforms, under parked construction vehicles, in the middle of the road – or the cats that are always too skinny and hungry and ratty, and the tiny kittens that just look like rat food. It was nearly impossible to walk away from a kitten that looked too young to be away from its mother, that stood there, in the middle of the road, mewling desperately, its mouth open and crying, open and crying, over and over again. As I fought the urge to scoop it up and dash away with it (and deal with the consequences later), I saw that its back was bleeding.
And what a brave hero I am for going through all of this… because I have a bed to sleep on and a toilet to shit in and water to drink every day… because I know I will not only eat today, but I will eat more than once today… because my cat and dog are properly cared for and have nothing but long walks and rays of sun to fill their days… because I have access to free healthcare and the best education in the world. Because of all this, somehow I’m the one suffering.
Well, no. Not because… but despite.
Despite all of my great fortune in life, I am suffering in the name of all these things I find hard to witness every day. This is the beginner’s experience in India. One simply does not have the emotional capacity or reserves in order to care for everything she sees or to hurt for all the pain that is out there in the slums and in the families with abuse and alcoholism (which is abundant). One simply cannot take on all the feelings that India’s buffet has to offer.
It is natural to want to hurt for these people, and it is probably even possible to hurt for them on a smaller scale as a traveller passing through. I saw great poverty in Mongolia, people who live without running water, electricity or easily accessible schools and hospitals. I saw people dropping their pants in the middle of a field to relieve themselves. But I travelled on, and this experience was but a mere fragment of my experience in Mongolia. The memory washes off with my next shower and is put to rest in my journal where I no longer have to bear the burden.
Why do you think you can turn on the television and see ads asking for money for those in need overseas without a second thought to changing the channel? I have that reaction when I see these advertisements for the same reason: emotional simplification. Mongolia was but a change in the channels for me; I was able to emotionally disconnect myself from the experience and not hurt more than I could handle for what I saw. Here in India, it has so far been impossible to shut off, disconnect, change the channel. It took Tania, who started One! International, six or seven years before she was able to emotionally disconnect in a sustainable and healthy way.
People just aren’t meant to feel that much. There are not enough feelings in one person to be able to cope with all the tragedies of a place like India.
On my first day in India, I felt like I was in a movie. The sets were so vibrant and realistic, the extras so hardworking and convincing. I knew this feeling would pass, as do all first impressions. Now I feel as though I’m in a place that is anything but a delightful movie but a place I can’t believe exists. Likely, I won’t be able to masterfully turn off my feelings for the two months that I will be here, but I will do everything I can not to scoop up baby kittens in the road, and I will make sure I rejoice when one of my students stops skipping the number 15 when he counts to 20.
Since I wrote this last week, the Delhi belly has gone away, and I have returned to my normal routine. I only missed one day of volunteering, but in that day, I thought I might really be dying. Undoubtedly, I feel stronger again, both physically and emotionally now that I am no longer restricted to two positions: horizontal and on-the-toilet. Things are no longer steadily getting harder to witness, but they aren’t getting easier either. I think it would take years, as it did for Tania, for a feeler like me to be able to shut off enough to cope with all that is India. It just can’t happen in two months, but for the two months that I am here, I am going to feel as much as I can stomach.