Evidence of poverty in India creates newfound perspective


art by Hyelee Won

Urmilla Kuttikad

art by Hyelee Won

India is starkly beautiful. The conventional hills and fields and rivers stud the countryside. But what makes India so gorgeous is the perilously tall hills wrapped in a patchwork blanket of red earth and a million hues of green plants, the way its sun-painted fields make a point of kissing the horizon, the way its darkly emerald rivers have nowhere to go.

But India’s beauty masks an acute pain, a pain so aching and subtle you have to breathe it to understand.

My family goes to India every other summer, and maybe it was just because I was younger, but the struggle saturating India’s air never registered with me until we took our routine trip there this past July.

Usually our month-long visits to India pass in a happy blur, and why wouldn’t they? We spend our days picking over-ripe mangos and papayas, trying to catch tadpoles in lotus-crowded ponds and wandering dirt roads overcrowded with people and stores: we’re living the good life.

But an excess of visits to temples (mandated by my parents) fill our trips. These visits usually mean long drives and, once we get there, walking barefoot over scorching stone or sharp rocks.

Needless to say, I am not a fan.

This time, not only did our visits to the temples fail to sit right with my aching feet, but they jarred with my conscience as well.

One of the temples we visited is famous in India and rightly so; with the main temple largely open to the gorgeously, wild outdoors, a massive wall of glittering, fire-lit lamps adorning the interior and breathtakingly intricate carvings etched in the dark, worn stone, the temple is stunning.

My mom told me that almost the entirety of the temple was made of gold. I think she meant for me to be impressed, but instead, my face heated in fury.

The temple was massive. Near where we stood when she told me, there was a pillar of solid gold the size of an oak tree that stretched past the cavernous ceiling and into the open sky.

What made this awful wasn’t just the gold temple, it was what we had seen before we went inside.

Getting into the temple meant hours of standing in the heat, and this throng of yet-to-be-solicited people meant beggars everywhere.

As we walked to the entrance of the temple, at least 15 beggars approached us, pressing, pleading with us to show them kindness.

In my mind, they weren’t asking for much, but when I tugged on my dad’s sleeve, murmuring in his ear, asking him to give them something, both he and my mom tightened their lips, shook their heads and pressed forward.

At one point a child beggar came up to us, his mother nearby. With grimy smooth skin and dark hair caked and powdered with dirt, I watched as the boy’s chapped lips formed an incessant stream of pleas, then I looked on, astounded, heart-broken, as my parents pushed past his wide eyes.

The few beggars my parents did choose to pull out money for were blatantly disfigured.

All I could think of was the awful juxtaposition of the solid gold temple with the pleading beggars outside; how in America, compassion doesn’t have to be given based on whether your limbs are tangled; how in America, you never have to worry about the number of children you can’t quite look in the eye as you leave their emaciated palms empty.

Once we were inside the temple, I demanded of my parents what they’d been thinking. My parents are compassionate people. In my mind it was utterly wrong to pick and choose who you gave your compassion to.

And when my parents told me that in beggar-riddled India, it would be impossible to give money to every beggar, that children were often used to manipulate people into giving money to perfectly healthy beggars, that no matter how awful it felt, you had to give money only to those who truly couldn’t do anything for themselves, it was little solace to my now-battered moral compass.

In that moment, I felt nauseatingly selfish. Things like volunteering –– whether it’s RBRO or NHS –– that so many of us do to fluff up our college applications felt fake and grossly insensitive.
I hate that I’m not always passionate about giving back, that the moment I stopped breathing the pain clogging India’s air, I forgot it.

Somewhere in the 21 hours it took for me to get from India to back home, India’s grief drifted with a sigh  from my veins.

It was altogether too easy for me to get used to the comfort of America when I got back, and it shouldn’t have been.

Maybe society overstates the message. We’re told we have to be grateful for everything we have in our country, that we have to give back passionately. But maybe, because the message is overdone, we’ve stopped listening.

An overdone message isn’t necessarily a worthless one, though. We owe it to every cupped, begging and nevertheless empty palm to heed this message to the best of our ability.
By Urmila Kutikkad
This opinion piece is labeled as such on the desktop version.