Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of my personality would know I have difficulty finding reasons for optimism about the current state of the world.
Perhaps it’s because our society is defined by economic inequalities so large in scale that they are almost impossible to conceptualise. In 2018, 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population. Or maybe it’s something to do with the deteriorating state of democracy worldwide; over the last 15 years, the number of people living under dictatorship rose to 3.3 billion, an increase of over a billion people. A further 24.9 million people are the voiceless victims of human trafficking; a $150 billion industry which demonstrates the persistence of modern-day slavery.
Sri Lanka and Christchurch reminded us that we’re still in a seemingly never-ending terrorism cycle, inflamed by demagogues who stoke fears about migration from the Middle East; a region currently ravaged by two horrific civil wars in Syria and Yemen. The latter involves atrocious Saudi Arabian war crimes that the governments of the US, the UK and Australia continue to supply weapons for.
Oh, and those last three governments I mentioned, how are they all going?
Donald Trump’s erratic first term as President, the utter mess of Brexit and the relentless backstabbing of Australian PMs has reassured us that the ‘civilised’ democracies of the West have got it all under control. To top it all off, we have less than 11 years to take action on climate change before its catastrophic effects become irreversible.
I could pursue this demoralising tangent for countless paragraphs, but I would rather discuss how an unlikely trip to the subcontinent has given me some much-needed hope for the future.
One would think that travelling to India – the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty (218 million) – would do little to cure my existential frustrations. To be clear, the human hardship you observe is confronting and hard to escape, and a visit to some of the worst-hit regions can elicit feelings of shock, helplessness, even anger. However, what you also observe is the enormous resilience of the human spirit, an ability to rebound from circumstances that are beyond our worst imagination.
Take Matea, a tour guide who works for the Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi. Before the age of 15, both of Matea’s parents had died from drug overdoses, and she had her leg broken after being run over by a car. When all seemed lost, the Salaam Baalak Trust gave Matea access to a shelter home and a safe bed at night. She now works for the trust, relentlessly striving to give a new generation of disadvantaged children a pathway out of poverty. Still only 17, Matea told us of her dreams to become a flight attendant, and those of us who had the pleasure of meeting her will never forget her story.
The kids who live at the centre also displayed an infectious level of happiness that was in stark contrast to the horrific situation they came from. The joy they greeted us into their classroom with and their untempered excitement to defeat us in a thumb war or show off their dance moves was humbling: enough to take my mind off the visible marks of abuse on their body.
This kind of hospitality is par for the course and perhaps best summed up by an anecdote from Dr Prince Solomon, a social work professor who oversaw a student placement project to build houses for a tribal community in rural Chennai. While the students were building the houses with the locals, the community genuinely questioned why the makeshift huts included doors, as ‘why would I need a door when I want everyone to feel welcome?’
It was in moments like these where you realised whatever you were stressing about was pretty insignificant. As Connor Foley, another student on the study tour, said later that night, ‘if they can smile, so can we.’ When you observe the lengths some Indians go to help each other and their community, it gives you a certain level of reassurance about what’s actually at the core of human nature.
Ms Rita Panicker, the founder of Butterflies India, is another person who embodies the kindness of Indian culture. Since its inception in 1989, Butterflies has helped Indian kids find their voice through various outreach programs, including floating schools, street education, resilience centres, sports programs and a children-run development bank which teaches financial management skills.
Rita gained inspiration for Butterflies while talking to abandoned children on the streets of Mumbai. Since then, over 70,000 children have been supported thanks to her imagination and desire to make a difference. Rita’s story epitomises everything that is so hard to grapple about India. Making a difference in the lives of 70,000 people is a truly superhuman effort, but the scale of the problem is so enormous it hardly bears thinking about – there are nearly 30 million abandoned children in India.
In this sense, Rita is the true essence of the India I saw: a country of herculean individual efforts in the face of overwhelming structural problems. It’s the university student bizarrely trying to sell you children’s books to fund their education; it’s the rickshaw driver working all day for less than $10 pay while having his market undercut by Uber; it’s the small business owner who has come from war-torn Kashmir to sell scarves at a Delhi market. Sometimes it can be hard to imagine any of these problems improving, especially when 26 million babies are added to India’s population each year. But the more people you talk to, the more you get the impression that the young people are going to drive India towards progressive change.
The sense of optimism you gain from speaking to India’s youth is hard to put into words, so I defer to former New York Times columnist and second-generation American immigrant Anand Giridharadas, who penned this description of his return to India.
‘As I travelled the land, the data did not fit the framework. The children of the lower castes were hoisting themselves up one diploma and training program at a time,’ Mr Giridharadas wrote.
‘The young people were finding in their cell phones a first zone of individual identity. The couples were ending marriages no matter what ‘society’ thinks, then finding love again.
‘The vegetarians were embracing meat and meat-eaters were turning vegetarian, defining themselves by taste and faith, not caste … it is a shift in psychologies, and you rarely meet an Indian untouched by it.’
One can sense a younger generation finding their own way and slowly breaking free from old cultural rigidities. Every month, a million people turn 18 in India, and the country is home to more than 420 million people aged between 15 and 34. Unfortunately, the three-week glimpse I had can only be described as a surface-level view, and it’s something I’ve had to grapple with constantly while reflecting on my time over there. Extrapolating from anecdotal experience can only take you so far, particularly in a country with 29 states, seven territories, 22 official languages, 1.3 billion people and a seemingly infinite number of cultures.
And it must be said that the political landscape of India remains incredibly grim. With this year’s re-election of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the Indian people chose to continue down the path of far-right Hindu nationalism; and the issues of corruption, press freedom and Kashmir persist. In terms of the depressing global trends I mentioned earlier, India fares much worse than most other countries. A staggering 73 per cent of India’s wealth is in the hands of the country’s top one per cent of earners, and their tense political climate means they continue to slip down the world democracy index. Estimates for the number of Indian human trafficking victims range in the tens of millions, and the country ranks third for global C02 emissions with 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities.
But what gives me hope for the future is the resilience, optimism and vigour those I met in India took towards solving these problems. It gives you a new outlook on the type of attitude needed to tackle the enormous structural inequalities we face in society.
For that alone, I owe India a huge debt of gratitude.
Words by Thomas Kelsall
Photography by Connor Foley
This is an adaptation of a story that was originally published by On The Record, UniSA’s student-run news site, on May 12th 2019. All sources are hyperlinked within this online version.
This story also appeared in Verse Magazine, Edition 31.