True Stories from India

India1

A Celebration of Specialness

(Thanks David Byrne for the title)

Prologue

I’ve been back from my trip to India for exactly a week.  As the jet lag starts to wear off, the reverse culture shock fades, and things are beginning to seem ‘normal’ again, I’m left wondering exactly what I’m supposed to take with me from the three weeks I spent in Kolkata.  What smells, tastes, sights and sounds will begin to slip away in the next few weeks? What memories will become a part of me, somehow fused into my heart to become a part of me and my story?  And what do those parts of my story have to say about the timeless on-going story of redemption, healing, and reconciliation that God is crafting?  Here are 3 stories from my time in India that I can’t seem to shake…

Act 1:

Ashlee and I met some amazing Bengalis (pictured above) through a mutual friend.  They were fun, loved to tell stories, and it was a gift to get to know them enjoy our short time together.  Plus, their English was impeccable.  That helped. I remember when I first met them I felt immediately loved, accepted, and at home in their tight-knit band, and the more I got to know them, the more beautiful to me they became.  I deeply cherished our time together.  There was one guy (I’ll call him Tony) who I got particularly close to.  From the beginning, I had him pegged as a ladies man.  He was kind, attractive, sensitive, and had the most endearing and heart-warming smile I’ve ever seen. One evening as were gathered in a friends apartment, Tony confessed to me that he wasn’t quite the lady killer I had thought he was.  He longed to find someone he could share life with and grow old with, and he was profoundly lonely.  But no girl would find him attractive, he said, because his skin was too dark.

In India skin color is a big deal.  Every other commercial and every other billboard is for skin whitening cream.  You can see wealthy old folks on the street who have had so much skin whitening done that they look bizarre and inhuman. Parents will arrange marriages for their children based on class, wealth, family history, and, skin color. It’s something people will openly chastise others for, and, to put it simply, it seems like it’s a big deal.  It’s not altogether different from racism in the united states, but it seems to be much more socially accepted.

To follow up his comment about his skin being too dark he asked me to look around the room.  ‘Look at us’, he said ‘all of us have dark skin and we are not attractive.  No one wants to be with us’.  My heart broke as I turned my attention to the rest of the room…towards a gathering of some of the most fun and charismatic people I’ve ever met, all of which have been told since they were born that there was something deeply wrong and flawed about them.

Act 2:

It’s very common in Kolkata for middle class families to have ‘house people’.  People who live with them and help with the day to day chores.  They cook meals, wash clothes, sweep and mop seven days a week, and in return, if possible, they’re given room and board and a small stipend of about $20 a month.  In some ways, it’s an opportunity for uneducated people from villages to have a steady and reliable place to call home.  It might not be totally terrible and inhumane, but, there is definitely the strong, unmistakable presence of rigid classism in homes.  ‘House People’ eat separate meals at separate times in separate rooms.  In some families, being caught sitting at the main table would be grounds for immediate termination.  Guests don’t address the ‘House People’ and are kind of asked to pretend they don’t exist.

Ashlee got very close to the cook in our house named Sandhya, who was employed by the host family whose house we were staying at.  Sandhya would sit by Ashlee on the couch next to the table (she was too afraid to sit at the table for fear the hosts would arrive, but, she would relax and sit on the couch instead of customarily standing at attention while we ate), and the two of them would talk in Bengali.  When it came time for Ashlee to do a final project for her language program, she decided to do an oral history report on Sandhya’s life.  She would interview her, ask her questions about her life and growing up, and then get to present Sandhya’s story to her class.  Ashlee was excited about it because Sandhya was her friend, and it would be a great chance to sit down and just get to know her a little more.

The professors in the program were not very impressed.  For the life of them they couldn’t understand why Ashlee wouldn’t pick a more notable person with a better story.  They told Ashlee repeatedly not to ask questions using the respected, elder forms of “You”, but to instead refer to her in the less respectful “you”, despite Sandhya being older than Ashlee.  And when Ashlee said she wanted to ask Sandhya what dreams she had as a little girl the professor said basically ‘Look.  You can’t ask a poor uneducated village girl what dreams she had.  She did not have dreams.  From before she was born everyone knew she was going to work in a house.  From the moment she was born everyone has been telling her that.  She has never had a dream or been given the opportunity to dream, so it’s a pointless question.  In fact she won’t even understand what you mean by the question’.  No dreams.  No hope.

Act 3:

I’ve mentioned it before, but on Sundays Ashlee and I worshiped with an Assemblies of God community in Kolkata.  At their evening English service, which caters to young adults and college students, there’s a moment where they invite anyone who is new to stand up.  As an introvert, there’s a part of me that always cringes at this.  Sitting there in the pew my own heart quickened, my palms started sweating, and I had already decided that I was not going to stand.  But that’s not the good part.  The good part is that the pastor invited first time visitors to stand, then stopped and waited.  Eventually a single person stood up.  He continued to wait, and another stood, then a small group of three students, then another few isolated students.  Finally there were maybe 10-11 young adults standing scattered around the sanctuary.  I noted, after Tony had made me hyper aware of it, that many of them had dark skin.  After they were all standing the pastor counted to three, and the congregation called out in unison ‘You’re Special!’ and began to clap their hands.  It was silly.  It was cheesy.  And it was also beautiful.  And True.

Who else but the Church should be screaming from the rooftops that we are all beautiful in the eyes of God?

Who else but the Church should dream for those who have not dreamed, hope for those who have no hope?

Comments

  1. So beautifully said, Travis. I’m proud to know you…for so many reasons…but today it’s because your heart and mind are wide open and keenly aware. Surely this is the tender state Jesus had in mind when he suggested we love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

    My sister has brought the same stories about skin color from Africa.

    My dear (and departed) friends Anita and Anna Marie told me the same stories about people in this country who were not expected to share a meal or have a dream. (Makes MLK’s “I have a dream” speech all the more compelling, huh?)

    And yes. A model for any gathering of people of faith that is built on “some are in and some are out” is ridiculous. We are all God’s children. ALL of us…(even us introverts!).

    Hope to sit with you over a meal sometime soon to see your face and hear your voice as these stories attach themselves to your kind and generous view of this big ol’ goofy world.

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