For the past six weeks I have been living in eastern Andhra Pradesh, India, dividing my time between the city of Vijayawada and a small village an hour and a half away, Srikakulam. I’m working with a grass-roots non-profit agency called Arthik Samata Mandal (ASM), which began as a disaster relief organization, and now works in a broad range of areas, including AIDS education and awareness, holistic community development, health and hygiene, women’s economic empowerment and micro-finance.
Part of the work I have been doing has been designing, shooting photography and writing copy for a series of brochures on three of their programs. As an outgrowth of that, I had a good session yesterday with my friend Subha, who was interested in learning the little bit I know about layout and design. We looked at a series of brochures— some impressive and some a little less-so— and talked about what worked and what didn’t from a design point of view.
ASM has tended to try to get as many words on a page as possible in most of the material they’ve published, and one of the options I suggested was that some bigger spaces and careful placement of photos and other graphics can make people feel a little less overwhelmed by type. That can make a page more accessible, and give the reader a way in. The margins were very thin on some of the pages we looked at. It was a crush of words, with very little room to move, breathe or pause for reflection.
A few hours later I was on the back of a motorcycle, weaving through the whirling waterfall of metal and glass that is Indian traffic. The cars seem to lunge and pile on top of each other like football players trying to push through an opposing team’s defensive line. They almost push each other out of the way, with no suggestion of lanes being observed, only an inch or so between them at times, though in my experience they very seldom actually collide.
There are very thin margins, and so much to fit in.
Today I visited several areas of Vijayawada, including what was described to me as a ‘slum.’ It is a government project to give better housing to people who were living in makeshift agglomerations of cardboard and plastic beside the Krishna River, or simply lying on the ground exposed, before they came here. At the first glance of a western eye it looks like intense poverty— extremely small houses crammed together, garbage on the ground and open sewers flowing beside the dirt streets. But this is the ‘after’ picture, not the ‘before.’ It is a huge step forward— living in rows of very small cinder block houses and cooking on small gas burners instead of burning garbage and dung to cook over. Having any kind of toilet at all is also a significant change. The government’s adjustment of the margins has made a meaningful positive difference.
Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with my own wealth here. Though very few people in my own U.S. context would consider me affluent (an erstwhile professional musician and current student, married to a teacher and very slowly buying a 1000-square-foot home from the bank). Here in India, though, I am unspeakably wealthy. I have several pairs of shoes, a camera, a laptop, etc.
The technological doodads I travel with these days are the tools of my trade, and I can justify them from at least one angle, sitting a little uncomfortably next to my belief in simplicity. On other days, though, my justifications appear rather pale. A woman I interviewed in the weavers’ village of Ghantasala a couple of weeks ago proudly told me that her daughter now had a job where she is making 1000 rupees per month, and out of that she’s sending money home to help her family. 1000 rupees, at the current exchange rate, is about $22. My laptop alone is equivalent to five and a half years of that salary.
I am not the first to struggle with the question of how to deal with my own privilege and live a life of integrity. Many observations have been offered before, including the Libertarian perspective that the way to help the poor is not to increase their ranks by joining them. The point has also been made that wealth is not only material— the social poverty of a country like mine, where most people do not know their neighbors beyond a nodding acquaintance and would never consider asking them to watch their kids while they go to the market (without even mentioning the lack of markets), is staggering from the context of a village like the one where we are living now.
Still, the inequity of distribution of money is inescapable, and the choices I make as to how to spend my own are sometimes hard for me to defend, even to myself. In the end, I make many choices each time I spend money: a choice to spend it on one thing and many choices not to spend it on others.
A more important difference than cash flow, or even balance sheet, though, is safety net. Arguably the most significant economic dividing line between myself and the people I’m spending my days with now and many people in the West struggling to make ends meet is that I have credit cards in my pocket. I have a margin of error. If I get sick, if I melt down, I can go home anytime; I can go to a good hospital; I can check into a good hotel.
These thoughts and feelings can quickly become as confused and chaotic as the traffic I hear outside as I write these words— a constant roaring and winding of engines large and small, and a cacophony of car horns playing loud musical snatches of songs in different keys, like an orchestra tuning up.
Everyone must find their own way to live and seek to make their own peace with these challenges. Gandhi, whose face looks out from every denomination of Indian money, would remind us that making peace is not the same as finding it. My task isn’t to find effective justifications to allow me to avoid the problem. My task is to engage the problem and wrestle actively with it; it is to seek truth and integrity in my thoughts and deeds, while understanding that finding those two things may be an unachievable goal.
The questions I start with are these— What actions should I take? How do I live with the imperfection of any course available, and find peace there, “walking lightly over the earth,” as Quakers say? What is true regarding questions of justice and distribution of wealth? These are my queries, to be contemplated and engaged, and simply to be present with. I will continue to think and write about them, and to experiment with my own life and actions. I will have many more late-night conversations and continue to read the thoughts of others on these questions, and I doubt that I will ever stop scribbling in the margins.