When I meet people in different parts of the world, I am always reminded that we are all basically alike. We are all human beings. Maybe we have different clothes, our skin is of a different colour, or we speak different languages. That is on the surface. But basically, we are the same human beings. That is what binds us to each other. That is what makes it possible for us to understand each other and to develop friendship and closeness.
~ The Dalai Lama
I often wonder about certain people’s lives. Like the carpenter and his assistant who came to work in our house today. Or the court bailiff whose display of patriarchal condescendence was blatant and outrageous. Or the sales assistant in the shopping mall I went to this evening. Who are these people, what are the kind of lives they live, where they live, how they live, what kind of relationships do they sustain, what kind of person they really are. Also, what must be going on in their minds when they look at me, my house, my life, the external and internal intricacies of myself?
I wonder because I feel so disconnected, so distant from them. The conversations I have with them are formal, impersonal, work-related, and sometimes I even look down upon them. I’m the more educated, more privileged, more intellectually and morally superior – that’s the position I take with them. I’m kind, benevolent yes, but also harsh and rude when I feel my own superiority being questioned or overlooked. Like what happened today with the bailiff. Maybe I’m even proud of it, a part of me says jubilantly, “I taught that sexist bastard a lesson.” or “I silenced him.” I feel pride at being able to speak out, perhaps shout out, against these notions that so subtly and not-so-subtly teach women their ‘place’ in a patriarchal setup.
But then, another part of me – a deeper, harder-to-reach part suddenly sends a wave of… I cannot describe it. Pity? Sympathy? Empathy? This part of me wants to reach out to them, wants to make friends and get to know their lives. The lives of people I usually at best ignore or at worst condemn. This part wants to hug someone, just to reassure them and perhaps myself that I am just as human as you are. That at our core, we share the same fears and hopes and dreams. That we were born to love someone, that we might have got our hearts broken at some point. That we’re scared someone we love so much will one day be a cold, lifeless body. And then nothing. That we’re all headed in the same direction, the same abyss we are one day going to fall into, unknowing of what lies beyond.
And for that one moment, I want to take joy in the fact that both of us share this core. That we’re together, at least for now. But this feeling, this want scares me, or my more rational, pragmatic, socially-oriented, easier-to-reach self. I think of the problems that they – the poor, unprivileged, having to work as a peon/carpenter/manual labourer/and so on – face. Their quality of life. The socio-political-economic reasons behind such a vast disparity. What are the ways, mostly utopian, it can be fixed. Then I chide myself, because who am I to decide what work is unworthy and unvalued? Perhaps someone likes carpentry. Or masonry. Or even delivering letters. Maybe that’s what they’re good at, that’s their purpose in life. Maybe they feel a sense of fulfilment in what they do, in the service they provide others. Who am I, from my point of privilege, to decide someone else’s job satisfaction? Can I ever do that? Then I think about choice and its relation to privilege, but again, are we, am I, with all my material resources and ‘education’ really as free to choose as I think myself to be? Definitely not.
But as you can see, my more rational, pragmatic, socially-oriented, easier-to-reach self has taken over the thought process and does its best to intellectualise and justify the feeling that was released by my harder-to-reach self. It is because of this that I need to write, to express this jumble of thoughts and feelings on paper before they vanish, before they are taken over thoughts that do often rule our daily lives – my increasing weight, whether a new diet and exercise routine will work, will I ever be thin enough, my new clothes, my shiny new wallet, my glittery bag, my amazing boyfriend, my mane of hair that is also the bane of my life, and so on.
I want to capture that feeling in these words. I want to retain it because it is powerful and deep, like a jolt of electricity under my skin. Like a cold shower on a wintry morning. I want to revisit it sometimes, and wake up from my shiny happy world. Because it leaves me uneasy. There are no intellectual-sounding solutions that can bridge this gap between you and me, a fissure hacked out from generations of disconnection. I simply cannot reach out; I am scared of doing so. I’m scared of explaining to myself the simple little truth that I’m as human as that man out there, and like him too, I have to face my share of losses, resulting, ultimately, in the loss of my own life.
Once there was a little puppy stuck in the rains that was crying for help in the yard outside my house. That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about that little mutt and crying, even though my father and I had ‘rescued’ it and made a home for it. Much more recently, I read about an old man who patiently stands outside Connaught Place in Delhi and sells toys so he can sustain his family, years after his retirement. Once again, the tears didn’t stop, although after a point the rational mind failed to understand why the tears were coming out. What is it about these stories that makes me so emotional? What is so universal about pain, about suffering, that reaches spaces within us beyond the various walls and abysses of identities we have created for ourselves?
Maybe there isn’t one way to reach across and communicate and share our mutual humanness. Maybe, sometimes, it is a small step – a smile, a tear, a dabeli in the rain, or even a look – that creates tiny pathways and alleys that crisscross across the yawning gap between our souls. These are our only hope.