The Grandmother

This post is the second part of a reflection on my March trip to India. It would make more sense if the reader began with The Grandfather.

On Friday, some members of the group, including myself, had spent a good chuck of the afternoon in a small group discussion with the editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine Ivan Kostka and the author of the book Debrahmanizing History Braj Ranjan Mani. Both men were communicators, part of the initiative to articulate what caste injustice was and what the solutions were. This conversation, at the culmination of the week, made me more infuriated than ever at the oppression of India’s dalits and shudras.

Mani asked me what I was studying at university. Knowing full well that Global Studies does not exist as a discipline outside of European and American schools, I explained the major in terms Mani would understand: a multicultural, multidisciplinary approach to understanding the world. Mani, the brilliant scholar he is, understood better than I did what my major was about, re-describing it in terms of the blind men and the elephant story, where those who know only in a single part (or a single discipline) end up ignorant and in disagreement. He then started, it seemed, to make stuff up: “What a great opportunity. You do not just read books. You read people. People are texts.”

The return plane to America departed minutes after midnight. After an intense week under the pressure of eleven-hour jetlag, it could just as easily of been any other time of day. In addition, I was neither hungry nor full after tossing away half of an undecently spicy meal I had purchased at Indira Gandhi International Airport’s incredibly modern-looking food court. The time in India had been too short, as expected, but yet there was no reason to stay. My spirit was in a state of traveller’s moksha.

When I claimed my seat on the plane, both the rows in front and behind me were occupied by members of the North Park group, along with the seat to my right. In the window seat to the left of me, however, sat an older Indian woman draped in a orange-red sari. Her fashion and accessories indicated her high-caste status.

It took moments after I had settled down for her to ask me why all these Americans were on the plane. For the sake of the next sixteen hours we were to spend sitting next to each other, I spoke in half-truths: “We all go to school in Chicago, and we came here to learn about India and Indian culture.”

Her English was nothing spectacular, but her curiosity was strong. “Where here did you visit?”

“New Delhi, Agra, and Aligarh.”

“Where?”

“Aligarh?”

“I do not know that place.” This was surprising. If Aligarh, where we did our first footwashing, was in the United States, it would be the tenth-largest city, behind Dallas. Perhaps she did not understand my pronunciation, perhaps she did not expect any Westerners to be interested in this city void of tourism, or perhaps she simply did not know about this city.

The conversation shifted to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We talked briefly about how beautiful the mausoleum is. This prompted her to say, “The British. They conquered India for 500 years. At the Taj Mahal they took their knives. The British carved out the rubies and gems. They took them for themselves. The British tried to destroy the Taj Mahal. India became independent August 15, the year 1947. Since then we have worked to restore the Taj Mahal.”

It was hindutva post-colonial political discourse: the more England can be villianized, the stronger “traditional” Indian identity can be asserted. The plus-side is that the Taj Mahal can be restored. However, so can the oppressive caste system.

If there was any doubt of this connection, it was what came next. The conversation shifted towards people in the villages, predominately low-caste. “Those who live in the villages,” she explained, “are people without a light. People without a lord.” They were, in her eyes, illiterate, unable to learn, uncivilized. A fate they deserved due to the karma of their past life.

In a brief moment of courage, I challenged her on this point. “Is there a solution?”

Silence. “Yes.” More silence.

As the plane began to take off, we both looked through the window across the nighttime Delhi skyline. She asked if I knew what today was.

I did: it was the Hindu festival of Holi. While I do not recall the religious significance of the day, I got to experience, in brief, the ritual celebration of powdered-dye throwing upon strangers on the street. We Americans had spent our some of our last few hours in New Delhi covered in blue and pink and yellow: after showering, I still had some purple highlights in my hair.

“Do you want some Holi cookies?” She pulled out a ziploc bag of treats she had made and gave me a handful. I thanked her, they were actually quite delicious.

When I asked her why she was going to America, she announced that her daughter was pregnant with a girl due next month. The proud grandmother-to-be was beaming. Her daughter had taken after her father’s, the power plant engineer, footsteps, earning a PhD in chemistry at a state university in the South, where she now taught. The daughter had married a successful banker-lawyer type, also an Indian migrant. They had finally established themselves, lived out the American dream (the version colored in shades of hope, not greed or envy), and were ready to start a family.

I asked the woman sitting next to me if she wished her daughter would come back to India. I am not sure if she quite understood the question, but she talked about education in India: the ultimate goal is to make it to America. The woman showed me some gold jewelry from India she had purchased for her granddaughter.

As we landed, the woman pulled out some boarding information for her next flight asking me if I could help her with directions. She had mere hours to make it through customs, beyond the international terminal to her domestic flight. She had written in errors in the Homeland Security arrival form that I tried my best to correct. Once we touched ground, she borrowed my cell phone so that she could briefly call her daughter, and I then talked to her daughter to help clarify a few things. As we exited the plane, I stuck back for a few moments to find her an airport guide that would help her with the next many complicated steps.

It was a puzzling experience. I had been part of a group invited to India to participate in the low-caste liberation movement, my final act of the week was to help a high-caste woman, in whatever limited way that I was able. She was going through with her life to celebrate a universal joy, the birth of a child, that can be celebrated by oppressed and oppressor alike. She had talked about her rural Indian compatriots in a dehumanizing way, yet was she to blame for the political-religious system that told her this was how these things were to be? Could her missteps truly be counted against her?

Just minutes after sunrise, Chicago was cold yet bright. I reentered the city with a vague sense of all the privileges given exclusively to people like me (American, Protestant, white, male, etc.) that could just as easily be chalked up as oppressions. All the little things that I held onto, not knowing that they stood in the way of that vision of how the world could and should be. From deep inside came a prayer like a whisper, pleading for grace in that brief moment, when morning dew revealed the cobwebs of my invisible sins.

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The Grandmother

The Grandfather

This post is a reflection from the March 2011 trip I took to India through North Park University with Truthseekers International. If you are unaware of Truthseekers’ Footwashing Ministry, this may seem like a rather odd story.

During our first day-and-a-half in New Delhi, I was free from even the slightest tremble of culture shock. The cityscape seemed liked a remix of Tijuana, Athens, and Devon Avenue (the Indo-Pak street north of campus). At best, it felt walking into a three-dimensional National Geographic. Some of those in the group had never left America before, so, as the seasoned veteran to traveling I thought I was, I spent these first few moments helping the rookies process the sights and sounds.

We only had a week to get stuff done, so there was no time to waste in Delhi. We woke up early on Tuesday morning and piled onto the bus that would be our ride for our excursion out of the city. The Delhi sprawl took what felt like hours to get out of, but eventually we got past the slums and into the more rural countryside of Uttar Pradesh.

Indian economics are all about practicality, even at the expense of efficiency. Commerce thrives along much of the highway shoulder, and every moment the driver was negotiating between oncoming traffic and potholes, rickshaws and merchants. Because of the crowds, our bus often was slowed; because our bus was slowed, the crowds were able to peer into the windows and see the vehicle chock full of Westerners. Often we would catch a street-merchant’s eye, and he would smile and wave his hands, soon followed by all the men and some women that were by him. In this setting, void of tourism and foreign investment, we Americans were a spectacle. Not just a rarity, but a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

On our pale skin, the limelight burnt stronger than the sunlight.

We arrived in Ambedkar Park in Aligarh to a low-caste crowd of hundreds. Heads turned backward to watch the Americans walk through the sea of faces, all draped in the colorful fabrics of India. In front, a long table was set up where we took our seats. (I sat off to the side, right by the kids. Even though I could not leave my seat to interact with them, my inner camp counselor emerged as I started to play with them through making faces and other goofy gestures. Our fun was cut short when both the kids and I were scolded for not paying attention when the speaker took the mike.)

The next hour or so consisted of some worship and then some speaking. Messages were delivered both by area political figures and the Americans (translated, of course). But it was what happened afterwards the got the crowd stirring.

When the speaker announced that the Americans – those privileged recipients of the good karma of their past lives, those high-caste fair-skinned English speakers – would go out in the crowd and invite these shudra-slaves and dalit-untouchables up to receive footwashings, the confined lot electrified. What the brahman-priests had told them was impossible (or at least unholy) was breaking out upon Ambedkar park. The women were up first, as the men stayed back to greet the handshakes, stares and grins of the crowd.

I lost the pace of the frenzy. At one moment, I would be introducing myself to a eight-year-old and trying to get him to tell me his name; the next moment I would be posing for a picture in the lens of a cell-phone camera. My attention was being snatched a dozen directions, while every few moments that voice in the back of my mind would barely whisper, it is not about me, it is not about me.

It was my turn to bring a man up to receive a footwashing. I walked out in the crowd and found one reasonable looking individual. He was dressed in western attire and had a clean shave. The effort was futile, as I learned through his broken English: “I am a minister. Like you. I work in Aligarh. I minister to Muslims.” Like many of the men, he was not interested in a footwashing. Rather, the fact that he could equate himself to me through his actions (even if he overestimated how much of my life is actually about honest ministry) was enough. I thanked him for his work, shook hands and rushed off to find someone else.

Standing by the wall was a man who looked to be in his late fifties. Quite likely someone who could have been a grandfather. He spoke not a lick of English. His smile showed once-healthy teeth that had never had the privilege of a dentist visit. Grey stubble shone across his wrinkled, dark face. He stood at about my height.

It took gestures and a translator, but as soon as he understood he agreed to come up. As I guided him to the front, he started to take off his shoes and socks before we even got to the chair and water buckets. We took our positions, I cupped water in one hand and his foot in another.

Knowing full well how important it was to make a connection, and I looked up and met his eyes full of gentle thankfulness. In that encounter with a man who held more than twice the life experience of my own, both of us discovered the most respect that we have ever received from a stranger. A psychic warmth, both unnameable and familiar, flooded into every ounce of my perception. In comparison to this, an act of charity seemed like a cold sacrifice. Here was that heterotopic glimpse, for the two of us, that burned upon our eyes an image of how the world could be, how the world should be. The hope that gives the rhyme to living, dying, fighting and crying. It explains, perhaps, why Jesus had to wash the feet of the apostles: to calm his troubled soul in face of being crucified for the sins of the world.

As I brought the towel to dry his feet, he reached for his cell phone. We took a pixelated photograph together, so he could remember that it all was not a dream, that the walls between brothers were never ordained by the priests (or for that matter, the gods) but instead were a legacy of human sin. With this monumental memory so profoundly in hindsight, and I will dare say this for the both of us, the horizon of possibilities burst forth with glorious new opportunity.

The Grandfather

The Biggest Words I Know

My entire sophomore year, I think I turned in about a dozen pages of written assignments.”Hey, college ain’t so bad!”

My junior year, finished not even a week ago, put me up against what I estimate to be near one-hundred-twenty pages, or about ten times as many. These past few months, Microsoft Word seemed to be taunting me.

One of the more interesting projects spanned both semesters. In preparation for the trip to India (which was a success, by the way) I choose to write my Political Theologies term paper on Dalit Theology – a liberation theology produced by the untouchables of India. The extra passion that goes into writing something that one finds relevant helped make a pretty decent paper. It got recommended for the Undergraduate Research Symposium at North Park University – a rather important sounding excuse for students to dress up and play professor. I donned the dress shirt, tie and laser pointer and took on the challenge, armed with a sleek powerpoint and the biggest words I knew how to use without making a fool of myself (e.g. “hermeneutic”, “identity politics”, “consciousness raising”, “postmodern”)

I could blog about the inorganic weirdness that comes with trying to communicate big ideas in a stuffy academic setting, but I think my mind is still processing that feeling. In the meantime, a small number of people have been asking for a copy of the presentation/paper. If you are one of these people (I am flattered), the link is here: Engaging Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Dalit Theology

Now that I think about it, this blog could use some more personal reflections from the India trip. Expect those shortly.

The Biggest Words I Know

India on the Horizon

I am less than two weeks away from doing that whole India thing I’ve been telling everybody about. Visas are in the mail back, plane tickets are bought, funds are mostly raised (although I/we could still use some financial support!), and, well, it is starting to get real.

It dawns on me that although I have traveled more in the past two years than I have my entire life, I haven’t been to the “developing world” (if one doesn’t count hurricane-stricken New Orleans) since my junior year of high school. Am I ready to see such poverty again?

It dawns on me that I am going on a trip centered around the idea of touch. Yet anyone who knows me knows I am not a touchy-feely kind on person. Am I ready to wash the feet of strangers?

It dawns on me that I don’t do well with spicy food. I studied abroad in Sweden for a reason. Am I ready for fine Indian cuisine?

Pray for me, and us.

If you have some extra change, donations are also kindly accepted.

India on the Horizon

Trippin’

Dayton was that town, when I was growing up, I would drive past on the way to big city of Portland. With a population of only some thousand and being barely connected to the state highways, Dayton makes my hometown of McMinnville look like a bustling metropolis.

The first time I visited Dayton was in high school. A competitive spark had gotten in me, so I had signed up for a 10k road race, the Summer Fiesta Days Run. Because of Dayton’s small size, most of the race was contested in the hilly farmlands outside of town. At one point, when the route came back on itself, I witnessed a local runner a few miles behind me light a cigarette.

After winning my division in a neck-to-neck race against the other 15-19 year old male, I was privileged to shake the mayor’s hand. (In full disclosure, I had been whooped by the 15-19 year old of the female division, but she would go on to win the state cross country meet so I don’t consider that a huge personal loss.)

My second Dayton experience was this past summer, when I was asked to be a one of the guest speakers at Dayton Junior High School’s “Reading Day” event. The entire school had read the outrageously popular book Three Cups of Tea, with the younger kids reading an abridged version. To celebrate this remarkable feat (I know some colleges have made freshmen with twice as much education read the same book), classes per usual were cancelled and an entire learning experience was created around delving deeper into the significance of the book.

In Three Cups of Tea, mountaineer Greg Mortensen’s failed summit turns into an experience where a Pakistani villiage takes him into his care. In return, Mortensen promises to build the village a school, and the idea catches on like wildfire as he finds himself at the helm of an opportunity to bring education to Central Asia.

Appropriately, Dayton Jr. High’s event, some of the guests were Pakistani or Indian, invited to share culture and the game of cricket with the kids. I was in the other category of guests, someone who had grown up in the area and found a way to make a difference elsewhere in the world, supposedly like Greg Mortensen (although certainly not to that scale!).

I grasped the microphone tightly, sweating just a little, as I looked upon the seventy or so wide-eyed twelve-year-olds I was about to speak to. Not because they were a critical audience, but an impressionable one. As a college student in need of haircut, old enough to gain their respect but still not old enough to be their parents or teachers, I had their attention without trying. What would they think of me? Would they understand why I choose to go to school halfway across the country? How could I communicate that it was courage and not privilege that ultimately allowed me to travel to  these places of need – to Mexico, New Orleans, and soon India?

Most of my classmates who left home wound up somewhere within driving distance of their families and friends. There were those at the extreme of being emotionally incapable of leaving their parent’s walls, at the other extreme you have those who flee the country in order to shed their unsatisfactory identities. I fall somewhere on this spectrum but I’m not sure where. Sometime after high school I contracted a developing case of wanderlust, still unsure where it will lead.

I looked upon the kids, wondering what sort of message I was preaching to them and wondering how they understood me. Did I spark in any kid the idea that we live in an exciting yet strange age where the whole world is out there for them to explore, to enrich and be enriched by?

Even the cafeteria got into the event, sprinkling curry on the rice and the mystery meat. While I was getting in line, a rather small sixth grader got my attention. “Hey you…” he said, stumbling over his words, trying to figure out what to call me, a person who has been called by the world. “You’re the dude who’s trippin’!”

Hoping he wasn’t referring to a psychedelic drug experience, my response was: “Yeah, I am.”

Trippin’