“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
― Oscar Wilde
Driving out of Delhi toward Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, you pass the shanty towns where the most impoverished try to survive despite a lack of clean water, heat sources, or sufficient shelter. It is impossible not to be stunned by the enormous quantity of trash that exists in Delhi and the constant and futile attempt to get rid of it by lighting it on fire. With plastic bags and water bottles now part of the culture, the large pyres of trash exude toxic fumes. I spied a young boy, perhaps 3, squatting pant-less near a small pile of burning trash. Fearless, he played with the flames with a stick. His face beamed with happiness.
Core to the Hindu tradition is the acceptance of one's fate as a result of Karma. Your fate in this life was determined by your actions in a previous life. Only by accepting your fate and acting with integrity can you overcome bad Karma. Perhaps that is why everywhere in India the abject poverty is mixed with remarkable expressions of peace and joy.
While cruising down the backwaters of Kerala, I watched women and men washing their clothes in the river, beating them on granite stones to get the dirt out. Their children paddled around in the water next to them, washing themselves with soap, playing the Indian version of Marco Polo, and dunking their siblings whenever their parent wasn't looking. When walking through the crowded streets of Old Delhi, I came upon a mother holding her baby boy and kissing him with sheer delight. The mother and child were barely clothed in threadbare cotton, the boy without pants as is often the case with children who have yet to be trained. And, as if the Gods were listening to my thoughts as I left Delhi, I saw a big billboard over a homeless shanty that read "smiles are contagious, let a thousand smiles bloom."
At breakfast one morning in Delhi, I sat next to a woman from Chicago and her newly adopted daughter Jigisha, 3, who she was preparing to take back to the United States to begin her new life in the Western world. Jigisha, having been torn from her foster mother the day before, was the only Indian child I met on my travels who didn't smile at me. Her fate, it seems, is to grow up on the other side of the world. Her new mother told me she planned to rename her daughter Talia because it is easier to pronounce. Despite the horrible living conditions I'd witnessed, I wondered if Jigisha a.k.a. Talia was better off staying in India within its culture of non-attachment.
There is no whining in India, whereas in America, even those who have every earthly luxury at their disposal struggle to be happy. Our culture is so driven to succeed, so focused on our attachments to money, relationships, sex, and indulgent possessions that we don't spend time being in the moment. Many waking hours are spent calculating our next move instead of enjoying exactly where we are. It is an end-game that rarely culminates in fulfillment or the type of joy I witnessed in India.
While I traveled, I kept a journal. During the day I spent on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala with my friends Lakshmi and Shanti I had been writing about my own attachments and my delusive attempts to control my own destiny. When it came time to dock our boat for the evening, we found that our berthing place was directly across the river from a Christian church that was celebrating the birthday of its patron saint. Part of the festival included the piping of loud music from two loud speakers affixed to the church. Despite the Christian messages, the songs were sung in the language of Kerala, Malayalam, and sounded to me more like the Muslim call to prayer than ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS. In essence, it was annoying. We were told that it would go on for at least two hours and that there was nowhere else to anchor. My boat mates and I could not hear each other speak over the din, so I suggested we ask the boat crew for a deck of cards to pass the time.
After twenty minutes, the cook on the boat appeared with cards he had borrowed from a friend on the mainland. They were covered in an undiscernable grime, but we were desperate for distraction and started to play a game of hearts. Competitive by nature, I was trying to keep track of what cards had been played and how many hearts were left to be taken. Could I shoot the moon? Who, most likely, had the King of spades that would free me from his evil queen?
Then, the unthinkable happened. Lakshmi and I both played the same card - the ace of clubs - and we slowly realized that we weren't playing with a full deck, we were instead playing with a deck of fifty-two cards made up of the random combination of cards from two separate decks. Playing to win using strategy was impossible. The only way to win would be by chance. We laughed, and Lakshmi started to put the cards away. The music was still blasting at us from across the river, so I stopped her and asked, "why not keep playing just to play?"
When I looked into the faces of Indian children, many of them caught up in the joy of the moment, I saw my own little boys staring back at me. If my boys had been conceived a split second earlier, would their souls have been born into this culture, into this caste of untouchables? And as untouchables, would my children be more capable of enjoying their fate then they are as unscathed, beautifully blessed boys growing up in America? How much longer will they play for the sake of playing without the want of a specific end-result? My plan is to stack the deck of cards with duplicates before our next game of GO FISH to see how they do, and I do, playing just for fun.