Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Poverty is a State of Mind

Poverty is a state of mind

"No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality." -Napoleon Hill

Raj, Neeha's baby brother, Photo by Isabel Ruah-Hain 

The early morning sky is still star-speckled black and the streets of Kolkata are empty. We speed through the city in an old-school yellow taxi cab, heading to central Kolkata to the backpackers isle from Howrah junction. The windows of the cab slowly creep down with each bump we hit in the road, loose from old age. Blackened, crumbling buildings and tarp and metal-paneled shanties line either side of the road, a layer of trash covering the ground. Kolkata looks remarkably similar to Mumbai as we cross a bridge over the river and enter a part of the city with historical Victorian architecture, manicured lawns, flower-lined streets and national monuments. The cab driver stops on a street perpendicular to Sudder street, the backpackers' area, and gives us a rundown of the area: don't get a hotel here, get a guest house actually on Sudder, say no to the hawkers who approach you, and eat the food from the street vendors. We pull our oversized packs out of the trunk, pay him, give thanks and look around the dark street. Only a few expensive-looking hotels have their lights on and the street lights are off. A few people are milling about, getting a head start on the morning work activities. A few months ago, I would have been terrified to step out of the cab in a deserted, dark, dirty street in an unfamiliar city. But now I feel comfortable and confident, not bothered by the trash. We walk towards the lights and watch a man killing white, plump chickens, hanging them upside down while tying the feet together and hanging them from the back of his bicycle. He mounts his bicycle with his sixty dead chickens and rides away.

We park ourselves under a street light and decide to wait out the sunrise. The sky is already a lighter shade of gray and the birds have started their morning chorus.
A half hour passes and movement on the street increases as paper boys start their bicycle routes, shop owners open their doors, hotel attendants put out valet parking signs. Taxis patrol the streets looking for business and people give us strange looks as we talk amongst ourselves, taking in Kolkata, sitting on the curbside. The sky turns a pink orange as the sun rises up over river.
We have a chai and set off towards Sudder street, bags in tow. The streets are alive with honking, chattering and dogs barking as we clamber down the dusty street. It is an obvious travelers area: currency exchange offices, western-style restaurants, travel agencies advertising Sundurban jungle tours and loads and loads of guest houses. We pass dozens of women, men, and children living on the street, sleeping on the sidewalk under mosquito nets and using the hand pump to wash themselves and their clothes. Some of the people look nonchalant, even happy, with the corners of their mouths turned up and light looks in their eyes. Some of the people have deep set worry lines on their foreheads and permanent frown lines around their mouths. We pass them in silence, pensive as we ponder their lives.
After a brief silence, Isabel observes, "It really makes you think about poverty. We look at these people washing their clothes in the street, living in small spaces, and we have more money than them so we pity them, we look down at them. But we chose to go live in poverty in Sadhana. We used that same hand pump for carrying buckets of water for laundry and showers, we slept outside on mats on the floor, we lived a simple life because it is better for the world and we were happy. We lived in voluntary poverty and we were happy, so why do we assume they are not?" This revelation hit me like a ton of bricks and stayed with me for a few days. Who are we to look down on people who have less and assume they are miserable?

A few days later, we begin to notice that Sudder street is home to many different types of people. Drug dealers, drug addicts, homeless, hawkers, foreigners, tourists, travelers, Indian residents, business owners. The wide variety of people is a staple of any major city, every city has the same types of people all mixed together in one area. Poverty is inescapable in India, you can't walk a hundred meters without someone asking for money or food: they are on the streets, the trains, the metros, the roadsides, the countryside. Since my arrival in India, I have vacillated between heartfelt empathy and cold apathy.
We peruse the city, getting to know the streets around Sudder while hunting for the famous sweets for which Kolkata is known. We stop inside a cake store, have a small piece of chocolate brownie each, and head out again, taking our time and soaking in the sights and smells. I pass a woman crouching on the street, a metal tin in her outstretched hand, with a benevolent smile and warm eyes. I do my usual place-my-right-hand-over-my-heart-while-Indian-head-waggling to signify that I see her, I empathize with her situation, but I am not going to give her any money. She smiles when I do this, our eyes locking in a moment of acknowledgement. I walk a few steps past her and then on impulse, touched by her happiness and her recognition of me taking the time to look into her eyes, reach into my coin purse, turn around and put the coin in her hand, smiling and locking eyes one last time. Her wide grin expands even more, she nods her head in thanks, kisses the coin and touches it to her forehead as I walk away. A sense of fulfillment, love and appreciation for this woman and the light she gave me, flood over me, almost taking me to tears as I walk away from her. A desire to do more for her pulls on my heart strings and I wish to get to know her, know her life story, connect with her more. I carry this feeling with me for the rest of the day, recalling her smile and the love she gave me, wondering if I did enough for her.
Over the next few days, we encounter an obscene amount of beggars as we use the public transportation system to move about the city, visiting the botanical gardens and the street bazaars. My numbness to the poor returns, having seen this sight for the last six months, my immunity to it strong. We even witness four men on the side of the road next to a brilliant red building shooting up with needles, not one foot from us as we walked past. I turned around as we passed them to look at Matt, with a feeble smile said, "that was just insulin, right?"
Unawares, the city was slowly draining the rejuvenation I'd accumulated in Sadhana, draining my empathy and compassion for others while I ate fried, nutrient-deprived food, putting my body under a serious amount of stress. My tolerance for loud car horns and shouting street vendors was becoming less and less and I grew agitated with each passing homeless person begging for money.
The next day we eat breakfast at our favorite street cafe, ordering vegetable sandwiches after a serious debate about our health and realizing we had to get back on track. One of the homeless women on Sudder street who does henna as a means of income sits down next to us, baby in tow and a six year old girl on her heels, and begins to talk to a European woman, obviously acquainted. While the women chat, the little girl hangs on the European woman and I observe their interactions out of my periphery. The girl is adorable with a bright, wide smile, almond shaped brown eyes and a sparked personality. She is charming and charismatic, outgoing and a chatterbox.
A man sitting to the right of us, also watching the strange interaction, tells us he is a social worker in the south of India, working with trafficking victims. He tells us that India has the least amount of child labor laws and is the number one country for human trafficking. I catch his connection immediately, understanding the implication he's making. I talk to him about my background in trafficking as well and informs me of a job in Nepal if I am interested. I sigh, realizing that our jobs never really leave us. We exchange contact information and turn our attention back to the little girl and her mother.
The little girl builds an airplane and throws it at me and a game of airplane-throwing is born, each of us taking turns throwing it in each other's laps. She climbs on me, asking me for my name, and making silly faces at me. "My name is Nicole," I tell her. She tells me her name is Neeha. I am at first uncomfortable and awkward, not used to interacting with children and am also aware of how dirty she is. I relax after a bit, surprised by how good her English is and stand up to pay our bill after I finish eating. Neeha moves on to making friends with Isabel, hugging her and asking her to take her to the doctor because she has a cut on the back of her head. Isabel agrees after realizing the mom can't afford to take her daughter and the cut is severely infected, green and oozing puss. The little girl takes Isabel's hand and they walk off the street together. I marvel at the size of Isabel's heart, inspired by act of kindness.
Matt and I head to the travel agency to book our train to Varanasi and I head to the room to count the last of our money and realize we have enough left to pay for the hotel room and the train tickets and then we are flat broke. We knew this day was coming and had been preparing for it by learning new trades and investing in material to make products to sell. I had been crocheting water bottle holders for two weeks now and my inventory was up to six. We had made signs for salsa lessons and dread lock and lulu making and now just needed one for our water bottle holders.
I feel a wave of mild anxiety coming on along with a sense of challenge: it is time to step up to the plate and start making money to pay for our travels. I also feel irritated with myself for procrastinating until the very last minute to start making money.
I buy our tickets, inform Matt of our financial situation, and spot Isabel coming down the street with Neeha and a friend of the girl's mom with two big bags in her hands. I walk over to her, curious as to what all she's got. Turns out, Isabel bought the girl her medicine, took her food shopping, and was going to teach Neeha's mom and her friends how to crochet so they had another trade to make money. Wow. Floored, I gape at her for a few moments, soaking in what an amazing person Isabel is. The mom's friend standing at her side points at the bags and says, "you bought that for her, you should buy me some too." Isabel responds by telling her that she's going to teach her how to crochet so she can make money and buy herself food. I swallow the urge to say something at the woman's audacity and entitlement. Isabel asks me if I want to join in helping her teach the women and I reluctantly agree, already knowing how this was going to end up from my trafficking work.
Here's the conundrum about poverty that Isabel, Matthew, and I had been discussing since we arrived in Kolkata: giving people money only puts a bandaid on a bullet hole; you are only temporarily aiding that person. Once they use the money that was given to them, they have to beg for more money. The root of the whole problem is sustainability. The people need a steady income every day they can count on to feed and shelter themselves. What creates sustainable income? Having a trade, a skill, or a business. The women on Sudder street have a trade: henna. But only having one trade limits your clientele and ultimately your income. We discussed at length that if the women learned more trades, they could bring themselves out of homelessness. Educating yourself out of poverty. They could use the money they make from henna to invest in a needle and thread, and start creating products to sell. This also means spending a great deal of time and energy on teaching people skills they need to become self-sufficient and it often isn't received well as the people who are in these situations are also dealing with a slew of psychological ailments (depression, abuse, low self-esteem, etc.). This is why it is easy to put the bandaid on the bullet hole for most people. You temporarily helped, you feel good about yourself, you can go on continuing your life as you'll never see this person again. It takes extra effort to ask "how can I fix the root of the problem?"

We return to our rooms to retrieve our crocheting utensils and I take an extra needle to give to one of the women. By the time Matthew and I get back down the street, Isabel is posted up on the sidewalk a few meters from our hotel with a group of women sitting around her. She shows the women how to hold the needle and the thread and shows them the basic knot. I sit down outside the circle and the show them my collection of water bottle holders, making it a point to show them that they can create a nice product and sell it for a good price. The same woman from earlier says, "you give that to me? I need to make money," reaching out to take it from me. I respond, "no, we are going to teach you how to make these yourself so you can make money. This is mine so I can make money." She tuts at me and turns her attention back to Isabel.
Neeha sits next to me and I start showing her how to make the first knot: a slip knot. She practices it a few times, her smile getting bigger and bigger each time she gets it. This motivates me to keep teaching and we move on to a harder knot. Things start to go downhill from here. I attempt to explain to her in English what to do and show her with my hands, realizing her English is limited. I repeat the same motions over, having her try after each instruction. She has the dexterity of a six year old and not a twenty-five year old and I realize this is harder than I thought it would be. She starts getting upset as a random little boy appears at her side and starts taunting her. I scold him in English and try to shoo him away but he doesn't budge. Matthew, watching from beside me, tells me that it's easy, Shalev (our six-year old friend from Sadhana) knows how to crochet. I take a deep breath in and look around us for the first time, noticing that a group of people has circled around us, intrigued by our activity. I mentally take a step back and look at us from their perspective: a group of white women sitting in a circle on the sidewalk with a group of homeless Indian women, teaching them a new skill. How ludicrous we must look but it feels so natural and right, I return my attention back to the girl, not caring what anyone else thinks.
By now, Neeha is more discouraged, unable to get the next knot. A few of the women Isabel is teaching have the same dejected look on their faces, already mentally giving up. The mom's friend says, "it's too hard for me, I'll never learn, I can't do this. You just give me those ones and I'll sell them and you took her shopping so I deserve food too." The mom of the girl was gone; I watched her take off down the street with the two bags in hand a few minutes previously, leaving her children with us. I look at Isabel and she has a bewildered, tired look on her face. She asks the women still sitting with her if they still want to learn and she continues to teach them the knots.

A random woman approaches us and asks what we are doing and how much we expect to sell the water bottle holders for. I show her one and say 250 rupees. She and the men around her scoff, saying something in Bengali and laugh, "Not possible. No one will ever pay that much for this. You are asking too much. These women will never make that much money. You can't do it." Matt and I counter, saying it's possible, anything is possible. She scuttles away and I look at Matt, incredulous. (We sold one for 300 rupees that very night.)
At that moment I realize I am too overwhelmed to continue sitting there, I have to get some perspective but I don't want anyone to think I'm aggravated by what that woman said. I make up an excuse that I have to pee and collect my belongings and walk back to the hotel.
After I take a deep breath, I sit down, infuriated by the whole situation. The lack of belief in themselves, the absence of desire to learn anything new-the women were there more out of curiosity than desire to learn as highlighted by the short attention span and excuse-making followed by demanding groceries, the strangers unknowingly holding those women (and us) down by telling them they couldn't do it. These were the same dilemmas I came across in social work: putting limitations on yourself and letting others put limitations on you and believing them!
I sat there, stewing in my anger, trying to get my head on straight. What was worse-I had an uneasy sense that those women were being trafficked as well. They had all the signs of abuse and manipulation. I found it particularly suspicious that the mother took off with the groceries and medicine when she thought we weren't looking and came back empty handed. I knew where the women slept, I walked past their makeshift beds on the sidewalk everyday and she certainly didn't deposit her new items there. Another incongruity I noticed: if you do have a trade such as henna, how is that you are still homeless and living on the street? The women never strayed far from Sudder and the wise thing to do would have been to scout a new area every time your clientele base was low. But if they were being trafficked, someone was taking all their money and forcing them to stay in their territory. Another discrepancy: there was no obvious community among the women. They often fought and argued, right out in the open and it was nasty. This could only mean that they were competition to each other, another element of trafficking. Other women are your competition; you don't work together. One last observation: there was a man often patrolling Sudder and the surrounding streets, making strange phone calls and monitoring people's behavior. When we set out to start selling our water bottle holders that night, he came straight up to us with a menacing face and said, "I don't like this," and walked away to make a mysterious phone call while never taking his eyes off of us. He came back after the phone call and continued to stare us down, arms crossed over his chest. Not wanting to stick around to find out what that phone call was about, we left. All of these observations combined made it difficult to deny the fact that this had all the markings of a trafficking situation.

Feeling drained and empty from the crochet workshop and a brush with my past social work career, I unwittingly took some of the victim energy from those women when I considered my current financial status. The irony wasn't lost on me that the day we ran out of money, we tried to help teach the women a trade that could help their situation. Having to choose which meals to eat made me feel depressed, especially after expending so much energy trying to help those women and feeling small against a large system built to keep people low. We had barely 200 rupees left and a limited inventory of water bottle holders. At best, we could make 3000 rupees and we needed 10,400 for us both to get Nepalese visas. I was so tired, feeling stuck in a country I was ready to leave, that I went to bed after a cheap fried dinner.

The next morning, feeling especially low from eating bad food, we decide again that we cannot compromise our health and buying bad food reflects the poverty mindset. How you feed yourself says a lot about how you feel about money. If you eat like a poor person, you feel like a poor person. We decide to eat a healthy breakfast and fork out a little bit more money and to fast until dinner. We went down to our favorite local spot again and decide to split three sandwiches, saving enough money for a snack or to share one meal. We sit in our usual spot, smiling at our sandwich guy. He has a round face, with chubby cheeks, warm brown eyes and jet black hair. A man in disheveled, sooty clothes walks over to us, smiling with half his teeth gone and the other teeth covered in a black film. He has chubby cheeks as well, obviously having used them in smiling a great deal over his lifespan, and honest, light eyes. I immediately like him, despite his appearance. He asks us how we are and talks to Matt for a while, ending with him asking for us to buy him some food. "I don't want money," he explains, "I am hungry and would just like some food." Matt explains that we barely have enough money to feed ourselves and apologizes. The man says he completely understands and walks away. It feels so wrong to turn him away when I know we have enough money to buy him a sandwich. I tell Matt that I think we should buy him a sandwich, that I can't possibly bear the idea of lying to him and being greedy with our last little bit of money. Matt agrees, saying if anyone deserves a meal, it's him. He is not far from us across the street so we call him over and ask him to join us for breakfast. Gratitude pores out of him, touching his hand to his heart. He introduces himself and we tell him our names. Sunny tells us about his wife, how she was taken from him when they came to Kolkata from Varanasi. He tells us about his children and his eyes light up, telling us how they are still in school. He tells us about how he looks for work every day and no one will trust him, looking the way he does. "I just want to work for someone, I just want to make an honest living." His sadness is new to him, his facial muscles are so accustomed to smiling that only his eyes tell the depths of his sorrow.
We receive our food and Matt and I close our eyes to give thanks, a tradition we started in Sadhana, and when I open my eyes, I see Sunny doing his own type of prayer, touching the food to his forehead and heart with his eyes closed. When he opens his eyes, he waits for us to take our first bites before taking his. "You are very holy people," he said after he had finished chewing. We thank him and tell him he is too. We tell him about how we just ran out of money and are traveling the world and our next stop is Nepal. We tell him about our water bottle holders and he says that's a great idea and that he might do the same thing. He offers us pounds of extra string that he has since his wife in no longer able to use it. I smile, seeing how he wants to give something in return for the food we bought him. I feel that denying him the opportunity to give us a gift will make him seem like we pity him but at the same time I can't take what little he does have and we can't carry around pounds of string, our backpacks are loaded full. We decline graciously.
After the meal, we shake hands and he thanks us profusely, promising to keep us in his prayers. I feel good knowing that I helped in such a small way, and hope that he finds work and is able to pull himself out of the slump he's in. His attitude is very different from the self-entitled women from yesterday. He is honest and confident and understands his intelligence will pull him out of poverty.

In my encounters over the last six months with hundreds of homeless and poor people, I've noticed there are different types of people within this subculture. There are the people who expect you to support them, who get cranky and resentful and even follow you after you've denied them help. We can call this the self-entitled homeless person whose mentality is "I am homeless and therefore helpless so it is your job to take care of me and if you don't, you are a terrible, unfeeling person who I will harass a bit to make sure you know this about yourself." There are the people who are pretending to be homeless, ruining it for the people who actually are in need, and their game is usually evident in their demeanor and their self-righteous attitudes. Then there are the grateful people who are appreciative of anything at all-a smile, a conversation, a piece of food, a rupee. These are the people who have not let their impoverished state ruin their minds, corrupting it with victimization, anger, and resentment. They are kind, looking for human connection, and willing to give in return for receiving.

Poverty is a state of mind. It is believing that you are less as a result of possessing less in the world. It is letting the media, the advertisers, the economy, and other people dictate how you live and what determines your happiness. It is not valuing the people you have right in front of you, not valuing the relationships you have the ability to nurture, not valuing the food and shelter you have, not doing what makes you happy, telling yourself you can never be or do what you want because of your economical position in life or the cards you've been dealt. It is accepting less than what you deserve and never trying to change the things you don't like. It is possible to live in a small apartment, wash your clothes in the street and live a happy, fulfilled life. Your state of mind is more important than any amount of money.

I realized by watching Isabel fearlessly interact with the people on the street that I was afraid of poverty before Kolkata. I was afraid to interact, afraid to give what little I had to offer, afraid to make a connection, afraid to be poor or have nothing at all myself. I didn't treat the people on the streets with kindness or empathy, I treated them like they weren't human, afraid to acknowledge them, turning my cheek when they approached me. The fear came from the misconception that poor people are untrustworthy criminals out to rip you off or steal your wallet. I was afraid they'd take more than I was willing to give. I was afraid that what I had to give wasn't enough because I knew it wasn't enough to fix their whole life. I didn't see that the small gesture of conversation or food or rupees was enough to make a big difference in the life of another person. We don't know how far our actions will ripple, we don't know how one small act can impact another's life, but we can have faith that somewhere down the line, that small act saved another person.
Isabel with Neeha, Raj and their mother. Photo Cred: Isabel Ruah-Hain 

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