It was like a vacuum. An open packet of biscuits, or a plate of peanuts left unattended for just a few minutes would halve in size. It wasn’t theft. Phones, money, laptops: none of them went, despite ample opportunities. Food, on the other hand. That was fair game. When none of us were looking, the staff from the villages would suck it into their wanting systems. One in seven worldwide go to bed hungry each night. Many of those “ones” were here.
My latest trip to Reusa, a district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, was as stark and shocking as the last. Intense, searing heat replacing the bitter cold of winter. Fanless and lightless. Dust. Paltry, threadbare shops. A chemist with a few paracetamols, some iron tonic and plasters. A roadside dukan with long chains of brightly coloured shampoo packets and washing powders, biscuits in the better ones, and perhaps a few bottles of hot water. You will find pesticides though. You’ve gotta hand it to those distributors. Pesticides and fertilisers, along with petrol, seem to have reached everywhere. Even if they come at a price.
No electricity means a lot of things. A lot of things we don’t realize until we experience it. It means no milk for chai in the morning unless it’s fresh from the cow, because there are no fridges. It means no welcome stirring of the air as the midday heat reaches its sweaty climax. It means no light past 6.30 in the evening, unless you have kerosene lamps or are one of those rare few with a generator. And that means no work, no studies, no play and cooking in the dark. Just…. waiting for dawn.
It’s not only a lack of electricity though. Clean water is but an imagination, unless you bring or buy bottles. Hot baths only accompany the burning heat of the summer. Healthcare and access to education is known only to a few. Sniffling, coughing children had welts and infections, with stomachs swollen and reddening hair.
While the place is beautiful, the conditions are dire.
“It feels like the asshole of India”, said a friend who works here on a particularly frustrated day. In many ways, I had to agree…. well not about the asshole bit, but… the situation here feels pretty hopeless. Pretty helpless. And to cap it, pretty oppressed.
“How can I know what is out there”, said Bitti Devi, a farmer’s wife. “My husband keeps me at home, and there are no opportunities here. We have no choices. I don’t know what the world has to offer”.
Yet the people and their warmth were a glowing source of the possible in some of the most challenging situations. I encountered generosity and strength beyond my wildest expectations, a feeling of safety that I did not bargain for, and a never-ending wave of smiles and curiosity, giggles and gurgles from the wide-eyed children in the villages.
The words that rippled through my subconscious most deeply as I left Reusa, clanging at the nerves of my mind, were need and vacuum. Despite the potential inherent in each and every human being, there are certain conditions that seem to leave almost any individual helpless and fettered, to strip them of their most fundamental rights and freedoms – as Amartya Sen might describe it. These abounded here, and it seemed there was no way out. It was like seeing butterflies trapped in a wine bottle.
I was left wondering how on earth I could help. What on earth was I doing there trying to talk about “meaning” in life? I know there is a logic to my questioning, but I am finding it hard to see at times. I know I seek common ground, common pathways. I am following a pull, and having to trust it is taking me towards something larger than myself.