I look out the window of the airplane and see the glittering lights of Chennai, India. The lights have a breathtaking opalescent glow. The lights are surrounded by shadows, a new darkness that I was awakened to. This summer, I saw first-hand the hellish poverty of India. But, I also grasped that it is rich with the unfathomable wealth it possesses in its culture and history.

lives_andy_shahI reflected with a sense of awe and newfound respect for this country, India, the land of my ancestors. My experiences changed me, my perspective, and my opinions enormously.
The realization came, as most do, by accident, doing something that I had not dreamt of doing. I had walked straight into a slum.

My mother, two cousins, and I were headed to a nearby market. We took a wrong turn, and ended up on a random street corner. My mom claimed that she remembered a shortcut she used to take when she lived in Chennai. She led us around the bend.

The first thing that hit me was the smell—so putrid it caused my eyes to tear up. I heard women arguing in high-pitched voices, in a dialect of Tamil about whose turn it was to fetch the water from the well. Children were playing, yelling at each other to find the cricket ball. In the distance, I could faintly hear the “clink, clink, clink,” of change in tin cans.

It was a sort of perverse community for the destitute; the women worked together to find food, the children played together, and the men sat together begging for any spare coins a passerby might throw their way.

The paved road gave way to dirt, packed down by hundreds of bare feet. Rows and rows of small, ramshackle huts lined the street. This was different from the world I thought I knew so well.

I tugged at my mom’s arm and kept telling her that we should turn back. My mom, having grown up in India accustomed to these sights, assured me it was safe. My heart started to race. It was hard to figure out whether I was frightened by the slum itself or the extreme poverty that was in front of me. A stray dog walked by and turned its head, showing me its scarred face. It glared at me with its hateful eyes and slowly hobbled away. The dog was dirty, flea-bitten, and wretched, all-too-similar to the people living there.

From a hut, a man approached me. He limped over and his hands were outstretched towards me. He had a raspy voice and broken teeth and he asked, “Madam, what time is it?”  I looked down at my watch, and saw that it wasn’t working. I spat out an arbitrary time, and thought, “It doesn’t matter; he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.” I couldn’t force the flood of derogatory judgments out of my head. I look back and mentally reprimand myself for my brusque behavior. As I walked down the brown dirt road, my conscience got the better of my spite.

A filthy child ran by, naked, his hair in pigtails. He seemed to be having the time of his life, oblivious to the squalor around him. The sight was heart-wrenching. I peered into one of the huts, thatched with dried palm leaves. The place was completely dark. Nothing was visible, save for a pair of eyes seeming to scream, “Save me, save me from this life that I lead.” I ran out of the slum, back onto the street.

My cousins caught up with me and saw tears rolling down my cheeks. They didn’t seem to understand; they didn’t know what had just happened. Such sights were normal to them. My little cousin, no more than three, tugged at my sleeve and asked me why I was crying. I had no idea how to respond. I wiped my face and kept walking.  These scenes were commonplace for those who had grown up with them. This is the cultural divide between Indian children and American ones. Indian children are exposed to this day in and day out. Here, in America, we don’t cross paths with indigent in our daily lives. Sadness filled me in a way nothing had ever before.

I felt the need to make a difference—no matter how minimal—in these peoples’ lives. These children should know a world without hunger and poverty. I thought about how the  children were about the same age that I was.  It was rather unfair that I had so much, and they had nothing. How could they play so happily when their lives were just days and days of affliction and pain? These children did nothing to deserve these lives, I thought to myself. They are born in poverty in India, where there is very little welfare and sparse public education; so, they are doomed to die the same way. I vowed to make a difference to these people, one day.

Weeks passed, and the sadness started to recede bit by bit.

One day, we decide to visit the Brihadeeswarar Temple, commonly known as the Big Temple. My mom fixed a string of jasmine on my hair, as it is customary to do so before entering a temple. The fragrance was so sweet and so fresh. The mellifluous voice of a Karnatik singer greeted me as I entered the temple. I looked up. The view was breathtaking. Birds were flying overhead, and the top of the temple was illuminated by the pink and orange hues of sunset. Elaborate stone sculptures dotted the courtyard. I ran my hand down a stone column, sensing the intricacies of the carvings. The tiny figures carved into the walls of the temple were so detailed I could almost see their faces crinkle as they smiled. The aesthetics of the building were incredible.

My grandpa started to tell me about the history of the building. He talked about how the ancient Indians accomplished things that we would never be able to do today. The whole temple was built so that the shadow of the gopuram (a monumental tower at the entrance of a temple) never touches the ground, a phenomenon that attracts thousands to this temple every year. The temple is exactly symmetrical, and it required extreme calculations to pull off. He told me, “You see, what you Americans pass off as genius now is nothing compared to this.”

The truth in his words struck me. In our generation, Google is the answer to everything. In those days, the ancient Indians made the most complex structures without so much as a calculator. Yet here, hundreds of thousands of years later stood a monument not just to Shiva, but to religion, art, science, and math. I stood there, awe-struck; reveling in the moment, while a sense of wonder suffused me.

The poverty and the beauty of India; one plunges me into an abyss of sorrow, the other fills me with overflowing joy. Those two aspects tied together painted a bittersweet picture. These experiences pushed me to think outside of my little bubble.

What one believes richness to be is what will define their world and make them truly happy or truly sad. If people find solace in the blinking screen of technology or the faded green of paper money, that is the only thing that will ever matter to them. However, if people look beyond such superficial items, they will find that there is beauty and value in culture and knowledge.

To balance the scale, there is an equal amount of depravity in our world that the privileged don’t seem to understand. I have realized our world is comprised of so much more than what I previously believed it to be.

The whirring of the engine steadily grew louder and louder. I pressed my face against the window and got my last glimpse of the glittering lights of Chennai, the city that taught me more than a textbook ever could.

Swathi Ramprasad is an eighth grader fromNorthern California.

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