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Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
The word ‘privilege’ that has become popular in debates and discussions worldwide, reminded me of an old quote.
The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.
This quote by Eric Hoffer appears in my autograph book, a relic from my school days in Mumbai. Amidst pages filled with colorful drawings, and silly messages from classmates, these words, neatly copied out by a soft-spoken nun who taught math, looked incongruous, but apt.
I grew up in a small apartment in a suburb of Mumbai. Our multifunctional living room, filled with conversations and laughter during the day, would transform into a bedroom at night. The space where my brothers and I watched TV, played and argued, was always noisy. Whenever I whined about the lack of quiet, my father would tell me about how he and his eight siblings studied under a street light. Even as a young girl I could sense that a room with adequate lighting, if not ambience, was a definite step up.
When I was ten years old, a new girl joined our class. Petite and soft-spoken, Bina was the second of five siblings in a family with a difficult financial situation. The charitable arm of the community to which she belonged paid for their tuition and books. In return, she was required to earn good grades to ensure funding for the subsequent academic year. Bina’s diligence and good cheer made me less inclined to grumble about the hand-me-down textbooks that I received from my older brother.
In my teens, our apartment was upgraded by enclosing the fairly large balcony that bordered the living room. With the addition of an antique desk, installation of a wall-mounted fan and a table lamp, the rectangular room became a study. And the quality of my student life improved manyfold.
The living room was no longer flooded with morning sunshine but the new sliding glass doors of the balcony helped keep out the dust from the adjacent plot. A narrow abandoned stretch of land overflowing with litter, weeds and stray dogs, was being developed into a new apartment building.
Among the workers who toiled day and night was a young girl about my age, who carried freshly-mixed cement in a shallow metal tray held atop her head. A coil of cloth protected her scalp from the heavy load. When our eyes met, I responded to her open smile with a wave. I felt compelled to connect with her, despite warnings to stay away from the bustle of a construction site.
‘Shobha’ although a few years older, had never been to school. During our summer holidays, two friends and I taught her to write Hindi alphabets using a small black slate and a piece of chalk. We brought her snacks, a notebook, and pencils. She enjoyed spending time with us, probably more as an escape from her hard life, than from a desire for education. When the building came up, she left with the crew, having learnt how to write her name.
Urban poverty was real. Inequality was an inescapable consequence. It was impossible to not acknowledge the benefits conferred on me by the accident of my birth. For every pretty shoe or school bag I coveted, I could always find someone who was happy to receive my outgrown clothes and dog-eared books.
Years later, as a graduate student in the US, I was surprised to find that some of my peers were the first in their family to go to college. My eyes had been trained on the wide range of opportunities available in America. Inequality, although not as visible as in India, was an unacknowledged reality.
Time changes many things, including vocabulary.
In today’s parlance, would my childhood, which I considered modest, be classified as ‘privileged’? The dictionary defines privilege as ‘a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group’.
Every child has the right to be educated. Yet, not every child receives education. I learnt this lesson early on.
With no accumulated wealth or ancestral property, my parents decided to invest in quality education for their children. By opening the gate to learning, they put the key to a better life in my hands.
My ‘privilege’ was not the schooling but the recognition that the opportunity itself was a gift, one that I should not take for granted or frivolously forfeit. By diligently applying myself in school, I participated in building the foundation for my future.
Was I blessed? Fortunate? Lucky? Entitled?
The words being tossed around in the debate over privilege are powerful, pedantic, and sometimes, petty. But they are just words. Semantics can only go so far.
The words written by my teacher lodged in my consciousness decades ago. I tried to master the arithmetic of counting my blessings at every major crossroad in my life. And each time, it stirred in me the long-buried desire to help others, just I had done with Shobha that long-ago summer.
Actions speak a different, more powerful language.
Whether I offered to read books for the blind in Baltimore or volunteered at the adult literacy center in California, I tried to do my small bit, knowing that it might be just a drop in the ocean.
There will always be much more to do than what a mere individual can accomplish.
For me, the first step towards building a more equitable world begins with gratitude, not just for my blessings but for the people who taught me to focus on the right things.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog