Empty Spaces

I arrived home from India three days ago. I had traveled internationally a few times before, but I’ve never felt as strange returning home from a trip as I did this Sunday. When I say I felt strange I’m not talking about jet lag. An hour after I got to my house, my mother and I went to the grocery store. While we were driving everything just felt empty. Where were all the people? The cars on the freeway were well spaced out, moving efficiently, and following rational traffic laws. The grocery store was air conditioned with samples of pastries and salsa laid out neatly for those shoppers who wanted to try. The sky was blue, it was 70 degrees, and the air was so so clean. It didn’t feel homey—it felt weird and sterile and almost foreign. That evening we went to a family friend’s house for a fathers’ day barbeque. We ate burgers and corn on the cobb while kids competed in bean bag tosses and badminton in the backyard. I couldn’t believe that I was on the same planet that I had been on when I boarded my first flight.

As we drove from suburban house, to suburban grocery store, to suburban backyard party, I couldn’t get over how much space there was. The amount of empty green land that surrounded the highways and houses was harsh to look at. The contrast between New Delhi and Golden Valley, Minnesota was more jarring than I had been anticipating.

While in Delhi, I saw a greater concentration of hardship that I have ever witnessed in my life. I’ve never been anywhere before with such an enormous population of under-resourced people in such a small space. While I recognized that this all felt new, I was so immersed in the reality of the culture that my mental energy was all focused on absorbing what I saw. I never really had a moment to compare it to how home felt, or to really process that consequences of what I was seeing.

My plane ride home was my first extended opportunity to reflect on my time in Delhi. I watched Lion on the little TV screen in front of me while being served little airplane cups of chocolate mousse and Delta Starbucks coffee. Lion is about a boy who lives in a Mumbai slum who gets on an abandoned train and ends up entirely across the country from his family. He gets adopted by an affluent couple who live in Tazmania, and decides to find his birth family again in his young adulthood. There is a scene in the movie when he returns to the slum neighborhood where he was born, and sits for a while just watching the kids there play with each other. In this moment he really becomes aware of how random the course of his life was. He may be dressed in nice clothes and have a steady job and may not be able to speak Hindi, but had he not gotten on that train, he would’ve grown up exactly like the little boys he was watching. He remarks in this scene about how random and unfair it seems that he ended up in the life he did. Sandwiched between two other airplane passengers watching a rom com and a superhero movie respectively, I began to cry like a baby.

This was my first opportunity to really let everything I saw in India soak in. I was crying because I just couldn’t believe how arbitrary the whole narrative was. Because Saroo happened to tragically become separated from his family, he ended up with everything he could ever need. The way Saroo felt, wondering how he ended up with the life he had, was exactly how I was starting to feel. I was born to two white American professionals, so I could afford to sit on an international flight with a little TV screen eating chocolate mouse in an airline cup, and the girls who I taught English to had not only never been on an airplane, but they had never even been outside of their subsection of Delhi. Never even been as far as the neighborhood I lived in with my host couple.

Where I grew up playing outside

Where I grew up playing outside

Where the kids I worked with played outside

Where the kids I worked with played outside

I feel like there’s a gap in my understanding of how we ended up in a world that looks the way it does today. How is it possible that people have organized themselves in such a way that New Delhi lives and Golden Valley, Minnesota lives can both be occurring simultaneously on the same planet, only a plane ride away. Of course this divide exists within my own community as well. Less than a mile from my house is the heart of North Minneapolis, the roughest neighborhood of my state. I don’t need a plane to get there but it also feels like an alien planet compared to where I grew up. I fully admit that these thoughts are not original or profound, and before this experience I would’ve rolled my eyes at a post like this. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about these questions in a serious way. I’ve always been fiercely passionate about issues of social divide, but always in the abstract. This was the first time where I felt really deeply distraught by the divide that exists in our world in a personal and emotional way. I wasn’t reflecting on these questions in an academic context or to defend a political opinion, I was really thinking about what they mean about where I fit in to the workings of the world.

I think my understanding of what life means has changed. Although I was always aware that life can take all kinds of different forms, being somewhere where there were so many people so close together, I felt like the value of an individual human life was cheapened. Women in the slums had nine ten or eleven children with hopes that six or seven would live and could help earn money. People were born and died without ever leaving the slum area they were born into. At home the things that could make or break someone’s life were getting in to your top school, failing an important exam, looking good in a swim suit, and whether or not you could afford to study abroad or go on a spring break vacation. I was never under the impression that this was the way life was for everyone. I knew that this was a privileged existence, but seeing people who have doused themselves with kerosene and burned their skin or chopped off a limb to make their begging more effective added an air of new reality to my understanding of privilege discrepancy. It’s not unheard of for children to become suicidal when they don’t get into a top school or are teased brutally at school, but over the past five weeks I met kids whose parents have chopped off their fingers to make themselves distinguishable from the masses of beggers, and who still wake up every day and carry on. I was struck by the extremely varied definitions of a good life, a bad life, and a life worth living are across the world.

I’m trying my best to avoid this sound like a “think about how lucky you are” kind of post. What I really hope to convey is not that I went to India and came home to realize that I have privilege. I knew that before I left. What I do hope to reflect is that the experience brought things into broader focus. As I continue on with the next three years of college, I seek to answer for myself the same questions that we all try to answer. What makes a good life? What about a bad life? What are the conditions required to make a life worth living? While I certainly don’t have answers for myself yet, I do feel more capable of understanding these questions in a global context. As much as these feel like universal human considerations, the answers can change so much depending on where you fit in to the world as a whole. Life is not defined in the same way everywhere, so it’s important for me to bear this in mind as I think about how I want to craft my own.

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About Marianne Drysdale

Marianne is a freshman planning on applying to the Ford School of Public Policy with minors in Community Action & Social Change and Gender & Health. After graduation, she plans to study public health with an emphasis on gender and its implications on mental health and happiness. Eventually she hopes to work in women's healthcare access and reform. Marianne will be spending four weeks in New Delhi helping run art, dance, and meditation programs with Prajna, an NGO devoted to enriching the lives of children in the New Delhi slums. Marianne's final project will explore how creative activities benefit children living in conditions of extreme need.

One thought on “Empty Spaces

  1. Marianne! Thank you for sharing this thoughtful reflection. I can relate to many of the feelings you shared. As you process your time in India, I think you will continue to struggle with the reconciliation of this place you call home and India, a place that you opened your heart to this summer. I cannot wait to talk more, hear about all of your experiences and give you a great big hug. Call anytime if you’d like to chat and I hope you are having fun in the great outdoors!

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