INDIA. What an assault to the senses! Just to see how most of the planet lives and exists is a real education. There is so much uneven distribution of wealth in this world. It amazes me that vast swathes of our shared planet have no access to fresh drinking water. In Africa and India so many people walk daily for significant distances to fill up plastic containers with water, and lack the infrastructure we take for granted such as, roads, sewerage drainage, rubbish removal, reliable electricity and potable water. In India this week I watched people bathe, drink and wash clothes in the same foul river full of parasites. It really should make us appreciate so much what we take for granted.
I’ve just returned home to Israel after a tumultuous week in the country with almost fifth of the world’s population, India. I spent time in remote villages and Mumbai volunteering for the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM). In the words of the GPM website:
Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) cares for vulnerable children living in slums and poor rural areas of India by attending to the Triad of Children’s Well-being: education, health and nutrition. The GPM approach works with local NGO partners and women’s empowerment initiatives that have positive ripple effects in the slums, thus forging a powerful win-win model for advancing communal development.
Mumbai -it’s almost impossible to describe life in one of the most densely populated cities on the planet earth. You could literally fit Israel’s population into the city three times! Teaching children in the villages and slums through GPM has been by far the most intensely rewarding, humbling, important and thought-provoking experience. A real life-changer for me.
After spending time in the remote village of Ashte, four hours north of Mumbai, I travelled by train to the Kalwa slum in Mumbai with David and Leron, my local Jewish Indian guides, who are full-time workers for GPM. The train is so overcrowded that people are hanging out of the doors and some folks even climb on the roof and both the noise, heat and smell levels are intense. The slums beggar belief. Piles of rubbish everywhere, sewerage flowing down the dark streets, folks living in tin huts with no running water and extremely limited access to electricity. Overcrowding that is difficult to put into words and yet all attempting to preserve some kind of cleanliness and humanity and eke out a meagre living. I took a few photos on my phone surreptitiously, but they don’t accurately convey the scenes that met me. Finally, after viewing four vital GPM projects in the slum, soap recycling, paper making, the Masala Mamas Kitchen and a water purification centre, we arrived at the classrooms of GPM.
We had to scramble up a ladder to a second floor (above the GPM health clinic) where three classrooms of the Joshua Greenberger Learning Centre create a tiny oasis in the slums. The classrooms were clean with light streaming through the windows. There were about thirty students sitting barefoot on the floor ranging in age from 7-12, unlike other Indian children, they were not wearing school uniforms but rather a motley assortment of clean but shabby clothes. There was a local Indian teacher in the classroom and the GPM workers came to translate for me. They all treated me with mega-watt smiles and a resounding “good morning teacher” that just melted my heart.
I taught a class on art. I figured as I could only communicate through translation, I would speak the international language of art and beauty and at the same time try and convey some important life lessons. After introductions I asked them all to draw their faces and later to add colour. As one can imagine there was such a cute and hilarious collection of Picasso like faces as a result. I then demonstrated the academic way to draw a face and they all assiduously copied and learned. We moved onto drawing their hands and then colouring them in.
Obviously every child produced brilliant but different results. To wrap up, I reminded them that obviously that even though we all have the same facial features (and all the hands had the same outlines) all of the drawings/colours came out different for each person. This teaches us that, whilst we are all made in God’s image, we are all different. The most important thing is to find our own inner light, purpose and meaning. We shouldn’t judge people by their looks, clothes or material possessions, but rather by their kindness, smiles and actions to make a better world. I reminded them of their potential to effect change and wished them well in their journey. I finished by showing them the Israeli flag (that I just “happened” to have on me) and showing them the blue stripes symbolising the blue heavens/sky and water and white symbolising purity and mentioning that those colours are also in the Indian flag.
The level of respect and joy in that small classroom oasis, despite the abject poverty literally surrounding them, and the eager appreciation on the faces of the children at receiving what we take for granted, education, shelter, food (they receive nutritious daily meals and clean drinking water through through the GPM, and have access to quality healthcare at the GPM medical clinic, which they otherwise wouldn’t receive) just blew me away. I will take their smiles and appreciation with me all of my life.
We need to have so much gratitude for what we have and need to share our privilege with those less fortunate (and raise our children with those values) in order to try and remember that our eternity/ meaning in life is our good deeds and our children. By the end of our journey in this world, however long we are blessed to live, we need to leave the world a little better than when we came into it.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday was celebrated during my stay,
Your beliefs become your thoughts; your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions; your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values; your values become your destiny.
I just want, in my own small way, to try and make the world a bit better. There is so much inequality and, even though we can not fix all that is bad, we should, and can, all do something. Our Rabbis teach us, “it is not for you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from trying” (Mishna: Avot)
To help support the wonderful work of the GPM, please donate to my root-funding campaign. Any amount will be put to the best possible use providing education, health care, clean drinking water to India’s most needy children and help to break the cycle of poverty and ignorance.
Tuvia is the author of , “For the Sake of Zion, a Curriculum of Israel Studies”(Koren: 2017). How to order: https://www.korenpub.com/toby_en_usd/toby/new-releases-toby/for-the-sake-of-zion.html