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Archive for June, 2019

Many decades ago, when my husband Joe and I were in our early 20’s, we joined the Peace Corps and lived in rural, northern India for several years, during a time when our village was experiencing famine, where rains had been very limited, and nearby crops were terrifyingly scarce. 

Water source in our village.

When we moved into our new little village, several hours away from the state capital of Patna, Bihar, we tried to strip down to what we thought was simple living. We wanted to show our respect to those around us who were enduring a famine, and yet we failed to appear to our neighbors as anything but privileged.

We worked to prove to ourselves and our neighbors that we were living a minimal lifestyle and realized in the process that we needed to learn what minimal actually meant. We lived minimally, while others lived in deprivation. The difference between the two is enormous.

Our simple life with minimal consumption that we chose was still much easier compared with the stress from hunger and danger felt by our new neighbors.  We, as young Americans, had promises of future water, electricity, and food.    Our situation was temporary.  The situation of our neighbors was not.

Most of our neighbors had a simple life. They lived with dirt floors. Some had cement homes, but not many.  They rarely owned chairs or tables or much furniture of any kind.  They squatted on the ground instead, using the floor as their table.  The squatting technique was very efficient, as we never had to carry chairs with us in order to sit down and relax.  When our neighbors said, “Sit down, please.”  We all just squatted to the ground and began chatting.  It saved a whole bunch of time and money.

It turns out that we probably never did completely succeed in fooling them into believing that we were actually deprived. Because in fact, we were not. As Mohatma Gandhi taught, we were living a minimal lifestyle which is actually a relatively comfortable way to live.  While Gandhi supported a minimal lifestyle, he fought against deprivation. Deprivation meant lack of resources for even the most basic items of food, shelter and water. He fought against inequitable distribution; against the massive gathering of resources to fewer than 1 percent of the population while the rest starved. We are not deprived when we live simply. I learned this to be true many years ago. It remains true today.

Mohatma Gandhi’s simple living arrangement in Mumbai

Some families in our little community used banana leaves for plates.  Most ate with their hands. The food tasted just as good no matter what tools were used for eating.

After eating, they brushed their teeth with a stick from a Neem tree. Their water carried for teeth brushing often brought to their home in a small brass or aluminum pot, pumped by hand from the nearest tube well.  There were no manufactured tooth brushes, no tubes of toothpaste.  Just the branch, and scrubbing of the gums.

Some slept on small beds made of woven rope called “charpuoys”, often sharing the simple bed with others.  Others took to the floor, unrolling a cloth or woven straw mat on which to sleep. This was simple living.

During a famine, such as the one that we were in, almost none had sufficient food, including ourselves. This is because the markets did not sell much food. This was deprivation.

The year that we moved to our little village, there was a serious lack of rain which limited food supplies. People were thin and although I was 5’6″ and weighed 110 pounds, my nickname was “Moti Mary”, or “Fat Mary”.  They didn’t mean it to be rude that they referred to me as fat,  it was just a fact that I was fat, by their famine standards.  Powerfully fat. It was obvious that even thought we had less food than usual, our food supply was minimal; it was not deprived as was our neighbors.

We were living at the time, on the Peace Corps salary and saving half of it.  This was because there was little to buy. Supplies were limited.  Our local market sold matches, cigarettes (one at a time) , some spices, lentils, rice and vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Sometimes there was a basket of fish to choose from, hauled out of the Ganges River and toted the long distance to our inland village, without refrigeration. It didn’t look so good by the time it arrived.

Our villagers were weakened from the lack of food, dehydrated from the severe heat of summer, and many, including our government co-workers had difficulty walking more than a block or two before becoming exhausted. They often asked to sit for a moment by the side of the road to catch their breath.

They all needed food and water and had little. The seriousness of this calamity slowly overtook all other concerns. Mothers had difficulty breastfeeding; children had difficulty thinking about school; workers had difficulty walking to work.

Many times, as we walked from village to village, young mothers offered their tiny infants, or asked me to stop and see their baby, then pleaded with us to take the baby. There is no way to describe my sadness and astonishment to witness a mother holding her child out and asking it to be taken from her, in hopes that it would be fed. 

I was 23 years old at the time and had no way to explain to them what I would need to do to take care of all the infants in my village who were famished. I felt powerless, and ashamed that there was so little that I could do about a massive famine.   The infants’ shallow breathing and visible ribs, their frozen faces and sad, weary looks were difficult to experience. Yet, I knew that eventually I would leave and be going somewhere where there was food, shelter, wealth. My situation was temporary, theirs was not. Many of our families fled to other areas, seeking food.

We followed some of our families who had fled to the streets of Calcutta and we spent time with them to better understand what happened to them when they fled their homes seeking a better situation.  

We found our migrating villagers living on the streets of the slums of Calcutta, as a group, without proper shelter.  We found some who had made themselves a home in large drain pipe.  One of our saddest moments was finding women from our famine area who was standing on a huge pile of animal feces that had been shoveled up from the street. She was with her small children fastidiously separating the grains they found in the animal waste, one grain at a time.  They placed each tiny grain that they could extract from the waste and placed it in their basket so that they might later grind it by hand, using two stones, and make it into an evening meal. 

There was no place to run from this famine. It pervaded everywhere.

We frequently visited our local market in the early morning or late afternoon and found little to buy; perhaps a few tomatoes no bigger than the top of ones thumb; potatoes equally small; perhaps an unrefrigerated fish carried for miles from the Ganges River.  We learned that if we could put our finger through the already rotting fish, that we should not buy it.

Most of us were ill from the hot weather, limited safe water, lack of food and unsanitary conditions.  

We lived for several years in three rooms above a small cloth shop in the middle of the market. The building was made of cinder block. We had no electricity, no stove, only a small kerosene single burner, no running water.  In a tiny room in the back, there was a  hole in the floor, used as a toilet, flushed by the buckets of water we carried from a tube well shared by hundreds of families, located several blocks away.

We carried our water up the stairs and into our apartment using a bucket, using each bucket of water carefully and respectfully.  We boiled some of the water for drinking.  We might use a couple of cups of water to wash some dishes and then collect the rinse water for flushing waste down the toilet, or for mopping a floor.  We tried to use no more than a bucket or two of water per day, for all purposes, owing to how hard it was to carry the water for several blocks and up a set of stairs to our place.

Water was a scarce resource.  The water we used was not available to someone else. The lesson we learned in this little village, was that we actually owned much less than we thought of the absolute essentials such as water, air and energy. They were shared by all, shared with humans, plants and animals. We were all in this together.

One curse that we felt, was that no matter how egalitarian we tried to be, our particular kind of wealth, that is that we were people from a rich, “developed” country, was obvious. We all, as a people of the United States, consumed too much, very quickly, and without apology. It was our signature statement, as a people.

The fact that we had a bathroom in our simple apartment made us seem wealthy, to others who made the early morning visit to the fields.

But there were other signs of our wealth as well. We carried pencils and pens and had paper notebooks that gave us away.  People observed our obvious wealth when they came to visit us and saw plates, silverware, pens and pencils.  When we first arrived, Joe wore a watch.  Eventually he took it off and put it away as it caused so much distraction.

We put our things in a locked trunk  leaving only the essentials visible, such as a cup, a plate and a spoon, a pot or two for cooking, one blanket or a sheet on our wooden bed.  A pillow, a mosquito net, and that is it.

Yes, we still seemed wealthier than others.

Such a life as we led for two years, brought to our attention repeatedly, how much we had consumed, how recklessly we had consumed, before arriving in this little village.

We were amazed to learn how much we could live without.  As our lives got simpler, our needs diminished.

I will never forget how it felt when after several years, after we had developed good friends, had sat through numerous evenings listening to their tall tales, their music, their traditions and meals.  We left that little village, saying goodbye to people we knew we would never see again, wondering how they would ever survive the lack of rains, the excessive temperatures. On the day we left, everything felt so out of control because heavy rains had arrived and were splashing over the empty fields, creating great gullies where land used to be.  In a matter of a few hours, our people went from experiencing not enough water, to too much.

The day we left, cattle were swimming in the fields, backs barely showing above the water. We watched from our train windows, as  our coal-stoked train slowly crept onward towards Patna, seeing both sides of the train surrounded by flood waters, looking out at houses sinking in the water and mud.

We felt guilty and deeply saddened leaving our village, knowing we would probably never see anyone again. We  realistically comprehended how powerless we were to  do anything about their situation, given that the forces they were fighting were so ferocious and also acknowledging that although we had survived in this little village for over two years, we always knew it was temporary, that we had backup.

When I left our state of Bihar, I weighed 99 pounds, skinny and luckily still reasonably healthy.  Joseph and I were lightweight, wizened by what he had learned, and humbled.

It was our first realization of how little control we actually had over world events.    We felt deep respect for the families we left behind, and saddened by our lack of abilities to do much for them other than to reassure them that there were other parts of the world not yet in this sad state of affairs.  It was not like this everywhere, we told them.  It should get better.

We were trying to assume that “this too, shall pass.,” encouraging ourselves and them, to keep going.

And we said goodbye.  However, this too, has not passed. The unequal distribution of resources, the increased scarcity of clean air and water, the drastic growth of the human population at the expense of other plants and animals is continuing unabated.

Our memories of our villagers live on, inspiring us to live simply, in honor of these families we once knew and loved.  We have learned the importance of safe water and air, secure food supplies, and the necessity of proper distributional systems for shared resources, for education, health and quality of life issues such as welfare.  We all see what life is like without this safety net for the planet. Evidence surrounds us. We just have to look and see it, read the facts and comprehend the implications.

Our situation is not completely hopeless. We all have a little power and potential to live simply and give back to our environment as much as we can, knowing that in the future, it really could be dangerous if we do not conserve and replace our natural resources and use an equitable distributional system.

We all need to learn how to share more, to live more simply and wisely. We should acknowledge that famine, war, extreme consumption of limited resources, and the unfair or maldistribution of necessary resources anywhere, is happening to all of us. Deprivation can also become a shared experience, if we do not take care of our planet.

Trust me, living simply may be comfortable, deprivation is not.

Street living under deprivation

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