Mine was almost instantly echoed in the cough of a ragpicker woman outside my taxi window. She and her picking partner were crossing the road and stopped on the median to await the opportune moment to scurry across the busy Bombay road. The fact that our coughs were nearly synchronous seemed not the least bit coincidental to me, but indicative of the extent to which we had melded into sameness.
In the next moment, the last few weeks flashed back to me, although flashback doesn’t accurately describe the experience. There was no timing or sequence or separation in the memories from that moment, such that even the word ‘memory’ was rendered inaccurate. It was as though all that had happened in the last few weeks, my first few weeks in India, was still happening… simultaneously. Each discrete element overlapped with every other element, occupying no additional space or time, nor existing separately from what was unfolding in front of my eyes. Past and present were completely blended, both existing equally at once– the echo indistinguishable from its instance. Or maybe it was just sleep deprivation.
Since I knew that I would have other commitments to tend to as my time in India progressed, my first few weeks were heavily steeped in the ragpicker experience. Living, dreaming, breathing in the world that is theirs to figure out how to bring in more light. Conversations with recyclable product makers, visits to municipal dumpsites, interviews with dump scavengers, scheme-dodging with trash kingpins, dreaming with waste engineers, visioning trash separation programs, chatting with garbage collectors, educating hesitant neighbors, connecting to roadside sorters, all were present in that blended moment. Through the course of the last two weeks, I had been so deeply involved in this world that I felt as though I myself was a ragpicker, though one finding trash and treasure alike on neglected roads that only a few had seemed to walk down. When I first arrived in Bombay a day prior, I felt a bit out of place—until I saw the ragpickers and reflexively thought, “There’s my people, the ones I can relate to.” I felt instantly at home.
So why shouldn’t we cough at the same time? What they felt, I felt. Their problems were my problems. In fact, no ‘they’s and ‘I’s, ‘their’s or ‘mine’ existed, just ‘we’ and ‘ours’. Sure, my cough was precipitated by the diesel truck belching soot into my left window, and hers was something else, but I was grateful for, and marveling at the harmony despite the many outward differences in our conditions.
Things were powerfully at flow.
The crackling sound of her blowing her nose.
A glob of thick, green phlegm began to buildup under her nostril, still dangling despite its incredible size. I understood immediately that her cough (and phlegm) originated from a severe respiratory infection. She kept blowing, and then grabbed the snot and flung it to the ground with a thrash of her wrist, wiping the snotty hand on her sari.
At the same time that I was feeling thoroughly disgusted by the sight of it all, a powerful impulse spontaneously arose that screamed that she and I were VERY different. Miles apart. Nothing alike. I wasn’t a ragpicker, nor did I want to have much to do with them if it meant having to deal with as much green phlegm as I had just seen. I felt so strongly repulsed that impatience for movement away from her and her infection instantly arose. With that impatience came an agitation that completely shifted my internal energy dynamics. Suddenly conscious of being tired and hungry, a self-serving chatter that usually forms some component of the background static of my mental noise began to re-assert itself.
The flow had been violently interrupted. Like a spoon under the kitchen tap when its turned all the way up, diffracting what once was a beautiful, singular stream into a chaotic, splattering, messy affair.
Trying to ignore what just happened, I continued on my way to a meeting with Jyoti of Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS), an NGO that has worked with ragpickers for over 30 years, to learn about the work they’ve done to empower these women. Not a fan of reinventing the wheel, I’m never hesitant to stand on the shoulders of giants and copy shamelessly from something that works. Archana S., whom I hadn’t seen for about a year, was also interested in learning about the NGO and met up with me outside their office. Archana wrote a bit about what we did on her blog, but what remained hidden was that I was quickly becoming very tired, distracted, and somewhat irritated. We went from site to site and spoke to person after person with my inner state continuing to decline. By the end of a few hours, I was thoroughly exhausted, had a headache, and wanted to go home, though I was doing a masterful job of keeping up appearances. It was the first time Archana had hung out with me in the context of ‘service’ and I didn’t want to convey the wrong attitude, or reinforce a resistance to serving in filthy environs that I was observing in her. I also didn’t want to seem ungrateful to the woman who had so graciously escorted us from location to location and waited patiently as I took my sweet time gleaning information. Instead, I suggested that we meet up with a friend and all go out to lunch.
Though significantly worn by this point, I reached down deep to project positive energy. Archana was visibly drained and our hostess also seemed tired. I wondered how much of it had been my own state subtly dragging them down. I thought of Nipun at Jayal’s wedding and how he continued to give out energy despite his condition, and reasoned that if I had any role in bringing these two down, I should give it my all to raise them back up the way Nipun would. Throwing down whatever I had, the energy state of the group slowly took a turn for the better (though the food and water probably had something to do with it). Still, by the time I reached home, I crashed. I must have slept 15 of the next 18 hours, still tired and nearly missing my bus to Pune the next morning (for yet another meeting with another NGO). The full day in Pune and the three hour plus bus ride back to Bombay didn’t do much to make me less tired, so I was looking forward to stretching out on my berth that night on the train ride back to Ahmedabad.
I awoke the next morning in A’bad with a sore throat. That evening, Arzoo was putting on a performance produced by former Indicorps fellow Shivana Naidoo. I had signed up to be the videographer for the event and arrived at the venue a bit early to set up. My sore throat was quickly ripening into something worse, but I was still completely functional. Halfway through the event, a high fever hit so I handed off the camera and passed out in the theater.
In hindsight, it’s so clear that the illness began the moment I resisted the flow. The moment I placed that internal wall of separation between myself and the sick ragpicking woman, I blocked something powerful. And blocking something powerful is bound to have serious consequences. How often do we all do that in little ways? Perhaps the big problems, or even all the problems, we see in the world are just the summation of lots of people doing something small to disrupt an energy that could have flowed beautifully had they not set up walls between themselves and the people around them.
In my evening meditation the next night, I realized what I had done to make myself sick and worked to try and undo it. The next morning I felt better. The night after that, I felt well enough to tolerate the A/C of a movie theater, though an earthquake struck and prevented me from fully testing my tolerance (or seeing the end of the movie). Ten days later in Delhi and then Amritsar, I was outwardly asymptomatic. Now, one month later, the last inner residue of resisting the powerful flow from that day in Mumbai has finally worked its way out of my system.
Such a long journey. Such a heavy price to pay to exclude a fellow human. I pray that my days find me in flow and flowing with inclusion.
(migrated from my original Livejournal post)