The exams are coming to a close and students are looking forward to summer here in Oxford. Our intrepid intern, Caroline Ivimey-Parr has just got back from holidays in India, so we asked her to reflect on how we might remain compassionate whilst travelling in far-flung climbs this summer. Here is the first part of her Indian odyssey.
It’s obvious India needs compassion. It is thirsty for it. I loved it because it was far more unashamedly alive. The boundaries imposed upon us here just don’t apply there. The drama of life and death wasn’t tucked up in houses and hospitals and offices, it was all out in the open. The streets were full of it. Full of the beauty and mess and richness and horror of it all. In comparison, England hides suffering, sweeps it under the rug as though it is shameful to be anything other than ‘fine’.
The most compassionate thing to do when you arrive is to give yourself time to acclimatise, and allow the culture shock to melt away into curiosity and excitement. For the first few days we stayed in a retreat centre; a rural idyll, a haven. I began to frequently wish I had brought with me a book on flora and fauna.
The team that organised the pilgrimage have my heartfelt gratitude. Their care and compassion enabled me to see the broader context of the consistent warmth, kindness, and generosity of India and the Indian people, rather than being overwhelmed by the discrimination, the rubbish and the poverty.
Seeing the poverty is hard. Your very presence demonstrates untouchable wealth and opportunity, that for many, numerous lifetimes worth of savings wouldn’t begin to reach. We had been advised not to give to beggars. Syndicates are a big problem, channelling what individuals are given up a hierarchy and perpetuating the begging problem. Instead we were going to collectively decide which charities to donate to when we got back to the UK.
As though giving money to a charity absolves me of a feeling of responsibility towards others. Of course, it certainly helps. But how to be compassionate in the moment? Even to just acknowledge beggar after beggar, to look them in the eye and see their humanity, feels overwhelmingly draining (I struggle with the homeless in Oxford, how could I prepare for a country where 32% are below the poverty line?).
On a (twenty hour!) train journey, a handless man shuffled through the carriage asking for rupees. I couldn’t look at him. I questioned whether the deformity was from birth, or had been inflicted upon him to increase his earnings. I stared out the window, pretending to look at the landscape, my attention focused behind me on the man whose humanity I was denying. He moved on, opening the carriage door with surprising dexterity, his stumps swiftly tucking away the notes he had collected. I was ashamed, but I ignored the old woman on the station platform too.
While in the moment it felt easier to ignore beggars, to let my eyes slide past, turn the other way and pretend to be deaf, rationalise or qualify their condition, feign indifference or independence, it isn’t a lasting solution. It feels isolating, inauthentic and unkind. But witnessing people suffering is exhausting, particularly when you’re in a country of 1.2 billion. It feels like a trap – how can you be open and compassionate, but not give?
But compassion is not limited to pounds and rupees. It is not limited by language, or by social or economic status. At Nalanda, where once there was a great Buddist University, a group of young beggar children came up to me, making the typical hand signals for ‘money for food’, their faces grubby and forlorn.
Fed up of being accosted I stuck my tongue out at them, then grinned, embarrassed. But the transformation was almost immediate – I had gone from potential patron to playmate in seconds. The masks fell away and I saw them for what they were – a group of young children having fun, alive and suddenly radiant. They pulled their funniest faces at me, admired the mendhi on my palm, fetched their friend who could turn her eyelids inside out (a old school trick) and proceeded to play with exuberance and joy.
When I sat down and was given a cup of chai they were reminded of their objective. The transition between work and play was so fast it was like a dance trying to keep up. They again began to pretend to cry and gesture for me to give them money, but as I laughed at the ridiculousness of it their smiles reappeared. They could see it too.
Then a chubby toddler waddled over to ask me for food, a biscuit in each hand. I mockingly mirrored him, holding out my empty palm, protesting my lack of biscuits. This child was not starving or unhappy, no doubt his family were begging or selling trinkets nearby, and perhaps some of his siblings were already laughing with me.
Seeing my outstretched hand he tried to give one of his biscuits to me, moved to give the only way he knew how. In his childish ignorance he hadn’t seen our differences, he had just seen me, seen that I too got hungry. I wish I had accepted, to demonstrate again the connection that that child had made unthinkingly. It would have better acknowledged the truth I was trying to connect to, and that he had seen with ease – we are all humans.
To add to that only divides us, puts up unnecessary barriers. By forgetting to view each other through the prism of our differences, we gave each other the opportunity to be more fully ourselves. I do not have to be a passing tourist, who, if feeling generous, may deign to toss down some small change. I can try to see the person behind the beggar, the human behind the outstretched hand.
That is how I see compassion. Not placing a coin in a grubby palm, but forgetting our judgements, our fears, and allowing someone to more fully be who they really are.