Day 2- Akanksha Retreat.
Day 2 of the retreat was called Project Day, but in reality it was Process day. The activity for the day – a Search for Good Walk. A walk with a compassion kit full of things to give to people, no money and no set path. We had to find our own food if we wanted food and besides that, the only and most important, part of the instructions – walk with our hearts open.
I had never done such a walk on my own with the find your own food element, so it was going to be an experiment in faith in the universe. Food, by the way, is becoming an increasingly large hurdle that I need to start overcoming. I’m finding my self-restraint with respect to food decreasing. Thus, in all honesty, I was a little worried about the find your own food, but at the same time knew I needed to trust the universe.
Our walk was comprised of many incidences, a few stick out that I will recount here. As we crossed Subhash Bridge, out of habit, I began to pick up trash, Shirajul, Milan and Amar joined in. We walked and clean, while keeping our hearts and eyes open for people to assist. As we passed some vegetable vendors, they looked at us in confusion and stopped to ask us what we were doing. We talked to them about taking responsibility for our city, which is our home and then continued on our way.
After a little way, we came across another cart. A man was selling bananas. Something was different though- there was no trash near his cart, instead he had put a plastic bag on his cart where customers threw their banana peel. We were so impressed by the cart that we had to stop and talk to the man. “I’m educated,” he said when we commented on the cleanliness. “I know how important it is to keep clean.” What is an well-educated man doing running a banana cart?, we all thought. He had a good job at one point, but when he was laid off, he couldn’t find any work. So the he took up a selling fruits. He lives with his son, daughter-in-law and wife in a small home near Sabarmati.
Questions continued in our mind. How was he content with this life? He passed his time reading the newspaper, reading religious articles. His knowledge of spirituality was very impressive. Amar asked him to read something from the newspaper that lay at his feet and so he did. Where the half hour passed talking to him, we did not know, but we realized it was time to move on. The interaction brought more light to the conditions faced by the lower middle class, what about opportunities for them. To express our appreciation for the man and the example he was setting by maintaining the cleanliness of his surroundings, we came him a blanket. It would come in use since he was sleeping outside of his house since his daughter and family were visiting.
As we walked on, a conversation about cleanliness and how one person can be instrumental in changing attitudes came up. What the banana cart man was doing was setting an example. Not conforming to the regular practices of other vegetable and fruit vendors. For his himself or not, he was doing his part to keep the city clean.
Amar pointed out an old woman sitting on the middle of the road divider so he went up to talk to her. Between his understanding of village Hindi and my knowledge of Gujarati, we learned her story. The woman lives by herself and supports herself by begging. A companion beggar came to fill in the details. While we had t-shirts and hygiene kits, what the woman needed was some food, so we spent some money to get her some food. After combing her hair, we went on.
“Didi, can we go this way,” Amar asked, pointing to the road that veered away from the main road we were on. “Of course, it’s your walk.”
We continued picking up trash and soon we found ourselves in the middle of a community. We entered at the corner of large open space, covered in trash. Soon a crowd of boys surrounded us and began asking us what we were doing. The Akanksha youth were a little intimidated so I decided to step in and do some crowd control. We explained the obvious- we were picking up trash because it was dirty. More dialogue ensued about the need to keep their space clean, however no one felt the desire to join us. After a few minutes the Akanksha youth began to speak also and I continued with trash picking. Crowds began to form around each of us as we dispersed and picked up trash. At one corner of the open field stood large brown dumpsters. We collected as much as we could hold and walked the trash over to the dumpster. On one hand, it seemed like a futile attempt as there was so much trash, but the ocean is made up of small droplets of water.
A large crowd surrounded me again, literally forming a circle of 2 feet diameter around me. I stepped forward and the crowd stepped back, reassuming the circle, not a pleasant situation if one was claustrophobic. In my mind, for a second a fear formed about large crowds, but it disappated as I reminded myself to work from the heart. Some men began to ask what I was doing and again I explained the obvious- I was picking up trash and putting it in the dumpster. The man was skeptical. What’s the reason you’re here? Who do you work for? There is a reason you’re here, you wouldn’t just pick up trash like this? I see trash so I’m putting it in the right place, I responded, but the man would not believe. Let him choose his truth, I thought and continued picking up trash. One of the youth began to shoo the crowd away and we continued with our work.
The four of us regrouped and began walking, away from the open field towards the opposite corner from where we entered. A crowd began to follow us. At one point we stopped. Do you have any questions, we asked. The crowd looked at us in silence. We turned to each other and began to use our humour. Do I have anything suck on me? I struck a pose. Maybe there is something wrong with the way we look, we turned a circle with our hands out. The crowd laughed. Finally a woman in the back asked, what are you doing? So we explained. We talked to the kids. About the size of the field and how much fun it would be to play there, if it wasn’t dirty. The kids were somewhat responsive. When we felt it time, we moved on.
The crowd continued to follow us. Some male youth again shooed them away. As the numbers dwindled, Milan came beside me. “Didi, they are saying bad things.”
I turned to her with love, “There are always going to be people who don’t like what you are doing. You need to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what they do and say. Remember what you are doing and why you are doing it. The critics will be many, it’s important to stay grounded.”
She listened intently and walked in silence.
A boy comes up to us and tells me that some women in the gulley were calling us over. We oblige. “Why aren’t you talking to us, you talked to the children?”
“What questions do you have?”
“Explain what you’re doing.” So we did. As we got ready to leave, we asked for some water to wash our hands. They then brought us water and talked to us some more. After some more conversation, one of the women offered us some food. I turned to the other youth and we did was smile. Food had come to us, we didn’t need to go looking. No one was hungry.
They took us inside to see a place where water had filled up. There we had a conversation about mosquitos and flies and one’s selfish interest in cleaning community space, even if it is outside your neighbour’s home. Through some women’s eyes, I could see some understanding. As we moved to leave, the children again began yelling and running to follow us out.
I stopped them before they got too far.
“Do you want to play a game?” The an
swer of course was yes. “Everyone is going to go out of this gulley and pick up at least two pieces of trash.” Twenty children, that’s forty pieces of trash.
They ran out, yelling and picking up trash. As we came out of the gulley, I asked where the dumpster was. They again ran off, yelling and shouting to the dumpster where they deposited their trash. Before they could disperse, I gathered them all together.
“Hands in everyone. Twenty pairs of little hands joined in with our four. Shall we make a promise.”
“Haaaaa (yes in Gujarati),” came twenty odd voices.
“Repeat after me. I, take this promise, to clean my community every day for 5 minutes. To pick up trash and throw it in the dumpster.”
The energy and enthusiasm of that moment will not be forgotten.
We noticed the time and realized it was time to head back. As we came out to the main road, we saw the woman again and stopped to say hello. In her hand, she held 3 packets of Gutka. I gently took them from her hand and a struggle began between us and the woman. At one point, Milan suggested that we give her the packets back and continue on. Amar and I weren’t so ready to give up. The woman said the gutka was for her neighbour’s daughter. We attempted to raise her awareness on how she shouldn’t encourage the use of tobacco for others. The women was gripped with fear about what would happen if she didn’t take back tobacco. Ultimately, we gave her money for the packets and went on our way.
Given time constraints, trash picking ended. Our conversation was interrupted as a vegetable vendor we saw earlier called us.
“He told me that you guys were picking up trash. Why?”
We launched into our explanation of our city being our home and suggested that she keep a plastic bag for trash for her cart. The woman understood. Laxmi (wealth) only goes where there is cleanliness. If she kept at least her cart area clean, then we were 100% sure that her business would increase. Through simple language and reference to concepts that she herself mentioned, the message of cleanliness and social responsibility was communicated.
Group leaders were intended as guides for the walk, however it was by no means an one-way process. The youth were in tears as they shared their stories. It was their first experience with this kind of service. For us, it was a not a new experience, but no less powerful. The power of love and of the heart is boundless and unimaginable.