T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house, several creatures were stirring; yes, even a mouse. The stockings weren’t hung by the chimney with care, because all knew that Saint Nicolas would not come through there. Then out on the doorstep arose such a clatter, I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the door, which kicked up some ash. And out on that doorstep what did appear? A dark man and a skinny Indian boy dressed up as Santa Claus.
Let me explain. I was invited to a co-worker’s home on December 23rd, 2013 for dinner. Meena lives in Bhavnagar’s largest slum, in a home that was, in her words, middle-class. Indeed, her home was luxurious compared to those around her; a tin roof was tightly secured to brick walls and wires ran across the roof, powering a fan and dish television.
Meena doesn’t speak any English. We communicate solely in Hindi, which is neither of our first language, but we both get by well enough to be friends. I sat down in Meena’s home among 10 small children; her daughter ran an after-school program in their home where children worked on their homework, learned bits and pieces of English, and importantly, learned to play through avenues such as theater, singing and games.
The night she invited me to her home was the night that Santa Claus was visiting her students. From what I gathered, every Sunday a preacher (the “dark man” mentioned above, described that way because of his entirely black attire) visited the day care group for a brief sermon. The children all sat at his feet while the preacher explain to them that Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed many instead of few. Children, no more than five or six years old, shouted out “hallelujah!” and the sermon finished with the Lord ’s Prayer in Hindi. Then, “Santa Claus,” a skinny, twenty-something year old Indian boy in a poorly-constructed mask straight out of an ‘80s slasher movie, handed out candy from a tiny bag. One of the kids leaned over to me and whispered to me in Hindi, “Ma’am, Santa’s beard is too short, don’t you think?”
That night I found out that Meena is Christian; not by birth but through conversion. Years back, Meena’s daughter, now 20 years old, had a tumor in her stomach that was not responding to treatment. After being told that her daughter was not going to make it, Meena’s family turned to the Christian church in Bhavnagar and prayed. Her daughter’s tumor went away, and Meena was converted. As many individuals in India, the holy trinity is among the thousands of Gods that they worship.
As I sat and chewed on my mango bite (even I was included in Santa’s candy distribution), I contemplated what I just witnessed. Each Christmas, my family celebrated with several large gifts under the tree. Was the way Meena’s family celebrated a cultural difference? Did it signify a difference in faith or the corruption of the idea of “Christmas” in the United States? Or was it due to the blatant, in your face poverty that existed in her community? Perhaps the three are so intertwined that pinpointing just one doesn’t answer the question.
During this fellowship, one of the topics we have discussed amongst ourselves is-no, not poverty- but wealth. We all agree that poverty is wrong; why else would we all be here, working to rid India of poverty? What everyone disagrees on is the level of wealth that is acceptable; and perhaps, more broadly, the definition of wealth. Some see wealth as material; living in a home with a real lease, rather than illegally on public land, with water that runs 24/7 and electricity and perhaps, eventually, luxuries like an iPhone or laptop. Others like to point out that wealth is relative to where you grew up and your historical line of comparison, and point out that wealth could mean different things to different people. Some of us point to international standards of non-material wealth, such as the happiness index, as use phrases such as working toward “quality of life” when defining our work.
So I pose this question to you as we enter this new year: as development professionals, what are we working toward?