The Limits of One

During a visit to Chennai over the holiday, a friend and I stopped to rest in a village while coming back from a bird sanctuary north of the city. We drank a glass of tea, ate a biscuit, and thanked the shop-keeper as we climbed back onto the motorcycle to continue on our way. As usual, a few people had stopped to watch my every move and ask where I was from. “America”, I announced to the quickly forming crowd. As I put on my helmet, one man approached me and began to speak in his native Tamil. I didn’t understand what he was saying so asked my friend to translate.

“You’re from America? Obama is in India.”

Excitedly, I replied, “Yes! Obama is in Mumbai right now!”

His friendly expression turned stern and he spoke vigorously. “You tell Obama to help the poor people. You tell him that the rich people should help the poor people.”

My friend started the engine. Confused at what I could honestly say that would tell him how much I agreed with him but how complicated it was, I simply replied with an “OK” as we drove off.

If only I could. If only it were that simple.

***

I have a friend here that is the same age as me – twenty six. She speaks Telugu and a little English; I speak English and a little Telugu. I know that she has one brother and one sister; she knows that I have two sisters. I know that she lives in a tiled-roof house in a nearby village, is married, and has a beautiful daughter who I love to take pictures of. She knows that I live at the Rishi Valley School, am from the U.S., and am not married (despite my concerning age…). She’s a sweeper and the lowest caste. I come from a different world.

Yesterday we did some more talking. I learned about the village she was from before she got married and was sent here to live with her husband and his family. I showed her the sentences I was writing in Telugu and she helped me pronounce the phrases, “I speak a little Telugu” and, “Speak slowly, please”. She laughed at my inability to roll my tongue properly, which made me smile.

I asked about her mother – where was she? Her eyes became watery and filled with tears as she looked away from my face. She started to speak quickly, using too many words that I didn’t understand. Her mother lived far away. She made motions with her hands against her face – she was beaten. Who was beaten? My friend was beaten? No, her mother was beaten. Was her mother beaten to death? Is she dead? My friend continued to cry. I listened painstakingly to everything she said – hoping to hear just one word that I could understand that would help me know what to do, what to say, how to fix it. But I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. There was nothing I could fix.

So I took her hand, touched her arm, and hoped that she understood the words that I didn’t know how to speak.

***

I don’t know what it’s like to be my friend – to grow up in the life that she did and to live the current one that she has. I don’t understand why she is “her” and I am “me”. But I do know what it means to be human, to feel, to connect. I know that our lives are intertwined – they always have been and always will be – and that the political, cultural, economic lines separating our worlds exist only on paper.

The thing about letting people in is that it changes who you are. When you let someone in as a friend, as a neighbor, as a partner you share in their happiness and take ownership of their pain. But what if you as an individual, as one, can’t change the Way Things Are? What if the Way Things Are is bigger than any one of us? Where does one – an individual – begin?

***

This morning my friend came up to me, very quietly, as I was talking to a colleague. She took her hand and tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. She smiled at me and without saying a word walked away.

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