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Last summer I volunteered at a learning center for children from one of the numerous slums in Bangalore, where the students’ infectious enthusiasm and joy brought me such happiness. Every morning I would wait at the school’s front gates to greet the students as they entered the courtyard. Some came in small groups, chatting amongst themselves, and others walked alone, deep in contemplation or talking to themselves. They were dressed in their uniforms, which were always crisp and clean, and I smiled imagining their proud mothers washing the clothes by hand every evening. The students were a juxtaposition to the squalor of their surroundings as they walked to school on dusty paths adjacent to shelters made of found materials: tarps, canvas, wood, cardboard, etc. When they were close enough to see me, they all burst into smiles and rushed me with hugs. I waited at the gates for the last stragglers, by which time the classrooms had turned into a deafening din of clamoring children, but their unfettered expressions of glee created such a beautiful euphony, which ceased instantly with the entrance of their teachers.

“Good morning, class.”

“Good morning, teacher,” the students shouted in unison. These greetings erupted from every classroom in the school.

This daily ritual brought me boundless bliss, but broke my heart. From the moment I spotted the first student strolling to school, I could not stop grinning. Only after the morning greetings, with the students noisily banging their books on their desks and leafing to the assigned pages, before turning and going to the classrooms to assist the teachers and pupils, I was overcome with a poignant pang as I surveyed the school’s surroundings. My gloom was fleeting, however. My job was to help any student who needed it, and often, they would just raise their arms to be afforded the opportunity to talk to me. I would make my rounds to raised arms, and the students would usually ask irrelevant questions or utter unrelated remarks.

“Teacher, do you like hamburgers or curry better?”


“That is a very nice shirt, teacher. Is it made in India?”

“My mom makes the best naan. Would you like a piece for lunch? I brought extra today.”

“That would be lovely.”

“Cricket is much superior to baseball, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps. Probably.”

“How can you hit a round ball with a round bat?”

“Beats me.”

“Beats me?” the student said.

“It means I don’t know.”

“I see.”

“What do you see?” I said.

“It means I understand.”

“I see,” I said.

On and on it would go on like this. All queries and comments elicited an eruption of laughter in the immediate vicinity of the comedian, silenced immediately by a teacher’s reprimand. The students and I, of course, prolonged our mirth with conspiratorial winks and grins. My facial and abdominal muscles were sore for the first few days I was there, having grinned and laughed so much; randomly, I would burst into laughter recalling what the students did and said during the day, and my roommates would think I was crazy.

As my volunteering was nearing its end, my father informed me that he would be in Bangalore for a business trip and we arranged to meet. I had accompanied him to Bangalore on several of his business trips when I was a child and had developed a fondness for the city, one of the main reasons I chose to volunteer here. I remembered being dazzled by the luxuriousness of the hotels in which we stayed, believing that Bangalore must be one of the wealthiest and most opulent cities in the world; when I went to visit him at his hotel this time, however, I was not fooled by this neighborhood’s ostentatious mirage, a cruel and clever facade concealing the city’s stark realities. When I stepped into the hotel lobby, the soaring space filled with light from jeweled chandeliers that reflected and glimmered on cold, austere surfaces of marble, glass, and steel seemed, shall I say, a tad perverse, a thought that was pushed aside by my growing smile when I saw my father. My father got up from his chair and we embraced warmly when I reached him. I took a seat opposite him as he told me we still had a bit of time before our dinner reservation at our favorite restaurant in Bangalore. My father wanted to hear everything about my volunteer experience, which I eagerly began relaying. As I was talking, I kept being distracted by passing people and parties outfitted in evening attire and jewels, looking like princesses and maharajas.

I remained preoccupied throughout dinner, gawking at the magnificent dishes being delivered to tables around me and the patrons devouring the mountains of food.

As my father put down his cutlery, my attention returned to our conversation. “My first trip to Bangalore was my first trip to a developing nation. I was straight out of college and working for my first biotech firm. Poverty and inequality were abstract ideas to me, but witnessing people living in such crushing conditions day in and day out weighed heavily on me. Travelling through slums on my way to meet suppliers or manufacturers, however, I was greeted by children smiling and laughing in beatific wonder, shop owners carrying on trade, men getting haircuts and shaves, women talking and laughing; in short, people participating in the gamut of human experiences. I admired the people’s perseverance and grit, but came to realize that my perspective was wrong; they did not feel beset by crushing conditions, but simply accepted their realities. To such people, perseverance is a foreign concept not contained in their lexicons. They do not exercise perseverance, they simply embody it.”

Taking a taxi back to my room after dinner, I thought about what my father had said. I saw Bangalore and its people in a different light, but knew that I had come to the same realizations that my father had through my summer volunteer experience.


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