As the morning sun seeps in, I look out over the city. From the 15th floor of Le Meridien Ahmedabad, I see a vast slum below – ramshackle tin huts strewn with tires and tarpaulins, criss-crossed by an irregular grid of dusty lanes, where the impoverished residents wile away the long hot days. Three goats trot aimlessly across an open wasteland between the shacks and the river. At the river’s edge, a man squats, tissue paper in hand, and does his business over the edge of the steel-fortified riverbank.
Glancing back around my hotel room, I notice the dazzling silver platter where three rosy apples sit, perfectly reflected in the sunlight. Below the 24-inch HDTV, my drawer is still ajar. Each pair of freshly laundered socks is neatly folded in a cardboard sleeve, proudly bearing the hotel insignia.
I feel a sudden contempt for those who built this palace of Western opulence right next to a shanty town. Then a pang of guilt for enjoying the provided creature comforts like the king-size bed and the rooftop pool. But this initial culture shock subsides, and as the week progresses we discover another side to India. Saturday comes – our first day off – and we hire a car (driver included). We visit the spectacular Shaking Minarets, where devout worshippers remove their sandals and wash their feet in special troughs before entering the Mosque.
The many temples are islands of calm in a city of chaos. At Teen Darwala, a street market is in full swing. A swarm of shoppers engulf the road and we slow to a crawl. A woman in a bright green and pink sari walks alongside us, balancing an oversized bag of rice on her head. From a rickety trestle table, a moustachioed man sells pulses, spices and dried fish in assorted plastic tubs. Two young men in bold yellow and blue shirts cross in front of us, chatting. One has his arm draped over the other’s shoulder, an unfamiliar sight yet clearly platonic. A wizened grandmother leans out of her balcony overhead, hanging vibrant red, orange and purple clothes on a washing line. A gust of air delivers a tapestry of smells – exotic spices and the enticing aroma of barbecued meat, mixed with diesel fumes, human sweat and a faint odour of bad drains.
As we leave the centre, the crowds dissipate and vehicles take over. Tiny green and yellow motor-taxis rev past rainbow-painted trucks, darting like wasps from lane to lane. Horns beep all around us, short sharp bursts and chirps that say simply “I’m here,” not “Get out of my way.” Family-owned shops with hand-painted signs are replaced by four-storey office blocks with plastic facades of primary colours, like the handiwork of a child with a new Lego set. An astonishing array of vehicles passes by, from bicycle-powered flour trucks to donkey-pulled wooden carts. Most common is the family motorbike – father in front wearing the helmet, wife in the middle, sari flowing in the wind, and two children hanging on at the rear, grinning.
We come to a standstill on an old concrete bridge. A young girl of eight or nine stands by the roadside, naked but for a pair of red shorts, with a pail of water beside her. As I watch, she dips a shirt into the pail, wrings it out and lays it on the railing to dry. I am transfixed – but my lack of reaction disturbs me. Shouldn’t I be appalled at her destitution?
It’s not until a couple of days later that I understand. She wasn’t starving or malnourished. She wasn’t begging. She hadn’t given up on life. She was smiling and completely at ease. For her, it was routine. I realize that in India, people make the best of what they have – no obsessing over material wealth. Poverty and happiness, hand in hand.
That night, I look out from my hotel window with new eyes. I see that the “slum” below is anything but. The populace sit outside their homes on plastic chairs and sacks of rice, illuminated by bare bulbs strung like fairy lights between the rooftops and the overhanging trees. A fire crackles as they cook dinner. I can just make out the chatter of conversations and shrieks of delight from children at play.
I am a victim of my own prejudice. This is not a slum as I’d imagined it from African famine appeals and geography textbooks. These proud Indians are well-dressed, happy families with a roof above their heads. I’d imagined the streets of India piled with rubbish, people stricken with disease. Instead I find them filled with vibrant colours and smiling faces. As the sun sets, my eyes are opened.
Author’s Note: This was the second piece of writing from my non-fiction course. The assignment here was to write about a defining or pivotal moment in your life and write about it. At first I was a little stumped, the only pivotal moments I could think of were too personal to share – then I remembered how India had given me a totally new perspective on poverty – as well as encouraging me to question my prejudices. I’ve written about India before, so the challenge here was how to do justice to all those experiences in under 800 words. More on what I learnt in the comments.
Here is the first of several pieces of writing I have produced recently. The assignment was fairly simple, just to write down what draws you to writing and what you hope to get out of the course. It wasn’t too hard, and the word count felt about right – but it was a useful exercise to lay out why I write. Writing is something I have been increasingly drawn too over the last year and I thought this piece might be interesting to share to add context to my blogging.
As a follower of this blog (if indeed there are any) you might have noticed I haven’t written here much lately. And I haven’t written much for my other written labour of love Human 2.0 either. So what have I been doing – especially while I’m off social networks? Surely that would have given me more free time? Well I had hoped to write more here – but much of my time has been taken up by a different sort of writing – assignments for the Non-Fiction writing workshop I have been doing at Thomas More Institute. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. The assignments have challenged me as a writer in new ways and have undoubtedly improved my writing. So I thought I’d publish a few of the things I’ve written here, along with some brief thoughts and comments on what I learnt from them.
(Image CC by Tom Swift)
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
Just came across these handy writing tips by Neil Gaiman. The one I’ve quoted above is particularly interesting, I think, because it can apply to both creative writing and software design.
It’s fine and right that readers, or users of software should tell you when there is a problem, and what problem it is that they are experiencing (perhaps how their expectations were not met, or how they felt).
But it’s definitely not alright for them to tell you how to fix it. That is the job of the writer, or the designer. Understand how what you have created is affecting people, and use that knowledge to adapt, tweak and improve so that it affects them in the way you intended, or in a way that doesn’t cause them the same problems.
But never let them tell you exactly how to fix it. Take their input by all means but do not be swayed from doing what you think is right to fix it. You are the creator, you are the designer, and it’s your skills that will make the work a success.
This month I have started attending a creative writing course at Thomas More Institute.
The second week’s assignment was a 500 word dramatic monologue based on the character we’d developed the week before – in my case, 44-year-old Jack Duffy, who makes a living as a taxi pilot in 2258.Read More