16.01.2010

Stories from the Field: My (Mini) Experiments with Truth

Fellowship, News

After experiencing my first Diwali in India, I have come to appreciate the holiday’s three essential ingredients: firecrackers, pujas  and sweets.  While I enjoyed the first two, the taste of the third was left to my imagination.  For the month of October, I had given up all sweets, snacks and milk products.  “Why?!?” you might incredulously ask.  Fair question.

Upon leaving New York City, I renounced a life of self-absorption and debauchery in pursuit of something more modest in India, something more in line with the communities I would be serving as an international volunteer in the education sector.  Using the principle of “simple living,” I restricted myself to basic clothing and possessions, washing clothes by hand, cleaning my own space, consuming only what I needed to survive and maintain health, and keeping expenses to a bare minimum.  Despite turning several pieces of white clothing a dark shade of pink, simple living seemed doable, a welcome change of pace in fact.
But then I moved to Dharwad and discovered More – the Aditya Birla retail chain sent to bring me back to the dark side.  This fluorescent kingdom staffed by English-speaking Indians and filled with clean packages of food featuring the comforting labels of Western brands was planted just three doors down from my office.  Needless to say, I frequented the establishment quite often for overpriced cookies, candies and sugary drinks.  Upon returning to the office with a bag of goodies in hand, I would avert my eyes from my economically disadvantaged students who had most certainly noticed the buildup of plastic wrappers in the trash receptacles.

I was heading down this slippery slope when I came across a reading that outlined Mohandas K. Gandhi’s 11 Vows.  He writes, “Not to yield your soul to the conqueror means that you will refuse to do that which your conscience forbids you to do.”  I could not let myself be conquered by More, or the self-indulgent, consumer lifestyle that it represented.  But how to stay grounded in simple living in a city filled with temptations and comforts was going to be challenging.  I turned to Gandhi’s 11 Vows as my guide.

Ranging from the outward sparshbhavna – love for, and service of, the whole world, to the inward brachmacharya – control of all the organs of sense, Gandhi’s moral code of conduct seemed unrealistic and bordering on impossible in today’s society.  But, “What we need is faith,” Gandhi claims, “Our peace of mind increases in spite of suffering.”  And so, with 11 months to go in India, I pledged to uphold one Gandhian vow each month.  I hoped that by actually living Gandhi’s truth, I would learn to be a producer rather than a consumer in society, and maybe, just maybe, become the change I wished to see in the world.

October was the month of Aswada – control of the palate.  Maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet is likely to be easy for many, but for someone with an intense, all-powerful sweet tooth in the month of Diwali, my birthday, and Gandhi’s birthday, this had disaster written all over it.  At first the task was fun… and then it wasn’t.  Denying myself sweets, snacks and milk products just made me want them more.  The peer pressure definitely didn’t help – watching others indulge set my salivary glands needlessly into overdrive.  Delicious treats kept randomly (and cruelly) appearing at home and in the office and it took every ounce of willpower to just take a whiff and move on.

But this wasn’t just an exercise of self-discipline; I also had to cope with the torture of exclusion.  In early October, I attended an engagement party and had to (politely) refuse the sweets, snacks and curd, which just left me with a sad little pile of rice and vegetable. I quickly realized the importance of food in cultivating a sense of community.  It was fundamental to the celebrations, and I could not properly partake.  Even occasions in the home and office when snacks were shared or chats were held over morning or afternoon chai, I was partially isolated from the others by my commitment to abstain from those items.  Of course, I explained the purpose of my diet restrictions, but the oath was perceived as bizarre or comical – why would an American in India want to adopt Gandhi’s 11 vows?!

Despite the immediate challenges, in retrospect, the long-term benefits of Gandhi’s philosophies.  It comes down to choice.  In October, I was making choices about what to eat.  Having food always at the forefront of my mind indirectly ensured that Gandhi was always at the forefront of my mind.  So, a hop, skip and a jump from Aswada, Gandhi was also influencing my choices of how to live, how to work and how to interact with others.

A windy day came when I needed clothespins to hang my laundry.  I could have easily stopped by More and purchased the clothespins with ease, but in that moment, I made a choice to take the more difficult, less English-friendly path and support a local business instead.  Although it took three hours, almost 20 General Stores and three stationery stores (apparently my pronunciation of “clothespins” sounds more like “pens”), I finally got what I needed and I didn’t have to resort to More to do it!

The impact of Gandhi’s 11 Vows in keeping my clean laundry from flying into dirty puddles may seem small, but this is just the first step.  If ever I find myself in a position of moral ambiguity, I will now know to ask myself, WWGD?  What Would Gandhi Do?

Geetha J. Mathews, Indicorps Fellow 2009

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