What does it mean to be a human being?
Shortly before I arrived in India for a term as an Indicorps Ultimate Frisbee intern in 2008, I held a photo exhibit that posed the question: “what does it mean to be a human being?” Six weeks later, I stayed up reading a well-thumbed copy of Gandhi’s autobiography in late night heat rhythmically pierced by the oscillating ceiling fan.
I still have that book, from beside my keyboard, the back cover blares out a quote that gave me pause each morning as I’d gather up the frisbees and go to practice: “I have nothing new to teach the world,” Gandhi says. “Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.” For some who visit India, it’s the food or the noise that create the culture shock, but I’m the type that’s profoundly affected by ideas. And to consider that there was something to life besides the never-ending march of progress and rationality, profit and materialism – that ideas as nebulous as truth and non-violence were not just the domain of the saintly… well, my head came near exploding.
This idea carried me through months of exploring India during and after Indicorps. Having shed my burden of generating a world changing, Eureka-style moment, I allowed myself instead to comfortably sink into an unbroken world of moments, with ears pricked and camera poised for the late day light glinting off the hills. Sure enough, these moments arrived, proffered alongside aromatic tea, in interrogative smiles emblazoned across a billion faces. Over time, as I listened to India, I realized that my mission wasn’t to create as much as it was to share: to act as a middleman in spreading the lessons that dazzled like chunky diamonds along my path. This is around the time that I started calling myself a lovewallah.
Just off Ashram Road at an intersection near Income Tax, there’s a youngish man who makes dabeli sandwiches with such artistry that he absolutely confounds the laws of capitalism when he asks for only 7 rupees remittance. I’m sure you have dozens of your own examples: many wallahs in India do it with love, not just for money. Similarly, I loved this idea of the lovewallah – in my mind, the wallah who advocates on behalf of the aesthetic and moral, not just the functional and utilitarian.
A quick read of any day’s headlines provides as much evidence as is necessary that the time has come for the lovewallahs. We live in a society that is buttressed by theoretical and scientific rationalism but lacks a corresponding foundation in morality. Ours is not a crisis of environment, fossil fuels, extremism or economics as much as it is a clear repudiation of our left brain-heavy system of ideas. Our eroded moral foundation has many of us muddled in self-delusion, concerned only with our short-term happiness, sidetracked by irony or banality, and desperate for sympathetic human attention. Spend one day on Facebook to see whether that’s true.
We forget that entertainment, achievement, understanding, and love are not intrinsically private property. We don’t need things to live a fulfilling life – at least, not nearly as many things as we’re told we do. But we can’t seem to stop believing that we can buy or build ourselves our happiness and enlightenment. That the developing world seems to be bursting with the authentic experiences of being human that seem so few and far between in the materialistic, developed world is an irony so twisted it’s laughable. Remember, truth (and the aesthetic) is as old as the hills, not newly available and 50% off.
For me, all of this is as clear as day, and I’ve turned my attention to aligning my actions with my ideas. One project is a website based on the instigating question: www.whatdoesitmeantobeahumanbeing.ca; I hope to combine some stories with the images and create a book, maybe sharing it at schools in my community. Another is a unique exhibition at Toronto’s Contact International Photo Festival next May. Of course I hope that some of these projects will provide me with the necessary patronage to continue working, but mostly I hope that they spur consideration and compassion – that they can encourage someone further along their path.
And just like that dabeliwallah could never trademark the dabeli, regardless of how artistic he became, sharing love and relentlessly discussing ideas couldn’t possibly be my exclusive domain. I’m aiming to suggest that we all have the potential to be lovewallahs – and that community life operates mostly harmoniously precisely because that’s what so many people choose to do.
Several years on, I’m still wrestling with what it means to be a human being. But my hunch is that it’s not the kind of thing that can be found in a shop. I’m sure you’re also on your own search, and I wish you the best of luck. I think, from time to time, we should share what we find.
“I have an answer that cannot be pinned down, that eludes me when I need it most, that flickers and gleams in the corners of my eyes and disappears when I turn towards it.”
Jordan Bower, Intern Frisbee 2008 and Photos 2009