The smoke dances sheets of three-dimensional Sanskrit. Muslims watch the sky for the moon that will herald the end of the month of Ramadan, during which the followers of Mohammed's revelation take no food from dawn till dusk. Smiling men gather in circles of bobbing white skullcaps to break their fast as the cool of the evening soothes the busy streets of Calcutta.
Not all Indians are Hindus, though they are by far the majority of a population expected to reach one billion in the near future. The structure of a society which makes up such a huge proportion of the world's population is certainly complex, vast and fascinating. Though the adoption of English for many official functions reflects India's recent colonial past, the most commonly spoken language is Hindi, a tongue of the same family as the European languages.
The streets are alive with incense, spicy curries, ridiculously sweet confectionery, children, beggars and businessmen. Sacred cows choke busy intersections as millions of rattling three-wheeled rickshaws buzz about the lively streets of the ancient sub-continent. India has produced some of the oldest religions in the world - Zooerastianism, Buddhism and Hinduism - and spirituality is a very strong feature of everyday life.
Yet in the midst of all this action and diversity one of the most overwhelming aspects of life in India (to my "first-world" eyes) is the material poverty experienced by so many. In the capital Delhi I carried a starving man to one of Mother Theresa's hospices. He'd been lying in the street for days and the money I'd left with him the day before was had been stolen from him when I returned. Police and passers by simply ignored his prostrate form as they bought cigarettes, caught busses and went about their daily routines. When the sister at the Missionaries of Charity center saw him she just said, "He will finish soon. I will bathe him." This man starved to death in the streets of the national capital.
It is difficult to know how best to respond to such suffering. What seems a horrific tragedy in my eyes may be viewed differently through the eyes of some Hindus for whom karma and an individual's relationship with God are beyond the scope of human intervention. Attempts by the "developed" nations to manipulate "developing" nations to suit their tastes have not always produced mutually satisfactory outcomes.
Our species today has an incredible opportunity to improve the quality of life for all people while still respecting a great range of cultural values. If the process of providing people with basics like clean water, food and shelter received half as much effort and funding as the world's military practices, there would be a lot less hungry children in the world.
So why, when India is as exotic and lovely as its art, food, dance, temples, rivers, mountains and people, have I spent so much time in this article considering the economic status of its citizens. Perhaps it is because we, the privileged minority which make up the first world, are so responsible for the hardship endured by so many in the third world. India's long-term foreign debt stood at $94,404 MILLION US dollars at the end of 1997. Principal repayments on that debt came to $6551 million while the total debt generated $3268 million in interest for the creditor nations. India paid back a total of $46,035 million US dollars in foreign debt between 1989 and 1998 ("Key Indicators of Developing Asian Countries", published for the Asian Development Bank by the Oxford University Press, 1999). Let us not close our eyes to the economic realities of our implication in the death, disease and misery of so many in this world. Mahatma Ghandi once pronounced, "The edifice of the first world is built on the blood of the third."
Can humanism be practiced without forcing our values and beliefs on other people? Few would argue that we should not make an effort to provide the needy with a basic standard of living. Yet today 800 million people, about 15% of the world's population, live a life in which hunger and malnutrition are painful realities. More than 180 million children under the age of five are more than 2 standard deviations below the standard, healthy weight for their age. (Food and Agriculture Organisation "Food Supplies and Prevalence of Chronic Undernutrition in Developing Regions as Assessed in 1992" Document ESS/MISC/1992) Greed and ignorance in government, in business and in our personal lives must be some of the biggest obstacles to achieving the goal of a decent standard of living for all. The resources are available NOW - we must make a concerted effort to ensure they reach the people who need them most. Let us not fool ourselves into worrying about the "welfare mentality" that humanism may encourage - when children die from drinking filthy water, the welfare mentality is not to blame. We are not talking about stop-gap aid here. We are talking about giving skills, training and technical assistance to a world which will have another 1.5 billion mouths to feed by the year 2020, coupled with a new approach to international finance which will relieve the crippling cycle of debt repayment that binds so many in the third world to a modern form of economic slavery..
Then my eyes play tricks on me!!! That young child...laughing through the garbage!?! How can she laugh when she lives on the streets, begging for vegetables to cook with her family in the cardboard and plastic shack they call home. A man with a broken leg, begging because he cannot work, has slept outside on the same street corner for the last three days. Today he clasps my hand warmly and smiles into my eyes when we meet. Today the weather is fine and perhaps he already has enough coins for a small bowl of lentil soup. He smiles at me in an easy, honest way which, some days, can be rare in big "developed" cities, and I am reminded how much I have yet to learn about Mother India.