Jewish service volunteer recounts hot passage to India

At breakfast, Nimi joins me. Nimi is one of the senior social workers with Jeeva Jyothi, translated as "Everlasting Light," the local child rights organization I am volunteering for during these six months in Madras. Today she is taking me to the rice mills. JJ has been working diligently with more than 100 families there, trying to convince them to place and then keep their young children in school. The parents prefer that the kids work the rice mills.

The mill owners do, too. The owners are not an insignificant obstacle. You see, many of these families are bonded labor. What's that? Think Passover…think slaves of Mitzrayim. Yes, slaves. Right here in the 21st century.

This volunteer's day is spent in utter frustration. Above all, are frustrations with mill owners, and with the injustice. Then there are the mundane struggles with the local language, the transport, the bureaucracy. And then at 2 p.m., the one resource you feel is your friend — your Yahoo e-mail — crashes, too. It's now holding steady at 44 degrees. That's 112 degrees. If you think there are hotter places than this, then look again. Maybe the Gobi Desert.

A stroll in the neighborhood might relieve some stress. Not quite so. My street is home to as many cows, goats, stray rabid dogs and chickens as people. And there are lots of people. My neighbors range from a judge to welders to umpteen shopkeepers to the more numerous homeless and workless and penniless. Also, plenty of people with deformities.

Barefoot children greet me. "Good morning, sir. Good morning, sir," they insist, as the clock shows 6 p.m. Even the mothers gawk at this strange sight of the lone Westerner to have ever walked these back streets of Madras. I am a regular curiosity.

It's dark now. I go upstairs, have my third shower today and try meditation exercises I've learned in India. But I am not able to "quiet the mind." Instead I am affronted, confronted, assaulted, invaded by all that is life here. At every turn, every step, every breath, I am confronted with the bizarre, the unusual, the fantastic. At least from our perspective. Almost all things we take for granted in our Western lives are simply not so here. It's in everything, everywhere. Big things and small. One can't imagine the magnitude of the life struggles here, not just for me, but for Indians, too. It starts with water. Not drinking water. There's none of that. Most have no water at home. One daily activity on my street is queuing up around the water tank to fill jugs for the family's daily water use. Then electricity — at any time it can disappear. And it does, especially when you most need it. Often I have slept in 35-degree heat with no fan, no slight circulation of air.

To the bathroom: How about TP? Not used here. Use your hands. Toilet seats? Nope again; learn to squat. Soap? Not common. On to eating: cutlery? Not used. Again, use your hands — the other hand. A chair? Nope, eat sitting on the floor. Better get flexible, take up yoga.

On the streets: traffic signals — who would pay attention? Road signs — superfluous. Road maps — extinct. The list goes on forever: emission standards, parks, garbage collections, police protection, proper transportation, traffic rules, etc. — all totally absent.

And then there are the more basic things you never knew were so important: the ability to quietly walk somewhere; to breath clean air; to see greenery; to really sleep; to not worry about everything you eat; to not see garbage everywhere; to not see poverty, prejudice and injustice everywhere; to escape the heat but for a moment. It's daunting.

I am not sure you can ever get used to it.

Today I did my little walk in the street and tried to feel like this could all be normal. But it simply isn't. If everyone from the West could come for a week and walk the streets here, there would be such a collective shock at the level of deprivation. And if all Indians (or say the 80 or 90 percent who live in poverty) could come to the West for a day, there would be nothing short of worldwide revolution, I am sure. If this is what God wanted for a fifth of His children, then He really works in ways that are beyond comprehension. Or else maybe these are simply God's forgotten people.

It's hot and it's early in my volunteer experience, so the observations may be naive, but what I am sure is that I should get back to work. There is much tikkun olam to be done.

In 2001, the writer volunteered for six months in Madras, India, with America Jewish World Service. Born in Israel, he lives in San Francisco.