One aspect of ashram-living which I’m really delighted about is how the worker men are becoming more comfortable in our presence.
I don’t know if initially they were told to skirt around us, or if they were slightly intimated by these three seemingly well-off Western women, but slowly the walls have started breaking down and friendly banter is growing.
The kitchen assistant, Hari, couldn’t even look at me the first full week. I thought he was a rude dick. How stupid and ignorant was I; he was just painfully shy. But slowly, oh so slowly, he’s overcoming his diffident wariness and actually strikes up conversations when I go to the kitchen. (Stilted mind; his English is very basic and my Hindi doesn’t extend far past “Thank you”, “Very good” and “I fucked your sister”). He knows exactly what foods are my favourites and makes sure to dish me my special plates without anything I’m uncomfortable with. I even got him to high 5 me yesterday!
But sometimes talking to them is so, so sad.
Govind, the main run-arounder, is 22. He is an absolute sweetheart. His family lives up in the hills, and his mother has raised the four kids on her own as his father died when Govind was only two years old.
The other night Eva and I sat with Govind and after gentle coaxing, he opened up about his life. He works from 6am to 9pm every single day, with one off about once a fortnight. And he earns 6000 rupees ($144 NZD) a month.
Sure, India is a lot cheaper for food, etc, than Western countries. But less than 150 bucks? It’s disgusting, pure and simple. Govind is so attentive and doesn’t begrudge us at all even though to him we must seem like millionaires. And it gets worse.
There is a little old wisened man here who does all the cleaning. He sweeps, scrubs and soaps the ashram top to bottom every day, slowly ambling up and down the stairs with his mop and bucket. He gets paid 3000rupees a month ($72 NZD).
The other morning he cleaned my room for me. I waited until he was emptying bins out the back of the ashram walls and followed him, slipping him a little baksheesh – a tip. His face broke out into a massive, gap toothed grin. I’d given him the equivalent of $2.50. It tore my heart to shreds.
I feel like such a shit person. Last Sunday at the markets I was selfishly bartering the hell out of sellers for every purchase I made. All I was concerned with was making my money stretch as far as it could so I could get the most out of it possible. How heartless. Sure, there are the wealthy bastards that see me as a target to get as much money out of me as they can, but there are also the many, many, many struggling souls who desperately need as much as they can get. What’s paying an extra $2 for me when it probably feeds the family for an entire meal or two?
The caste system here is hugely apparent, even within the ashram boundaries. There is a chasm between the social standing of the worker men and Amrit, the founding doctor. He treats them like dogs, ordering them about with no “please”s or “thank you”s. I haven’t seen him pour his own cup of water since I arrived. It makes me feel a little bit sick.
But these men are a delight. They are humble, respectful, and so grateful for their terribly-paid jobs. They don’t complain and they don’t try to make you sympathise. They know their role, their place, and they are content. They get out their cellphones, old models that are lucky to have cameras, and show Eva and I photos of their families, their girlfriends, their kids. I’ve only ever seen someone’s chest swell with pride once before in my life (when I was a flower girl when I was 6, Max – the groom – was the proudest person I’ve ever, ever seen of his new wife and one of my favourite people, Saskia). But here, evident pride of loved ones has chests pushed out on the daily.
Yesterday I came downstairs and all six of the men were in the garden, playing some sort of tackling game. They were giggling like school children, uproariously having fun. They were so jovial. I felt like absolute shit.
I’m always striving for more. Worrying about money and how I’m going to afford all I want in my life. And I have eons, absolutely eons more than these guys. Yet they are content. They are in the moment. It was a pure illustration of the phrase “money doesn’t buy happiness”. Sure, it allows the opportunities for joy and fun, but true happiness? It’s not in a fat wallet.