I’m not a big complainer at all. Usually I get on with it, and have little patience for unnecessary complaints. But as I said, sometimes it is nice to complain, and in those moments all you really want is your complaints to be justified by someone else. The tricky thing about traveling alone through India photographing climate issues is that you don’t have anyone to complain to, and if you do, their situation is usually much worse. Privilege at its finest I guess.
I had this type of situation arise a number of times in my long journey through India. One time I remember shivering inside my jacket on a frigid train with a metal bar digging into my back, all the while looking at a child with no jacket in the same situation. But there was one morning in the eastern end of India that stood out to me. I thought I had had enough. I felt sorry for myself, but as usual, India smashed my privilege right back in my face. This is the story of my morning in Shillong.
I’d spent the night in my jacket under two shady blankets trying to stay warm. I’d kept my boots on, double layered my socks, and even wore a hat in bed. I just couldn’t seem to stay warm. The temperature outside was five degrees, and I bet my room was hardly different. There were no showers, and the only water was freezing cold. When the first rays of sun came out, I headed to the street in search of some hot tea. I cursed my situation, and saw a reflection of myself on windows of the street as I walked by. I looked like a tired man wearing every layer possible, and genuinely felt sorry for myself.
I went straight to the poorer part of town. I knew the day workers get up early, and there would be tea vendors there. On the way I passed dozens of shacks made of sheet metal and wooden planks, the typical slums you see anywhere in the world. The gaps between the housing materials were visible, and one could hardly call those shacks a form of shelter. Slowly as the day broke, little children emerged from the shacks on to the street carrying empty buckets. They were wearing far less clothing than me, some without shoes. There was a big line up beside the water pipe on the street. The children were lining up for water for the day, some shivering as they stood in the long line that seemed to stretch about a block in length. I thought to myself, “If my room was cold, how bad was their night? Every single night?”
Feeling much less sorry for myself, I arrived at the tea stand. Overwhelmed with excitement, I clutched the hot cup of tea. I ordered a small pastry, and slumped into the chair at the back of the tea shack. I held my face over the tea and allowed the warm steam to hit my forehead. I felt a bit better. The tea was so good I ordered another cup and held it with the same contentment. This time I was a bit more energised and stood up to watch the street while I sipped my tea.
Suddenly the pile of garbage and old rags on the ground beside me started to move. Out emerged a man curled up on the cold concrete. Seemingly confused, he blew on his hands to warm up, and he just stood there looking lost. I nudged my head towards the tea stand as if to say, ‘You want some?’ He didn’t move. He stood beside a giant bag of collected garbage, his only form of income I am assuming. I passed him tea, and a pastry. He looked at the tea, and then looked at me. Without saying anything, he went for the tea so fast his beard was covered in the hot drink.
I watched him for a while. I was fixated. I tried to explain to my friends back home, but I often don’t think they understand.
I didn’t take his photo to show him off. I took his photo because I knew many of you would see it. If you woke up this morning in a bed, or a house, perhaps with a nice blanket or pillow, and you felt any form of human dignity, take a moment, think about it, and appreciate the things you don’t notice. We all have worries in our lives; perhaps sometimes we get too hung up on the little ones. Never give up.
That night I ended up sleeping in the same place as the night before. I chose to. The bed was not so bad anymore; the room not so cold. Nothing was different. I just had a different frame of mind. India does that to you. It tests your boundaries, and when you think you have hit your limit, it gently reminds that you haven’t.