#12 An Inch Wide and a Mile Deep

As with most countries, Indians have phrases that have made their way into English – yet remain distinctly Indian. For example, “passing out” as in, graduation – “He passed out of college last May.” Then there’s “What’s your good name?” meaning your first name or given name. There’s “time pass” (killing time), and “out of station” (out of town or unavailable). There’s a liberal use of the word only (He arrived only this morning) and kindly, as in, “Kindly revert (return) to the ticket counter.”

One of my favorite expressions so far is “doing the needful.” Translated literally, it means do what’s important or “Do this one thing.”

The next morning, I walk downstairs and outside to wait on the curb, amid the constant honking. As Andy points out, there seem to be four unofficial levels of honking in India:

  1. A polite, “just letting you know I’m here”
  2. A firm toot “I’m trying to pass you”
  3. “Get over you idiot; I’m REALLY trying to pass you.”
  4. Danger – you’re about to get hit!

You really don’t ever want to hear No. 4, as it may be the very last thing you hear on this earth. We stand outside on the curb waiting on the others as BLOW HORN and ALL WEST BENGAL whiz past in a cloud of dust.

“The first name for OneLife came from some of the trucks,” Seth comments. “Awaz Karo. A loose translation of that means, ‘make noise.’ We want to make noise for the people who aren’t capable of making noise for themselves in the United States to let people know about what’s going on.”

***

Today the team is driving to the outskirts of Calcutta to examine a potential site for the “Dream Home” project. The Dream Home facility is a vision to rescue kids in high risk situations by providing them shelter and stability while attending school. As we ride north, bumping over the potholes of the worn, paved roads, I talk to Danny, who has worked with several non-profits.

The pitfalls around a non-profit are to be carefully considered, but there are a few recommended principles most experts agree on.

“First, I think every non-profit should be established and should work towards putting themselves out of business,” Danny says, as we hit a pothole. “If you’re set up to receive donations to fund AIDS research, your goal is to eventually disband your board, because you will have eventually cured AIDS. We no longer have to do what we’re doing, because there will eventually be no need for it.”

“It’s also critical to have an effective, active and engaged board, as well as a diverse membership with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds, not necessarily just deep pockets. They should collectively establish the vision of an organization and then empower an executive director or staff to enact it.”

We drive down a dusty red road, honking to clear some terribly skinny cows. The farther we get outside Calcutta, the more urban the landscape becomes. There are piles of chopped wood and strings of laundry on washlines by the roads edge. Children play by the side of the road in dusty clouds and our driver has to honk to clear them.

“One of the things you have to be aware of is ‘mission creep’ Danny continues.

Usually an organization is founded to serve a specific need and it’s easy for that mission or purpose to begin broadening or expanding – it’s easier for it to get wider and more shallow. An organization needs to be clear about what it’s doing and stand to that and make that their priority. For example, if someone said they wanted to give $100,000 to an organization, but they want it to go toward something that’s not in the scope of the organization right now, you’re faced with a real dilemma…because those are real funds, but they’re earmarked for something the organization doesn’t do.”

Andy nods from the backseat. “We want to be an inch wide and a mile deep,” he says, “instead of a mile wide and inch deep.”

Creating a non-profit – or participating in a charity of any kind, actually, is a responsibility individuals should not take lightly, admonishes Toxic Charity author Robert Lupton. In Toxic Charity, Lupton writes, “Charity can either be toxic or transformative. To ultimately be redemptive, it must be carefully considered.”11

According to Lupton, unselfish charity should:

  • never be mindless
  • never be irresponsible
  • always calculate the cost
  • always consider the outcome, and
  • always be a partnership.

Are recipients becoming leaders and partners in working towards the solution? he asks. Are those being served growing, or do they continue to seek handouts?

In the book, Lupton advocates what he calls The Oath for Compassionate Service:

  • Never do for the poor what they have or would have the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment.
  • Listen to those you seek to help.
  • Above all, do no harm.

With these thoughts and a final bump, we pull up to the potential Dream Home site. At first, all we can see is a high wall that surrounds the property. Then the gate slides back with a loud groan to reveal a beautiful yard overgrown with wild weeds and yellow flowers that are a cross between sunflowers and mums.

We disembark from the van and walk through the overgrowth. There is an elegant, stained brick gate surrounding the compound and a profusion of pink flowers on hanging vines that seem to glow in the sunlight. I stare at the vine for several minutes. There is a beauty to the wildness – the defiance of the flowers to be something beautiful in the middle of decay, as Piyas shows us a proposed spot for a food garden and a small reservoir pond adjacent to the house.

The house itself is a long, cream-colored rectangular building with red trim. We climb the steps to the porch, and Pete, Andy and Melanie pace the inside of the house thoughtfully. The rooms are bare, of sea foam green with tiled concrete floors. A series of outdoor steps leads up to the roof, which is flat and walled.

Standing on the roof, looking down into the yard we try to see the lot not for what it is, but what it could be.

“The #1 factor is community acceptance,” Andy says – approval by the city council and local leaders so the Dream Home’s presence is not undermined. The second is security, he says, noting the property’s boundary wall. The third is natural landscape so the house can be a place of peace and have the necessary space. Price and feasibility of utilities are also key factors.

The first phase is to rescue a dozen or so high-risk girls from Khalpar, boarding them while they attend local schools, he says. Then add another floor or wing of the home for at-risk boys. The home would have a rotating house mom with space for the kids to help with daily chores, study, play and have a vegetable garden.

“Eventually we would love to have our own school,” Seth adds. For now, children from the slums attend a boarding school in Calcutta.

***

Later that afternoon, Danny, Ryan, Shelly and I go to the market in Calcutta. The air of New Market is a blend of fried food, incense, spices and smoke. Tables lining the streets are piled high with purses, bracelets, clothes and scarves. There are shops with bolts and bolts of brightly colored fabrics and shoes, shoes, shoes. Every kind of cheap ladies’ shoes imaginable, from heels to slippers with cardboard bottoms. There are row after row of vendors selling fried breads and fruit.

Shelly and Ryan soon disappear into the crowd and I walk around with Danny, weaving between the tables, trying to look inconspicuous. We try to avoid eye contact with the shopkeepers to keep them from following us out of their stalls, eager for sales. There is a friendly young man who keeps following Danny and I, however. He comments on Danny’s beard, and Danny strikes up a conversation with him about “No Shave November.” The man keeps pestering us to visit his “shop” in the strip mall, and before we know it, he has dragged us downstairs to a dimly lit counter.

The shopkeeper presents us with shaving supplies until Danny tells him he has no intention of shaving it off. The young man then switches tactics to pipes and scarves. Before you can say Bollywood, no less than 20 scarves appear on the table, some decent, some paper thin, and a tray of pipes for Danny. The shopkeeper flips through the scarves one by one like a magician, going from low quality to high quality. Some he offers brief commentary on (“Excellent, excellent”), while others he wrinkles his nose at and tosses them over his shoulder, as if their presence in the shop is a mistake.

“You like to go in pipe?” he asks Danny, producing bundles of unidentified herbs.

“Good price, good price,” he insists, putting larger sacks on the table.

“We aren’t going to be here much longer,” Danny tries to protest.

“You smoke before you leave” he says, throwing a smaller bag on the table.

“No, too much,” Danny says.

He produces a smaller bag.

“We are leaving soon – it won’t get through customs,” Danny protests.

“You go back to room, start smoking now,” the merchant says, unblinking.

Danny manages to decline the unidentified grass, but we both concede to buy two scarves apiece.

We meet Ryan and Shelly back on the street level, where Shelly and I explore another row of shops across the street. We wind up being followed by four men – scouts for friends and relatives with shops who follow foreigners, making notes on what they look at, and attempting to herd them into their relative’s shops for a bounty.

“We came, we saw, we were followed all around the market,” I joke with Andy, plopping wearily on the couch back at the hotel.

***

That evening, we eat at a restaurant called Peter Cat for dinner. For the most part, the Indian food at mealtimes has been a treat. Taking care to avoid street food or anything washed in the local water, it feels like a fine dance between the bacterially dangerous and gastrically daring world of spice.

Favorites of the group include tandoori chicken (chicken roasted in yoghurt and spices), named for the tandoori oven, butter chicken or chicken tikka, butter and garlic naan flatbread and different types of paneer (cheese) – palak paneer, with its green spinach and creamy green tomato sauce, paneer butter masala or paneer makhani – cubed tofu or cheese in a creamy red sauce with tomato and cashew nuts.

Peter Cat is a favorite restaurant of Andy and Seth’s and instantly the menu feels like a good friend. Experience the ultimate union of forces and finesse through our intense and elegant flavours, fine textures and lingering tastes, the menu boasts. Our chef recommends for the fickle-minded, anything: Do try and at least decide if you are a vegetarian.12

I flip through the pages, complete with cartoon illustrations to read Tandoori Mixed Grill and Divine Rice. Then there’s Kabuli King Chic Peas – known in Karachi as Chana or Cholay and relished by connoisseurs in the Punjab. I turn the next page and discover Aphrodisiacs for the Harem:

Chelo Kabab – the protected regional product of West Bengal. Kababs, rare spices, Persian herbs on rice (with butter and an egg)

Harem’s Joy – tender chicken prepared with selected spices and fruit (passionately recommended).

Ladies and gentlemen, I have found my dinner selection.

***

The harem’s joy is, well…delightful, as are all the dishes and curries. As we eat, Andy, Seth, Melanie and Pete talk about plans for the Dream Home, and it’s just as wonderful as the food.  After all, Andy, Seth and Pete weren’t brilliant with a Ph.D. in non-profits. All they did was slow down enough to see the residents of Khalpar slum and think about how they might help them. And Jesus’ illustration of the man on the road to Jericho is telling in more ways than one.

The longer I stay in India, the more I realize, maybe where you should go or who your neighbor is, isn’t important. Maybe your neighbor isn’t your literal neighbor OR strangers around the world.

Maybe your neighbor is whoever God places in your path.

That night in bed, I pray for a better path.