Starry Night Sky with Bow

Steps Towards Empathy

Adventure and comfort are not synonyms. I doubt they’re even friends. With exceptions like tropical Goa and luxurious Bollywood, comfort is not what people envision when they think of India, but this is a country that certainly can be an adventure. Recently I had the privilege of spending a month here, and there were many in the group I travelled with who showed that if your intention is to grow a place in your heart for the people, you’re in for the best kind of adventure. We wanted to get to know the locals on the level of their lives. So we put our hands to manual labour out in their villages, shared their meals, slept on their floors, and squeezed into their trains, busses and rickshaws (for all of which, the maximum capacity is officially defined as “one more”).

It’s easy, within our normal social circles, to lose touch with the rest of humanity. The people “out there” are items on the news or locations on a map. Because we have no connection with them, we struggle to see them as “real”. When we are able to look through the eyes of another people at their own world, to feel their discomforts and hopes, to care for them as individuals with names and smiles … everything changes. They become real people. They become our people.

As you can probably imagine, for a writer, something like this would be rich with inspiration. I didn’t want to start writing anything new, but I did want to use the inspiration as fuel for the current works in progress. So I wrote in trains, planes and a host of odd corners that neither looked nor sounded anything like a traditional writing space. While there, I saw something I’ll remember every time my work space is less than ideal. We were in a rickshaw, darting through a busy part of Kolkata where the noise was within a few decibels of fracturing concrete. (If you haven’t heard the sound of these city streets, let me describe it as an orchestra of car hooters in which every player’s sheet is black with notes and every note is marked fortississimo.) As we darted from left to right whenever a half-space presented itself (lanes are taken, at best, as polite suggestions), I spotted an elderly Indian gentleman working at a typewriter two feet from the blaring street. It was too fast to snap a pic, but it was one of those fleeting moments of kinship. If he could write on the side of that road, I reasoned, I could write absolutely anywhere. Of course, this argument falls apart if the page emerging from his typewriter reads, “Shuuuut upppppp!!!!!”

On a more serious note, time spent in a country like this would have an influence on any writer’s way of seeing and representing people – a shift from knowing about to knowing, from head to heart. There were some key passages in Book 2 of The Wakening that I went back and rewrote based on how events impacted me. Slavery is a central theme in the Wakening, and modern day slavery is rife in India. There was much I saw and heard that broke my heart in ways I don’t want to forget. Even if we haven’t met them, the people held in bondage – many of them children – are our brothers and sisters. The heart-wrenching steps taken from sympathy to empathy close a space that should never have existed. There’s no poverty like isolation, and no wealth like community. In spite of the heartache, we returned home wealthier than when we left.

Some members of the Renshaw team were in India too, and I asked one of them to write some of her experiences for this blog post. Sophie, the newest addition to the team, is a psychology and law student with a long-held desire to stand against human trafficking. She has visited India before and was the first to tell me about this trip. When you go to India, people always warn you in capital letters to be very careful about what you eat or drink. Sophie is not ignorant of this, but she will eat or drink anything offered to her by an Indian child. I once saw a little boy hold up a bottle filled at a ditch. He smiled. She melted … and drank. If you know anything about the mighty Delhi belly, you’ll know that this was fearlessness of the highest degree.

Sophie’s passion for the country is uncontainable, and I’m hoping that, like me, you will be both inspired and challenged to think about the world around us in a fresh way. I’d like you to hear her experiences directly, so let me hand over. – JR

Sophie:

India – a country with a population of 1.2 billion. That means that India holds more people than the entire western part of the world put together. You’d believe it if you stood in some of the markets or train stations where it feels like the entire 1.2 billion has gathered. We had no idea so many people could fit into one space.

India can bring thousands of pictures and images to mind, because India knows nothing of neutrality. It also knows nothing about moderation. India is EXTREMELY noisy, EXTREMELY dirty, and EXTREMELY overwhelming. In just one day you can feel as if every single one of your senses has been completely awakened (and battered) by the voice that seems to scream “more” all around you. More love, more understanding, and more compassion.

It is not possible to fully experience any country from the inside of a tour bus or behind the window of a hotel room. In order to really understand a place you need to know how the local people do life – what is important to them and what a day in their lives looks like. We were fortunate enough to stay in the real India, not the India that people tell you about when they’ve been to the Taj Mahal and back. Most of our time was spent in Kolkata, or the City of Joy as it is known.

While there, we grew to love a group of children staying in makeshift shelters under a bridge. These children were rough and tough – they have to be. Their world has taught them to fight, brutally, in order to survive. They were often mean and hurt one another, but by spending time in their world, we had the opportunity to see past the tough exteriors. These are the children most vulnerable of being trafficked. With little education and in dire circumstances, they are the ones who fall most easily into the web of exploitation. We were with them in the day, but what happens to those little faces in the darkness of the night? Who protects them then? Their parents are not educated (many were little more than children themselves) and the police do not always offer the necessary support to protect these people. Traffickers will often take children by promising a better life with education and a good marriage, when actually from the moment they say goodbye to their parents, they are sold like animals and treated worse. Who is going to look for them if they go missing?

We walked the streets every day and often at night, getting to know them as our own, and as we walked we encountered the people of joy. Street children would often come up to us and pull on our sleeves thinking our white skin meant “dollas” (dollars). And children will be children –after begging, no, insisting for money, they would sometimes walk with us while holding our hands, and even swing from our arms before waving goodbye.

When we look at a situation for long enough, we can sometimes become dulled to the wrongness of what we are seeing. It is not right that people live on the streets, that they have to sleep, cook and wash on filthy sidewalks. It is not right that street children have to turn their sharp minds to manipulative schemes to get someone to buy them their only meal for the day. Sometimes you can even see their “managers” watching from nearby. It was a constant battle when walking the streets to remind myself that no matter how used to it I became, I should never think of it as normal or okay for people to live like that. I should never be okay to ignore a child I see every day because I gave her money yesterday. I am not saying we should give money to every single poor person that we encounter, but we can give dignity. I can stop and ask her what her name is and joke with her because I know a little Hindi. (Bengali is the main language in Kolkata, but most speak Hindi too.) I love the surprised expression on her face at that moment when I ask her name in an Indian language. This is something I can do every day. It costs me nothing, and it means that I am always able to give.

There is a movie that has recently been released called “Lion”. If you haven’t seen it, I would encourage you to do so. It will make what I’m saying come alive. The best part is that it is based in the beautiful city of Kolkata. Through Lion, I heard the staggering statistic that, in India, 80 000 children go missing every year. As I hear that number my mind races back to the bridge. What about Priya and Rubiya and Quban? My heart stops at the thought of the two street boys that we bought food and cold drinks for disappearing. Those are the children they are talking about. How do I sit at home and allow that to happen? What can I do?

I know that there are organisations that are doing incredible work and so I can sign up to their weekly/monthly updates. I can read their breaking news and I can rejoice at each survivor that is found because each survivor is worth celebrating! I can give. I’m not on the field yet, but I can support those who are. I can get down on my knees and pray to a God that knows and sees. A God who begs me in His word over and over again to GO to those who are in need.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? … If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Isaiah 58:6-10

India is a complete juxtaposition of beauty and heartache. There is a quote that says, “The place where Jesus calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” My heart comes alive at the exact place where India cries out for help. I would like to share a quote from one of my favourite books “Kisses from Katie”

“People who really want to make a difference in the world usually do it, in one way or another. And I’ve noticed something about people who make a difference in the world: They hold the unshakable conviction that individuals are extremely important, that every life matters. They get excited over one smile. They are willing to feed one stomach, educate one mind, and treat one wound. They aren’t determined to revolutionize the world all at once; they’re satisfied with small changes. Over time, though, the small changes add up. Sometimes they even transform cities and nations, and yes, the world.”

We can make a difference in this broken world with small acts of love and kindness because over time those acts add up. Let’s stop and love just one person. One more person each day.

9 thoughts on “Steps Towards Empathy

  1. Bill

    I stopped by to check up on book 2

    Instead- I see this post.
    I read the post and it brought me to tears, feeling impotent, frustrated, small, then resolved to do more

    I’m glad I came here today.

    Books aren’t necessarily a mirror to a writer’s heart, decent people can and do write hard ugly stories.

    In this case though, I believe this story is that mirror- JR thank you for the book.

    Sophie, thank you for this reminder

    Reply
  2. Jon b.

    You should check out davis ashura. He wrote a fantasy series that instead of a Westerner medieval period it has a more Indian caste system. It was very interesting and I think you might enjoy it. As a Westerner I’ve always had a love for India’s beauty and I’m saddened by the human trafficking. I love your blog and look forward to reading book 2

    Reply
  3. Jesse B

    Always love reading blogs about you and the team’s adventures. Dedication to truly capturing the essence of the message you’re trying to convey is what separates great authors from the best authors. Keep up the great work. I’ve already introduced your book to half a dozen friends and we’re all buzzing with anticipation for the second one!

    Reply
  4. Adam

    Thank you for sharing; both entries were illustrative and insightful.

    I very much recommend the book “Shantaram,” loosely based on the author’s life, about a man who has escaped from a maximum security prison in Australia to start anew in 1980’s Bombay.

    Reply
    1. Renshaw Team

      Great recommendation, Adam. We’ve read the book. Some of the members of the team were even able to visit the original Leopold’s Cafe in Mumbai.

  5. Tony Bearden

    I started to cry in my cube at work reading this post. We often get overwhelmed at the world’s problems by the sheer enormity of issues like human trafficing. The reminder to reach just one person at a time can break us out of this pralysis. Thank you for sharing this update. I’m eagerly awaiting your next book. Blessings.

    Reply
  6. Nicole

    Beautiful, poignant and inspiring.

    My dad always taught me that if we all just put a couple of cents In the jar, the jar would be pretty full.

    Make those small changes where you can. If we all do this then together we can make a big difference.

    Reply
  7. Adam Roche

    You should look at what the charity Addressing the Unaddressed are doing in India. It will help you make those small differences.

    Reply

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