THURSDAY, Feb 22, 2007. It was hotter in Kolkata than in Atlanta that afternoon. The market was crowded with tens of thousands of the world’s poorest peoples – Hindus, Bengalis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs and Muslims – all dickering over the prices of dates, shoes, brass gods, and bric-a-brac. Think of the world’s largest Flea Market.
I had been in India for barely three days.
I was conducting research for an Indian NGO, Apne Aap, on the causes and effects of human trafficking and working with domestics to develop economic opportunities for women and children subjected to sex slavery. Two of my new friends, Sudebe and Dayita, 20-something ex-prostitutes now eking out a living as seamstresses, had taken me to a local fabric store.
On a hunch, I sifted through rampaging piles of silks, beaded tapestries and odd lot cuttings. I built two piles of fabric: Western and Indian. The Western pile was mostly muted colors, geometrics, animal prints, solids, subtle plaids… the patterns you’d see in a Ross or TJ Max. The Indian fabrics were bright beaded reds, ornate yellows and gaudy purples. No stylish American woman would ever wear such flamboyant patterns anywhere in public.
“Which pile sells?” I asked. My charges chuckled and pointed to the eye-blasting Indian fabrics. No self-respecting Indian woman would ever wear a drab dull mauve, even with pin dots. At that moment I learned that there is no Universal Taste.
There is only Universal Hunger.
Two weeks in Kolkata and, later on, three weeks in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand convinced me of another truth, one that both secular academics and devout philanthropists would likely question. It is simply that neither scholarly dissertations, miscellaneous “human rights” ordinances, nor the most inspiring selections from Newsweek or The Washington Post will ever do much to fill the bellies or save the lives of the two million 5- to 12-year old girls sold into slavery every year in South and Southeast Asia. I know because as a product of the university I attacked the world’s crisis of poverty with academic eyes. Not until I walked the slums of Kolkata and the brothels of Bangkok did I realize the subjectivity in the human’s experience of living without.