Image: Nathan Hamm, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Thrust into the heaving metropolis of Delhi, I shed flight fatigue and took up that strange energy, a sort of heightened awareness that travellers feel when they arrive somewhere new. I stared out at everything as we jerked along in a beat-up Honda driven by Sam, our host and friend.
It was one street after another from the airport to the hotel. Traffic functioned as an economy of aggression: courtesy would get us nowhere. Hundreds of cars jostled with bicycles, motorbikes and the sky-blue auto-rickshaws with their open sides and scooter steering.
I hadn’t set out to learn to meditate, or find myself. I wasn’t pursuing any one of the myriad philosophical and spiritual myths that Westerners attach to India. I was drawn to Delhi for the same reason people are drawn to cities like Seoul, Jakarta or St Petersburg: no single landmark or attraction attached to the place but rather the promise of some indefinable experience, the allure of the unknown. Possessing an amateur’s acquaintance with philosophy, what I did feel for the first time in years was not enlightenment but a deep and resounding sense of luck.
A car squeezed between the barrier and us. The wing mirrors touched and Sam leaned on his horn. At times when there were no concrete dividers between inbound and outbound traffic, driving became an act of faith; you could only hope that the other drivers were as careful as us, and for the most part they were.
Even so, accidents – the language of traffic is rife with inept euphemisms: faultless, fatality, road-toll – are inevitable. Days later we saw a bloodied motorcyclist lying flat while people rushed onto the road to pull him away.
The sprawling density of the city is something I had never encountered – certainly not that close, nor that immediate. I’d experienced the maddening traffic of Beijing, the super malls and the lingering looks reserved for pale outsiders like me. Bangkok, too, had prepared me for the hustle of the street, the irregular yet constant beeping of horns, the strange new smells and staggering volumes of human bodies.
But nothing prepared me for the vastness, the sudden and imperturbable sense of insignificance, and again that accompanying sense of luck.
The sprawling density of the city is something I had never encountered – certainly not that close, nor that immediate.
Michael, my friend, colleague and travel companion, sat in the back seat. I turned to see him staring wide-eyed at an ox tethered to a street sign.
‘Traffic is bad,’ Sam said.
I was unsure if he meant generally or right now. I wondered why Sam, being a Delhi native, had spent so much time asking for directions. By the time he admitted he had taken a wrong turn, we’d been travelling for almost two hours. It didn’t occur to me that Sam had no reason to venture out to the airport, that his pocket of Delhi was wildly dense and as populated and varied as any city I had lived in. He didn’t know the roads in other areas because he had no reason to visit them.
It turned out Google Maps had forgotten Delhi in many ways: the aerial photos were pixellated and outdated, travel time and live traffic data were flawed and inconsistent. I felt vulnerable, a strange new thought: I can’t trust Google. It passed soon enough.
We were progressing through the heart of the city when someone hobbled up to the car window: a woman of around 30 with dark hair, green eyes, and long bent fingers. She leaned forward so close to my window that her eyes became shaded and I could see the cracks in her lips.
I groped my pockets for my wallet. Sam rested his hand on my forearm and our eyes met.
‘No, mate,’ he said.
I can’t help but reflect on that moment. In the cool air-conditioned car heading to a hotel with starched sheets and buffet breakfast, I thought: She would give anything to be where I am. I didn’t want to accept my advantage and privilege as being outside of my control. Luck, I thought, implies an unbridled force alternating between good and bad, determinism implies complete passivity, I prefer to see life as equal parts chance and choice.
But, then again, I would. People in perceived advantageous positions consider luck a minor role in their life. People facing poverty and adversity consider luck to play a major role. The most successful, the most well-to-do and healthy are the least likely to acknowledge luck. Even when we consider place of birth, we accept our fortune as somehow our own doing, as if being lucky enough to be born in an affluent country is inexplicably within our control.
People in perceived advantageous positions consider luck a minor role in their life. People facing poverty and adversity consider luck to play a major role.
This is a well-researched area of psychology and behavioural economics. Studies show when things go wrong we look outward. In other words, positives we claim and negatives we blame.
Even the language of luck skews depending on how lucky you are. Ask any winners at a casino and they’ll likely tell you I’ve got a formula, or I picked the right numbers or more honest winners might say I had a feeling. Ask any losers and their very sentence construction changes from a focus on I to external influences. No luck tonight, the dealer screwed me; You can’t win ’em all.
The concept of luck is of course not universal and subject to the needs and desires of any individual. For example, who am I to say what constitutes a good and happy existence? Everything I experience is refracted through my own previous experiences and upbringing. Why am I an authority on who was born lucky and who wasn’t?
Sam ignored the woman. Part of me felt an urge to tear Sam’s hand from my wrist and reach again for my wallet, another part of me felt an impotence setting in my bones like cement, and all the while, just beneath the surface, was a roiling introspection, a dog chasing its tail: I want to do something but what can I do, what can anyone do?
Sam must have long ago become numbed by constant exposure to humans at their most vulnerable and desperate, or perhaps it’s bystander apathy? We were, after all, in just one of thousands of cars that would pass her by that night; someone would give her something.
Or is it possible, through some mental acrobatics, that Sam saw her as fundamentally responsible for the position she was in? After all, as Aravind Adiga makes clear in The White Tiger, many Indians consider India to be a continent of entrepreneurs; the inference being anyone can be anything despite systematic advantages.
Trapped at the red light, and presumably sensing our discomfort, Sam lowered the window enough to pass a single coin through. She accepted the coin into both hands without smiling and moved on to the next car. When Sam told us it was the equivalent of one Australian cent, I grinned at him; I didn’t know why.
Chance, serendipity, fortuna, everything that had happened to me could be distilled to luck. Whether I considered it passive or active, the fact I was born in small-town New Zealand and not the streets of Delhi told me everything I needed to know about the role luck had played in my life.
As we moved through the streets, I looked about at the faces, the creases lined with dirt, bodies motionless on the pavement beside the road, flat on the concrete dividers between lanes. I wanted to believe that if it were me I would have been different, I would have the will to escape any slum, but when I dug deep enough I couldn’t get past the inevitable bedrock of determinism, privilege and genetics: whether or not I’d have the will, compulsion, means and opportunity to escape a situation of extreme adversity is something I will never know.
Whether or not I’d have the will, compulsion, means and opportunity to escape a situation of extreme adversity is something I will never know.
This kind of paradox is a meritocratic staple; it gives rise to the idea that irrespective of circumstances if you have the sheer resolve to produce something you will survive in the capitalist jungle. This logic neglects many things, not least of which is the role chance plays in genetics.
American author and activist Gloria Jean Watkins, writing under the pen-name ‘bell hooks’ in her book Teaching Community (2003), shares a question she often poses to schoolchildren: ‘If you were about to die and could come back as a white male, a black male, a white female or a black female, what would you choose?’
Invariably the majority of respondents, irrespective of gender and race, responded ‘white male’. ‘Black Female’ is always the least chosen. When asked, ‘Why did you choose that?’ children began to break down and analyse privilege based on race and gender. It’s also a useful exercise for exhibiting the reality that even young children can recognise: influence and systemic advantages are afforded to certain groups and not others and luck, as with everything, determines which group you belong to.
Given the choice to come back as more attractive and healthier, I’d hazard a guess that the results would be similar. It’s one thing to be born in a wealthy country, it’s another to be born to a loving family with the means to support you, but even still some are born more genetically lucky than others.
While we drove through the twilit streets, in my head a backbeat played out but for the grace of God. That false sense of control, taking my own destiny by the throat, all that Tony Robbins-esque tripe fell by the wayside, revealed for the fraud it had been.
A little girl, no older than six, alone, hair tangled, eyes wet, approached the window and began her gentle tapping.
‘Oh fuck,’ Sam uttered at the inconvenience of it.
Michael and I shared a look in the shadow of the car. We realised we were not prepared, and we could never have been prepared for that.
‘Don’t look. Guys, don’t look.’
Sam, perhaps as a courtesy to us green Australians, offered up the equivalent of five Australian cents and the girl moved on.
She was the second of many more to approach on that drive. Some were dead-eyed, slack jawed and hobbling. Some were bone-thin, clutching still infants to their chests. Others offered a show of juggling knives, or children acrobatically flipping and dancing in the exhaust fumes. An impossibly thin girl dragged a pet monkey along as it leapt from car to car.
Over the two-hour drive we were never alone; always we could see bodies on the streets – often barefoot, occasionally leaning on a crutch. We encountered knots of workers standing at the road’s edge with hands hung out to hitch a ride. And always people approaching our Honda.
It wasn’t until we were in the hotel room that it dawned on me: since we had left for Tullamarine Airport some twenty hours earlier we had been so surrounded by other humans that they had lost their humanness. I saw only the forest and not the trees. Each of those people was different and within them beat a unique heart and thrummed a mind that is like no other.
On the flight home, I thought, That’s something I should remember. People find themselves in difficult circumstances not exclusively as a result of poor decisions or an attitude failure, not due to laziness or indifference. Those people were there on the streets because fate or fortune or luck deposited them there. Even those who may want to be there, they were hard-wired to want that through the lottery of genetics, the luck of their experiences.
I’m realising more and more how lucky I have been, but luck can turn and those people who gazed into our car are like me. They too are adrift on a sea so vast and all encompassing that it’s easy to forget you’re in it. That is until you encounter others struggling to stay afloat. We saw the Taj Mahal, we ate both street food and at five-star hotels. We haggled merchants, moving body-to-body through the humid markets, and visited buildings and monuments so enormous and so varied they can only be collectively described as grand.
Leaving India, I recalled something David Foster Wallace once said in his now famous graduation address. He began with a story about a fish that wonders, What is water? It is true that we are often blind to the most pervasive elements of our own existence. I kept thinking how fitting it was to acknowledge these invisible forces. As Foster Wallace all those years ago had urged the rapt crowd of burgeoning graduates to do, I reminded myself on the return flight, This is water, This is water.