Since the days of the Empire – and, in another way, since the days of The Beatles – India has been a glamorous attraction to many in Britain. A place, in that awful cliché, to “find yourself”.
Fired with eagerness to do some good in the world, one young Ipswich woman now finds herself in New Delhi.
And for Annie Perez, the experience is a heady mixture of the glorious and the ghastly.
The former Kesgrave High School student and University Campus Suffolk graduate is two months into a year of working for Operation Asha, a worldwide charity fighting the killer disease tuberculosis (TB). In Annie’s case, in the slums of Delhi and elsewhere in northern India.
It’s quite a change from presenting a late-night hard rock show on Ipswich Community Radio, which she did right up to her departure in February.
As she told me last week: "Since we last spoke I have moved into my own flat and had a ride on an elephant. I have been introduced to some inspirational ambassadors and social entrepreneurs.This weekend I am going to Rishakesh, considered to be a haven for yoga and meditation – but I am going to camp out under the stars with some friends and do some trekking and water rafting during the day.”
So it’s not all work, then. But even away from the office, or the makeshift clinics, there are hardships to endure too. Mostly other people’s hardships, but for a caring person those can be hard to deal with too.
“I am not going to lie,” Annie said, “there are some aspects that make me want to cry. Especially the children on the streets during schooling hours.
“You even see some high and begging, some with disabilities, and all I do is walk on by like everyone else and feel sad inside.”
I remember from 30 years ago the culture shock of being confronted by begging on a massive scale, by young children, by people with grim deformities.If those 30 years have seen a boom in some parts of India’s economy, life for those people doesn’t seem much changed.
“Sometimes it is hard to concentrate on something specific when what is around you pulls your heart in multiple directions,” says Annie.
“Keeping a focus on what you can do is imperative. It is only in the time that I’m not working that I feel I should be spending more time benefitting others.
“It tears me up inside. How can I help these people?
“A mother and baby suckling on her nipple and another child she holds by the arm. Both the children barely clothed and all of them dirty and the mother and child scarred in various places.
“The mother holds her hand out to me and motions the gesture for food. She needs money. And I walk on by.
“A hard gulp washes away my sadness and self-forgiveness for doing such an inhumane thing: walk away – everyone else does…”And at work with young TB sufferers, whose lives might be blighted even without the disease.
“A young child touching my arm and I look into her eyes. They are sad and I can only imagine what her eyes have seen.
“Who stands up for her right to know a life different to the one she has? How can I even make a difference in this way?”
The sad fact is that no individual can make any great difference to the overall picture.
But someone like Annie, working for Asha – the name is Hindi for “hope” – may make a huge impact on a few individual lives. And for that you can only applaud her efforts and her care.
India is,we keep being told – along with China – one of the world’s booming economies.If the 20th was the American century, the 21st is to be the Chinese and Indian century.
Could be. India has some of the richest individuals in the world and a burgeoning middle class – booming both in numbers and comfort.
But what it also has is a still vast population of people living at a level of poverty very few in Britain could even imagine.
It is by treating those people as “a resource”, rather than as individuals, that the wider economy is able to grow.
It was the same in 19th-century Britain, in early 20th-century USA, the same in fact the world over.
Last week’s ghastly tragedy in Bangladesh, where an unsound factory building collapsed, killing at least 380 clothing workers, was a direct consequence of the West’s demand – our demand – for cheap clothes.
Just as it was in 1911, when 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants died in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, locked into the blazing building.
Our clothes are cheap because the lives of the people who make them are cheap.