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Discovering the Real India

***Written by Justin and Rachel Lonas***

As stateside partners with Dekko, we are still more than a little mystified by Indian culture. Looking outside-in, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by India’s “other-ness”, to settle an image in our minds of all the exotic flair (food, music, clothes, architecture, Bollywood, etc.) this huge country brings to the cushy, sanitized world Westerners are used to. The trouble with that approach should be obvious—do we like it when people from other countries base their impressions of us on hot dogs and Hollywood?

Seeing India (and other places) as the “other” can keep us from engaging with the people there as individuals and fellow men & women. Part of overcoming that hurdle is to listen, learn, and spend time with people. When you hear their stories, the pieces of understanding slowly begin to fit together.

This was on our minds the other day when we re-watched the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which follows two brothers from growing up in a Mumbai slum, through several awful circumstances, and down the very different paths they took (one noble, one not). Instead of getting lost in the sea of trying to explain India, the movie works precisely because it keeps a narrow focus on the two brothers. In the process of doing that, it shows the viewers more about the whole country than 2-hour documentary could. Again, it’s the stories that teach.

Of course, the folks Dekko works with don’t have much in common with the Mumbai criminal underworld depicted in Slumdog. Some, like the younger brother in that film, might be chasing a dream despite starting from a place with few resources and few prospects. Others are seeking more stability for their family as they make life work where they are. Some, to be sure, are thinking about the future, working for a better life for their children.

A “better” life doesn’t have to be a Western one. Sanitation and security are worthy aims (both of which are high priorities of an India eager to find its place at the table of world powers). Other aspects of Western life aren’t much to aspire to—endless consumerism and constant entertainment can enslave a people just as surely as material poverty.

Full disclosure—we (Justin and Rachel) have not even been India yet, though we have visited several other countries outside the U.S. Still, we are completely sold on the strength of businesses like Dekko in fighting poverty by giving families the opportunity to earn both income and respect through their hard work. This kind of thing is basic to human nature in every culture.

This addresses the problem of poverty (and oppression of women, child labor, and many other issues) by coming alongside individuals and families, to learn from them even as we work to help them. That’s a big difference from “us” sending financial aid to “them”. The needs of our artisan families are real, but through Dekko, you are meeting them on two levels—providing funds and giving them the satisfaction of a job well done when you wear or use the things they’ve made.

There is a lot to be gained from exploring cultural differences, which are real and need to be navigated well to avoid giving unnecessary offense. Often, though, the more you learn, the more you realize how much the “other” folks around the world are not as different from you as you thought. It’s not all sunshine-and-roses then, either, but once you know someone you begin to learn how to really help them.

Photo credit: Brady Black

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