Vogue Entry #2 Social Observation

Where beauty dwells

The experience of a slum is not something one can forget in a hurry. The smells have always stayed with me - from the moment I exited my taxi and entered the thick evening humidity and shadowy paths in the slums of Chennai, India. The smells of cooking lingered in the air, along with the odour of too many people living in close proximity to each other.

I was visiting the SAVE trust which provided microfinance loans to the women of the slums to help them set up their own business. These women weren’t just given handouts - they were given the chance to keep their dignity. The loan was an investment in them and in their future. It was hoped that these women would be able to earn enough money to send their children to school and provide for their families.

The rains had come earlier in the day. The ground and its contents had been churned up by the monsoon, and debris and litter were swept up with it. I could feel the excitement and anticipation of the residents. With Western clothing I have never felt so out of place, surrounded by brightly coloured sarees. As I walked deeper into the slum, a gaggle of children followed me, eager to high-five and touch my clothes. There was such a vast distinction between the beauty of the woman's clothing and the appalling conditions around them.

More people came out of their homes to see the spectacle of a western female. I was met with curious stares from faces deeply grooved with hardship as their eyes met mine. As I picked my way through the alleys glanced into their homes which were built quickly from anything that could be found in the littered streets of Chennai. A strange orange glow of candlelight illuminated some of the homes, whilst others remained dark, dank and sparsely furnished.

The centre of the slum was strewn with charred wood and blankets of corrugated iron. This area had been destroyed by a recent fire. One of the women pointed to a pile of rubble, “this was my house” she said. For people with so little to start with, to have their fragile homes so easily disappear, was an inconceivable tragedy to me.
I saw people living with the bare minimum, and was struck by the huge contrast between our lives, and how much unnecessary stuff we own.

In John Steinbeck’s autobiographical ‘Travels with Charley’, he tells his worker to go to the shop to buy more paint. The decorator insists on changing his paint-splattered clothing first. Steinbeck told him to go as he was -  the proud worker retorted ‘You gotta be awful rich to dress as bad as you do’. This struck a chord with me.

In our materialistic society where everything we need is at arms’ reach, the concept of our ability to ‘look poor’ really resounded with me. On my visit to India, I was struck by the beauty of everything, the intricate designs of the fabric and the jewellery, and the effort people made to inject beauty into their everyday lives, from decorating their rickshaws to adding fresh flowers to their hair. I sometimes think back to my appearance in the slums; a t-shirt and shorts must have seemed so offensive to people. They had made such an enormous effort to welcome us, many of them had made an effort with their clothing, hair and jewellery.

‘You gotta be awful rich to dress as bad as you do’... That’s what I did. They, on the other hand, had to go to great lengths to present themselves well the whole time, because apparently it is fine for a rich person to dress as a poor man, but for a poor man to walk out in poor clothes is somehow not.

Despite many of the women’s desperately poor conditions, I could see the extraordinary efforts they put into having beauty in their lives, even at their darkest and most wretched times. Just like the smallest amount of money in the microfinance program can raise them out of poverty, so too the smallest amount of beauty can lift them, even for a brief moment, out of the darkness.

Should we reconsider our perception of beauty? Does it always have to be that product, that celebrity? We can learn a huge amount from those women, not just about empowerment, but the ability to create beauty among adversity and suffering.

I won’t forget that small slum on the side of a motorway. Not just because it was such a stark contrast to anything I had ever seen or experienced, but the community there changed my perception. They used what little they had, and made it beautiful.


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