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March 29th 2007
Published: March 29th 2007
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Next chapter on community

I have heard the claim that all of the six billion plus people on this planet are connected by a mere six degrees. Valid or not, I think it is fair to say that in the present age we are closer to people from all over the globe than ever before. This metaphorical shrinking of the world has now made the creation of a global community possible and has changed the way people think about community the world over.

It used to be that the definition of community was easily agreed upon as ones family members, friends and neighbors. However, as time has gone by a new definition is needed. To me, community is ones feeling of connection to others. As I mentioned in the introduction, a girl helping a woman across the street, even if they are strangers and never meet again, creates community. Any time a person goes out of their way to help someone else or love is shared, the feeling of closeness creates a web of connections. This web, like the protective mesh used by acrobats, serves as a safety net that will be there to support the person if they fall. Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, says For a community to be whole and healthy, it must be based on people's love and concern for each other.

Human beings are communal animals. Ever since we started walking upright on our two hind legs we have organized ourselves into groups. The original purpose of these groups remains pertinent to this day; to provide protection for the group members. Remaining a member of the group meant survival while expulsion doomed the outcast to a rocky life and quick death.

In Madurai there is an untold number of roaming undomesticated dogs. These dogs move around in packs foraging, stealing food and causing trouble for the human citizens of Madurai. They, just like their cousins in the wild have internal politics which keep order. When one of the dogs causes problems for the group it is attacked by all the other members with the result being that it is either killed or wanders off alone. The dogs that live through the attack then become excessively aggressive or apathetic. Either way, the expulsed dogs rarely live very long away from the group. There are exceptions be it human or canine. Yet we may not be as far away from this scenario as we think. Hester Prynne, the main character in Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter remains to this day a searing example of what happens when one is ostracized from their group.

As time marches on, traditions change and alter. Old customs become outdated and new ones arise to meet the demands of the new times. Although these changes may happen so gradually that while occurring they are nearly invisible, they are changing nonetheless. Whenever a custom has outgrown its usefulness, provided people have the choice, it is eventually discarded. Conversely, all practices that remain functional will never disappear. Amartya Sen writes, If a traditional way of life has to be sacrificed to escape grinding poverty or miniscule longevity (as many traditional societies have had for thousands of years), then it is the people directly involved who must have the opportunity to participate in deciding what should be chosen. The real conflict is between:
1) The basic value that the people must be allowed to decide freely what traditions they wish or not wish to follow
2) The insistence that established traditions be followed (no matter what), or, alternatively, people must obey the decisions by religious or secular authorities who enforce traditions- real or imagined.

Although throughout time people have come up against barriers to change, change has happened, witnesses by the almost complete elimination of the practices of cannibalism and human sacrifice. Yet after all this time the so-called herd instinct remains. I do not say this meaning to belittle anyone, nor to demean our communal instincts. Instead, I think that it is telling that after so many years and so much technological advancement people continue rely on others.

Can the importance of community be proved? you might ask. Various research has been conducted which looks into communities social capital accumulation and in turn how this affected peoples productivity and quality of life. The previously mentioned World Values Survey asked the question, Generally speaking, do you think that people can be trusted, or that you cant be too careful in dealing with people? Those countries whose respondents had high trust in others were also generally the countries that had the happiest populous. The lowest scoring country was Brazil with only five percent trusting others while Norway was the highest with sixty-four percent.

One might worry that peoples response to a survey about trust would have little bearing upon what actually happened in communities. However, interesting research done by the Readers Digest shows that the two are actually closely linked. Their researchers dropped empty wallets containing the name and address of the owner in various cities around the world. Then they counted the proportion of the wallets returned. The highest percentage of wallets to be returned was found as one might have guessed, in Scandinavia. They then compared the return ratio to existing data regarding countries trust levels. Essentially, they found that people know their own communities; trustworthy societies spawned trusting individuals while corrupt societies created skeptics.

In the West, particularly in the United States, there has been a recent outcry that communities are disintegrating. While I myself am too young to be able to make this judgment empirically, rarely do I have a conversation on this topic with the elderly or even baby boomers without them claiming that people are losing their connectivity. Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, recently wrote a book entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community within which he argues that the United States is indeed becoming less civically engaged and people more isolated. Putnam claims that over the past 25 years, attendance at club meetings has fallen 58 percent, family dinners are down 33 percent, and having friends visit has fallen 45 percent. He writes, Henry Ward Beecher's advice a century ago to 'multiply picnics' is not entirely ridiculous today. We should do this, ironically, not because it will be good for America though it will be but because it will be good for us.

I grew up in two different parts of a town called Nyack. From infancy until the age of eleven I lived in one of the poorer parts named Central Nyack. We, along with a handful of other white families, lived happily amidst this predominantly black and Haitian community. As a kid I would play all day with friends from my street, including one summer when we rigged up a motion sensor triggered light that lit up our basketball hoop, but would turn off every five minutes. As a result all approximately eight of us young boys would wave our hands in front of the sensor like a bunch of recently caged monkeys. Our group would wander in and out of all of our parents homes, independent, yet supervised.

At the time I started going to middle school we moved to Upper Nyack, a more affluent section of Nyack. Here, the road was quiet. There was less crime and no trash littered the ground. Yet, just as this new area was free of imperfections, so too was it free of a sense of community. To this day I dont know many of the people on my street (more a fault of my own than anyone else it can be said) and would feel hesitant to knock on their doors if in need.

In my life I have clearly felt the difference in the sense of community from Central Nyack to Upper Nyack. However, I do not mean to say that I think that this is due to race. Over the years since I last lived there, Central Nyack has become more wealthy as people from New York City have moved to the suburbs. Central Nyack maintains its racial composition, yet whenever I drive past my old house the recreational center is empty, the corner store vacant and roads quiet. No longer are there groups congregating on the sidewalks or playing on basketball courts.

I believe community only exists when people rely on others. The decision to rely on others can be made consciously and, I argue, should be made, even taking into consideration the hassle it sometimes entails. A perfect example is the decision to join a group, be it an intramural basketball team or a church knitting club. Any time you put responsibility in someone elses hands, (will enough people show up for the game? Will Patty come with the yarn?) you connect yourself to them. Interestingly, it seems to be good for your health. Putnam claims that joining a group cuts in half an individuals chance of dying within the next year.

As I stated earlier, it is my belief that the term community is flexible; it can be narrow or broad depending upon each individual person and how big a community they identify with. I cannot criticize a hermit living miles away from humanity in a log cabin if he is happy. If he identifies with the trees and animals more power to him. Yet, I do believe that the more expansive a community one identifies with the better. To me, this is in essence the evolution of our species; to look beyond our limited borders and encompass a greater and greater community with love and compassion. Nearly all of the greatest prophets have said something similar, and while our minds have perhaps become oversaturated from repeatedly hearing this message, Buddha, Jesus and the Dalai Llama are, I think most would concur, people to be respected. Even Albert Einstein agrees. He says, A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
The birth of the European community is cause for great acclaim and serves as a strong example of the possibility of cooperation on an increasingly large scale. World War II and the atrocities that it contained seem like, at least for my generation, eons ago. Yet merely sixty five years ago Europe was mired in an all out death match, destroying countries and families across all political and geographical divides. At that time, it would have been unthinkable for Germany and France to use the same currency, remove trade barriers, and agree on foreign policy let alone work together peaceably. Yet here we are. Airbus, the giant aviation firm, is jointly run by a consortium of French, German, and English companies. Regional disputes have all but been eliminated. An area that for the first half of the twentieth century was a cinder box waiting to alight, and during the second half the century front line of the Cold War is now far removed from that sort of clear and present danger.
The European Union may have its flaws, but considering where it has come from, achieving the level of integration and trust that it has engendered is nothing short of monumental. As Bono, rocker cum philanthropist, writes in an essay in TIME magazine, Theres an Irish word, meitheal. It means that the people of the village help one another out most when the work is the hardest. Most Europeans are like that. As individual nations, we may argue over the garden fence, but when a neighbors house goes up in flames, we pull together an put out the fire.

Around the world people have very greatly differing views with regard to India. Some people think of it as a backward, medieval state with a repressing social structure while others, usually from the most socially liberal sections of society, claim that India has forged a perfect balance between self and the public. One thing that everyone can agree upon, however, is that community still thrives in India. Nearly everyone that I have talked with this year stressed communitys personal importance, as well as how imperative it is that Westernization does not take away from this Indian trait.

Every day I walk from my home to the University of Wisconsin program house. This walk takes no more than five minutes, but in that time I see, and usually stop to talk with, at least six people. Two of those people are Sekar and Angali, a middle-aged couple that own a miniscule dosai restaurant across from the bus stand. They opened the store two years ago when a womens self-help group granted them a five thousand rupee loan, exactly the sort of loan that Nobel Prize winner Mohammad Yunus popularized in Bangladesh.

For the first couple of months I lived in my neighborhood I didnt even know that it was a store. I would walk by every day and Angali would smile and wave at me, yet I figured that it was a room of some greater house which, for some inexplicable reason, opened out onto the street. At eight feet by eight feet and only containing three real walls the place is so small that I couldnt conceive of it being a restaurant. The fourth side faces the street and is completely open. It is closed by pulling down a metal door from above which unfolds from its hiding place like an accordion. This room, when open, spills out onto a covered patio containing a tabletop strewn with pots, pans and a two burner stove, before colliding with the road.

Often when one says that a store is a neighborhood store in the United States, it is taken to mean that it is near a residential area and that many of the people who frequent the store know each other. At this store, however, Angali and Sekar know every single person who comes in. As a small shop owner in India one must be on good terms with ones neighbors to stay in business because for every business there is usually a very similar business with identical prices close by. Thus, establishments aim to be the hub of activity for their area and clientele, often consisting of less than one hundred members. Angali and Sekar, while not living in Tabal Tandi Nagar, had to integrate into it to for economic reasons as well as for personal satisfaction.

On Pongal, the South Indian harvest festival, I went to Angali and Sekars house. It is located in another neighborhood called Bibikulum about four kilometers towards town. Bibikulum is an old neighborhood that has been heavily populated for hundreds of years and, like all of the older neighborhoods is very crowded. There is generally less than one meter between houses and no walled enclaves such as can be found around my house.

Their house consists of two large rooms. The first is completely indoors and contains their kitchen, a cabinet full of clothes and rolled up mats which they lay upon the floor and sleep on. The other, reached through on open walkway in the back of the first room, is outside. There is a roof set above the restraining walls which allows copious amounts of light to filter throughout the room.

Throughout the course of the day one thing in particular struck me; the degree to which they interacted with their neighbors. Nearly every five minutes someone different would come in and ask to borrow a kitchen utensil or sit down and make conversation. Their house was like blender in which all the people from their surrounding area mixed. One adorable little girl, of no more than three years of age stayed with them the entire day. She lived next door but, as was shown by her strong refusal to leave Angalis arms for her mothers, she spent a considerable portion of her time at Angalis house. The same situation also occurred in the house of my friend Priya; a neighboring child was primarily raised by her family. Truly, it does take a village to raise a child. My immediate neighborhood contains innumerable children who can usually be found playing outside in the street. It is not just their parents who look after them and their safety, but every adult and older child in their vicinity.

One day I asked Sekar about his thoughts on the two different communities he is a part of, Bibikulum and Tabal Tandi Nagar. There is no similarity, he said. There it is new. Tabal Tandi Nagar is not part of the city.
Why not? I enquired.
Only ten years ago it was a village with no running water that was poor because they could not get to the city. Here it is the city. Geographically speaking, bibikulum is not really in the city. What I take his words to mean is that bibikulum has the city essence where the houses are close together and one cannot avoid interactions with others. On a side note, living in the village has a much different connotation in India. In general, the people around me this year have used the term to mean an area with houses which are made of mud and lack running water. Distance from the closest populated locale doesnt seem to be the only criteria.
Well, would you rather live in Tabal Tandi Nagar or bibikulum if you had more than enough money I questioned. Tabal Tandi Nagar, the neighborhood in which I live is in parts very wealthy; houses are enclosed in walls with gates, many people have cars, roads are planned and quiet.
I would never go there He answered. We own a shop there so we are now part of the community, but I would never choose to live there. I have lived in this house for forty-four years. I know everyone in this community.
Almost everyone. In the past I was the neighborhood director of DMK (a political party). People came to me with arguments over money and I would say what they should do. When you have lived in the same place around the same people for so many years you get a sense of security. If I were to live in Tabal Tandi Nagar I would be robbed.
What if you didnt have expensive things there?
Still, I feel safer here. In Tabal Tandi Nagar if someone came into my house with a knife to attack me people wouldnt do anything, even if they saw the person go in. There everyone has what they need so they never have to interact with their neighbors. Nothing will ever happen to me here because I have so many friends around.
In forty-four years nothing has ever been robbed from you? I asked incredulously.
Nothing! Not a single thing he responded proudly. Here I dont have police to guard my family. I have a community.

Sekar truly believed that he was safer in, statistically speaking, a more dangerous area. And you know what? Maybe he is. His security, both real and imagined, did not arise because he believed that he could adequately defend himself as gun advocates like to claim. Nor was it due to his faith in police to provide order. Instead, he believed that he was safe because people would flock to his aid not from a sense of obligation, but out of a feeling of respect and love.

While I tend to feel that caste is a malignant force in India, it continues to be a source of community for many of its adherents. Movement of people towards city centers and the general increase in literacy have decreased the importance of caste, yet it remains largely intact. Gandhis vision of a casteless society continues to belong to the very distant future. One reason for this has been the implementation of the scheduling system, which reserves seats for each caste in politics, schools and employment. Certain backward castes obtain particular advantages, even for members that are financially well off.

One translator for our program is a girl by the name of Beula. She belongs to the Nadar caste, a caste that is particularly orthodox about preserving caste identity. When I asked her if she would be allowed to marry outside of her caste she responded, I would be decapitated. And after a short pause for effect, With a sickle. While she was partly joking, there also involved a great deal of truth; she would truly never be permitted back in her house again if she chose to have a love marriage outside her caste. Her excluded, most of the people I interact with a day to day basis claim that caste is not important to them and their lives. However, I infer that much of that denial stems from my position as a foreigner and the negative view that many foreigners have about caste.

If increasing community is the goal, then the family is the impetus. There are few, if any joys greater than those that arise from the family and, perhaps more importantly, it is the institution that provides the most direct support to individuals. It is truly mind shattering to think that everyone, every single being on this earth was begot from another. We arent responsible for our own existence, our parents are.

The Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science cites research done by the German Socio-Economic Panel which, similar to the World Values Survey, followed individuals for over twenty years. From their data it is found that people are generally happier as a result of marriage. Writes Layard, In the two or three years before marriage they (the couple) are already becoming happier (some already living together), but the year of marriage is the peak of happiness. After that first year some habituation sets in, and people become less happy. But they remain happier than they were four years before marriage.

Children, while an immense economic burden, are also perhaps the greatest harbinger of happiness for their parents and relatives. Anyone who has seen a parent with their first newborn knows where the expression light of my life comes from. In his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis sets up a scenario in which Jesus married both Mary and Martha, fathered many children and lived the life of a patriarch. Jesus, speaking to an angel asks,

How long will this happiness last?
As long as Im with you and youre with me, Jesus of Nazareth.
For all eternity?
The angel laughed. What is eternity? Havent you been able yet to get rid of big words, Jesus of Nazareth, of big words, big ideas, kingdoms of heaven? Does this mean that even your son hasnt succeeded in curing you? He banged his fist on the ground. Here is the kingdom of heaven: earth. Here is God: your son. Here is eternity: each moment, Jesus of Nazareth, each moment that passes. Moments arent enough for you? If so, you must learn that eternity will not be either.

One day I decided I would go to my friend Thiagos village (a real one far outside Madurai). I had heard mixed responses about traditional Indian villages and their unique communities. While at times the last bastion of a cohesive communal lifestyle, these villages are also the known for their often egregious treatment of lower castes and dalits, otherwise known as untouchables.

My time there shed new light on both family and community. The first thing that stands out in the village is that people all know each other. The village, called Manadi Mangalum, has a population of five thousand, all of whom reside in small bungalows centered around the town square. Lying in the square are huge piles of recently cut rice and the kernels with husks that had been taken from the stalks. All at the same time there were people carrying bundles of stalks on their heads, others sorting through the kernels with a sieve, and men carrying bags of kernels to a building to be de-husked. As you walk through the lanes one thing in particular stands out; everyone has their doors open. In the United States front porches used to be popular, but due to their implicit lack of privacy have since been discarded for back porches or none at all. Here, almost everyone sat on their front step or just inside and as people walked by would lean into the doorway to wave, as opposed to shying away back into the dark recesses of the room.

A group of around twenty children followed us wherever we went including the village presidents office. The job of village president is an elected position whose term is five years. He is in charge of making sure that the village ran properly; that clean drinking water is maintained, that the streets are swept, that the street lights work and various other tasks. For his trouble he is given a measly salary of three hundred rupees per month. When I asked him why he does his job for such a small salary he responded, Its an honor position. I dont do it for the salary.

When our group entered into his modest office, our entourage of juveniles followed. Apparently the free reign in the village they enjoyed extended even to the presidents office. Also, pushing their way into room were two old men, obviously respected village elders.

As we were turning to leave the older looking of the two men said that he wanted to sing a song. He walked stooped over in noticeable pain and when he opened his mouth to speak it became obvious that he no longer had any teeth. His head was almost completely bald except for the few wisps of white hair that fell across his forehead. The whole crowd followed him outside the office to a courtyard as we prepped ourselves for his performance. As soon as he opened his mouth it was if he had become a new person. He now stood upright and a light beamed from his face. As he sung, the children who had been following us around began to dance, yet as soon as they began, the singing stopped. Why? Well because he had jumped into the fray and was dancing as if his life depended on it. His limbs moved so fluidly they could have been octopus tentacles. Then, just when I thought the scene couldnt be any more magical, he started up his singing again, while continuing to twirl about.

By the time he stopped a few minutes later everyone was completely awed. Grandfather, what is your name? I asked feeling as if I was talking to a famous celebrity.
Sundan Rajan, he replied.
That was great, I said. You move and sing very well for someone your age. I assumed based upon his graceful movements that he was around sixty five but with an outward appearance that had just weathered quickly. Thus, I was astounded when I asked him his age and he responded. Eighty three. Eighty three!
How are you still able to dance at that age? I asked awestruck.
Well he responded in a singsong tone, When my grandchildren start dancing, what do you expect me to do? Not dance? I have lived for a long time so that I can dance with them. And when he gets older (he points to a baby in a mans hands) I am going to be alive so that I can dance with him.

As we waited for my bus to Madurai to come I asked my friend Thiago if he would ever leave the village. He had recently passed the Indian equivalent of the Bar exam and had taken an important case which, if won, would be very monetarily enriching.
Never he said. Even if one day I become a judge on the Supreme Court in Delhi I will find a way to live here. I know all five thousand people here. This is my community.
Not even if you win the case?
I will always live here. Lately many people have been asking me to run for president in the elections next year. And all kinds of people, not just from my caste. Usually people vote just for the person who runs from their caste. But for some reason everyone wants me to run.
Yeah, I was thinking that you would be good for that job, I said.
When the community speaks I listen. There is no greater honor than serving your community.


30th March 2007

Dear Nate, your chapter on community gave me the chills. It is so well-written and so sincerely from the heart. You have put a lot of thought into this work. I am humbled by your beautiful writing. Thanks so much for sending it to me. I saw a few very small editing issues. Love you so much, Mom

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