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Defining Beauty: A Reflection of Personal Experiences of the Past

Jaya Vasudevan

In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, and look around you. – Leo Tolstoy

So, what exactly is beautiful? Upon hearing the question, my brain, usually capable of explaining the process of photosynthesis of or finding the anti-derivatives of enormous and complex numbers, manages to go completely blank and melts into a blob of confused, gray matter. The word "beautiful" is a term that I refuse to use very often, because of the kind of power and in a way mystery that it holds on many levels. Although I admit there are many appealing objects and sights in the world that others would find beautiful- like sculptures and paintings by great artists such as Raphael or Monet, architectural masterpieces like Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramids- I firmly believe that beauty goes beyond what is tangible, and that personal experiences with life that hold meaning to an individual are truly what's beautiful in the world. After all, can one compare the superficial beauty of these objects and places to the eternal memories and emotions that a person may carry with them for a lifetime?

For that reason, one of first places that I immediately equate with beauty would be my parent's home country of India, but definitely not for her breathtaking sceneries or rich and unique history. Surely watching the sunrise and the sunset over the Indian Ocean or viewing the Taj Mahal for the first time have been some magnificent experiences that many strangers and friends alike are very jealous of, but unfortunately most people of the Western world know nothing beyond the commercialized sights and spectacles offered by India. As I reflect on my numerous trips to this country as a child and as an adolescent, I realize that many of my experiences, although not the greatest, have inadvertently raised me into the person that I have become. One experience in particular still stands out in my mind, as I learned one of the greatest lessons of my life from people who were forgotten by the rest of the world.

The year was 1999: it was the end of the century and supposed end of the world, as well as the summer before my entrance into the next four years of pain and suffering that would be collectively known as "high school." At the start of my summer I thought how great it would be to spend my vacation time in an exciting, completely foreign place, but of course without fail, my parents awaited my arrival from the last day of school with large smiles on their faces and four round trip plane tickets to India in their hands. Their expressions of complete happiness, however, were met with my glare of complete and total apathy. Although many people would die for the opportunity to visit India, vacationing in the country of my parent's births was nothing new to me, and unfortunately most of my trips managed to bore my poor little ADD-ridden mind to pieces. As I gave my parents my look of disdain, memories of my past lackluster experiences from the past 14 years swam in my head: chasing chickens down tropical fields, analyzing the dust on my sandals while my parents babbled incessantly with close family and friends, throwing newspaper into the candle fire as I impatiently waited for the electricity to come back, etc. To put it short, I could imagine a plethora of better things I could do with myself. Even worse, my parents hail from tiny villages that are inhabited by people who manage to live without TV, computers, or a Dreamcasts or Playstation 2's (a feat that absolutely blew me away as a child) which made each trip seem like an unbearable eternity. The wrinkles in my forehead grew bigger as I grimaced unhappily, unable to think about my impending doom.

Upon seeing my lack of excitement towards the trip, my parents promised me that this time India was going to be "different, much different." As I pressed them for answers, they explained to me that India would be "exciting" and completely "new" experience this time around, since we would be going to North India for the first time since I was born. North India, in comparison to the agriculturally based South, are so drastically different from one another that it is hard to consider each end apart of the same country. Not only is the North far more industrialized and "Westernized," but the economic situation and levels of poverty are significantly worse. Although I saw no difference in going up North, thinking that my experience would just be as painfully boring as usual, I was forced to leave my country with a very heavy heart and 30 pounds worth of belongings that I hoped would satisfy my indifference. I sadly watched the twinkling lights of New York City disappear underneath me as we departed from the JFK international airport, trying to figure out what kind of experiences would await me at this new place. For a few brief moments before falling asleep during what would be a brutal 19 hours of plane riding, I smiled with the last shred of optimism I had in me, and tried to look forward to this new part of the country.

As I woke up during our landing into the Bombay international airport, any traces of hope for this trip within me shattered in an instant, as one of the most terrible views I've ever seen could be viewed from the airplane window- stretched across the runway were hundreds upon hundreds of homeless people, living in raggedy tents held up by small poles. The absolutely astounding view of the Arabian Sea surrounded by acres of luscious, dense palm tree forests that I was accustomed to seeing when landing in South India were instead replaced by filthy buildings, smog filled air, and water that resembled black tar more than anything else. Although being in the city's westernized airport provided me with some sort relief, the filthy, severely malnourished children who started to pull at my clothes and started to wail to me as soon as I exited the airport terrified me even further. Calling this place "new" and "different" apparently was a huge understatement, and I never longed to be home so badly.

After reuniting with family and friends who I've never met before at the airport, everyone (except me) collectively decided to explore some hotels to throw a "welcome to our part of the country" party for us. Seeing as how I had no other place to go, I was dragged along for the process of hotel hunting. After spending a good deal of the morning looking at hotel after hotel, we came upon a more prominent looking building at the edge of town which was actually worth our attention. Instead of touring the inside of building however, I decided that kicking rocks outside would provide me with far more pleasure. While walking around and surveying its perimeters, I ventured to the back of the building and peered over the small fence that separated the 4 star-hotel from the rest of the world.
And what a view it was. Dilapidated, pitiful looking shacks stretched as far as the eyes can see on top of what seemed to be a city garbage dump. What was most surprising about the site was that people actually dwelled in these pathetic excuses for homes: the putrid odor and filthiness became a way of life for them. After seeing my share of seeing poverty stricken people and muddy shacks earlier that day, I decided to walk away from the sight, but my trek back was interrupted by bursts of screaming and giggling.

I look over the fence again to see a group of children laughing and staring at me, followed by what seemed to be taunts spoken in their native language of Hindi. Being a Southerner and a speaker of Malayalam (the second biggest spoken dialect in India), I look at them with a confused smile and just simply stand there, not sure what to do. After trying to talk to me some more and probably deciding that I was an idiot, they laughed at me and ran away, chasing one another, playing in the mud, and running up and down piles of garbage.

For some reason, I kept standing there, finding completely paralyzed by some strange force. Despite the severity of their poverty, a genuine look of happiness and joy was affixed to each of those children's faces. They may have been covered in grime and looked very emaciated, but at the same time were so animated and full of life and all shined with a self effulgent glow. Even their parents, who looked completely worn out from work (and most likely from life itself), could not help but break a smile on their weary faces. Despite the fact that these little beings had nothing but the wastes of others to play with, in all of their minds they were kings and queens, and refused to let the world tell them otherwise.

Albeit their pathetic state I was completely moved by their glowing presence, and could help but feel a little jealous of them. As I stared at these mischievous cherubs in a state of complete awe, trying to figure out just how they could manage to be that happy, I finally understood why I was so flabbergasted by the experience: there before me stood paradigms of untainted, genuine innocence, one of the most beautiful and precious gifts of life that only a child could possess. At that moment all of my complaints seemed so petty, my unhappiness equally unfounded. I immediately felt very ashamed of myself for being so smug and negative, but at the same time I couldn't be happier, for the beauty of this experience and of my epiphany outweighed the feelings of shame and stupidity. I left that hotel and North India not only with a peace of mind, but also feeling so grown up and learned beyond my years. Those little sages, ignored and forgotten by the rest of the world, through their overwhelming innocence and magnificence showed me those brief moments showed me that happiness can be found by first finding the beauty within life, as cliché as it may sound. I'm forever grateful to them for this gift.

Even though I have not ventured into North India since this trip, every vacation in Southern India since then has been met with an overwhelming sense of happiness and fulfillment. I finally left my ethnocentric, condescending bubble and realized that through my moping and negative attitude, I missed the beautiful and amazing splendors that the country had to offer. I now am able to stand next to rice paddies that have been cultivated and cared for by my family for generations and feel a sense of belonging and pride. Going to thousand year old temples, running through busy city streets filled with autorickshaws and bulls, or just sitting on rooftops trying to make out constellations from a blanket of stars have now become something I love and miss, not tedious tasks that I once forced myself to do out of boredom. I now look at the inhabitants of my father's island and what people would consider their simple and uncivilized way of life and instead marvel at their unique ways of living. India truly is a beautiful place, but what makes her so personally beautiful are her people- those young and old who make up the soul of the country and taught me these important life lessons. Who knew anyone could learn so much from a group of little kids.

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