“There’s a hole in the world. It feels like we ought to have known”

It’s just under 10 hours since that phrase came to mind. It feels too late to be writing this now – like my brain has lost the momentum it had at the time – but also too soon. Though if I waited till I could get my head around things, I’d never write anything – as I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to get my head around them. And I’m not sure that I want to. Getting my head round what I saw yesterday kind of implies that I’ve learned to live with it, and I don’t want to learn to live with it.  I don’t think I should.

Today I was taken to visit an organisation working in the red light district of Mumbai – who run various projects working with the women and children, and also the men, who live and work in the area. M, who works with the women, took me to visit one of the brothels early in the afternoon – when the women were getting up and ready to start their ‘day’.

I’ve heard the stats: 2 children are sold every minute, traffiking is an multi-billion dollar economy, and so on and so forth. I knew it was big, and I knew it mattered, and I knew it mattered that it should matter – that this is an issue worth getting engaged with and angry about. But that’s all it was – knowledge. I’ve always been pretty good at knowledge in the brain-region.  Not so much at the emotion-region. I mean, I’m ok at thinking about having ~feelings~. But actually having the ~feelings~ themselves? That’s just uncomfortable.

And that’s a big part of the problem, isn’t it – we’re just too darn fond of being comfortable?

Today’s stat was given to me as we left the project offices and headed out on to the street of this district that is, in square footage, pretty small. And I had to double check it, because I couldn’t quite believe I’d heard it right. There are 15 brothels in this area, and they’re home to 75,000 women. 75,000. It’s a large number, but it suddenly becomes a lot larger and a lot scarier when you can see the size of the area they’re living in, and the kind of housing it is. It doesn’t look like it should be physically possible to fit that many human beings in that space. And yet.

Turning out of the bright glare of the early afternoon, M led me up a flight of dark, grimy, condom-wrapper papered flight of stairs to the first floor of the brothel. And that’s when I properly became aware of the hole in the world.

Three floors of a building built around a central hole (let’s not kid ourselves and call it a courtyard) that lets in the bare minimum of light. It is the very definition of dank. Rats scurry around in the corners. The smells are rotten. There’s one narrow corridor, barely more than a person wide, with rooms and rooms, and rooms (so many rooms) opening off it – with smaller, cramped ‘bedrooms’ off those. Each of them home, if you want to call it that (and I really really don’t), to several men, women and children, who were either asleep, or starting to get themselves up after the night before. All of them somewhat hollow around the eyes, looking – even those who were happy to greet us, because they know M, and chatted and laughed – looking less than inches away from tears. Or maybe that was just me, as I tried not to wrap my arms around myself and hug the hole, which seemed to be going right through my gut as well as the world, away.

M and her colleagues visit and meet with these women every day, building friendships with them. After talking to S, a beautiful, chatty 24-year old, I don’t really know how they do it. S wanted to know about me – “Are you married?” / “No,but my mother wishes…” and take some photos with me on her phone. And the comes the time to ask questions in return. “Not that one,” whispered M, as I asked how long S had been here (two years, incidentally) – but then, I have no idea what else to ask, what to talk about, how to communicate with someone who lives in a world I could barely begin to imagine when I just knew about it and didn’t really want to believe in when I was standing in it.  99% of my brain was just screaming, “HOW DOES THIS EVEN HAPPEN? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, WORLD?” and the other 1% was trying not to burst into completely helpless tears. How do you even begin to build a relationship when the gulf between your lives is so ridiculously vast? M told me that their projects help around 25 women a year to leave prostitution, and build relationships with a few hundred more. 25. To me right now that feels like it’s smaller than the smallest drop you could possibly drop into the ocean. A lot of me doesn’t get how M doesn’t give up, let alone how the women she works with survive.

On the next floor up we met L, an older lady, who invited us in to share her food and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  These women, by the way, make about 30 rupees per client after various cuts have been taken off and they’ve paid for the sheets and condoms they use.  That’s not even 50p at the current exchange rate – and then they have to buy all their clothes and make-up, oh and their food. But still, nothing would satisfy L but that we come and share her fish curry and rice, while she sent someone to get soda for us, and laugh and try and talk to me through the universal language of pointing and making the ‘OK’ sign with finger and thumb.

As we left, M said, “They’re so loving, and so giving.” She feels that you effectively have to think, if you’re in their situation: ‘OK,this thing has happened to me, I’ve been trafficked, and this is my life now, and I have to live it as best I can.“ And she’s there to help them do it, by standing alongside them and loving them.  So I guess this is how you start trying to get beyond either falling down the hole, which is hopeless, or running away from the hole, which is helpless – you have to start trying to fill the hole, 25 women by 25 women. By sharing with them: your energy and your love, and their impossible generosity and spirit in the ugliest of situations.  And sure, sometimes, it might feel it’s a small, impossible fight in the face of a vast problem, but each of those 25 are people who are worth that fight.

Even so, that on it’s own doesn’t fix the hole in the world. And of course, this is where we start moving from talking about ~feelings~ to talking about faith – something I find even more awkward and uncomfortable to do. M and her colleagues don’t get their energy and their loving to do what they do just from themselves, but from something deeper, a faith and a love that they just want to share with the people they work with. And that’s what makes the work they do and the relationships they build  more than just plastering over the hole. It gives them a chance of plugging the hole, of starting to fill it and mend it, and ultimately move beyond those 25 people a year – because 75,000 people is too big a problem for a few midgety humans to fix on their own.

I don’t know if or when the hole will ever be fully fixed (I have ideas, but let’s not get into that theological minefield) – but until it does, it will continue to itch. It’s like when you have stitches and you’re constantly aware of them and you’re just want to get past that stage and on to being properly healed and well – and whole. But that continual itch is good – it shows that the healing is underway and that something is happening, but keeps you aware that you still have to take care of the problem or it will never fully heal.  And I don’t know how God will make it so that 25 a year becomes 50 a year, becomes a number that really starts to make a dent in the problem – but I’m not sure you can hang on to anything else to combat the pain of the fact that there’s a hole in the world, which is deep and dark and scary and sometimes seems almost unfillable.  M and her colleagues have got beyond hanging on, though, to proper, serious faith that it will (not just can will) happen. And I want some of that.

(title quotation from the Angel episode, ‘A Hole in the World’, written by Joss Whedon)

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