Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the “heart” of another. There are many definitions for empathy which encompass a broad range of emotional states. It is the capability of a person to feel the feeling of other in the exact manner. But the question is, are we able enough to do so completely. Is it in real terms, possible to replicate the same emotion the other person feels? Also the whole idea of empathy is that we cannot completely convert ourselves into someone because then who will narrate the emotion. It is that incapability to completely convert ourselves into another person is what makes us more empathetic. It is then possible to narrate the feeling more clearly even if it is incomplete in its entirety.
I run an NGO in my city. I come across various individuals each day, mainly woman who speak about their hardships, sorrows and even joy. I meet kids who study and play in that vicinity every day. On an average, every woman has 3 children. Some of them are barely 30 and are taking care of not just kids but running the house financially as well. Not that their husband do not work, but in certain households it just does not suffice. In many other houses the situation is a bit worse. They have money but are generally spent in buying alcohol or are lost in gambling. Saturdays and Sundays were usually an off at my NGO and these days were spent in the upkeep of the funding and maintenance of the community hall where the children were taught. Our team had decided to appoint a woman from the community only to take care of the hall and its cleanliness. She was a petite woman, 28 years old who walked around 1.5km to drop her children at the centre and waited outside to take them back. One of those days, when the attendance was low, I decided to speak to her a little more.
Her conversations made me too interested to know more. I wanted to be a part of her schedule to know her daily life. She was not one of those who ranted about her hardships. I could sense the joy she had when she spoke about her work. She started her day off by working at a government teacher’s house and then went to the small room in her backyard where she had opened her own parlour. I asked her as to why does she need that extra employment. She answered that her husband is no more. She has three kids but the pension is enough to live happily. She is able to pay the fee for her children’s education and whatever is left after that, generally goes into food and clothing. I again asked her as to why does she feel the need to be a maid at a house and why has she taken up the weekly cleanliness job at my NGO. She fell silent, wiped her eyes and clutches my arm gently. She said this is what she always wanted to do, own her own parlour because she liked the way women got happy after getting a good glow on their face. She loved the way they thanked her after she was able to carve out intricate mehendi design on their hands. She proudly said that after 2 years of hardship, her “name” (she meant brand) is now a household name. She helped numerous brides of the chawl to dress up for their special day. I asked her why this and Seema went on to narrate the story.
Her mother worked as a maid all her life and during weddings, she carried those fancy lights over head in baarats to earn extra money for the children. Seema was the eldest among the 6 siblings and often accompanied her mother to the weddings. She often saw women with fancy clothes and makeup and wondered what was it that made their lips so red and pink. She was confused as to why each woman had a different lip colour and why is it that she, her siblings and her parents had the same tone. She often saw women painting their lips in the washrooms where she was generally employed to wipe the mirrors and clean them. She noticed the joy they had after a perfect stroke of red and the twirling of the lip. It was a world of fascination for her. The place where her mother worked had three women in the household. Seema would often accompany the youngest daughter in law of the family to grocery shopping, walks and even parlours so that she could take care of the daughter in law’s kid. Her visits to the parlour fascinated her as a kid and more than that the ambience and joy that space provided to the women. She learnt mehendi making from her aunt and often tried it on her sisters. She proudly said that she dressed herself up on her own wedding.
I was excited at first to visit her parlour. I pitched in the idea but she was too shy to take me to the place. I offered to assist her for a day, to which she laughed at first. She later realised that it was a serious offer. She enquired about the reason to do so, to which I casually said that I wanted to live a day like her. The typical 9 hours at her parlour included constant juggling between taking care of the kids, sweeping the floor every time somebody got a haircut and cleaning the used space for a massage. She was on her toes during that time and had to often walk till the next shop for change if she could not manage to pay the customer. During her conversations, she was constantly in fear of losing the customers too. It was her passion and that is what drove her to take that extra effort. She even managed to breast feed the youngest child in between work. During the time spent with her, she told explicitly about her routine. She wakes up somewhere between 6.30 am to 7am. She cannot rely on the tap water because it is often dirty, so she boils the water in bulk in the morning for drinking, cooking and mainly because she uses it to wipe her customer’s face after every facial. She believes in quality. She cooks between 2pm to 3pm, because that is when the probability of customer influx is lowest. When her kids are back, she admits it’s a task to put them to sleep. She admits she sometimes just waits that they go to play outside, so that she can work easily especially on weekend when there is no school.
The whole time, I could sense the discomfort she faced during the working hours. She got tired, often miffed by the demands from her customers. Even though I assisted her and was there for exactly 10 hours, I was unable to grasp her actual feeling. Even though I decided to talk in depth, accompany her everywhere, perform and observe each activity, I could not really know what it is like to live such a life. I made it a point to visit her and replicate her routine for the next 7 days, but at the back of my mind I always knew I can give up and fall back to where I belong. The intensity of her hard work could only be seen, felt and imagined but could not be lived. No matter how hard I tried, I could not be a mother of three at that time who takes care of them perfectly. I was just not able enough to step into the shoes of a widow who feels the pain of missing a partner. It was impossible to feel the passion behind an entrepreneur, who despite being alone and disappointed in life managed to maintain the spark. It was a natural inability to engulf the hardship and still collect meager resources and continue with a dream.
In a world full of luxuries and technology, where our generation easily gives up on their dreams, existence of persistent people makes me question a lot of things. Is it really the deficiency of opportunities or is the lack of determination that derails us from pursuing our dream. Is it convenience or the real inconvenience that makes us fall to our comfort zone.