Nipun and I walked together down a brick path at the retreat center.
“See that man over there making brooms?” Nipun said.
I saw an elderly gentleman with greying hair and kind eyes. He was dressed in white as he sat with other craftsmen. Slightly stooped, this man worked slowly yet confidently. There was a stillness to him that seemed to infiltrate the brooms he crafted.
I nodded yes.
“That man lived in the slums for years,” Nipun said. “His home was a public toilet.”
I’ve been in a public toilet in the slums. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to sleep there, to eat there, to live there.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Kanchan-mama,” Nipun replied. “’Mama’ is like ‘uncle’ in India.”
In a flash, I heard the gospel for the first time. The part where Jesus says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” (Matt 19:30). I ached into our shared humanity and how we often shame people with mortifying lives. I saw how we shame people when in fact they deserve celebration and respect.
I saw myself, a privileged girl from the suburbs.
Could I ever endure living in a latrine? Did I have even half of the dignity and resilience so evident in Kanchan-mama? Probably not.
“I want to meet him,” I said. “Will you translate for me? Is there a way I can show my respect?”
“Touch his feet,” Nipun said.
Nipun brought me to Kanchan-mama. He knelt and touched the elder’s feet and then introduced me. I too knelt and touched his feet. Then with Nipun’s translation I said something – something inadequate like “You are magnificent. I love your brooms. I have tremendous respect for you.”
It wasn’t enough. Although the foot touching seemed to help.
Because I’m American and I get carried away, I decided to touch other peoples’ feet to express my appreciation. There was a shop woman who gave me free wind chimes. There was Jayeshbhai after a deep conversation about dogs. There was Parag, just because. Oddly, all these people hopped and leapt away and/or tried to touch my feet in response.
Nipun eventually took me aside and gently said, “We tend to reserve the foot-touching for elders.”
“Is that because they’re too old to run away?” I asked….
So I got over my need to touch everyone’s feet. But I continue to ponder Kanchan-mama, and each time I do, I grow in awe.
Yes, Kanchan-mama lived in a toilet. He transcended the odds of extreme poverty. Now he rises up and makes brooms. He also unknowingly inspires me as I use his story to inspire others through the impossible ripples of mere words.
In the mere-ness of my words, perhaps we can wonder, “Is it ever appropriate to consciously or unconsciously label someone untouchable?”
I don’t think so.
There’s only one way “untouchable” applies. The greatness of those who transcend unspeakable conditions cannot be touched. They are first and I am last. The only thing I can do is touch someone’s feet and write about it. I do the best I can but it will never repay the debt of grace and gratitude I owe. And although I touch the feet, I will never touch the mystical blend of humility and heroism I see in Kanchan-mama.
One more thing – I’m not one to criticize people for their political beliefs because I know good people all over the spectrum. I don’t even criticize world leaders because I know it’s an impossible job. But I do pause, when I hear comments about not wanting people from sh*t-hole countries to come to America.
Maybe they say this because they haven’t met Kanchan-mama. Maybe they haven’t had the pleasure of touching, no cherishing, his feet.
How do you express reverence for others? How might you symbolically touch the feet of someone who against all odds has transcended into humble greatness? How might you recognize your own humble greatness? How do you make sense of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first?”