If you've experienced a hot, sticky, humid summer in the South and feel like you can now handle anything, I would invite you to visit South India. Notice I didn't say 'visit South India in the summer'. That's because we pretty much have two seasons: summer, and the monsoons, which last for a couple of months. So, that leaves us with just summer, really.
It's the kind of heat that saps you of all energy, where taking a breath outside is like taking in a lungful of air when you accidentally open the dishwasher during the sanitize cycle. Your brain slowly turns to scrambled eggs inside your head, and you often find yourself perspiring while taking a shower. Not a pretty picture to paint, I know, but that is the reality of living in a coastal city in South India, which is where I was born and raised.
Part of my childhood was spent in a two bedroom apartment on the first floor, which was shared by my parents, sister, two brothers, paternal grandmother, me, a dog, cow, and her calf. Yes, you read that right. Our cow, Lakshmi, lived on our back patio with her calf, and the only way to take her out of the apartment for her walks was through the bedroom shared by my siblings and grandmother. Lakshmi provided us with more milk than we could possibly consume, and the (heavenly) butter that her milk produced left us with buttermilk that was impossibly delicious. We Indians like it lightly salted, with crushed mint leaves added sometimes. It is hands-down the most refreshing, naturally cooling and hydrating drink you can consume, and is very nutritious to boot.
My grandmother, who lived through giving birth to fourteen children (and losing seven of them), making the torturous journey from her country of birth during the Partition of India and Pakistan, and too many difficulties to recount, was naturally reticent and not very sociable. She lit up at the sight of her grandchildren, though, and spent most of her days in prayer, which I would like to think brought her some peace.
However, pretty much every afternoon in my memory, my grandma sat outside our apartment, with a huge clay pot of cold buttermilk. I can still see her, in an old white rattan chair, covering her head with the end of her sari in a feeble attempt to stay cool, calling out to every rickshaw puller, day laborer, construction worker or delivery person to stop and have a refreshing drink. It is no exaggeration to say that in several cases, that was the only nourishment they were going to receive until they went home with their meager wages and ate a meal of boiled rice and watery lentil soup.
Watching her, I learned that giving someone what they needed at that particular time was more important than making a grand gesture and making yourself look important. Showing up is better than showing off. Interaction with another human takes more time, and effort than writing a check to make a donation. That prayers might assuage your conscience, but they cannot fill an empty belly. Kindness and empathy don't come with a price tag. Looking someone in the eye and making them feel like a person, not a statistic could be all someone needs to turn their life around.
So, when I'm tempted to put a check in the mail and check a box off my good deed list, I only have to think of my grandma sitting outside in the sweltering heat. Perhaps I'll cook them something instead.