Thinking big in a small space

Thursday, May 10, 2012 - 20:20

I concealed my displeasure when my lovely wife switched the television channel from the NBA basketball game to Oprah Winfrey. As I started to rise from the sofa to do something “constructive,” such as go out in the garage and think about reorganizing things — you know, just the thinking part — something on the program caught my attention. Oprah was in Mumbai, India, and in this segment she was visiting its poorest inhabitants.

A family of five invited Oprah into their home, made out of cardboard, corrugated tin, plywood and other scrap materials. Oprah didn’t realize she was in the main part of the house until the mother told her to sit on the floor. The dimensions of the room were about six by six feet, and it was high enough to stand. This room was the house and it included the kitchen, living and sleeping areas. An outside bathroom was shared by the adjacent community, as was a small shower room. There was no shower head — bathing water was carried into the room in buckets.

This family said they felt fortunate. Unlike many others, they had electricity. Having a light allowed the children to read and do homework at night. Electricity allowed them to use a small hot plate. The mother cooked in the small room during the day when her husband was away at work and the children were in school. They showed Oprah how they positioned themselves on the floor for sleeping.

The oldest child — a girl about 13 years old, said that she wanted to be a school teacher. She said she didn’t feel bad about how they lived and seemed confident that she would receive a higher education and achieve her dream. All of the children, including the mother, joked and seemed happy. The father, who earned the equivalent of about $200 per month, expressed some remorse that he couldn’t do better for his family.

In a recent column I talked about physical space — how here in Alaska we can stretch out to the horizons and beyond and keep going, seemingly forever, without running out of room. In fact, Alaska has a population density of about 1.3 persons per square mile. In Mumbai, with a population of 20.5 million, there are about 25,000 people per square mile. As another example, Anchorage has a population density of about 172 people per square mile.

I thought about the girl who wanted to become a school teacher. She lived in a space smaller than my storage shed, yet she harbored big dreams and remained optimistic about the future. Despite privation and adversity, her younger brother and sister seemed to share this optimism. If this family’s strength of spirit are indicative of the Indian people, no wonder the country has so rapidly emerged as a powerful economic force in the world.

But it was hard to fathom the widespread poverty in and around Mumbai—an indigence that was conveyed quite graphically in the 2008 Academy Award winning movie, “Slumdog Millionaire;” especially when subsequent segments of Oprah’s India visit focused on some of the wealthier citizens. Granted, there is poverty everywhere in the world, but it’s so pervasive in this particular area.

During the program I didn’t hear anything about what is being done to help the masses rise out of such insidious poverty, but there is some evidence that many of them are doing it on their own. Nor did Oprah, traditionally quite generous, mention doing anything to help the poor families she visited. (I’m inclined to believe she somehow arranged something).

But rather than feeling depressed by seeing the deplorable living situation of so many, I gleaned a ray of hope from the determination of that 13-year-old girl. I knew in my heart that she would somehow make it. And I believe there are tens of thousands like her who, despite their situation, will rise up to pursue their dreams. We see evidence of it every day as more and more companies in India become successful in the global marketplace.

Unlike us, they don’t have physical space. They create it in their mind. And as part of that creation, they have developed the ability to visualize success. The program left me with a simple conclusion: Big dreams can be born and nurtured in very small spaces.

I was glad my wife turned on Oprah and that I missed the basketball game.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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