For the past twenty-five years, I have dreamed that one day I would convince Charlie King, the American folk singer and social-change activist, to come for a visit to India. Somehow I would find the money to make it possible. Charlie and I have been friends since we met on a 1976 march for disarmament. We ended up being arrested and jailed together several times for protesting against nuclear power and the Trident submarine. Charlie kept up his life of crime-or at least his dedicated, active opposition to war and injustice-while I moved to India and became a respectable citizen. But we kept in touch. He sang at our wedding and is godfather to our first child. He did benefit concerts in the States for the school I run for children with mental handicaps in India, and he encouraged our daughter in her pursuit of music. He keeps us supplied with all his latest CDs, and whenever I visit the States, we try to meet. Every time I saw Charlie, I would tell him that one day I was going to find the funding to bring him to India. It got to be a standing joke, and though I meant every word of it, I don’t think he took me very seriously. This year, finally, everything fell into place. The organization I work with has been actively involved in a campaign for greater inclusion. It began as a simple, straightforward effort to get children with disabilities admitted to mainstream schools, but it soon developed into a much wider movement to increase understanding of what it means to be included, and also a vision of what an inclusive world might look like. As we talked with people in our city about the rights of the children with whom we work, we came to realize that we share the world with a staggering array of life forms, each with its own importance. Saying that we are all interconnected is not simply a platitude, it is a fact. We suddenly understood that although we had been selling inclusion as the path to virtue, it was really a matter of common sense-one might even call it self-interest. We exclude at our peril. But we also realized that such a utilitarian view of inclusion would be too narrow. Beyond it is yet another vision, one that revels in the sheer variety the earth contains and that celebrates life for its own sake-not what it does for us. It’s a wonderful world, full of surprising twists and unpredictable turns-and that’s where someone like Charlie King comes in. As part of our awareness campaign, we had planned a serious educational lecture series on inclusion and how it could work in our local schools. We called in eminent scholars to talk about the important issues at stake. But we wanted the campaign to end with a celebration, a festival of song that would take all our concepts of interconnectedness and the preciousness of every single person, animal, rock, and tree and set them to music. And somehow we managed to convince our funders not just that this was the only way to do it, but that Charlie was the one who could pull it off. Charlie arrived here on a Monday and set to work the next day. For the entire week, he performed in small concerts around the city, dazzling each audience. Within five days, he had a devoted following, people who memorized his songs and were ready to join in at the slightest invitation. He also conducted music workshops for high-school students. Weaving song and story, he took our children through the history of the U.S. civil-rights movement and helped them see the crucial role music played in that struggle. In his final workshop, which brought together the choirs of four area schools, Charlie taught the children a song they would perform on stage with him at the big concert two days later. The Big Concert! Our ambition was to fill the hall to capacity-a thousand people-for a benefit performance that we hoped would raise 50,000 rupees. We were pretty nervous: for one thing, a crowd that big was about five times the size of any group we had ever managed to draw in the past. For another, this was Charlie King, not a local pop star. We knew how good his music is, but would it play in greater Dehra Doon? We needn’t have worried. Charlie’s work during the previous week was all that was required. He had created such loyal fans that they went out and sold the tickets with a religious zeal: they couldn’t bear to have anyone they cared about miss out on the experience. On the evening of the concert, there were over a thousand people in the hall, spellbound by one man with a guitar. Although the grownups were shy at first about participating, the children who had attended the workshops were anything but, and as the evening went on, inhibitions faded, the singing grew more spirited and heartfelt, and during several songs, the audience broke into cheers and clapping. It was the last number, though, that brought down the house. After inviting the school children to join him on stage, Charlie started to sing “We Shall Overcome,” a familiar tune here and much loved. But suddenly he switched from English to Hindi, and began singing not only the tune the audience knew but also the language they understood best. They came alive and rose to their feet as one, cheering and singing with such feeling that many were moved to tears. His accent was American, but his heart was not different from theirs, and his songs and his stories were the same. What better demonstration of inclusion could there be?

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: View Contents

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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