When I was six I wanted a Game Boy for Christmas. It was within the grasp of my parents’ budget and they knew I’d be thrilled with it. When I got my Game Boy, I whiled away the hours on Super Mario, Tetris, whatever the game du jour was for kids in the early 90s.

We lived in suburban Melbourne, we knew a couple of our neighbours and we had two types of beer in the fridge (VB or Carlton Cold) because we were middle-class. People still drank shandies.

It was simpler and the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia tell me that everyone was happy all the time. We were the definition of Australian bourgeoisie. That house in suburban Melbourne, simple though it was, was still infinitely more luxurious than anything I experienced in Sawarda – in India’s north, about an hour from Jaipur.

But there’s plenty Sawarda has that we didn’t.

With a camera strapped to my back, I stayed in an ex-Colonial townhouse that had hot water around a third of the time. The beds’ mattresses hard, the décor stuck firmly in the late 1800s, the employees delightful.

Outside, the roads spew dust as old trucks rattle past on empty roads, groups of a dozen inside (or outside) cheering and waving – the antithesis of intimidation and the embodiment of excitement at a tourist with a bad beard and white skin.

It was a stark contrast again to New Delhi, where I’d been only a week earlier. When you’re standing in the middle of New Delhi, there’s plenty that even seasoned travellers would describe as “confronting”. The poverty is on a scale I’ve never seen before. There are smells that can be described at best as “different”, and cars and cows share the road with a swarm of Royal Enfields stuttering through traffic with more than the traditional one-rider-per-motorcycle.

I don’t know whether it’s my memory, but what I remember of Delhi now seems to be in sepia, with splashes of colour only as highlights. Everything is brown but the wares of some stalls compensate for the dullness in other areas with a vibrancy that feels like someone jacked up the contrast.

The history of India has shaped its society, and I can’t think of any country that’s had so many faces and been perceived so vastly different in the modern era, perhaps with the exception of China.

It’s a combination of colonisation and caste systems, along with an economy that’s relied on everything from tea to technology. The excess of Bollywood in the south. The simplicity of rural village life. A spiritual centre for Hindus. One of the fastest growing economies in the world.

For so many, conditions are dire but anyone who travels there will tell you how humble, charming, generous and hospitable the Indian people are. The caste system is derided by many modern Indians, but who still follow the customs that have been put in place by it.

New Delhi, with its indefatigable chaos, contrasts with the equal but different chaos of the towns and villages that pepper the countryside of Rajasthan, the state where the capital is located.

Back to Sawarda. My companions and I become modern-day pied pipers. There’s a trail of kids bouncing around us and cheering us to take as many photos as we can. The squeals of delight when they see themselves on the LCD of my camera elicits more photos. More photos elicit more squeals, which elicit more kids running out of their house to investigate the source of all the commotion.

Local kids bouncing around us and cheering us to take as many photos as we can.

The Indian sense of community is breathtaking. Everyone knows everyone. Unlike that house in Melbourne, you don’t just know a few of your neighbours, you know your town. People chat, laugh, negotiate and bicker as they walk down the street with others. Their interactions feel more like those between friends than just other humans inhabiting the same space.

But this vast poverty still extends beyond the borders of cities. But in towns, the absence of material goods has meant life’s small pleasures take centre stage – time with family, nature, walks, work, interacting with lumbering tourists. Imagination is the antidote to a lack of material possessions for the kids. It’s beautiful.

I don’t know what’ll happen to any of the dozens of kids who danced about the streets of Sawarda that day. I know many will have tough lives, far beyond anything I’ll ever comprehend in my life. But they were happy that day, if only for the couple of hours we held our impromptu photo shoot, strolled around the town and ate the local food.

And when I remember the squeals of delight when I look at the photos, I remember that there are things that matter and things that don’t. Sometimes small things, new faces and imagination can make the daily struggle for existence, potential, happiness or survival more bearable.

If only for the sheer simplicity of it all.

Because most people in India are confrontingly, unbearably poor. But the laughter of their children sounds the same, and they extend their hands to others in a way that many in a western society wouldn’t.

Sawarda is a medium size village located in Rajpur of Barwani district, Madhya Pradesh with total 276 families residing. The Sawarda village has population of 1796 of which 924 are males while 872 are females as per Population Census conducted in 2011.