Friday, August 22, 2008

Living on a Street of Bombay - Must They?

It’s pathetic. I see them on the way to work, and again, on the way back from work. This is the essence of India and the so called malaise of urban poverty. They have very little to call their own, they live on the street, beside the sugarcane juice vending machine they own, sleep in the open, under a bus shelter – three generation of them – spending all their waking hours in the busy street, under the glaring eyes of people who pass by. I see them cooking their evening meal and have stale rice in the morning, there are only two foldable chairs they can call furniture. Oh, yes, there's a plastic sheet tied to the wall they would use as a shelter in the rain. That's all. Yet they seem to survive with nothing I can see in their faces of regret, deprivation, or hopelessness. They are content to be what they are. They too survive this ruthless world.

The man sells sugarcane juice throughout the day, and packs up around 7 p.m. when the thirsty hordes have gone home. Then he curls up with wife and kids and his father on the road. There isn’t even a stringed charpai to sleep on. Despite the dust and dirt, they seem cleanly dressed. They seem content with their lives, accepting things as they are, never complaining, and if you ask them they will say in their native tongue, Gujarati, “Saru che, badda, saru che.” It’s so pathetic. And then they would even boast of the benefits of living on the street and of the advantages of owning nothing – nothing to worry about being stolen. How cruel can life be, how ruthlessly it deprives people of hope and the possibility of a decent life. That’s life for them, no need to think of loan repayment, credit card balances, huge school/college fees, not to mention bribes and speed money.

I know life in a big city is tenuous, it has to be. There are too many people per square inch, packed like fish half alive, cornered by some giant pressing machine: bags, suitcases, potbellies, lunch boxes, umbrellas. They carry bags so big the others look at them and sneer, “What does he think he is, big, big egjective?” I watched in wonderment at them at Vashi station one day as layer by layer they peeled from inside a train in an unending stream (reminded me of the times when I would peel plantain tree leaves one by one), and there would be more of them, however much I tried vainly to bring to an end their continuous unreeling. Do they read anything: newspapers, books, novels, short stories, poems? For them all these are idle pursuits, unprofitable and unworthy of their attention. But, no, they are so content to let things go by, to avoid/indulge the rough struggle, they are inured, calloused and beaten into submission, and to smile and accept all, regardless.

A nation coping with trauma, through all the trials it is going through, ending each day more confused than ever of what is right and what isn’t. That’s what’s worrying me, this frugality, this contentment with mediocrity, this mother of all poverty.

I walk away, lengthen my steps till I am almost hurrying, I want to be rid of their sight, I want to escape the utter hopelessness of their existence on the road of a big city, people whom you would rather not see, in a city that would betray them very badly one day.

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