On the Streets of Calcutta
All the world is chattering about India being "the next great economic superpower," and all India is chattering about Calcutta's ambition to become the country's next great "global city."
Why, India's economy is growing fast, and the relevant statistics say so. The US President's recent visit, whatever its final outcome, is widely interpreted as a sign of India's rising importance and influence in the international arena.
As tangible signs of Calcutta's swelling affluence, on the other hand, there are the swanky new apartments, trendy shopping malls, and plush multiplexes. The mass media is awash in a sea of colourful lifestyle concepts and images. And more Calcuttans than ever before are flying abroad for holiday.
The ruling Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has won by yet another landslide - their seventh successive victory - in the recent State Assembly Elections in West Bengal. The Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, shored up by his renewed mandate, is now wooing capitalists with more gusto than ever, and doing so in openly pragmatic attitude and style. For Calcutta, and the rest of West Bengal, the future can only be big.
It can well be. However, it does look unlikely that we will be able to attribute the Bengal Tiger with the ability to fly (as The Economist has recently done to her mother, the Indian Elephant) within the near future. For a closer observation of the cat itself, in its present shape, would quickly verify that an evolutionary miracle remains a long way in the making.
For Calcutta is visibly not up to scratch; in many respects, it is actually deteriorating. Traffic jams are one of the city's most notorious features. Traffic rules are a myth, if not a joke. Using public transport, any form of it - the underground, tram, bus, taxi, auto rickshaw, trishaw, rickshaw - is a risky undertaking. Even walking can be difficult, as most roads and pavements are so badly rutted or potholed they are treacherous to tread on.
The level of air pollution in the city is officially classified as "dangerous." Electric cables hang in entangled masses on shaky poles. Power failures are common, especially in the rural areas. Heaps of garbage are everywhere to be found - while the fresher layers feed the thousands of stray dogs and millions of ravens in the city, the layers beneath rot. And the human population here, as it is in the rest of the country, continues to grow with relentless zeal.
Where I stay, and where I happen to be much of the time, poverty is a ubiquitous sight. There are half-naked children on the streets, washing utensils and cutlery, collecting and sorting garbage, or just loitering here and there. There are old men going about clothed in rags, old women defecating on the roadside, and crippled children (most of whom paralysed by polio) crawling on the ground, begging passers-by for money. There are entire families, many of them spanning three generations, whose home is the pavements.
My rented flat happens to be situated at the edge of a slum. So, in the mornings I get to see how the slum dwellers struggle to eke out a living, and in the evenings I get to listen to them relate their life stories. Here is one of the more memorable ones I have heard.
Paapon is a trishaw rider. Like most other married men and women in India, especially those in rural areas, he got his wife through arranged marriage. But the way he went about arranging his own marriage was a particularly amusing one.
Five years ago, at the age of 19, he decided to find a wife for himself. Knowing very well he did not have many credentials and assets to back his endeavour, he came up with an ingenious idea. He invested his life savings of 1,500 rupees on a brand new Punjabi suit, and several lengths of fine sari.
Smartly dressed, and carrying the stack of saris, he travelled to the Sundarbans, to a rural village, in search of a wife. Having scouted about the area for some time, he finally set his eyes upon a pretty young girl. He then went into the house (it was a mud hut) where she and her parents were living.
He announced to the couple his matrimonial intention, and justified it on the grounds that he was of good Brahmin stock, held a secure office position in the city, and earned a comfortable monthly income of 5,000 rupees. Shameless lies, of course. But the poor couple were clearly impressed by what they had heard. (I suspect they were also eager to rid themselves of a daughter.) For when Paapon left the house, he also took with him the 14-year-old girl, plus a dowry of 20,000 rupees.
Shrewd Paapon, his wife and two young sons, are among the 30,000 or so persons who live in Tollygunge Slum today. (About a third of all Calcuttans live in slums. The total urban-slum population in India is above 40 million.) This particular settlement is about seven decades old. In its current state, single- and double-storey brick houses stretch for several kilometres on both sides of a railway track.
My friends - the 30- and 20-somethings - belong to the third and fourth generations born in this slum. They are the labourers, rickshaw pullers, street hawkers, mechanics, jobless, and beggars of the area. A few of them work as dispatch riders, bank clerks, and the like. But I have not come across anyone among them who is situated anywhere above that occupational echelon.
From what they say, it is clear that they are thoroughly disillusioned with the "system" in which they find themselves, and that they have largely accepted as fact their powerlessness in changing it. There are now rumours that Tollygunge Slum is next in the government's plan to be demolished - a fate that befell a neighbouring slum a couple of years ago - to make way for urban development. Major upheaval is in the air, and everybody is preparing for it.
When the inevitable comes, the slum houses will be bulldozed, their occupants dispersed. Most of these people will either move to the outskirts of the city, if they can afford to either rent, buy or build a dwelling there, or migrate to other states, if they have relatives there. The rest will have nowhere to go.
It was Rabindranath Tagore, that universal poet, who said: "I shall be born in India again and again. With all her poverty, misery, and wretchedness I love India best!" Once a quote I admired for its simple beauty, I now appreciate and cherish it for its profound meaning. For of all the good things that I have come to know about this country, the greater portion of them has been discovered among the poor.
Poverty as a phenomenon in the news, as it were, has a meaning qualitatively different from that of it as a phenomenon in reality. I mean, whereas in the former setting poverty is diminished to the point of abstract by sheer distance, in the latter it is the plight itself, imbued with genuine human properties.
That is why my understanding of poverty has somewhat deepened since I came to India. In a word, what I have had the opportunity to encounter and observe at close range is the poverty whose meaning is laden with a great deal of life-affirming connotations, even when the concept itself is an essentially life-negating one.
For the vast majority of the poor people I have met, poverty has not crushed their dignity. Their backbone has remained intact, and strong. Like Lakshmana in the Ramayana epic, who dares to challenge the notion of Fate - ergo, challenge Fate itself - the people of the slums and the streets simply will not submit to Fate without having fought a good fight with it.
They struggle hard, so as not to let their existence descend to the state of wretchedness. Their lives may be blighted today, but their hopes of a better tomorrow are not to be easily destroyed. This brand of recalcitrance - something similar to the so-called "will to life," I believe - does not always show on their faces, but is ever manifested in their actions.
Hence, every so often, I witness something remarkable, at times even something extraordinary. A group of young men in the slum organise their very own soccer world cup, improvising everything from goal posts to first-aid box, and playing the game barefoot in the muddy field, with complete seriousness about the rules of the game and the glory of winning. A little girl diligently does her homework under the shelter of a disused bus stop, that being where she and her family live. A spontaneous pooling of effort to help a 24 year-old widow carry out the funeral of her newly-deceased husband. A poor taxi driver returns a bag of jewellery worth more than 100,000 rupees to the owner. And so on.
Poverty also produces good Samaritans. Indeed, the one lesson from which I can draw inspiration for many years to come has been taught me by some of the people I have met, and spoken with, on my visits to the locally based NGOs, missionaries and other charitable organisations. Materially, they possess very little. For they choose to have less, in order to achieve more.
And great, indeed, their achievements have been. I find it immensely humbling, to see their firm belief in the meaning and purpose of their work, the love with which they fill the many souls who once knew not what love was, and the hope they give to the many lives who would have faced destitution or death.
Some do it because they love God, some because they love other people, and some because they love themselves. But I shall remember them all as anonymous saints.
India is a great nation.
The India that I have come to know personally is not just the country with a billion-strong population, massive geography, rich heritage, diverse cultures, and perpetually fertile imagination. For those reasons, but over and above them, India is a stage that has the capacity to allow the supreme drama of human life to play out in full measure, in all its grandeur and excitement, at the same time revealing the innumerable minutiae within it.
And when what one has the privilege of beholding is a drama of such magnitude and multiplicity, one is entitled to find nothing short of a complete display of every shade of the human condition - the romantic, the tragic, the comic, the ironic, the absurd, the inarticulable.
From the modest perspective of a human person, I am able to catch a glimpse of this fascinating drama as it unfolds. Watching it is none other than taking a lesson in life.
As for talk of an entity being "the world's largest democracy," or one being "the next great economic superpower," I find such ideas too big for my imagination to grasp. Besides, my vision is limited.
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Published on 7/23/06