India's Poor: Some Episodes

by Kenneth Champeon, Sep 29, 2003 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

The Indian boy's stomach was bloated from malnutrition. Wearing only underwear, he ran to keep up with me. He tugged at my hand and the hem of my shorts as I wandered around Bandra, a Bombay suburb. I was the pied piper. "Sir," he croaked. "Sir."

The American boy's stomach was bloated from gluttony. Pinioned in a supermarket cart, he was pestering his mother to buy him a bag of chocolate chip cookies. She had refused, so the boy was crying hysterically.

I wanted to tell him about the Indian boy. But by then I had learned to keep my mouth shut.

And so, to a degree, did the people of Bombay. The press lamented poverty. The students, rather poor themselves, lamented poverty. If they had money, they said, they would give it to the poor. If they became Prime Minister, they would abolish want. Yet few had the means.

As my cab idled at a stop light, a street kid walked to the driver's window. Tilting his head, the cabbie looked into the kid's eyes and shook his head slowly. Sometimes the cabbies blessed themselves, prayed, or brought their palms together in a namaste to recognize the beggar's divinity. This was what Nehru meant when he warned against the deification of poverty. One of my Indian colleagues was convinced that she could not change the world. Another, approached by street children, would hiss and shake her finger.

One cabbie told me that he made 250 rupees a day, then a little under US$8. This was for about 10 rides. "Long day," he told me. "No rest." He repeated the words "short life" many times. "Traffic like this in America?" he asked. An absurd question. He showed me all his gods on the dashboard. The explanation had now become familiar. This is Sai Baba, this is Ganesh, this is Shri Krishna. Like everyone, he seemed to know only names. And to say the names was enough.

He moved to Bombay as an infant and had been driving cabs from a young age. He bought his own and paid a policeman 100 rupees to get his license. He told me that the light ahead could be green but he does not move. And in saying this he had formulated the perfect metaphor for modern India: the light is green; India does not move. And when a beggar boy approached the cab, the cabbie told me to roll up my window. "These people do not want to work," he said, doing nothing in his idling cab.

Bombay doesn't have panhandlers as such. Only the transvestites are aggressive, and any elaborate plea will not be made in English. The average beggar in Bombay is a child, who walks to your cab window and stands there in complete silence. He might make bold to give you a mild poke or two. But he does not expect to get something for nothing; only nothing for nothing.

At first I gave money to them, but the number of beggars one encounters on a given day makes generosity impracticable. They are at every stop light, every street corner. And for some reason loose change is scarce in Bombay. Vendors get surly if you cannot produce the correct amount, so there is an incentive to hoard it. Eventually I gave away chocolates or biscuits instead. Once I made the mistake of buying apples for two children at a train station; a girl who had seen this followed me long after.

Not all the beggars were so passive or inarticulate. Once four children approached my cab and started yelling, "Hey, baba! Hey, chocolate! Hey, uncle!" Two of them began to pull at my shirt. "Hey, T-shirt!" When the cab started to move, one of the boys grabbed on to the window. He continued to shout as the cab carried him as far as the center of the intersection. Once I tried to ward off hawkers by speaking to them in Spanish. They responded in Spanish. I tried German. They knew German. The hashish pushers would tempt you first with postcards; when you got close enough they would whisper "Smoke hash?" or "Good smoke?" The voices were ubiquitous, hallucinatory.

Sometimes the pursuits were plain harassment. One drum-hawker followed me through traffic and even waited for me when I ducked into an American Express building. "Friend," he kept saying. "You tell me price I tell you posseeble no posseeble. Good drum." He thumped the drum. "Friend. I give you drum you bring tomorrow posseeble no posseeble." No posseeble.

Children were sometimes surprisingly eloquent. Once I found myself being followed by a young dalit girl. She was barefoot; her hair and skin were dusty and sooty; but she had a bright floral dress, a nose ring, painted fingernails. Somehow she managed to keep up with my long strides. In English, she asked me my name, my country, my destination; finally she cut to the chase. "Mister," she said matter-of-factly, "I must tell you I need to get milk for my sister. Can you help me?" I lied, said I didn't have any money. She seemed offended. "I do not want your money, sir," she said. "I need to get milk for my sister." All the while she was munching on chocolates; she tossed the wrappers into the street.

When persistence and eloquence failed, it helped to seize on the limitless stupidity of tourists. Disembarking at Elephanta Island, I was greeted by haggard old women, who with almost military efficiency swung pots on to their heads. "Picture?" they chirped. "Picture?"

Occasionally the vendors sold articles of pathetic absurdity. Men sat on the sidewalk in front of a mat displaying a number of colorful, worthless toys. The men wound them up, causing them to wobble around drunkenly or pop a few inches into the air. One man sold a toy that simulated an elephant frantically drinking water from a watering hole. As he weaved through traffic, he would peer into windows to display this ingenious and pointless device. No takers. The traffic moved on.

Services were also widely available. It was almost impossible to set foot in Bandra without being offered a shoeshine. Once a boy asked me, "Shine shoes?" I happened to be wearing sandals. I told him this. The boy did a double-take. "Shine sandals?" he asked. And at night, Chowpatty Beach was crawling with mobile masseurs. For up to 100 rupees you could get a foot, head, and shoulder massage while reclining on the filthy strand.

One evening while walking to Chowpatty I was approached by a masseur. He touched my hair. "Hair," I snapped: already India had made me irritable. "Massage," he replied. I thought he intended to wash my hair, so I declined and found a seat on the beach. Another masseur approached me, and then another sat in front of me. Within a few minutes I was surrounded. For a country that places such a high value on solitary contemplation, India makes such contemplation next to impossible.

One of the masseurs took hold of my hand. He squeezed and rubbed it; he pulled my fingers until they cracked. Then he began to work on my head: this entailed painfully rubbing my hair. The police arrived and poked the masseur with their lathis. He scurried away, but as soon as the police were gone he returned. The police returned and demanded that I leave also.

As I headed back to the road the masseur appeared again. He offered to come to my home and continue the massage there. I tried to lose him in the traffic, and found a seat in a place called the Cafi Ideal. He followed me in.

Escape seemed hopeless, so I bought a beer and split it with him. He tried to teach me some Hindi and tried to explain his relationship with the police. He wrote his name: Ashok. When the beer was finished, I wanted to tell him to beat it but I could say only, "Jana": Go. He said, "Apke sathjan". I didn't understand, so he wrote it. I remembered that apke sathjan means "go with you". So I wrote, "Nahin": No. We shared a laugh.

It was hilarious only because it was terrifying. I began walking down the street but he followed. I pushed him away but he tried to grab my crotch and said, "Fucksies." Then I began to run, and I must have run a kilometer before I lost him.

I never went to Chowpatty alone after that. Even when I was in the company of a friend, masseurs would follow us and whisper, "Sex massage." Once my friend threatened to punch one of these guys; only this made him go away. The threat of violence is sometimes necessary.

Occasionally even Bombay's patient poor lost their patience. One day a flower vendor appeared at my cab window. I tried to ignore her. Finally I said, "Nahin, nahin." My casual manner obviously put her off. "What?" she blurted. "Na-HIN? Na-HIN?" She walked off in a huff.

Even the posh district of Malabar Hill had its resident mad-woman: muttering, wide-eyed, unkempt, aimless.

I saw men with no legs and men with deformed legs. Some of them traveled by means of a hand-propelled tricycle; others, using coconut shells for traction, dragged themselves down the street on a wheeled platform. I saw a woman with legs severed just below the knees squirming by the Leopold Cafi; a woman in Dongri whose right foot was bent backwards by 180 degrees; a man at the train-station ticket window so gaunt that he could probably have fit into a suitcase; four half-naked lepers chanting and moaning on the causeway connecting Haji Ali mosque to the city; a boy standing on one leg, grimacing, weeping, smiling.

A man once approached my cab window. His hands were leprous stumps. He said, "This is leprosy, sir."

Poverty made its way on to the Bombay commuter trains. Jingling their cups, the blind made the rounds up and down the aisles. Children swept the floors and asked for change. Sometimes they simply bowed and touched the passengers' feet. Vendors sold combs, incense, fruit, roasted chickpeas or peanuts. Sometimes these pitches were successful. But too often the supplicating children got only a waving hand, a shaking finger, a dull stare.

One day there was a mild argument at the edge of the Grant Road flyover. I had just finished lunch at the A-1 Bombay restaurant. When I turned the corner, I saw a man in white standing over a thin and dark fellow. The man in white was beating the dark man on the shoulders and slapping him on the head. The dark man raised his hands feebly in defense as the blows rained down. A crowd had gathered and seemed to support the man in white because the dark man had been sleeping in front of his establishment. Eventually the dark man shouted and picked up a rock. And though the tide of emotion had appeared to ebb, the man in white gave the dark man a few final slaps. Whether out of satisfaction or disappointment, the crowd dispersed as mysteriously as it had gathered.

When my American supervisor arrived in India, I was prepared to tell her that the biggest obstacle to my work progress had been "my absolute horror". That was before I had learned to keep my mouth shut.

- The End -