I haven’t been to India in over twenty years. I’m told a lot has changed, as the country now has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. I hear that you can buy bottled water in railway stations that hasn’t been drawn from a street tap and re-sealed. I even hear you can buy a condo not far from a spiritual ashram in the middle of nowhere, if you are so inclined.
But I still wonder what life is
like at the lower end of the economic scale.
I can remember arriving wide-eyed in the late sixties, backpack stuffed
with survival gear and brain stuffed with false expectations. I gawked at
nearly everything I saw, and I probably remember all the wrong things.
On my first railway journey,
sitting in a window seat in an air-conditioned carriage, I glimpsed a family
squatting on a square of rough ground too small for a ping-pong table. There
were two parents and two kids. The mother was draped in a dun-coloured rag that
may have once been a sari, and the father had on a ragged dhoti cloth. The kids were naked. It was raining, and they were trying to
stretch a piece of cloth between four sticks driven unsteadily into the ground.
I realised in a flash that I was seeing the entire wealth of this small band of
people: three pieces of cloth, four sticks and something in a plastic bag. And
two pairs of flip flops. I wouldn’t remember this, I’m sure, if the man hadn’t
caught my eye as the train crept by. We shared the moment: he was gawking too.
My ideas about world economic
justice were too ill-formed at that stage to relate the tableau to any sort of
political idea. They would have stayed that way had something not happened to force
some sort of reflection into my woolly middle-class head.
I arrived in a medium-sized town
after dark. I was looking for an
acquaintance who had found a good, clean hotel that cost no more than fifty US
cents. I never wondered why we backpackers were always out to spend as little
money as possible before returning to our parents’ suburban homes—that would
I got some garbled directions
from a railway porter. He pointed to a
single light atop a building some distance away. I walked across the station
approach and a busy street and struck out into what I thought was a wide
roadway or square. The darkness was absolute: no street lamps, no comforting
glow from nearby windows—nothing. I took a few steps and stumbled over
something. I went on and tripped again. The space seemed to be full of what I
took to be logs, soft logs.
Until one of them groaned.
Panicked, I lit my butane
lighter. I was standing in the middle of
a huge outdoor dormitory. People were
sleeping head to head, toe to toe. They weren't on a camping trip. There
were whole families stretched out on a shared piece of cloth. One or two had little wood-frame charpoys. As
my lighter blazed in the dark, eyes opened and heads turned to look at me. Then
they closed again.
I stood absolutely still in the
dark. I knew that no matter what I did,
I was going to step on people. I was going to put my size 11 shoe into the
middle of a small family’s world, tread on a child, interrupt a couple in the
act of love. What the hell was I thinking? That’s when the metaphor of my
relationship to these people began to dawn.
Even before I stumbled my way through the rest of these prostrate lives
to the cheap hotel.
I was literally walking on the
poor, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.