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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Babies on the Pavement

I only stepped over 3 homeless children on the way to work today. 

The homeless family that live on the corner of Tulsi Pipe Road were absent today for some reason. Usually you see the 6 of them sprawled out on the hot granite tiles of the sidewalk. The father, mother and oldest daughter are usually putting flowers through thread to be made into garlands or picking the feathers off dead birds they have caught. Their skin is burnt from a life in the sun. The two toddlers are off on the side fighting each other playfully or looking for empty plastic bottles. And their baby, who must not be more than a year old, is kept on her back on a thin dusty mat. She is just out there, in the middle of the city. No cot beneath her, just the hard road and the beating sun; breathing the fumes I breathe. Sometimes she swings from side to side in a make-shift hammock: it is a discarded shawl hung from two lampposts. They don’t live in the shadows under the flyover like the other homeless. They are out there. Their lives look you in the eye every morning. Day after day this past month I have walked past them and done nothing to help.

Bombay has desensitized me to humans. There are human beings everywhere. Never have I seen human life spread so thick and worth so little. In every crevice, every shady spot, every abscess of this dystopian city there is a human being try to grind out an existence. India cannot look itself in the mirror and neither can I. I am not sad because of their plight – I am sad because I cannot weep and I feel that I should. There is no love lost in a city divided among so many. Not for itself or anyone. It is every man, woman and child for himself.

Every morning from the window of the train I see young men shitting by the train tracks. They squat, meet your gaze and shit. 

The solidarity that passengers of the first class train carriage feel towards one another is nice. When some unruly character decides to create a scene, we commuters stick together and for a split second you dare reach out to another human being. You feel the alien tendrils of a human connection for a fleeting second. And how warm it makes you feel! When someone plays Kishore Kumar songs on their phone in the evening and everyone starts to sing along - how warm that smile makes you feel! Yet that solidarity is not extended to those squatting down by the rusty rail road.

I was told from a young age not to give beggars money because it would not help. Every time I don’t help someone I make an excuse in my head.
“I can smell alcohol on his breath; he would use the money to buy more”
“These children would give the money to their boss”
“If I help him, how many more can I help? I cannot feel satisfied helping just one”
“No one else is helping them: why should I?”
“I am on a starting salary; I can’t be handing out money”
“They don’t want my help”
“The government should look after them. They are not my problem”
And the worst one of all, “They deserve it”. Yes, I have thought that too. Not for a long time, but for a passing moment when a eunuch spat at me for not giving him money. It flashed across my eyes in thunderous red. Every man for himself.

But I have run out of excuses. A thousand yard stare is all that remains. No tears have stained my cheeks and that in itself is reason to weep. The baby on the pavement will soon become the elephant in the room and I will concern myself with more “worthy” matters.

What am I doing with my life? I am doing nothing to help anyone because it’s easier that way. I’m sitting here writing it out as if that’s going to change anything. I’m sitting here writing about helping poor people. When I started this job I said to myself that being a critic for the business world would, at some level, bring out some positive impact upon India. The magazine I'm working for is organising philanthropy awards to encourage corporate India to go beyond CSR. By critiquing business cheats and championing success we are helping oil the cogs of industry and.... see: I’m great at making up excuses. Braver people than I work in NGOs and government schools. I can’t look them in the eye – not in my dreams or in real life. I feel shame. I don’t know if I will ever have a Buddha moment, where I leave the palace and become a saint. I doubt it.

I’ve also realised that bringing it up in conversation with my friends and co-workers in India is an absolute no-go. I am called an NRI and ridiculed. How sad for me, right? Poor Shravan gets shit when he tries to talk about the poor like a noble, principled young person. Poor him. The problem is, when there’s an elephant in the room size of this one and you get used to ignoring it, it is very hard to have a discussion about it. You begin to hate the poor for making you think about them. I cannot talk about what I see with my colleagues, my parents or my friends. It’s the biggest of all the taboos in India.

I don’t know what to do. I try not to think about the plight of that baby because it is a sinkhole for any hope I have – and I have hope. I am a happy person. I have not become my cynical uncle who complains about the world without doing anything to change it. India is full of cynics who preach from the sofa. They scream and shout and rant and rave because for all the great history, the enduring philosophy and the myriad of Gods this old country has, there is no good answer to the baby on the pavement. None that I have heard.

No one can tell me why I have it so good. What have I done to deserve any of it? Karma is convenient nonsense and while I am generally a happy person, when someone tries to justify poverty and suffering with the inane vapid ramblings of religion my blood boils much faster than it should. I see red. But being angry will not change anything – especially being angry with invisible men in the sky. Being angry though, is easier than being sad. Being angry is easier than thinking about their faces. When you and I turn off our computers and turn off the light, we can say goodnight. We think of those we love or those we long for. We can dream. We retire to comfort. We can switch off. They cannot. The baby may not see her next morning, let alone her next breakfast.  

My empathy is blunted. My shame is unending. I am desensitized. I cannot be the only one who lives in this great city that feels this way. She will suffer and I will have done nothing. Tell me what to do. Please.

I ask you because every time I see them, they are smiling. They look happy. Does despair descend on them when my back is turned? What do they think of me as I walk past them, listening to Creedance Clearwater Revival, everyday? 

I'm sure someone has written about poverty far more eloquently and succinctly than I have here so if this is coming across as the lesser writings of a lesser writer, then I am sorry. I am largely alone with the other 20 million people in the city and I couldn't tell any of them so I'm telling you. Thank you for listening. 


Vijay Bhat said...

"every time I see them, they are smiling. They look happy."

You may find some answers there..I don't have any answers for you, you will have to find your own. Sometimes we find answers in metaphysics. Eg, happiness strangely has nothing to do with money. A monk who has nothing and begs for his food can be happier than the industrialist who serves him...

Do what your heart says. If it says spare a coin or two, go ahead and do so. Or buy a loaf of bread every Monday morning and hand it to them...last but not least, pray for them.

valerii said...

Shravan, I empathize with you deeply. And i think there is a kind of soul-blunting damage that occurs when maintaining ignorance of this level of 'elephant in the room' has permeated a culture (although some form of it exists everywhere). But - there IS hope, there ARE answers -and they will come in the form of 'Let's do something about this together. Let's make it a priority to open the shutters and remove the filters on our eyes. Let's become receptive to viable system-level solutions that we can generate, share, and allow to emerge from a pure intention to help as well as a deep realization that we are all connected in practical and pragmatic ways."
Much of the energy to fuel this needs to come from your generation, but there ARE many of us older than you out here who are actively developing entirely new frameworks of thoughtful, workable, *sustainable* solutions. It's time to actively support or form these networks, and they will be mutually beneficial to you as well.
Please keep writing, thinking, feeling -and start actively connecting with those who are also willing to unflinchingly acknowledge all those elephants in the room. We are here.
For there IS hope, and it starts with communication. Others who think the same as you do, can find you now. Keep up your insights and don't let your sensibilities be blunted by individuals, culture, or habit that might damage your unique perspective - for new possibilities will spring from the integration of heart and mind that you are embodying.
You give hope and validation to others by simply noting what is real and true. Thank you.

Revacious said...

"Mumbai has desensitized me.."
You know, I never saw it that way. Which makes you wonder is there any city/town here that will NOT desensitize you? Where no one's pathetically poor?
I used to feel bad that my parents wouldn't spare any change for those beggars at traffic signals. But you've gotta grow up. Is sparing change for them gonna solve anything?
Writing about it IS something. I volunteer at an NGO. Awareness of an issue, not sweeping it under the carpet, is the first step to tackling it. I hate malls, bec they seem so removed from reality. If everyone had some bit of awareness, maybe we could get somewhere. :)

Alka said...

your sadness is probably more common than you think; but everyone does not have a gift like yours to express it.
there are no easy answers; sometimes i feel there are no answers. but all i know is that if you can hold this sadness as you go along life, it will do many things on the way... just hold it along the way.
and you write fabulously shravan.

K. Satishchandra Rao said...

It is true all of us have become desensitized to such situations. I am sure there are at least one or two NGOs working to alleviate such sufferings and provide homes to such homeless children.I have heard of a organisation "Paalavi" looking after the homeless in Pandharpur. It may ease your troubled mind if you could pitch in to help. Similarly Baba Amte was inspired to build "Anandvan" for leprosy outcastes.

More important was the expression of your feelings and your ardent desire to make a difference in their lives. Meanwhile, a coin or a loaf of bread now and then may help you both.