How my daily commute is the Ultimate Test of humanity. And how we’re all failing.

They say a great pain has to be the driver behind great art. Well, my feet hurt like hell. So here goes nothing. An ailing spouse whose hacking cough brought on by a too-cool-for-sweaters syndrome keeps you up 2 nights in a row. A bipolar housemaid who resigns and then responds next week to an ad for the vacancy thus created (true story). A 24×7 job that kicks all popular notions of “sarkaari naukari” in the gut. A pair of lovepigeons that just wouldn’t stop shitting, birthing, and that thing that comes before birthing, in your precious balcony. Yes, that’ll about do for a particularly artistic morning. Which brings me to where I am. Standing in the Delhi metro on my way to work. Admittedly, it is no Mumbai local (which is my personal favorite definition of purgatory). But we in the Delhi metro, have our own jostling body odours,  edgy tempers, and seasonal flu germs feasting on a human buffet of respiratory tracts. And, yes, feet trampling on feet. No prizes for guessing I lost on that elusive prize of resting one’s buttocks. Some days, though, the battle for the buttock rest just doesn’t seem worth fighting for. Correction. Make that most days. The non-existence or eventually fated breakdown of a queue foretells a stampede a la zombie attack as soon as the doors slide open. People shove, push and race mercilessly, unmindful of women, children, senior citizens and (I swear this happens) even people on crutches along the way. PA announcements pleading people to “Please allow passengers on the train to alight first” might as well be airing war cries, for all the good they do. The man who sits on a ladies’ seat is treated like a dog, the woman who makes him get up is eyed like a bitch. Makes you wonder if it is all that hard for us all to be humans.

Being Human(?)

Or may be this is how humans are programmed. May be our garb of humanity (by which I mean the notion that humans are capable of sensitivity for fellow beings) is a tenderly balanced house of cards, on a table of convenience. When the going gets tough, the people get rough. All it takes is a set of well-aligned disincentives. Pit high demands against limited resources and voilà, humanity becomes passé. Makes you worry about the future of the planet. Is this is a worldwide phenomenon or a special characteristic of Indians alone? I have commuted to work everyday for months in the London underground. I have seen orderly queues on the platform, patiently waiting for passengers aboard to alight first. For real. Crowds perform the role of a social audit, shaming any commuter who attempts to break this decorum. Is that a deeper cultural difference? Or is it just some cold demand-supply logic at work? If Indians were given enough seats, would they behave better? If Londoners were made to compete for a handful of seats, would they turn on one another too? There are exceptions, of course. Reassuring exceptions. The man who stands up for any visible lady standing, even at the other end of the compartment (My husband, by the way. #ProudWife.) The young girl who leaves her seat for an old lady. The lady who lets a woman carrying a child rest awhile. But there is still the majority that chooses to look the other way. Which pisses off the ones who don’t. During rush hour, squabbles and even fistfights are not uncommon. The male equivalent of cold stares and dirty looks in the ladies compartment.

Whose elbow is it anyway?

Whose elbow is it anyway?

***

What can we do about this?

 

A. Shaming the transgressors, London style: This strategy almost never works, given that one is almost always outnumbered by said transgressors. Which makes civil behavior the real transgression from the norm. Indians also have the amazing ability to react to shaming with aggression rather than shame. I should know. I once got yelled at by a guy for asking him to not throw a banana peel on the platform.

 

B. Gandhigiri:  Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line vahin se shuru hoti hai. Credits to Shri Bachchan for making civilized behavior uncool. The husband discovered the Gandhigiri way after strategy A failed spectacularly in the face of these everyday “heroes” on the platform. He started offering them the place in front of him in the queue. Day 1: He tried it on two men. One mumbled a sheepish apology, and took his place at the back of the queue. The other proudly accepted the offer, glad that the world was finally giving him his royal due. 50% success rate. Better than A, but unsustainable across people and time. Plus, an added risk of driving an aspiring Gandhian to violence.

 

C. Enforcement: The presence of security guards at every door of the incoming metros makes Rajiv Chowk the most orderly metro station in Delhi. Which is not an accident, as Rajiv Chowk is the most populous station of Delhi, with footfalls comparable to your average airport. If the Indian crowd were left to their own devices, things there would descend to a riot in no time.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi's "orderly" pride.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi’s “orderly” pride.

But is it reasonable to expect security at every station? Would we happily bear the fare hike it entailed? Worse, what does it say about us as a people that it takes burly guys with whistles and sticks to make us behave like civilized adults?

 

D. (Cultural) DNA: What is it about Indian – or indeed human – nature that it takes so little to make us behave like savages? One could say we are biologically wired for natural selection. Survival of the fittest. That could be an acceptable argument if we were playing The Hunger Games. But how come these basic instincts start dictating our behavior even when the stakes are as small as a buttock rests?

***

Is there a systemic solution to this? More sophisticated urban planning? Fines and punishments? Awareness and behavior change campaigns? Design solutions for public transport utilities? Better moral education at school level, inculcating a sense of empathy, compassion for our fellow beings or even basic civility at an early age? Or will nothing less than whistles and sticks work on us? Everyone likes to park their behinds. But let’s not use that as an excuse to trample on our own humanity. Trust me, it looks nothing like my feet.

Advertisements

An Honest Indian’s 10 Books List

The Facebook Fad of the season is “10 Books That Changed My Life”. Also known as, “Look How Intellectual I Am!” It is a great way to show your friends and family how you have read – and more importantly, finished reading – books that many of them secretly started reading but could never finish on account of falling into a deep pretentiousness-induced coma midway.

1. That Booker one.

I read the preface of that once. Gave me an inferiority complex I see a therapist about to this day.

2. Oh, I know that one. VS Naipaul wrote that.

Yay India! (and the people India drives away!)

3. Arundhati Roy ki book?

I didn’t read that because of our irreconcilable ideological differences (Also, referring to a dictionary 5 times per sentence was too much heavy lifting those days.)

4. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.

Pulled a muscle once picking this up at a bookstore. (Speaking of heavy-lifting.)

5. Which one is this? French hai kya?

*googles to make sure this shit actually exists and you’re not just making up words by this point*

6,7,8. Bong authors writing about eating Bong food and thinking Bong thoughts.

In Bengal.

9,10. Regional language books.

When did these become cool? How come I missed the memo?

{insert disclaimer about how 10 is too small a number to do justice to what an obnoxious pretentious twat you are}

 

So, it was about time some wrote this. Here is An Honest Indian’s 10-books List:

1. Harry Potter.

Okay just Chamber of Secrets. But I read that before the movies came out. I so hipster!

2. The Shiva trilogy.

Okay just the back blurbs. But I definitely plan to watch the movies. (Hrithik Roshan may play Shiva. READ that in ToI. Does that count?)

3. You Can Win.

‘Nuff Said.

4. One Night at a Call Centre. 

Erm, a “friend” recommended it.

5. Khushwant Singh ki non-veg jokes vaali book.

Tee Hee.

7. That book 3 idiots is based on.

8. That book Kai Po Che is based on.

9. I watch TVF videos.

That’s like AIB-for-intellectuals, no? Surely that counts.

10. Chacha Choudhary, Pinki, Super Commando Dhruv, and Agniputra Abhay.

Judge me, and a volcano will erupt somewhere. You know what I am talking about.

It might have escaped your notice, so let me helpfully point out that I skipped a number there. Congratulations. Now you know what honesty in an Indian looks like.

I tag my therapist.

image

A Tale of Two Cities

Those who are in my social / social media circle would be painfully aware by now that I have been managing a sustainable transport campaign over the past few months. The aim of our campaign is to spread awareness about non-motorized and public transport. But I can well imagine and understand that some of my unwitting audience may have felt irked by the incessant promotion I did. If you are one of those people, I apologize for the bother. And I am writing this post for you.

This is the story of two people whose paths never crossed, but who are inextricably linked now in my memory.

***

When I first began this campaign in late 2013, I reached out to sustainable transport activists across the country hunting for stories of successful initiatives for us to document and showcase. That was how I “met” (and by “met” I mean exchanged emails with) Kadambari.

kadambari

Kadambari Badami was around my age, and had been doing some amazing work in making the streets of Chennai more walkable for the communities living there. I did not know her personally, but found her enthusiasm for my campaign encouraging.

Here is an excerpt from the very first email she wrote to me:

“Dear Mahima, This is a wonderful initiative on the part of DD News! We would be happy to participate and help put something together. Do let me know what we can do.

Warm regards,

Kadambari”

Last week, Kadambari passed away in a road accident in Bangalore. I had never seen her, nor met her, but somehow it felt like losing a friend.

***

I got married recently. Like most others, my big fat Indian wedding too was a celebration with friends and family coming together to shower their love and blessings on my husband and me. Having lived away from home for the past 10 years, it felt like homecoming. I was rediscovering my own family members – the people some of my cousins had grown up to become, and the people my elders had always been, little known to me. I realized my family was a heady mix of interesting people and swore to stay in better touch.

The day after the wedding, my Mamaji (maternal uncle) met with a fatal road accident on his way to work. He had danced with us the day before, had participated enthusiastically in the wedding rites, had blessed us. And suddenly all we were left with were memories. He was my mother’s youngest sibling.

mamaji

He is survived by his wife – one of the strongest women I have ever had the honour of knowing, two beautiful children, and lots of love.

***

Death is a reality. Our love for someone may be unlimited, but their time in this world is limited. When faced with our mortality, we must accept it as the way of nature. But what we must never accept as natural is untimely loss by agents of our own creation.

It may seem like progress to us when we buy a shiny new car. It may seem like development when a new flyover is inaugurated in our city. It may seem like welcome respite when a road to our workplace is widened. But what all this really does is make roads unsafer for us and our loved ones.

The “average car occupancy” in Delhi is just above 1 person per car. A bus can carry around 60 people in it. Imagine the street space one bus takes on the road. Now imagine the street space 60 cars take.

street space

To make space for these 60 car users, the government builds big flyovers and wider roads. Which makes these roads even more unsafe for pedestrians, cyclists and car users themselves.

The common Indian does not, unlike car manufacturers, have a lobby to fight for him or her.

***

I usually do not share matters of personal joy or grief on public fora as a matter of policy. But I thought there was a lesson here. A variety of them, in fact: “Our time is limited. Live life to the fullest. Love unconditionally. Forgive and forget.” The choice of lesson you take away from this is entirely yours.

Here is the lesson I took away.

I try not to be the reason behind another car on my city’s roads unless absolutely unavoidable.

I now try to walk or cycle over short distances. I take the bus to work everyday. It is not easy. Sometimes, after a long day, as I wait at a bus stop endlessly and find myself wistfully thinking, “I’d have been home by now if I had gone by car.” When I walk, I have to deal with the dust, the pollution, the thoughtless bikers on the footpath and the occasional shoe bite. I find myself fantasizing about joining the people sitting in air-conditioned cars whizzing by.

When these thoughts make an appearance, I tell myself, “May be, me not taking the car today saved a life. May be it was my life. Or somebody’s loved one’s.”

And I find my commitment renewed.

Rest in peace, Mamaji and Kadambari.

Traffic Ab Bus Karo campaign videos are available at http://tinyurl.com/abbuskaro. Apologies, once again, to those who felt spammed during the campaign. Now you know why I had to do it.

***

Update: Please take 6 mins of your time to watch this wonderful video about how the road-fatalities-ridden Amsterdam became among the safest, greenest, most livable cities in the world.

See if you think that there is something you can do to make this happen in your city:

The Elixir of the Gods

That is what Japanese lore calls it. A large proportion of India’s population is addicted to it. My parents cannot function without it. The public sector, in particular, seems completely dependent on it – to think, to celebrate, to mourn, to socialize – right from beginning of a day at work, to the end of a long day.

Any number of times, any number of cups – no Indian worth the name can have enough of his daily tea.

It is a great social leveler too, come to think of it. The industrialist and his consultant discuss business over a cup of green tea served in ornamental silverware sitting in the coffee shop of a fancy 5-star hotel, even as the construction laborer bonds with his co-workers after lunch over his daily glass of cutting chai at the roadside tea stall outside.

This is the story in pictures of the place your cup of heaven probably hails from. Situated in the Idukki district of Kerala, Munnar is a hill station on the Western Ghats, whose name literally means “three rivers”, referring to its location at the confluence of the three South Indian rivers of Madhurapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundaly.

India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, being a source of 28% of the world’s production. 23% of this share comes from the hills of Munnar – second probably only to those of Assam. Some of the plantations are located at an altitude of 2200m above sea level – which makes Munnar the world’s highest located tea cultivation region.

The tea plant is actually a species of tree, which can live for around a 100 years. When left to grow, it will reach a height of 12–15m. The plants, however, are regularly pruned to a height of around 1m for effective plucking. Due to constant plucking, the bushes are permanently kept in the vegetative phase, ensuring sustainable harvesting.

The Munnar tea plantations trace their history back to the British era when the East India Company owned much of the tea plantations of the region. Post-independence, the ownership has been taken over by Indian private companies such as Tata Tea and Kanan Devan Tea Plantations Company Pvt Ltd. To the delight of tea lovers and tourists, Tata Tea recently opened a Tea Museum which houses curious photographs and machinery, each depicting a turning point that contributed to a flourishing tea industry, as seen today in the region.

For those not heading in that direction anytime soon, here is a brief story in pictures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

References for more information on the Munnar tea plantations:

http://munnar.in/php/teaEstates.php
http://www.world-unite.de/en/world-learner/tea-plantation-munnar-india.html
http://www.keralatourism.org/destination/destination.php?id=191979895
http://www.kdhptea.com/Environment.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munnar

The (a)pathetic Indian

“Why should I vote for them when they don’t care for me?”

I could write a book on all that is wrong with that statement above. In all fairness, it was made by an 18-year old. In all honesty, she answered all my preceding questions in the negative. These included:

“Did you go online and check out the manifestoes of the parties contesting elections from your constituency?”

“Have you looked up the asset declarations and criminal records of the candidates contesting elections?”

“Do you know that all these details are updated on the Election Commission website?”

“Do you (even) watch the (bloody) news on TV?”

The words within parentheses were said within the safe confines of my mind.

I suppose there may have been a crack in the non-judgmental demeanor I was trying hard to pose, because after a while she seemed to get defensive about her ignorance. And hit me with that knock-out of a logical argument.

“Why should I vote for them when they don’t care for me?”

Possible responses that went through my head included:

–          Umm. Precisely that’s why?

–          You don’t vote to do others a favour. Voting is a favour you do to yourself.

–          Duh.

–          <<facepalm>>

–          Hand me the revolver please so I can put myself out of the agony that is your logic.

I pride myself on the decent and incredibly restrained “Hmmm” that I managed to utter out loud.

But my Election Duty woes were far from over yet.

Sample this lady I encountered at what was, in hindsight, a “Kitty Party” I gatecrashed armed with my loyal notepad in hand. She was silent at first and let her 40-year-old friend who had never voted in her life explain to me how it was all the Election Commission’s fault that she never bothered to apply for a Voter ID. At some point, however, I assume she arrived at the conclusion that all this Voting Awareness Generation nuisance was coming in the way of the whole Kitty Partying fun she wanted to have.

So she decided to give me a piece of her mind.

She walked up to me, looked square into my eyes, and proudly proclaimed, “I don’t believe in voting.” It was worded and delivered as a typical teenager “you can’t change me” challenge. Except thrown by the mom of one. By this time, however, I had become an expert in reigning in my natural instincts to strike. So, without missing a beat, I proceeded to the next logical question, “Why do you not believe in voting, ma’am?”

Judgmental questions are a dish best served with a side of extra-fake politeness.

Here is a highlight of the long, rather nonsensical ramble that followed. De-cluttered from transcript into grammatically correct sentences:

“It has no impact on our lives whether we vote or not.”

“I am simply not interested.”

“The children’s schools are about to reopen. We are going out for a vacation this weekend.”

“Yes, it is important that the right people get elected. But not for us. We don’t need anything from the government. But I feel bad for the poor people. They depend on the government for everything. For them, voting is important. Not for us.”
UrbanVoter

Okay, that cartoon is not a quote. It is, however, a reasonable extrapolation.

That the political scenario of the country has no bearing on their lives, is an omnipresent emotion in this demographic. The fool’s paradise that the uber-rich of Bangalore live in is jaw-dropping.

Another pat on my back for not letting that thought manifest itself in action.

Now juxtapose this with one of the many slum women I interviewed. This one was a vegetable vendor. Translated from Kannada, and quoted from transcript:

“Will you vote this time?”

“Of course!”

“Do you vote during every election?”

“Yes. I never miss it. Even if I am unwell, I make it a point to go and cast my vote.”

“Won’t you be working on Sunday?” (Karnataka State Elections are on 5th May 2013, a Sunday)

“Yes. But I will shut down my stall for an hour and go to vote.”

“That means you will incur actual monetary loss to vote! Why is it so important for you to vote?”

“It is my right and my duty. I must vote for the right person who will bring development to our area. If we people don’t vote, how will anything change?”

Take a deep breath and let that sink in.

They may not have internet facilities to download and go through manifestoes. They may not be the most politically aware. They may be under pressure from multiple parties, trying to influence their vote by bribes or threats. They may not have the luxury of spending their mornings reading the newspapers and armchair philosophizing over what needs to be done to set things right in the country, even as they sip their morning cup of steaming hot laxative.

But, come Election Day, they make their voices count.

They vote.

M_Id_269235_Voters_at_Shastri_Nagar_in_Govandi

I have spoken to over 200 people so far. The patterns are painfully obvious. The poor consider it their duty to vote. The rich and “educated elite” prefer to sit in their air-conditioned rooms and make impressive speeches to whichever unsuspecting audience is obligated to listen to them by bloodline or payroll.

Yes, there is corruption. Yes, the votes of the poor are often bought. Yes, the representatives we are sending to our legislature leave much to desire. But think long enough and you will find the finger pointing to your own un-inked finger.

Tomorrow, I must drag myself out of bed to go take more interviews in the educated software professional community.

Tonight, I will go to bed praying for strength and restraint while conducting them.

Or, at least, for the absence of any sharp objects within my reach.apathy_biggest_logo

The Monster

This is the story of the first time I met someone who looked me in the eye and told me about the night they killed a person.

Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM) is an NGO working, among other things, in the area of rehabilitation of drug-dependent juveniles. The Juvenile Justice Board refers juveniles who show signs of drug-addiction and are convicted in cases of serious criminal offences to SPYM for rehabilitation. Their campus at Kingsway Camp runs a 3-month rehabilitation course with a capacity to handle 50 children at a time. It almost always works at over-capacity.

Children get addicted to drugs at the tender age of 8-12 years. In the absence of costlier options, they will ingest iodex, shoe polish, ink, etc to satiate their addiction. Slowly, as their dependence increases, and they get addicted to pricier options (such as opium, marijuana, smack, intravenous drugs, etc.), they are forced to turn to a life of crime.

How does an innocent child meet with such a fate? Shibendu (manager of Sahyog – the SPYM center at Sewa Kutir Complex in Kingsway Camp) tells me the story of a typical juvenile.

“A friend at school, or a neighbor, or a relative introduces him to a light drug one day.

Come, I will show you something fun.

He tries a marijuana smoke for the first time. It takes his mind off his hunger, his abusive father, his unfortunate and deprived existence. He likes the feeling. The next day, another free smoke. And so on for several weeks. Then one day:

Why don’t you treat us today?

But I don’t have any money.

Come, I will show you how to make some.

His first crime. May be he just has to carry a bag somewhere. May be a petty theft. It pays him handsomely. He gets to buy drugs. May be he even takes some money home. His parents, living in their own abject poverty, are happy the son has brought home some money. In most homes, no questions are asked about the source of the money as long as there is one. In extreme cases, the parents themselves are addicts. Any income is welcome in these homes.

And that is where it all begins.”

boy_addicted_afghanistan_taking_drugs

At Sahyog, the rehabilitation begins with medical treatment and detoxification. But medical weaning is just a small part of the solution. Children are powerhouses of energy. What would a child with a tainted past do with all his extra energy? Sahyog realizes that it is critical to channelize all this energy in a positive direction.

“There are five elements of an effective rehab.” Shibendu tells me.

  1. Counseling: Peer counseling works much better than even professional counseling. We get boys who have come out of this life to talk to these children about their stories, the obstacles they faced, and what helped them overcome these obstacles.
  2. Literacy: 70% of these children are primary school dropouts. A new technology “Talking Pen” is used to make them at least semi-literate in the limited 3 months they spend at Sahyog. The Talking Pen technology involves a book with a bar code printed next to each word.
    DSC_0662
    When the pen is placed on the word, it reads the bar code and the word is read out loud through the speakers built in the pen.
  3. Skill Development: Organized as a Public-Private Partnership, there are many vocational training modules at SPYM Sahyog. A food production certificate course, a motor mechanics course, laundry training, and computer education are the main programmes being run here.
  4. Bal Panchayat: A big reason behind these children getting wayward was their inability to stand up for themselves and decide what is right or wrong. To build this important decision making ability in them, they are formed into a Panchayat or Parliament, whose members are rotated every week. This panchayat takes all decisions regarding the running of the center, designs class schedules, resolves disputes, and distributes workload of cooking, cleaning, laundry etc among the children fairly.
  5. Halfway Home: SPYM’s biggest concern is what happens to these children when they go back out in the real world. Many come from families with a history of drug abuse. Some are orphans. 12 year old Rajesh’s (name changed) father killed himself, and he is forced to earn money for the family. He has already relapsed twice and this is his third stint at the center. He says that he never wants to leave the center. The center fought a case in the court that allowed them to let him stay on. For children like these who are not yet ready to support themselves in the outside world on their own, a Halfway Home has been set up in the same campus. Children get food, lodging and boarding there while they are given due support to become self-reliant.

SPYM Sahyog is just 2 years old. In this time, it has already rehabilitated hundreds of young boys. While worldwide standard of success rates after rehabilitation is 5%, Sahyog has seen a success rate of 50-60%.

DSC_0010

“Children are more easily cured of the addiction as it is rarely more than 2 years old in their case. Also, their bodies are more resilient and recover faster than adults.” says Shibendu. The real challenge is to avoid them falling back into the circumstances that led them here in the first place.

He introduces me to Ali (name changed) who used to be a drug addict. While Ali speaks to me, I notice his left forearm is full of scars – presumably from intravenous drug use over months, or even years. I ask him to tell me about his experience at Sahyog, expecting a rosy tale of the triumph of the human spirit.

“I fell into this habit as a child. My family kept trying to warn me but I was beyond reason. Eventually, I even lost my father to this habit. One Dussehra night, I and my friends went to the Ramlila maidan to see the fireworks. I don’t even remember how many drugs I was on that night. Ganja, smack, alcohol – I had had everything that night. As we were walking back from the maidan, I ran into this man. I threatened him and took his money. Then I killed him.”

At this point, I barely suppressed a look of shock. He went on to tell me how he underwent laundry training at Sahyog and today trains the younger children who come here for rehabilitation. But, to be honest, my mind was still on the fact that I was talking to a murderer. A completely innocent-looking boy – cute, even – telling me about this gory act he committed with a straight face. For all my holier-than-thou, spirited journalist, uncovering-the-truth mode of operation, I was – admittedly – afraid.

I spent 3 hours at Sahyog. I was spellbound by the amazing work they were doing. I had new-found respect for the goodness of man, seeing the selfless work being done by the people behind SPYM. All this notwithstanding, on my way back, I couldn’t help but think about Ali.

I imagined what I would have thought if I read his story in a newspaper. A teenage drug-addict loots and mercilessly murders an innocent man going home after Dussehra. The man probably had a family back home waiting for him. Wife, children, parents, dependents – loved ones waiting for him to come home. What would I have thought after reading the article?

I’d have thought of how unsafe our city has become. I’d have blamed the wayward youth of our country. I would have said that the murderer must be given the worst punishment possible. When an innocent person gets mugged and killed for no apparent reason, it seems fairly easy to point a finger at the “monster” behind the crime.

However, meeting these juveniles and hearing their moving life stories makes you wonder if the verdict is indeed as simple as it appears to be. When a child eats shoe polish to keep his mind off his hunger, who is the culprit? My interaction with the Director of SPYM, Dr Rajesh Kumar, opened my eyes to the role we as a society play in the condition of these people. None of us want slums defacing our beautiful city. We hate traveling with stinking migrant labourers in public transport. We condemn juvenile criminals for being the scum of the universe.

But we do want cheap labour to build our skyscrapers. We do want to pay the housemaid as little as possible. We readily pay 500% premia at the supermarket, but will haggle with the vegetable vendor for the last 5 rupees.

Is it possible that the vegetable vendor’s hungry son is turning to drugs? Is it possible that our house maid’s child, whom she could not afford to keep in school, has turned to a life of petty crime?

Is it possible that we are a part of the problem too?

Fate’s Forgotten

An Unkind Present

DSC_0819

Against the backdrop of the construction site of an upcoming 7-star hotel in South Delhi, sits Sandeep. It has been 9 years since 

Sandeep left his hometown in Bihar for greener pastures in the National Capital. He talks to me about home and hope. He tells me about his 4 brothers, 3 sisters, wife, daughter, and ageing parents – all of whom survive on a meager 1.5 acres of land back in Bihar. Two of Sandeep’s brothers work as labourers with other “companies” (labour contractors) here in Delhi. Half an hour from here is their basti (slum) on the Delhi-Harayana border, where 4 people share a single room to minimize their rent expenditure, and send as much as they can back home. With 8 hour work shift, extendable to 12 hours including overtime, Sandeep manages to make around 6 to 8 thousand a month, of which he is able to send home 4 to 5 thousand every month for his rather large family to survive on. It is little surprise then that all his sisters have been hurriedly married off and no child in the family has studied beyond high school.

To leave home and come to Delhi and find work as a construction worker was not his choice to make. He says it was his fate.

I am here with a difficult mandate. I want to talk to migrant labourers about their future. The grim stories they tell me of their difficult past and their present misfortunes make it an uphill task to shift the topic to the future. It seems almost a cruel question to ask, and I consider changing my topic several times even as I am speaking to them. It seems only natural to assume that a vision for the future is a luxury the poor can ill-afford. But as the conversation goes on, I learn a valuable lesson. I realize that hopes and dreams are God’s egalitarian gifts to each one of us. And that you can tell a lot about a person just by asking them to share theirs with you.

Lessons from a Ruthless Past

DSC_0787Take the example of 45-year-old Ram Balak Rai, whose story begins in the 1960s when his father landed a job in the army. A government job for a child was (and is) the ultimate dream of any Indian family – rich or poor. But Ram Balak’s grandmother persuaded his father to leave the army and come back home for fear of losing her son to the war. Several decades later, he continues to see his past, present and future as an aftermath of that decision. “If my grandmother had not called my father back, he would have continued with the government job. May be I would have got a job there too. Today, I am too old. I do not see myself ever getting out of this rut in this lifetime, and see little hope for my kids too.”

“If you had a chance to relive your life so far, do you think there would be anything you would have done differently that would have changed your current circumstances?”

“What can I change, Madam? This is my fate.”

Kosami is a mother of 5 from Jhansi. She and her husband took on several loans last year to cultivate their land. Due to crop failure, however, they ran into losses and ended up with a huge debt on their head. Now, the couple has left the village to come to Delhi to work their debt off, leaving their children (and a grandchild) behind. “Money is better here”, she tells me, “so we will stay till we make enough to repay our debt.” After that, she plans to go home, and hopes to never have to come back.

The Future – A Choice to Make

DSC_0788Rajkumar and his family of five sisters, three brothers, parents, wife and a daughter have claim to half an acre of land back home. One brother works on the land; another is engaged in the dairy business. I carefully tread into the territory of leading questions and ask him if he thinks the number of children his parents had has anything to do with their current situation. He seems to agree.

Encouraged, I venture, “So, now that you already have a daughter, how many more children are you planning to have?”

“Well, there is too much inflation to support many kids in today’s world. But I will have to keep trying till I get a son.”

At this point, someone in the group points out to him that it is possible he has 10 daughters before he gets there. Rajkumar holds his fort, “I need a son to feed me and my wife when we are old”.

Baffled by his logic (or the lack thereof), I ask, “But how will you feed 10 daughters?”

Madam, vo apna naseeb le ke aayengi. Naseeb mein bhookha marna likha hoga toh mar jaayengi. Varna jahaan ki roti likhi hogi vahaan ki khayengi.” (They will bring their own fate. If they are destined to die of hunger, they will. Otherwise, fate will provide for them.)

DSC_0777I decide to not judge the man for having had a life I can never truly understand, and turn my attention to Sonu, a 19 year old who is an exception in that he is the only one here by choice. His elder brother is a post-graduate student in English Literature in Uttaranchal, but he ran away from home as education did not interest him. Today, he feels proud that he is “standing on his own feet” and earning instead of having to study. Ask him about his future, and you get the vagueness of response expected from any teenager. Or maybe it is the fact that he always has (in his own words) “the fall-back option of going back to my father’s money if nothing works out.”

“Do you ever think about going back to studies?” I ask.

Padhaai mein mera mann nahi lagta, Madam. (Studies do not interest me.)”, he replies with a boyish grin.

DSC_0782

Just as I am about to give up all hope of seeing hope, I come across 20 year old Raju, whose dreams of getting a degree in Chemistry (Honours) hit a wall when his family’s financial situation forced him to drop out of school and migrate to Delhi for work. Just as I breach the topic of the future, he enthusiastically launches into an inspired monologue about starting a taxi service back in Bihar, complete with plans laid out for bank loans, a house, a shop – the works. He is pragmatic about his plans. But the past doesn’t seem to have cast a shadow on his dreams. “I would love to go back to education someday and get my degree. God willing, I will make that happen.” he tells me.

If there is one lesson Raju seems to have learnt from his family’s misfortune, it is that “I will have only one kid.” He adds with a chuckle, “Ladka ho ya ladki, main toh usey engineer bana kar hi chhodunga. (Whether boy or girl, I won’t rest until I make an engineer out of him/her.)”

“My child will not have to suffer the fate I did. He / she may have to come back to Delhi someday. But it will not be to do this work. It will be to do something better.”

DSC_0835

A short photo session later, as I thank them for their time and take my leave, I think about the stories I heard today. We see these people every day. The woman who washes our clothes, the man who we call to repair our leaky pipes, the boy painting the walls of that new building across the road – how many times do we stop to think about their lives? And it is not just us. The government, the administration, in some cases their own families, and God Himself, seem to have forgotten these people.

One could call this a hopeless situation. They did not choose to be here. They were simply born into these circumstances by a cruel joke of probability. Yet, as I discovered today, amidst all the seeming hopelessness, they too have a choice to make.

Some, like Ram Balak, choose to blame fate.

Others, like Raju, choose to write their own.