Friday, February 16, 2007

Poverty And Hardship

If something stirs my heart more than sex, it is poverty. While sex shows its effect below the waist, poverty strikes me just below the forehead. No, I don't shed tears when I see children begging on a traffic signal. If I were the government, I would lock these children up along with their parents and throw the key into the sea. I don't shed tears when I see images of hunger-stricken people in villages: such images only arouse anger, against the government as well the people for allowing themselves to slip into such a situation.

But I find it difficult to contain tears when I see my watchman eat just plain rice, because he has no money to cook or buy sambhar or daal, and he is either too proud or embarrassed to ask for it. Or watching labourers building a house eating, during lunch break, rotis with just an onion. They would be grateful if someone put a few spoonfuls of vegetable curry on the dry roti, but they will never ask for it. Or at the plight of a 10-year-old boy, whose parents are dead and who is growing up in the house of a relative, living on whatever little they give him to eat and wearing the discarded clothes of his cousins. Yet, he has a smile on his face.

I have been fortunate, as many of us have been: there was a warm home and pampering parents. And how we took these for granted! -- the home became stifling when freedom of youth lured us, and parents became villains when they disapproved of girlfriends or boyfriends or did not give you the money for what they thought was extravagance.

But for every one of us who have a cosy childhood, there are 10 others who become pre-mature adults due to circumstances. A friend of mine, who runs a store in the heart of Chennai, had been desperately looking for a shop attendant. The other day, he found one -- a girl who is barely 18. Her father, the only earning member, recently lost his job, so she volunteered. At an age when she should be studying and hanging around in malls, she will be taking the train from the outskirts of Chennai to put in 8-10 hours of work. And rather cheerfully.

That's what makes me want to cry: not the poverty or desperation, but the honour with which one withstands or fights it. It is easy to be a beggar or a borrower in the face of poverty, but divine to make peace with it with head held high. "Doesn't matter if you eat only rice and salt, but never ever spread your palms before anyone," my grandfather, my mother's father, always told me. He had had a tough childhood: there were plenty of evenings when he would be hungry but the meals would depend on the whim of his stepmother. That is why he managed to save a lot of money.

My father's father, who I never met, was happy-go-lucky. He divided his time between teaching English and writing poetry. He also wrote two books, way back in the 1940's, and one of them -- I am told -- earned a letter of appreciation from Mahatma Gandhi. In one of my uncle's house, there is a framed four-column clipping of a newspaper that announced his death. But he had no money: his sons grew up in the households of his rich brothers and were left to chart their future on their own. Those sons didn't face poverty literally, but deprivation, yes. Yet they branched out successfully -- each going on to set up a home which didn't stink of deprivation. But -- as I look back -- the thought of what their childhood must have been makes me sad.

Why did I look back? The other day I was having a drink with a senior IAS officer posted in Chennai. We had a long chat -- as long as four drinks could inspire and permit. He told me his life story. As a small boy in Assam, he went to a small village school where there were only seven students. Four boys, three girls. The school was a hut, and the job of the boys was to collect cowdung, and the job of the girls to apply the dung on the mud ground to make it a floor (as has been the practice in rural India). Only then the classes began. That one of those boys crossed the length of India and came to Tamil Nadu as an IAS officer -- I don't know if it is the story of determination or destiny.

And then he told me about his father. One incident he narrated shall always remain embedded in my heart. The father, when he was young, was working in a city when, one morning, he got the news of his mother's death. Those days you didn't have trains running all the time: there was one in the morning and one in the evening. So he took the evening train. But there was a problem: the train didn't stop at his village. Circumstances, however, can give you extraordinary courage -- even it means jumping from a running train. And jump he did, at the cost of his life, to light the pyre of his mother.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant Ghosh,
I never thought that you can write so emotionally. Nobody can explain life's tirades as can you. This should go into your sundeay press column rather than in this blog.
Keep writing and inspiring.
Vijay C

dharmabum said...

there is this honesty - that examines lifes and strips all the outer sheen, to its bare nakedness - that i so deeply admire about u, bg.

i have been one of the fortunate ones that u have talked about. childhood was beautiful, secure and very well cared for. as i grew though, i have faced some amount of poverty and so i could related a lot to what u have said in this post. this was not extreme penury, but quite a lot of self-induced deprivation. i did it for i don't know what reason, but it taught me the self respect of the poor. and it gave me a certain kick to 'survive'...

life takes through a roller coaster ride at times, and the recent past for me has certainly not been the 'high' times. but this post - has sort of lent me that much needed inspiration that i was searching hard for. it would be a privilege if i could meet u sometimes, for i am in madras too. it may certainly not be of much value to u, but this is a purely selfish request! :)

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Vijay: Your comment means a lot. Thanks.

Dharmabum: Would certainly love to meet you. In any case, you seem to be the only one who reads my blog these days -- if the number of comments are anything to go by. Do mail me sometime and will catch up.

Paresh Palicha said...

Loved it! Whenever I see today's children being given plentiful of everything, it makes me wonder that their parents are taking revenge on the past generation for depriving them of such luxuries without realising the limitations they faced. Our elders may have been earning a fraction of what we earn today, but still they tried their best to bring us up with dignity & integrity that is missing today. Gone overboard? Sorry. :)

Shankari said...


this post struck a cord, esp. the step mother part.

no doubt you cut me off that time when i wanted to talk of a young hungry boy and his step mother.

good post, except for the comparison between poverty and sex :P

Adithya said...

I am not competent enough to comment on the misfortunes of the underprivileged, but the story of the IAS officers proves that 'where there is a will, there is a way'. Life IS a big raffle draw :)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if IAS fellas are supposed to come out with things in the closet after 4 drinks ? Upto that point I was pretty impressed with how the blog was going.

Anonymous said...

Man I m ravi and if u really are an editor or anything then plz visit the amedabad puri express once then u will get many answers. In fact i did travel by this train a few days ago n i had my shares of experiences without any camera and without any such authorisation that u have with ur print..but the story was depressing. Any ways...u r a may be or perhaps u know better about all other things. I m sorry that i did come to ur site.

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

I am stirred, sir, and inspired. Thanks for posting this. Do keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Honesty. Every line in it. I cry because it is true. I am stirred.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

The dignity with which some lesser priveleged people live stirs up emotions & does bring out the humility with which we need to live.
I sometimes curse myself for being so arrogant & vain, this post was a thoughtful reminder.

Excellent post.

As the first anon mentioned you could have posted this on The New Sunday Express column.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely amazing read...

Rashmi D. A.

Ananth Natarajan (Anand) said...

Nice post!

You wrote:
[quote]No, I don't shed tears when I see children begging on a traffic signal[/quote]

I differ: when I see street children, a woman with a skinny child begging at signals, an elderly man with bandaged feet oozing pus all over - these are times I shed tears. On the other hand, seeing construction workers eating just rice with onion, poor children with tatters for uniforms joyously walking miles to reach school - these are times when I feel HAPPY - that these people have atleast been blessed with something to fight life with.

Abhishek said...

Call me old fashioned, but a blog this long needs to have a moral. What is the moral to this one? I give you the credit that you have made most readers feel shitty about their beautiful child hoods. Hopefully, some have opened their eyes, some still prefer to stay blind. Are you doing something for the under-privileged? Do you need help to do something for the under privileged? What is it?