Saturday, August 14, 2010
Independence Day musings
For poor and rich,just another day!
There are fond memories that we cherish and nurse, often recalling them to relive memorable moments of our past. And there are bad memories that remind us of events we wish had never occurred, memories that we want to erase from our minds but more often than not are unable to do so. Then there are haunting memories, graphic audio-visual images that keep on surfacing every now and then, often at the most unexpected moments, disorienting us and leaving us feeling melancholic. No matter how hard we try to erase those images, those voices, from the past, they just don’t fade away. They recede, only to surface time and again.
There are many fond memories of summer holidays spent at my grandmother’s house in the suburbs of Kolkata that I cherish and have lovingly nursed for nearly two score and ten years. But there’s one memory I would rather not carry in the crevices of my mind; yet, no matter how hard I try to erase it, the black-and-white image of a young woman in a tattered sari, carrying a rickety child, and a little girl with large eyes in a torn frock clutching to her mother’s rags with one hand and holding a battered and bruised aluminium bowl in another, remains indelible. It keeps on popping up just when I think I have been able to wipe it out forever, often when I am settling down for a meal at a table laden with food.
There was a dining table at my grandmother’s house which was kept in a sort of half open room next to the kitchen that led to the garden and the narrow, black-painted iron gate, which was closed and locked only after nightfall, and the lane into which it opened. If memory serves me right it was the summer of 1972 and my cousins and I had just sat down for lunch — a sumptuous meal of bhaat, daal, begun bhaaja and maachher jhol — with my grandmother hovering over us and my aunts piling our plates high with food. Children were supposed to eat till they couldn’t swallow another morsel without throwing up.
Suddenly there was this woman at the gate, with the starving child and the little girl with large eyes. “Ma, fan daao ma!” It was a pitiful cry, not for food but for the starchy water that is poured out after boiling rice and thrown away. Those were hard days of PL480 when food was rationed and there was never anything extra in the pot to be given away. The poor and the starving knew it was no use begging for food, so they asked for fan. All this I gathered much later, but on that afternoon I was stunned by the sight of such stark poverty. Back home in Jamshedpur, which was a small, very small, town those days, life was lived out in an orderly fashion; nobody was rich, but everybody lived well and hunger was unheard of, leave alone seen in such a stark manner.
My grandmother, a kind soul, I learned that afternoon, would keep the fan aside in a large brass bowl, to be given away to anybody who came asking for it. One of my aunts poured the fan into the aluminium bowl which the girl held out, clutching it with both hands so that it would not slip and fall. Another aunt asked the woman to come in and sit in the shade of the guava tree. I watched, strangely fascinated, unable to take my eyes away, as the woman fed the girl and the child, by turn, and then with great care wiped the bowl with her fingers and licked them hungrily. The remnants were her meal.
I couldn’t eat a morsel that day. Not at lunch, nor at dinner. At night, as I tossed and turned in the sweltering summer heat — power cuts in West Bengal of the 1970s stretched for hours together — my grandmother tried to calm me with one of her stories about the life she had left behind in East Bengal. It didn’t work.
You could well ask why am I recounting this apparently irrelevant incident that dates back to when I was 11 years old. There is no real reason to do so, but it’s an image from the past that I have seen again and again, and continue to do so as this wondrous land of ours celebrates its 64th Independence Day. Freedom is something we the privileged take for granted. But for many it means nothing: August 15 is just another day in their pathetic lives lived out in gut-wrenching poverty.
We who flaunt near double-digit GDP growth as evidence of India’s ‘progress’ and get excited by the findings of the National Council of Applied Economic Research that show the number of high-income households has exceeded the number of low-income households, can never quite imagine how the other half lives — and dies — because we have willed ourselves into disowning the poor and the wretched of the land. To talk of poverty is considered unfashionable in an India aglitter with chrome-and-glass shopping malls, a country which sees no shame in the continuous loot of public funds as is happening in Delhi at the moment where thousands of crores are being skimmed off in the guise of hosting this year’s Commonwealth Games, which, we are told, are a matter of ‘national pride’. Nor does our conscience bother us that thousands of tonnes of foodgrains are allowed to rot in Government godowns so that they can be sold at a pittance to liquor manufacturers while millions go to bed hungry.
Statistics culled by the Suresh Tendulkar Committee suggest 37.2 per cent (the Planning Commission insists it is 27.3 per cent) of India’s citizens, who are supposed to feel blessed and proud for being born in a free country, a democracy at that, live below the poverty line, which, incidentally, is variously defined and not without a purpose: The hazier the definition, the easier it is to disown discomfiting facts in ‘rising’ India. According to the Experts’ Group headed by Mr NC Saxena, which based its estimates on calorie intake, 50 per cent of rural households live below the poverty line. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, headed by Mr Arjun Sengupta, came to the conclusion that 77 per cent of Indians live on less than Rs 20 a day. It is now believed that the poor in eight of India’s States outnumber the poor in sub-Saharan Africa.
The bold and the beautiful of the new India, the rising India, the shining India will no doubt turn up their pretty noses and snigger at the poor and the underprivileged, the hungry and the deprived, the dying and the diseased, and blame them for being a huge drain on public funds. Life is an un-ending party for the privileged, the haves cannot be expected to bother about the have-nots. That’s the way it has been throughout history. That’s the way it shall forever be.
That, however, should not stop us from sparing a thought for those who wistfully gaze at the fluttering Tricolour and wonder what life on the other side of the divide is like. The middle-classes could do without being selfish for a day and take a look around them, if only to convince themselves that they are far better off than they believe they deserve to be. As for the rich, the top eight per cent which stands to gain the most with eight per cent and more GDP growth, we really need not bother about them. Funnily enough, Independence Day means nothing for them either: It’s just another holiday.