Monday 13 July 2020

P is for Poverty

For the visitor, India offers a rich spectacle. The land is a seamless backdrop for the entrances and exits of massive Moghul forts, holy mosques, and towns which hover between the twentieth and the twelfth century. Around these impassive architectural displays, the Indian people swarm like a distracting cloud. If they are seen at all, it is only when they stumble into the picturesque: the wizened old man guarding shoes at a mosque; the bent forms of the women gleaning in the fields, swathed in coloured saris; naked nut-brown children playing by the river; the Sikh hotel doorman with his turban, moustache and thin-lipped salute. There are beggars and hawkers too, but they seem just another component of the bustling tourist scene. The abiding poverty of India, which lies behind all these images, too often remains invisible.

That poverty lives in the spaces between the sights on the tourists agenda. The planes fly above it, the air-con coaches ride round it. Only the riders of trains and rickshaws discover it.

Stations act as magnets to poverty. Enter them, and you find rows and rows of bodies lying on the ground, quite still, as if lined up to an attractive magnetic pole. But it is only the poor, camping out on the platforms. Elsewhere, the ground is littered with people hunkered down beside their few belongings. Like the porters balancing impossibly huge and precarious loads on their heads, everyone seems undernourished, their skin leathery.

But these are simply the relatively poor. Some may even be waiting for trains. To see real poverty you must take a rickshaw. In the tourist area of Delhi from Connaught Place, down Janpath to India Gate, there are only taxis and moped rickshaws. Further north, as New Delhi gives way to Old, the bicycle rickshaws begin to appear. In outlying cities and towns they are the norm. For a journey among India's real poor, a rickshaw is the only proper vehicle,

You begin to learn something of poverty and its impotence even as you climb into the bicycle rickshaw. In front of you is a tiny stick-man, his blue-black hair shining, his shirt greasy and frayed. He moves his almost muscleless legs with difficulty, rising high in the pedals. Throughout the journey you stare at his thin body as it sways with exertion you have bought. He will pedal all day, waiting patiently wherever you stop, not eating until you have done; for this he may be paid a couple of pounds. The poverty of India begins to rise in you from the pit of your stomach.

And yet the rickshaw driver is not poor. To find poverty you must travel further into Old Delhi. There the streets are lined with poor people; this is where they live. Around them are their few possessions: a pot, a blanket. They eat, sleep and die on this street. They wash at the public standpipes, their only privacy a cloth held up around them. And yet they seem strangely oblivious of the outside world, It is as if they had reached an accommodation with their poverty, having worn it so long. They are not abject or bitter. And this is disturbing. Angry poverty in the face of wealth would be reasonable, and could be coped with, This lack of reproach reproaches the visitor with the worst meanness of all: of spirit.

A Partial India A to Z

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