[Saturday is the day I visit the Shani Temple in Govindpuri. I have been doing so for quite some time now. It is a quick ritual as one lights a lamp and bows one’ head and scoots off. Last Saturday as I was wearing my shoes, an man entered the Temple. He must have been in his late 40s but a life of want and strife made him look much older. He simply told the priest: I am hungry give me something to eat. I was holding a ladoo and simply gave it to him. An array of feelings caught choked me sending me into an almost catatonic state. I who normally do not take any time to dip in my ‘pocket’ and hand out everything I have just stood frozen. It would take me some time to process what I had witnessed and why I had reacted so violently.]
For the past 19 days I have been going to the Kalka Temple every morning at 6. I have to do the same for 40 days. Prior to this, my forays into this teeming temple were for other reasons: take Utpal to the rides that are almost akin to a pilgrimage for him as he has been there since we was a tiny tot. For me it was at best a moment with Popples. I never ventured to the holy side of the Temple as somehow the long queues and crowds were anathema to my version of the spiritual. I always look for peace and calm. The hustling and bustling seem to put me off. And I am a little agoraphobic and claustrophobic! I guess that is the fashionable way of defending your inequities. But never say never! I far too often forget this wise maxim though I have experienced it more times than I would like to believe. Let us get on with the story, if one can call it that.
This tale has many elements that need to be recalled.
When I decided to enter the world of what is again fashionably or cynically called NGOs, I was at a loss. I knew I had to repay a debt for all that I had been given since the minute I saw the light of day, I did not the way. So when you do not know the way, your best bet is to latch on to something visible and disturbing. To me it was the beggar child that tapped at your car window at ever red light. So, quite naively I came up with my nutritive biscuits idea that of course was doomed to fail. And though project why thrived in its new avatar, the issue of beggars and children made to beg never failed to disturb me. And the callous attitude of those in power and with power always enraged me. I also fell for the ‘mafia’ theory too well portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire. The situation seemed hopeless.
Those were early days, when one was naive and credulous. Times when one believed almost blindly in the multitude of programmes and legislation that were passed to benefit the poor and undiscerningly voted swayed by the pro poor slogans so cleverly crafted. With such legislation India would or should be ‘shining’! It is when I ‘dirtied’ my hands and experienced the reality on the ground that I saw how we had been had and fooled by politicians time and again.
Today we are again being seduced by yet another pro poor Bill: the food security bill and politicians of all shades and hues want their share of the pie as elections are looming large. The proposed bill will ensure 5kg of food grains per person to 800 million Indians. The model is faulty as it seems to perpetrate the saga of the generous donor and the poor recipient without addressing the large issues of hunger and solving them. An interesting article points that rather than give them means to build their lives, we give the poor ‘food’. This is the condescending attitude of an inherently ossified system which considers doles and grants a matter of great benefaction and magnanimity, and expects the ill-fated recipients of such a transaction to be eternally grateful and genuflect before the ruling classes and meekly vote them back into Lutyen’s Delhi. I think one does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that the Bill will not eradicate hunger in our country.
The biggest problem is that with the complex and administratively heavy formula of identifying the ‘beneficiaries’, I wonder whether the man I saw in the temple would ever ‘qualify’ for his 5 kilos of grain!
As I said earlier, I too ‘fell’ for the mafia image of beggary. However this is far too simplistic and there are several categories of beggars in India and some are truly quite horrific. But there also extended families who are compelled to leave their villages and come to big cities to beg or those who have been brought by greedy contractors who are not willing to pay proper daily wages and thus get labour from faraway states. When the contracted work is finished, many families stay on and eventually turn to begging. This is probably the story of the families living under the bridge on my way to pwhy. But for the last 3 weeks or so I have seen another side of mendacity up close and personal. My walk from the road where you alight from your vehicle to the shrine is rather long at the Kalka Mandir. At the time I go, the ‘beggars’ I encountered on the few occasions I visited this temple in the past or the many occasions when I accompanied Utpal to his favourite rides, it was normally ‘working hours’ and one saw the beggars in their begging mode: sitting in a line with their array of working tools: a bowl, a pan, a visible injury (real or fake) and the well rehearsed script aimed at getting your attention and pity. Some of the beggars have some stuffed plastic or cloth bags that they guard with their life! It is true that in their working avatar they look quite wretched but and one often walks past them without a look except if it is the day when you are in alms giving mode and have your coins in hand and drop them in the proffered begging bowl, often without looking at the beggar!
But for the past three weeks I have seen a different side of these souls some of whom have even become ‘friends’ as we greet each other every morning. The before working hours scenario is quite something else. As I walk past, I come across touching and moving scenes. The walkway has a tin shed and some fans placed I presume as a gesture of devotion to make the waiting (sometimes for hours) of the devotees a tad easier. The walkway has an iron barrier and the fans are place just on top of these barriers. This becomes the five* sleeping space for beggars. As I pass by at the same time everyday, some are still fast asleep: a father and a young son with their legs entwined, an old woman in foetal position her sari covering her face to keep away the flies; a mother with her children. But the biggest eye opener for me was to discover the ‘treasures’ contained in the bags that one sees next to many beggars. They contain their entire possessions and are often practically empty when I pass by in the morning. The bags have sheets and blankets, empty plastic bottles for water I presume, a half cake of soap, a used and overused tooth brush, some utensils, an umbrella, some clothes, a plastic sheet, bits of cardboard that are judiciously aligned to make a ‘bed’ at night; some half eaten biscuits packets and toys if there are children, a broken mug, a broom to clean the space they sit in. The contents differ according to the age of the beggar or whether they are alone or a family. The older women seem to have a stick I guess to chase dogs.
The ones who are awake when I walk by are busy with their morning chores, just like any body else. There are no begging scripts being spouted but normal conversations: a mother talking to her child while she bathes him – yes bathing is very important – women gossiping away while their hair is drying, men sipping their cup of tea while chatting. Many of the beggars who now recognise me say a bright Jai Mati di, Jai Mata more as a greeting than soliciting, often accompanied by a huge smile. It is surprising that I have not been once asked for any money! This morning one very old woman was busy eating her ‘breakfast’. It consisted of a tiny quantity of one day old rice and half a fiery red chili! This reminded me of an article on malnutrition and starvation where mothers gave very hot food to their children as this would make them drink a lot of water and hence quell their hunger. Maybe this old woman did not know how long she would have to wait for enough coins to buy a meal. There are days when devotees organise feeding sessions and food is plenty. The Temple also runs some kind of a soup kitchen but I am not sure if it is every day and more than once a day. I presume the innumerable eateries must also give their leftovers if any. The fruit vendor certainly does as I have sometimes seen bruised and over ripe fruits being eaten by the old and the children.
It is a motley crew making you wonder what made them come to this place. There are some very old men and women who one guesses may have been thrown out of their homes, there are some younger women with children one would like to believe are theirs. In some case it is very obvious. There are some disabled people. One sadhu who seems ancient has settled down on the side under a largish bamboo and plastic contraption which hold a bed, an alter, a grouchy old wife. The old sadhu, also grumpy is always busy cleaning the outside of his ‘home’ with water and a wiper! I would so like to hear their stories, but am still hesitant. Maybe I will pluck the courage to do so before my 40 days are over. There is one lady who I think may share her life story. I call her a lady because she is regal and beautiful in a haunting sort of way.
Somehow I cannot anymore club these people under the word ‘beggars’. For me they are people, each with their story, each with their dignity, each with their life. They are worthy of our respect, if anything. My daily tryst with these people has once again outraged and incensed me. Many questions come to mind and once again I wonder if these people will ‘receive’ any of the benefits of the zillions of projects, programmes, bills, laws, ordinances that are promulgated, enacted, passed amidst great fanfare by political parties who all want appear as the Saviour of the Poor. One just has to think of the innumerable slogans invoking the poor as a sound election plank. Over the past decades all parties have tom tommed about eradicating poverty. If they were a tad sincere then we would have looked different as a country.
I have said this time and again, almost as nauseum in various blogs but to no avail. Yet I repeat it once again hoping this time will be the right one. There is a question we all need to ask ourselves when we see aberrations like children dying of hunger in the thousands, or families begging, or children roaming the streets: who do they belong to. The simple answer is us! Yes each one of us who has allowed things to come to this. Our apathy, our indifference, our refusal to step out of our comfort zones are the real reasons why we have come to this. When will our collective conscience awaken? Never seems the answer!