The old woman has returned to the flower bed near my home. She lived there for months before, vanished for months, and is now back there again. At night, she curls around her few bags, so expertly that you might think she's just a largish bundle. In the day, she wanders among the nearby shops, cadging a cup of tea or something to eat. Often, inexplicably, she drags herself about on hands and butt.
Who is she, how did she come here, what's going to become of her? The rumour is that she's from a wealthy Mahim family that doesn't want her any more. She won't say. But there's this puzzle that is also whispered about: She speaks English fluently, often is reading it. While it should not, that baffles me. Because like any number of other Indians, I automatically assume that English speakers are from "respectable" middle- or upper-class families, and so you would not ordinarily find them destitute.
A foolish assumption, and to know as much, I need look no further than this lady.
Yet tragic as she is, I don't write this to direct your attention there. No callousness meant, but there are plenty of destitute Indian women, and this one is in no way special. Instead, I am trying to get at an attitude here. At this idea of "respectable" people.
In November 2003, a gang of young creeps burst into a Borivali home, stabbed a grandmother to death, stabbed her daughter when she tried to help her mother, and tried to stop the one-year-old kid crying out. He did stop. Because they hung him from the fan and killed him.
How difficult was it for you to read those sentences? It was pretty damned hard for me to write them. I can't and hope I never will understand inhumanity like that.
The creeps were caught soon. When that happened, press reports about them mentioned again and again that they were all from "respectable middle-class families" which were "English-speaking." The police officers who caught them said the same. Judging from these comments, there's a collective sense of wonder we seem to feel about men like these. How could the sons of these "respectable" families commit such horrors? How could "English-speakers" commit such horrors?
Yet why should they not? Or put it this way: is it only poor vernacular-speakers who murder people? Must we assume that if you speak English, you are respectable; and if you are that way, you will not indulge in crime?
Which respectable families did these Borivali murderers call their own?
But that word "respectable" really stands for this presumption: that we, people like us, never commit crimes, never have to demean ourselves on the streets. Others may, but we don't. Because we are respectable. Others are not. Therefore, it surprises us when respectable people like us are driven to tragic indignity by poverty, or do horrible things to families.
In fact, so surprising is it that at some level we don't quite want to believe it.
The point here: values have sunk so low that the best assumption to make about many of us may not be respectability, but its opposite (disrespectability?). How many of us pay our taxes? Are willing to give a bribe to traffic cops? Buy illegally constructed flats using unaccounted money? Drool over Harshad Mehta's shady methods? We wink at all this, and yet like to pretend that we are respectable.
So: a pox on this idea of respectable families. Criminals stand on their own; they are not judged -- formally or informally -- according to the station of their families. A forlorn old woman on the street gets our sympathy not because she speaks English, but because of the miserable condition of her life. And respectability, as always, must be earned. Not assumed.