April 02, 2005

Alight here

One last set of impressions from a train journey.

***

We roll into Hindupur at 1030 pm. In the dark beyond the station, I see a house with a huge -- I mean HUGE -- soccer ball on top.

The platform is deserted. No, there are the three men who get into our compartment, bantering with the ticket collector as they do. And no, there's a young man on a bench, reading a book by the distant light of an overhead lamp.

He doesn't look up at our train, not even through the five minutes we stop. He is that engrossed in his book. Something about the concentration of this chap, on this deserted platform in tiny-town Karnataka, a dim cone of light spotlighting him in the darkness, is ... what?

***

Man beside me is reading a Malayalam book. The page he is on has a few words of English that catch my glancing eye. It's a bibliographic reference, and this is what it says: "The Semitic Culture of Jesus: Temporal and Seasonal Rites. By Dr P.C. Mathew."

Undoubtedly a roaring NYT bestseller.

***

The Ganagapur Road station has a wall behind the platform that is topped by three strands of barbed wire. The effect is rather like a prison camp, and I can't understand why it is like that.

Then I see the gap in the wire, some of the wall broken too, just the head and shoulders of a grandma visible. She is handing several globular plastic buckets -- you rarely see the old metal ones any more -- through the gap to a boy. In turn, he lines them up on the platform next to the gap, at the water tap there.

Train journeys bring home how critical an issue water is. You never pass a handpump that is deserted; a tap that is not filling buckets; a canal that doesn't have people washing clothes and themselves.

And sometimes, to get to the nearest source of water, there are walls to break, barbed wire to tear down.

***

Like the previous one, this coach has also been disinfested. According to the sign, it happened just four days ago: 27.03.05. Yet we find little swarms of cockroaches running all over the floor, the seats, our bags. Clearly they gorge themselves on whatever the railways use for disinfesting. Or disinfesting consists of simply putting up these signs.

Either way, I spend a good deal of time doing my own disinfesting, using my feet, hands and sandals.

A beggar sits at the door, quietly watching me. Later, he takes off his shirt and moves through the coach, wiping the floors.

***

At Nalwar, I see another of those signs that always intrigues me. "Alight here for Sannati Sri Chadralamba Temple", it says. Are there really people who, while rolling past on a train, see such a sign and alight in reverent anticipation of a visit to the concerned sanctum? Or are there others who, while rolling past on a train, see such a sign and tell themselves: One of these days. Not today.

Me, I'm firmly in that second group. Which explains why I've never yet done it. Not even at Hunsihadgil, further down the track, where the sign instructs me to "Alight here for Niloor Dargah."

But back at Nalwar, a doddering old man gets on to our coach. The ticket examiner gives him a mighty slap and pushes him back onto the platform.

Why'd you slap him, my wife asks.

His unimpeachable reply: He's a beggar and I'm the ticket examiner.

***

A blind beggar comes through, singing beautifully. Then two blind men, look like brothers, singing in harmony. Hot on their heels, a dwarf in a greying beard, saying nothing at all. Pats my son's head affectionately -- he has to reach up to do it -- before striding on with surprising speed.

***

Three eunuchs. One sits down comfortably opposite us. She's a great shambling thing who has clearly stuffed something into that blouse. The other two, one of whom is startlingly pretty, launch into an genial explanation of why I should give them some money. Do it for your son, they say. What's his name? You're a Tamil-kaaren (a Tamilian), give us something because of that.

And what are your names, I ask as they leave. I'm Sharmila, says the pretty one. This is Neelambari. And that one ... she turns to the big one and asks, what's your name? Sarpasharada, she says, and pretends to whack Sharmila because she doesn't remember the name.

***

Eunuchs; blind men; blind couples; men on their behinds with a leg draped around their necks and grapes hanging from the toes; young kids doing some little act; young girls singing tunelessly but piercingly; boys and men and women sweeping the compartment, some with the shirts off their backs; mothers with a kid lolling in their arms; the bearded midget who doesn't say a word; men without one or more limbs; men on crutches; the eunuch with a bunch of fresh mogra in her hair; the smiling old man who switched from Tamil to English to Tamil again; ragged boys with large sacks who gather up empty plastic bottles; another old man who got slapped; pathetic creatures who sit in the passage; the boy who eats our discarded melon rinds...

Early in the morning, through the day, and well into the night. On and on.

I've travelled second-class for over 35 years now: short journeys, long ones, in every part of my country. On none of those trips did I see as many beggars, as much visible poverty, as on this one in 2005.

We are a decade-and-a-half into reforms and liberalization, the move to free markets and the tearing down of socialism -- all of which, we hear, are addressing poverty directly. More people are moving out of poverty faster than ever before, we hear.

But then I do this journey, and I am left with fumbling, groping questions: Why can't I see it, this decrease in poverty? Why is poverty still so obvious? Why do I see more beggars than ever before?

Why is there even an official Railway sign, up there next to the one about disinfesting, that says: "Please do not encourage beggars"?

5 comments:

Shobha said...

So true....

wise donkey said...

when humans become mere warning signs, or stats..tragic indeed.

But what is worse, is not confronting the reality , not seeing this as a challenge for the society as a whole to overcome,
by saying all is fine, we are Shining.
When the signs of development are cool malls to hangout and mobiles in the hands of whoever we see and not bothering to wonder if water is more important to all or mobile.

Roshan said...

Does more people begging also mean that more people have more money to give? That demand is perversely responding to supply? Is the 'success' of the cities combined with better technology-leading-to-reduced-labour-needs in the farms bringing more aspirants to the cities?

I don't know the answers. Then again, there's no empirical way to determine whether your gut feel about poverty going up is actually true. I'm not saying that liberalisation is perfect, or even good enough yet. But, like Churchill said about democracy, its the best of a bunch of flawed systems.

Its the best we've got. At least for a big country like this. How can we make it better? And wider and deeper?

Anonymous said...

Dilip

Hindupur is in A.P not Karnataka - the late NTRs constituency.

Pawan

Dilip D'Souza said...

Roshan (if you're still reading this):

I'm not sure I buy the demand/supply argument. Does that mean that we will then have an ever-increasing number of beggars as more people have more money to give? In other words, the richer we get, the more beggars we'll have? Doesn't make sense to me. When does this spiral stop?

I have no doubt that democracy is the best option we have, and the question really is, how do we make it wider and deeper. But I'm not raising doubts about the virtues of democracy. I'm saying, I can't help the feeling that something about the way we are tackling this liberalisation stuff is wrong.

Pawan, thanks for the clarification.