When did you last talk to him?
By AIF Staff
In earlier columns, I described the ways my students from India’s leading business school, the IIM Ahmedabad, learnt many lessons from India’s humblest, poorest citizens. Grim despair characterises some of the stories the students tell. I flinched from Shayak Barman’s desolate but eloquent narrative: “Jatin chose not to go straight home after work that day”, he writes. “He needed some time to himself. To reason, to think, to sort things out. And he couldn’t do that in his tiny room in the heart of Ahmedabad’s Gulbai Tekra slum… So he kept walking. He passed the stench of his slum, the glamour of the glitzy shopping arcades and the ostentatious affluence of the upmarket housing projects, till he finally stood at the serene bank of the Sabarmati. He had played out his entire 25-year-old existence before his eyes during the course of this walk…
‘There was no way he could afford adequate healthcare for his child and her infected lung. It would be years before he could pay back even part of the Rs. 40,000 debt he owed his neighbours. The compensation for eviction of his slum due from the government was still being contested in a never-ending legal tussle. And he hated his job, cleaning toilets in IIM six days a week for a paltry Rs. 120 per day. Jumping into the Sabarmati seemed the easiest way to end it all.”
Shayak ends his story even more bleakly: “Jatin did not jump into the Sabarmati that day. He does not attribute it to a sudden flicker of hope within him. Nor does he say that better sense prevailed. He candidly accepts that he chickened out. There’s no guarantee that he won’t try it again. And there’s no assurance that he won’t go through with it this time.”
Touched by hope too
But most accounts are illuminated also by hope in humanity surviving the greatest odds. Overseas exchange student Jeanne Verrier describes a working, homeless man, typical of thousands I have met during my work on the streets, who choose for themselves hard austere lives of hard work and self-denial, only so that they can support their families with their periodic money-orders. They know that these remittances alone bring food to the thali for their children, spouses, siblings and old parents who survive in their village. She writes: “The story of Montu’s life is a story of human generosity. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, he breaks his back and his arms to help his family. He does not keep money for his own savings. He gives all what he has. He does all what he can. He never affords a single entertainment for himself after tough work. He even does not take the liberty of dreaming.”
Jeanne recounts: “Montu left his home town at the age of 17 and crossed the whole country to build a school. He wishes he would be building a school in which he could have studied one day, but he will never even get a chance to interact with the privileged people for whom he is building the school.” He grew up in a Bengali village, his mother a bidi worker, his father a farm worker. Montu was pulled out of school after Class III, because they could not afford his school books. Three years ago, a contractor from his home village offers him and his brother a job in Ahmedabad, some 2,000 kilometres away from his home.
“The construction works require the full energy of young workers, but he can earn three times more than he would earn if he had stayed in West Bengal. Montu works 12 hours per day to earn around Rs. 160, which his younger brother is not yet physically able to do. The contractor provides very modest shared accommodation in small houses made of wood and corrugated iron. By working hard six and a half days a week, he can save around Rs. 3,000 each month for his family after deducting food expenditures. He says that his family needs the money more than him because of the wedding of his sister next year, in which they will spend some fifty thousand rupees.”
The gloominess of stories of destitution is illuminated also by the compassion of the young student narrators. Anil K. describes a beggar “shivering and trying to cover himself with pieces of garments which were perhaps discarded by some of the residents of a nearby colony, I peer over to see whether he was drunk or drugged. He seemed emotionless, staring coldly at the passing by vehicles and people. … He looked a bit flustered at my approach, and then waving his hand implying me to go away says in a mixture of Gujarati and Hindi, ‘I don’t sell that stuff. Why don’t you try elsewhere?’” He tells his story of running away as a child when both his parents died one after the other, growing up working with abusive truck drivers and hotel eateries, and gradually slipping into his destitute friendless state. Anil concludes: “I leave Ramesh with not him feeling helpless, but rather it was I who felt helpless because there isn’t anything that I could do for him…”
Vijayendra Haryal similarly encounters an ageing beggar Narsimhan, with decaying teeth, fading hearing and eyesight, and tattered clothes barely sufficient to cover his emaciated frame. With no family or government to support him in his old age, he has no option but to beg, although he finds it humiliating and arduous. In the end, Vijayendra asks the old man: “When was the last time that anybody ‘talked’ to you?”
He replies: “It has been three years, Sir.”
This article originally appeared in The Hindu here