Everyday, I see in the Indian newspapers stories of India’s incredible surge. Not a single day passes without my reading about how we are fighting for a permanent seat in the UNSC. I hear my friends back home talk of salaries with enough zeroes in them to be beyond the comprehension of an impecunious graduate student like self. I hear of Tata acquiring Corus, and of the rising Indian middle class.
In the midst of all this hype, we hardly have any time for the Pandians of the world anymore. Pandian is the antithesis of what we want to think of India and Indians at the present moment – he is hardly educated, he speaks broken English, and is part of the urban poor. No thanks, we’d rather read of Ratan Tata flying an F-16 or of Lakshmi Nivas Mittal being richer than the Queen. Or rather, no poverty, please, we’re the educated, anglicised Indian middle class.
Pandian was a vegetable vendor, the owner of a corner shop in our middle-class locality. Wheelchair-bound, he did a pretty good job of it – he even handled the haggling maamis* with finesse. He was not a rich man, but earned enough to send not just his own children, but even his nephew, to school.
It was in 2001 that disaster struck, as far as Pandian was concerned at least.
Because it was in 2001 that a supermarket opened up about half a mile from where Pandian had set up shop. The supermarket had fresher vegetables that were shrink-wrapped, courteous sales staff, air conditioning, and managed to sell it cheaper than Pandian could ever hope to.
Pandian had probably never heard of words like ‘Brand Loyalty’, but I have no doubts whatsoever that he probably hoped that his customers would continue to support him, after his service to the community for years. But then, we’ve all watched You’ve Got Mail, and know exactly what happened next.
No, Pandian did not have shut shop like Meg Ryan. A few people continued to buy their vegetables from him, even if it meant having to bear the ignominy of carrying vegetables that weren’t shrink-wrapped in a bag that didn’t carry the supermarket’s oh-so-upmarket label. He survived; and still managed to send the kids to school. However, they also had to deliver vegetables to customer’s homes after school.
So, I still remember collecting vegetables from Azhagarsaami, a strapping young lad in his early teens almost every other night. I also remember that Azhagarsaami tried his best to practice his English. I never got particularly friendly with him, partly because I studied at this snobbish college full of rich kids who looked down on the proletariat and people who couldn’t speak English well.
But this story is not a tear-jerker about how my views on the dignity of the labour were changed by speaking to some poor kid**. This story is about Pandian.
The years rolled by, and I left the shores of my motherland. I actually perceived poverty for the first time in my life; it’s hard to miss when everything else around looks so prosperous. And then, a short while back, I was speaking to my mother.
‘Do you remember Pandian?’, she asked me.
I grunted in assent, for I could not understand why his name had cropped up in the middle of an infernally expensive international call.
‘Well, he’s lost his shop!’
I was shocked. ‘What? Why??’, I asked.
The corporation was running a city beautification drive, and as many residents of the snooty colony I call home would probably agree in private, Pandian’s corner store was an eyesore.
Your IT consultant wouldn’t like to have Pandian outside his condo. Neither would the manager.
For the Pandians are a wretched reminder of the other India. Memories that have to be cleansed. Roads that have to be beautified.
Pandian had been served a legal notice, of course. We are a democracy – and a socialist democracy at that – and his shop was on the property of the Government of India.
We wouldn’t do something as wretched as dispossessing a poor man of his only means of livelihood. We would do something as wretched as that only after serving a legal notice. Vox Populi, vox dei, and all that kind of thing.
My mother found him during her evening walk – forlorn and weeping, perched on his wheelchair next to the ruins of what used to be his shop. My mother did not say a word – there was nothing to say…
I know not of what has happened of Pandian today. But he is not alone. There are many Gafurs, Kamals and Thomases who have fallen by the wayside in India’s mad rush to becoming a superpower in the 21st century.
They are the unseen poor whom we, the English speaking middle class, detest. We tell our kids, ‘These people never studied well enough when in school. That’s why they and their children are begging for money on the street’. We look at them and sneer at their lack of culture.
But I wonder how many of us can look at a poor, crippled man crying on the footpath, and blame him for it…
This post is dedicated to Vanaja’s husband – whose small scale business was wiped out in 1996; to Kamal – who, at 22, has spent the last 14 years of his life collecting clothes to press; to Ramakrishnan –who dropped out of my school at the age of 10 to help his father whitewash walls; to Pappamma – who lost her all to the government in the name of the progress; and to all the rest for whom liberalisation, S&P credit ratings, and permanent seats in the UN Security Council mean nothing.
*maami: literal translation: aunt, actually (in this case): just an old harridan with outdated views on the caste system and the dignity of labour, who would rather die than pay a penny more for that tomato)
** I am, after all, a typically insensitive chap from the Indian middle classes – I don’t see India’s poor even when they wave their begrimed hands right in front of my face.