There are a number of localities in Delhi each bearing their own peculiarities and anyone who has searched for a house will tell you – every individual in Delhi believes they live in the best locality in the whole wide world! The tourist brochures will tell you that each locality has a specific character that is worth capturing for posterity via a picture.
There is one particular locality I drove through this Saturday. I did not stick around and I took no photographs. I was on my way to central Delhi from the University’s north campus. The auto rickshaw wound its way to one of the localities in the Sabzi Mandi area. It was like entering Delhi’s poverty-central. The whole atmosphere changed. There were little shops on the roadside just outside little homes that housed family, hearth and animals in one room! The mode of travel was horse or donkey (with or without cart), cycle (with or without cart) and the proverbial walk from one end of the road to another!
Even the usual Pepsi and Coca Cola signs were missing – no Fanta or Amul ice cream available here! Instead I saw women sitting besides a bevy of mud pots of various sizes; the wrinkles on their faces older than the mud used to make those pots! Little children with scraps of cloth for clothes that were last washed the day they were born darted in between traffic playing games. It was, for all intents and purposes, a poor village in the heart of Delhi.
Suddenly in the midst of it all right next to my autorickshaw which seemed out of place I saw a cycle cart piled high with boxes (the height of an average human being), topped by a boy sitting like he had not a care in the world. Peddling the cycle was an old man, not a day under 70 with each of his years etched firmly in his face and the gray in his hair. Every movement of the pedal was an effort, every breath an act of labour to move that cycle-cart and its burden forward. Here was a man who should have been at home enjoying his grandchildren and possibly the latest cricket match on television or radio. Instead an ironic twist of fate landed him on a bicycle attached to the heaviest cart I’ve ever seen in the heat of the afternoon peddling like his life depended on it – although it was more like his only meal of the day depended on it.
In Bombay, poverty is an everyday phenomenon. Poverty is in your home via the bai who cleans and cooks, its on the streets with the many make-shift huts, its on the way to work via the houses on the suburban train tracks, its on the roads with the many beggars vying for attention with the newest and most innovative sob-story to earn them money and of course in Dharavi which is the link road between east and west Bombay. Delhi’s localities have manicured lawns and manicured streets. You can go for months and years without seeing the mud-pot/cycle-cart poverty in this city. To have suddenly been confronted with such visuals after months was a shock to the system.
I remembered something my mother used to say while getting me to eat food that I deemed unpalatable. She said that I should not waste food, otherwise the poor people would be eating my wasted food out of a dustbin on the roadside. In my five year old mind I thought – well I’m being kind to those people. If it wasn’t for my wasted food, they wouldn’t get food to eat at all! It was only this Saturday that I fully understood what my mother was trying to tell me – there shouldn’t be people who have to eat out of dustbins. And there shouldn’t be seventy-odd year old people selling mud-pots on the roadside or pulling impossibly heavy carts for a meal. Poverty is inhuman and it shouldn’t exist.
I’m no saint. I did nothing. In fact at the end of the road, the village began to ebb away and give in to the city complete with the more business oriented shops selling things that a city is familiar with. I did what everyone else in this city would do at the sight of poverty. I drove away.