Years back, when I studied in Carmel Convent, Delhi, one day my friend was called to the Principal’s office. G was an invisible girl, like me. We were the kind who always sat in the first three rows in class, but were somehow always invisible to the teachers and fellow class mates. Not that they were doing it purposely, we enabled it. We carried some discomfort, we did not belong there totally, these Hindi speaking middle class kids in the manicured environs of a nestled convent. And by the virtue of what it could give us if we belonged, and how much we yearned to belong but could not, so finally I guess we decided to belong in our own way, by vanishing, being invisible.
Though we noticed each move made by each other. And so I knew my friend had been asked to meet Sister Superior that morning. When she returned, she was glummer than we usually were. When I pestered her for the reason she finally told me that her parents had forgotten to pay the fees.
“Forgotten?” My stomach churned. I felt a sudden rage against her parents but did not say anything aloud. I was thankful for my parents who did not forget such things.
After a day the disguise of the word forgotten slipped off and G disclosed the real reason –“there’s no money at home.” And this morning G said, she had to ring the bell of her neighbour’s house to borrow the exact amount for the school fees. To my surprise she knew the exact amount. Till then I did not know how much my parents paid for my bad scores in a convent. With quiet discipline of someone who had to do it often, G added, “We will give it back soon. Mum always gives it to them in time.”
We were about eleven years old, and I remember how shocked I was – the whole day, I imagined scenarios in which I would have to walk to a neighbour and ask for money, and in each of those dream-cycles, when my little finger reached for the door bell of the neighbour I cringed and squeezed my eyes shut as if to erase the whole thing. The next day at school, as we ate our tiffin, I told G she is brave. As I write this, after thirty years, I still remember, how precisely she bit into her cucumber, tomato sandwich, munched it twice, rolled it in her small mouth and then shrugged her little shoulders and said- “What to do? No choice.”
Sitting there, in the school ground with our relative set of privileges we learnt what ‘lack of money’ exactly does, without experiencing its full powerful blow first hand.
We learnt extreme lack of money makes one poor. We learnt poverty is lack of choice. The more poor you are the more the choices shrink from every sphere of your life. Slowly it erodes everything- till very little is left to erode- dignity, capacity to feel love, joy. It’s a monster that feeds on you till it takes your last breath to fight it. And then it takes some more.
G left school for a more affordable school after an year. After promising to be friends for a life time, we lost touch in barely a few weeks. In one sudden flash we learnt the value of class consolidation and the anxieties of our parents to move-up the ladder and not slip-down. We still carry those anxieties in us and they need constant consolation and addressing.
Seven years later, I also found myself in another school though for different reasons, this school increased the bus fees to an unreasonable amount. My father decided to discontinue the school bus. I would have to use the DTC bus from now on.
Apart from the fear of going by public transport alone, something I had not done before, I clearly remember the humiliation I felt for I had become the student who took a DTC bus instead of the select group that used the school bus. I had become that student. The ones who stood on the opposite side of the road.
In the morning, the school bus passed me as I waited for the DTC to make me reach the same destination. I can still feel the glare of those eyes looking down at me from the windows. Some of my friends waved and cheered in a well meaning way, of course they didn’t know what I was feeling down there, like I didn’t know what my friend felt when she walked to Mother Superior for delayed school fee. I never waved back, tears stinging my eyes, overwhelmed I stared at an abyss far away, daring my blue line bus to emerge.
I would sit on the bus stop but not board the blue line bus that would have dropped me a mere hundred metres from school. My father will have to give up his plan I thought. He can’t do this to me, a voice inside my head told me. He had to find money for the school bus.
I waited there everyday for hours and then returned home. This continued for a week. He stared at me from the opposite side of the road the whole time, and did not say a word. Finally, tired of missing school, one day I boarded the DTC bus and reached school, more lonely without my school bus friends, but with a sense of having achieved something.
I think that was the first time when the idea of “not having enough money”, came close to me and threatened my inner world. My parents were raising four children on government salaries and perhaps were struggling, but to me the grind and mechanisms of that struggle were never too obvious. Life was full of choices on my side. With ice-creams, pop corn, puffs and a private school education.
I remember, I was in post-graduation when I saw Bicycle Thief for the first time. Bicycle Thief eroded all the boundaries I had erected against feeling what I felt in school. I cried and cried more. I was hapless even two days after the film screening.
It haunted me. Enzo, the little plucky boy’s eyes as he watched his father being labeled a thief would not leave me alone. The film buried itself in my soul.
Abject poverty takes everything. But the way it comes for your dignity, attacks your sense of self, snatches the last vestiges of being human is the worst kind of violence.
Recently, L, who drives my mother’s car lost his mobile phone. An apt replacement for the Bicycle of De Sica’s post World War-II film based in Italy. L lives alone in a dingy room in Dwarka, away from his family like many migrant workers, who come searching for jobs from villages. He had bought the expensive smart phone so he can store pictures of his daughters, his parents and his wife, be a part of their life in a virtual way through video calling. I had noticed that it was also his only mode of entertainment.
L returned after two days. All our calls to him went unanswered. He said he was so disturbed by the loss that he was unable to move from the cot. It was strange powerful daze he said.
Even as he repeated the incident to me, his eyes welled up. He blamed his fate. All the photographs, the memories had gone with the phone. Trying to console him, I told him in a world injustice this will only increase, perhaps the person who did it needed it more than you.
That evening I went out for dinner with a friend. The bill we paid was close to twenty five hundred Rupees. When I came home, my mother pointed it out to me. But ofcourse I had already thought of it.
“But we can’t live like that Amma,” I told her, irritated. “There is no choice but to just ignore it sometimes or we will go insane,” I said.
We both knew we were not wrong but we were also not right. What can be more insane than this world we have created for ourselves. So, holding up the insanity card as an argument against complete insanity perhaps is also a privilege. I could. I had the choice.
In “A Lover’s Discourse,” Barthes claims we have grown so cold that we can no longer speak of “love” without putting the word in mocking quotation marks. I think the same is true for poverty. Today we have also lost the language to talk about poverty and in turn about the processes that make people poor. The Poor we say as label that has had no past, and is always a sterile present.
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