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Another Horizon

Sweat and opportunity

INDIA | Friday, 18 October 2013 | Views [738] | Comments [1]

It has been the case for a long time that who you are in India depends very much on an accident of birth. We are told things are changing and there is a distinct middle and upper class here now, yet it seems clear that for the urban and rural poor who you are at birth largely shapes your future. That is not to say that education is not now available to more and more people. The government reports that 98% of children attend school - yet on the ground those number appear highly inflated. It seems however as much a problem of the continuing customs and traditions that shape people's attitudes towards their peers and indeed themselves as it is of any political initiative or lack therof.

If you grow the son of a tea shop owner, rickshaw driver or labourer it seems likely you will grow up to do the same as your father. Despite the best intentions of the government, who are now distributing free food in schools, or NGOs who work to ensure formal and non formal education opportunities in impoverished areas: it is the families themselves who ultimately decide the fate of their kids. And often, for the tea shop owner who makes a modest living with limited resources, it seems natural to put your son to work at ten to serve chai, as you did. One day of course the son will take over the shop and have that to support him. And so things go on.

Seeing boys working in restaurants, scraping a living on the street selling recycling or indeed begging is a common occurance in the urban landscape and you become accustomed to it. As is seeing men breaking their backs peddling heavily loaded rickshaws or women using babies as props for charity. Having been in country for over a month now it seems relatively easy to justify this as 'just the way things are'. And indeed that is a fair position. There is not much one person could do to change an entire social system. Besides this has all been tried before and nowadays people realise they have no right to meddle in the affairs of another country - we know this. However it is only after coming face to face with real people that you understand the unfairness of it and justifications of cultural difference or trying to look at things without the lens of a westerner fall flat. There is an objective right and wrong here and let me tell you why.

I have been working at a children's charity for four weeks now. We are located up four steep flights of stairs in a cramped old concrete construction in central Delhi. Every now and then a very slight silver haired man, weighing no more than 55 kilograms humps huge 20 litre water bottles up the stairs - one after another after another. People mostly ignore him, I've never heard anyone offer thanks. Like most people, I am polite enough to get out of his way if we meet him on the stairwell, to somehow ease his labours. I admire him and I've wanted to help him at times. It is hard to convey how inappropriate that would be here. And I'm nearly positive he wouldnt even let me, but I have felt ashamed as I watch him pass by. Sometimes I catch his eye, but we've never talked - until today.

I was sitting in the largest room of our NGO tutoring a university student in English Grammar. Resources are scarce so this room functions as an office, classroom, kitchen and play area. As such I was sitting at the office desk, near the fridge and food supplies on the day when our delivery man was on duty replenishing the water. As I see him 2-3 times I week, I barely noticed him as he came in and out carrying twenty kilogram bottles on shoulder - half the size of him - and laid them down a few feet in front of me. As time went by he looked more flushed with sweat in the heat and I could see the recognition on his face when I caught his eye. By the time he had done ten or so bottles we exchanged hesitant smiles. 'Poor man is very strong' he said. 'Poor man is very strong'. Yes I said, yes you are. This was no lie as despite outweighing him by 30 kilograms or so it was a real effort for me to carry these as he did. 'Me' he gestured, 'fifty', he said. I got up and shook his hand. He beamed, then continued with his nearly finished task. My student (who is himself a child of poverty) looked at me as if I had patted a stray dog. His bemused smile wondered at this interruption. Why would I talk to him, seemed the question.

A few minutes and several more bottles later, my new friend caught my eye. Hands upturned hands clasped in front of chest as if in prayer he said a careful 'Thank you'. 'Thank YOU' I said, and he grinned and went on his way. No doubt back to his rickshaw to fill up another load to deliver.

A simple interaction perhaps but this exchange is not common and would probably be percieved as very strange behaviour here. He professed to being a 'poor man' and this shows how he percieves me also. I am rich to him; my days filled with the simple comfort of a chair, my head in a book discussing words he cannot understand. His days are full of sweat, toil and dust. Twelve, twenty litre bottles packed on the back of his pedal powered rickshaw straining in the traffic and the heat. Delivery is probably the easy part.

I wonder if he went to school, I wonder how old he was when he started this work and I wonder if his children will get the chance to get an education. It is not that his job is not worthy of respect and admiration, it most certainly is: although I'm not sure he gets any. It is about opportunity and controlling your own destiny. If you are born into a role, you have one choice - or indeed no choice. If you learn to read and write the world opens up; life opens up. And I wish that man the wisdom to understand that for his own children. I also sincerely hope that attitudes here can change towards poorer people and they can break down these divisions that somehow exist between people with knowledge and means and those without it. I hope that each man and woman can be valued for who they are and not what they do or what class of society they were born into. Infact I hope that the whole idea of a caste system gradually disappears into the shimmering Indian sunset. That is my larger dream for India. Luckily there is some hope and good people are working here towards the goal of a fairer society. I see it everyday.

In the meantime I will continue to at least acknowledge this man and treat him with the respect he deserves. I may even give him a hand one of these days; or at least try!

Tags: caste system, delhi, education, equality, india, labouring, volunteer



What caring concern you show in the face of such a huge, engrained, historic problem! Wasn't it great to receive the response from him that illustrates the fact that everyone appreciates being recognized and encouraged for their efforts. You showed the courage of your convictions by your actions altho', sadly you may not always get such positive, heartwarming responses! Good on ya!

  Unc Martin Oct 24, 2013 1:17 PM

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