Just like any other research students, we were also asked to survey slums, the most visible expression of poverty in urban areas. At that point of time, the idea seemed very exciting. Little did we know that the experience would be so heartbreaking and overwhelming, both at the same time.
The moment we entered into the slum clusters, on and between the gutters, it was like being transferred into another portal where it seemed impossible to live. The spaces were so little, that even a bit increase in my waist size would make walking through them an unachievable task. Everything was dark and dirty. There was water clogging in one space, fungus forming in another. Heaps of garbage were lying around, welcoming us with their distinct variety and gracious aroma. There were huge cliques of mosquitoes and flies, having a gala time. In short, the condition was pathetic and terrific.
Eventually, after a while, we just got over it. We moved on from house to house (if I can call them so, with their sheer size) interrogating people about their lives. Some were really welcoming, while others were uncooperative. It was as if they already knew that we were just another bunch of kids who will ask few questions in the pretext of helping them and in the end do nothing. They kept on asking us, if we will give them money or the government promised housings, on that our answers would unfortunately just be a forced sorry smile. While deep inside, we would just feel helpless and tad bit annoyed.
The saddest part was that there were many people who just stood there simply accepting their miserable fate. Many of them didn’t even bother to ask why we were asking them questions as such, and went on answering with honesty dripping off their face.
I couldn’t help but wonder if we are in a way insulting them?
Many of us go there and assure them, that our collected data will be sent forward to the government and the policy makers for improving their lives, but who are we kidding? We dexterously shower them with false hopes and expectation of a new beginning and a new life, and then in the end, we shamelessly go and sleep in our well furnished house. Yeah, there is no denying that they already know about the futility of our exercise but they still answer us.
Why? I wonder!
Is it because of the trivial human behaviour case? We humans gladly come forward to perform a task where we think there is nothing to lose but in rare cases, there might be a slight possibility of gain (lottery maybe?). The slum dwellers know that we might do nothing but if, just if we are successful enough in highlighting their predicament they might be slightly better off.
I don’t know what the real answer is; all I know is that I would hate being the victim of somebody’s study where I will have to shed my time and information just to be fed lies.
My dad once said, “Life always gives you something, but only if you are receptive enough to take it”
And few days ago, in my third slum visit, I was for once receptive enough to take something from probably nothing.
It was the fourth crammed house in the row; I knocked the door with a smile. The dangling door opened with a creak showcasing a withered woman probably in her 40’s. She was wearing an old ragged sari and a brilliant smile. Her welcoming nature and her twinkling eyes suddenly made me feel at ease. With a lot comfort, I asked her questions, some were borderline uncomfortable as we were surveying their cost of living. She kept on answering them animatedly.
The situation to me looked very grim, with their monthly income just being Rs.10-15k in a family of six. It was even worsened with the loan that they had to repay. I was waiting for her to crib just like other households before, but nothing came. Her answers were surprisingly very genuine and crisp.
When I asked her about the expenditure on food, she laughed and said, “It just happens, who counts.” I requested for an estimate, and she confidently said, “Just how much a middle class household spends.”
I looked up at her in an instant, the look on her face confirmed that she thought herself to be in the middleclass category. My curiosity took hold of me, so I asked, “What about the poor households?”
“They live right across the street on the pavements, they don’t even have shelter can you imagine?”
“Hmm” I replied, guiltily peeping inside her house. There were few kids lying around, with hardly any furniture or appliances on display. There wasn’t even a gas stove, rather a kerosene chullah, responsible for painting the walls pitch black.
Inwardly I smiled; this woman was surely an inspiration to me. She was the real life example of somebody who looks at the better side of life rather than cribbing about the harsh reality. The outlook might not do anything to improve their situation but it would at least make life much more tolerable.
I couldn’t help but feel overly grateful. That day when I stepped in my home, I felt like I stepped into a palace.