Glimpses into the universe of the poor

IN Media Practice | 31/05/2015
On good days, the media gives us insights into the private and endless hell of poor Indians.
AMRIT DHILLON takes a look.
Once in a while, here and there, the normally raucous media give you a glimpse into the mental universe of poor Indians. There are times when a reporter provides a quote or a detail that so marvellously illuminates the motivations and compulsions of a world that is normally hidden from us that you are grateful for the insight.  
The case of Aruna Shanbaug provided a peek into the painful choices poverty forces on the poor. Shanbaug was abandoned by her family, despite having eight siblings. It was the nurses at KEM Hospital who cared for her. At first sight, the family’s behaviour seems brutish. But the choice for them was: do we raise our children or do we spend all our resources on someone who is brain-dead, at the expense of our children? 
‘We had no means to support her or pay for her hospital expenses. We all abandoned Aruna due to financial constraints’, her elder sister Shyamala was reported as saying at Shanbaug’s funeral in the Indian Express.
Doctors at government hospitals treating badly injured victims of road accidents are familiar with this kind of abandonment of loved ones. A newspaper report recently had a quote from an AIIMS doctor saying that he often sees women, whose husbands have been left horrifically injured by car crashes or industrial accidents, picking up their young children and slinking out of the hospital. Faced with the dilemma of feeding their children or looking after an invalid husband, they make their choice. They cannot do both.   
Last year, when a reckless driver careened into labourers sleeping on the street divider near Nigambodh Ghat, killing one and injuring a dozen, the papers talked to the survivors and asked why they slept right by the edge of the road instead of further away where it would be safer. ‘When it’s unbearably hot, the rush of passing cars circulates the air a bit, making it easier to sleep,’ one labourer told the reporter.  
Then the Salman Khan verdict yielded more information still. On the day of the verdict, an NDTV reporter went to the village of one of the men who was injured. The reporter asked him how he felt about the verdict. The man refused to answer. What she wanted was for him to say that he was happy that justice had been done. He refused to say this.  
The reporter found herself in a dead end. Finally, after much goading, he answered. ‘What good is Khan getting justice for me? How will it help me? If he’s in jail, will that feed me and my family?’ In short, only compensation would help, not justice.
Dismayed at this response, the reporter ploughed on, asking whether his injuries had healed fully. He said yes but quickly added, shiftily: ‘Yes but it sometimes hurts inside’.
His reply revealed two other effects of poverty. The first is an understandable indifference towards moral abstractions. What can freedom or justice or higher preoccupations mean when your mind and energies are perpetually focussed on fulfilling your basic needs for food and shelter?
Yet some intuitive sense made the man hesitate before saying that only money had meaning for him rather than justice. He was evasive, as though knowing that this answer would not be a morally elevated one, that it would diminish him, as though his unconscious mind was paying homage to high-minded ideas which his reason did not fully grasp because they were remote from his daily existence but which nonetheless exerted a certain moral pressure on him. 
The second was the sly answer about how his insides still hurt sometimes. Here, he was patently lying.  When you are poor, you can never miss an opportunity to express hardship to the rich because you might just miss out on something -- some offer of help, money, something, anything. You have to be stupid to indicate that everything is fine and all is well in your little world. 
Such is the dehumanising effect of poverty. It can diminish, shrink and lower your consciousness. Harsh Mander has written of how poverty is a form of ‘social violence’. It is also a form of emotional violence. It warps a person’s thinking and forces them to simulate and dissemble.
In the recent heat wave coverage, some reports have given us access to the physical universe of the poor. While some of the information is sadly obvious, such as the fact that construction workers formed the highest number of deaths, other facts were not explored by reporters. 
Why, for example, does India adhere to absurd working hours instead of changing them in the summers so that workers start early, at 7 am and finish at noon? Apparently in Orissa, offices open early and close, without a lunch break, at 1. Surely working hours should bear some relation to the climate, at least for those who have no protection from the heat?  
The other nuggets exposed the insensitivity of those who sit in air-conditioned comfort sipping cold coffee. Top of the list are building contractors who ask workers to risk heatstroke by being out at the worst possible time of day. How can they do this?  
Others are civil servants who put official guidance urging people to avoid going out in the heat without any realisation that for millions -- autorickshaw drivers, traffic policemen, cart-pullers, street vendors, street cleaners -- such advice is a joke? Officials may not be able to change the realities of the poor but at least their language could display some awareness of their wretchedness by phrasing such advice differently?
The Indian Express carried a great story recently on the women in Diva, Maharashtra, who board congested suburban trains every day for the 4 km ride to Mumbra to fetch drinking water. It pushed open the door into another world, of unimaginable effort, fatigue, tedium, hardship and unrelenting hopelessness.  
The reporter, Manasi Phadke, gave a powerful little detail: ‘The errand is so routine that many of them don’t even bother to change out of their night clothes or worn-out saris before taking the train.’
These stories, from Shaunbag’s desertion by her family to the Diva women’s trek for drinking water illustrate how the worlds of the rich and poor in India can never intersect. They are powered by different engines. On its best days, the media lifts the veil on the mental universe of poor Indians, revealing a world of cruel choices and brutal compulsions. Given the silos in which most of us live, these insights are important. Usually, of course, the veil comes down again -- to our great relief, it has to be said, because we can only take so much reality -- but our consciousness is left enlarged. 
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