Monday, 15 September 2008

Beggars of London

Can an Indian write about poverty in London? And I don't mean poverty in Victorian London as depicted by Charles Dickens or encountered during one of her many walks through its streets some 100 years later by Virginia Woolf. But poverty in 21st century London. Poverty that exists here and now.

The same poverty that escapes people as they catch the first flight out of London to India, Cambodia, Africa, and hosts of other such places. Places where they can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle while sprouting moralistic rants against the not-poor-but-trying-to-get-by-
educated class or the ones who not unlike them have managed to make money, yes, created wealth, the worst offense that a man can commit, especially when surrounded by the poor, the dispossessed and the destitute.

These seekers of adventure in the course of 6 months, a year or maybe two years collect enough indignation for the wealthy and adoration for the beggars to write a decent sized book and bag a more than decent sized book deal back home. A personal memoir about how they fucked up their life in London and then a trip to India (or any other equally unfathomable destination) made them realize the triviality of their problems and the melancholic beauty of poverty. Their adventure complete, they promptly return to the home country. Sometimes never to go back again.

But they'll often tell anyone who cares to listen that the trip to India has made them a better person. For now they can appreciate poverty's inherent magnetism. Its heart of goodness. By merely being in its presence they became human and more humane. And they'll never fail to scorn at the rich classes or scoff at the sexual repression of the middle ones. Those hypocrites. Their films have no sex scenes! And also stick to the irritating habit of amalgamating and interchanging the rich and middle classes together. Especially so in context of India. Or using their experience of life in Bandra (Bombay) or Greater Kailash (Delhi) and in some extreme cases Dharmshala as a generalization for how all Indians think and feel. And always end by mentioning the irresistible charm of poverty.

Then maybe I'll say what about poverty in London? And their eyes will glaze over, as they'll mention the beggars under the underpass and outside the train stations. A minute will pass before I realize that they are re-visiting the splendor of India and not referring to the handicapped homeless man sleeping under the underpass close to Tate Modern with a board saying "I am a homeless handicap. I don't do drugs or drink alcohol. Don't beat me." Or the beggar outside Bethnal Green Station too miserable and cold to even lift his head and look up as you drop a coin in his Styrofoam cup. Or the old lady in Charring Cross dragging her tattered belongings in a broken shopping cart. And so the moment will pass.

But the thought remains. What makes people 'appreciate' poverty? Who are all these people who fly around the world seeking to dwell in the many splendors of poverty while ignoring it as they rush to catch the tube back home? And what is this poverty they find alluring? Does poverty always have to give something back to make it 'captivating' enough-make you a better person, help you appreciate your life more or make your problems seem trivial?

So, children of doctors from South Africa, stockbrokers from America, and bankers from London will keep seeking the adventure of their life in India. The incredible poverty will reassure them and re-invigorate them. But the struggles of those who manage to stay afloat. Those who unlike them can't run to London or Cape Town to seek beauty but instead look for it in their religion and their films. Those who had they been similarly blessed with the comfort of being just a flight away from escape would too find the time to dwell on the beauty of poverty. Indeed even write realms about it. These will only get derision and disrespect. These will always fail to stand up to the stringent moral assessments. These will always be shown the harsh poverty surrounding them that they dared to get away from, no, far worse ignore.

So, these children of the West will endlessly travel eastward searching for the dispossessed. Embracing the impoverished. All in an effort to drive away Ibsenian ghosts nibbling away at their souls. Exalting their ideas and ideals of poverty. All the while denying the rest of us a chance to move away from it. To not dwell upon it all our waking life even though we maybe separated from it by a few paces or in many cases just a generation. Also denying us the choice to sometimes ponder upon the ordinary. How can you talk about normal problems of life when your country has so many beggars? Why don't you feel anger and rage? How can you not see the "real" life around you everywhere?

Thus 'developed' by their jaunt through poverty in the by lanes and alleys of India these honorable and naïve citizens of the world will hold forth on morality in every global platform. Telling those who don't fall under the ever-shifting lines of poverty what ideals to aspire towards, what issues to rage against, what answers to search for in their art, what reality to depict in their films, what kind of music to compose, how to react when faced with a beggar sleeping under some underpass, how to talk about poverty. In short how to become more human. Better human.

And they'll turn vicious when faced with an idea germinating in these same places with abject poverty, which runs counter to all they hold moral and dear. Maybe even questions their idea of what is ethical and honest. Or even poverty itself. For don't they often miss the other more potent one festering among their midst? This poverty of empathy, this poverty of vision, this poverty of ideas. This incredible poverty of the ability to look at life as it exists everywhere. But who will tell these beggars of London to not go searching for it in places foreign but appreciate it in ideas foreign, even those often opposed to their deeply set prejudices. To acknowledge that 6 billions souls can't chase the same ghosts or cherish the same ideas with equal fervor. That would indeed make them more humane. So, can an Indian write about this poverty in London?

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