Keep Lighting the Lamps

“The poverty in India is biblical,” a foreigner once said to me while we were seated in the opulent surroundings of The Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Economic disparity is seen everywhere in the world but the reference to biblical times in context to my country had made me squirm. An outsider had voiced the obvious imbalance, one that dwells at the back of my mind. I sat there (as I have done every time I’m asked about India’s socio-economic extremes) and reiterated inadequate words. The Indian people are always smiling. They have inner strength. They hold on to their faith. Blah, blah, blah. When the truth is painful, we resort to philosophy.

The poverty in India is the leitmotif that plays in the background, drawing us to it every now and then lest we forget. Of course, we feel for the half-naked urchins, the commuters in packed local trains, the serpentine queues at bus-stands, the matchbox sized tenements and so on. But a long history of exploitation combined with over-population and corruption cannot be discussed in depth over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. In fact, the only way I can slip in and out of my various comfortable confines and talk about new restaurant openings and art exhibits is because I draw my thoughts away from the shanties I pass. If I didn’t, I would lose my mind.

I wear my ovarian luck with a large measure of guilt. I fold my hands in a namaste that says ‘forgive me,’ when I want a beggar to leave me alone. I smile my refusal at a persistent peddler of pirated books. If a malnourished girl tries to sell me misshapen plastic combs at the traffic light, I stare at my phone to evade looking into her eager eyes. I don’t know if I should help these underprivileged souls by buying their dubious goods or hope that they find legitimate work by not encouraging the sale. We must accept that we have learned to live, even thrive amidst pathos. We go off on luxurious holidays ignoring the scrawny homeless child wandering on the road, buy haute couture even though we pay our staff a pittance in comparison and have the audacity to bargain for vegetables with the skinny vendor in his torn vest. The inequality in the world has never made sense. So, we have come up with theories of kismet and karma. Of God’s will and God’s tests. We have let the blame rest on a silent cosmos.

In India we speak with as much ease about destiny as people in the West discuss weather. My dhobi will blame his fate if he doesn’t have funds to pay for a family member’s surgery.  I give him a small contribution and follow it up with an adage to take his mind off the deficit. Despite his troubles, he brings my clothes impeccably ironed with old newspapers to hold them in place. My maid will spend hours preparing a meal, sometimes observing a religious fast through the day. I see drivers seated in the sweltering heat rush to the porch so that their employers are spared a few minutes of discomfort. Also, sweepers keep away from our vicinity as though the nature of their work has tainted them from making social contact. The belief goes that a show of resilience will alleviate their karma. The symbols of poverty are everywhere; dry, cracked soles of feet, tattered footwear, worn-out cuffs, faded clothes, peeling faux leather handbags and so on. There isn’t an item in my home that a less privileged person is not happy to have.

If we are not careful, wealth will become a poisoned chalice. We know we have reached the zenith of disproportions because a car or wristwatch which belongs to a large section of society costs more than most people’s homes. We justify our behaviour by saying ‘each one to his own.’ We believe that people are free to do as they like with their hard-earned money. That life is difficult and the only way to survive it is by pursuing pleasure. Ironically, large amounts of money are spent on pilgrimages and rituals for personal satisfaction but if we perform charitable acts we expect loyalty in return, mocking our ability to be purely humanitarian. Perhaps, we ought to replace the word charity with generosity, which comes in many forms. Concern, care, a gentle word, interest in someone’s well-being and expressing gratitude for services rendered to us are gestures that only require kindness. Leaving a substantial tip, giving away goods that lie untouched in our homes, sharing our food and meeting standard salary requirements are not favours to be granted but basic ethical conduct. We can’t expect a drastic change unless we begin by making small changes. One lamp at a time will not illuminate the world but it will slowly and surely dispel the darkness around us.

I conclude with a few lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. ‘In the silence of gathering night I asked her, “Maiden, your lights are all lit-then where do you go with your lamp? My house is all dark and lonesome, – lend me your light.” She raised her dark eyes on my face and stood for a moment doubtful. “I have come,” she said at last, “to dedicate my lamp to the sky.” I stood and watched her light uselessly burning in the void.’

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