Friday, September 23, 2011

This Land is your Land

I must admit my middle-class upbringing has been allowed to colour my view of the world around me much, much more than it ever should have been. Thus far, I have always considered slums to be a symptom of a societal ill; sad, dirty places overcrowded with the oppressed haves-not of a country divided along the fault-lines of class, caste and recently, religion. I haven't been impressed with the 'Slumdog Millionaire' spirit they were recently cast into- that technicolour, rags to riches, destiny-rules-all view of things was as many worlds apart from the truth, I thought, as is the first world from the third.

But I may have been very wrong, very middle-class in my thinking. After spending a month travelling the length and breadth of our confoundingly claustrophobic metropolis, visiting healthposts in 'slum' areas, setting up health camps inside houses, no, not houses, but huts, I have understood that these are real communities, teeming with aspirational, upwardly-mobile, intelligent, hardworking people, most of them immigrants from the far-off regions of distant states, others hailing from war-ravaged countries in our South Asian neighbourhood.

I always had this fantasy in my head, of people being seduced by the mirage of Bombay as a glittering city with the untold promise of wealth and luxury, luring them away from their clean, pastoral existence into the grimy muck of the ruthless, heartless city. Now, I realize that this was an oversimplification of the highest order.

People leave their homes, only and only when their existence becomes unbearable there, only when they realize that there is absolutely no way for their lives to improve, if they stay where they are. In other words, they immigrate from a place of no hope to a place where they think they can hope, hope for better lives, if not for themselves then at the very least, for their children.

My own great-grandfather left his ancestral home in another state, persecuted for his religious beliefs and linguistic allegiances, to come to this benevolent leveller of a city where three generations later, his great-grandchildren no longer speak his dear mother tongue with any felicity, nor do they hold that sacred religion close to their heart. But they survive. They thrive. I wonder if he would have believed, as I do, that tradition was a good thing to barter with, in exchange for prosperity.

I admire each day these people I meet. They are smiling, hard-working people, not as disillusioned with the state of affairs as me and my friends are. They want the very best that their money can provide for their children, education and healthcare that wud have been impossible to achieve in their native villages.

Everywhere we went, we were spoken to politely, greeted smilingly, invited into humble but tidy homes for tea and biscuits. There were old women who asked after my family, young men who shyly asked me my name, children who asked me how they cud become doctors, too. These were not the tragic half-starved working-classes of my overheated imagination, these were robust people, confident in the future they cud build in this incredible 'maximum city' as a writer called it. They did not despair, they just got on with their lives.

I wondered if Gregory David Roberts did not grossly exaggerate the life of slum-dwellers in Shantaram; I was always doubtful if his foreigner's eye and subsequent rise in life did not colour his 'somewhat true' story. But I was perhaps more foreign to these places than he was. He'd lived here, right beside the people he wrote about. And I understood now what fascinated him.

As for Danny Boyle, I admit I was wrong about his film. I can see now, just as he saw, the traces of great beauty in the harshest of faces, in the darkest of places.

My parents have always tried to educate me about the importance of keeping an open mind when visiting foreign lands. I begin to understand they did not mean only other countries. I can also see that it's hard to leave the comfortable world one belongs to, to dip into unknown worlds with unknown dangers, but these journeys are definitely worth it.


Isha said...

Commenting on this post seems silly because I have nothing to say which is of any importance. However, I think this post deserves acknowledgement.
So there.

Anonymous said...

we are spoiled by out comforts. there were days when in college we never cared what water we drank and now i ask for mineral only!

spoiled! totally spoiled.

Anonymous said...

My dear, my beautiful wise young woman. You always astonish me with the humanistic view you have of your patients, and your countrymen. I had become very cynical of our profession in the last few years but coming to India and meeting you was the best thing that could have happened to me when it did. You have a deeper calling than I do, Karishma. I envy you that.

I miss you more than mere words can say.


T. said...

you know what? most people wouldnt even admit it. they'd just turn up their noses n be glad dat theyre done with it. instead u write a lyrically honest post about it. brava! :-)

Arumugam said...

Lovely post...though it makes me realize how cocooned I am in my own job,so far away from living such experiences:-(

Is it part of that much controversial rural stint for Docs?

Have you heard of Paul farmer? you might like his biography 'Mountains beyond mountains'

IceMaiden said...

Thank you for writing this. :)

P.S: I have lived the first 18 years of my life in a 'slum'. No experience I have had since, will ever compare to those years. Not one chance.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Isha, thank you. :)

Chintan, I wonder if you've watched the movie, Swades. There's a very perceptive scene in there, where Shah Rukh Khan's NRI character finally 'comes home' by drinking water that isn't bottled out of a clay cup offered by a child on a railway platform. Your comment reminded me of that little moment.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Gustaf, thank you for that. I am often fearful that if I am not careful, I shall end up becoming hardened, insensitive to people's emotions or plain cynical because of problems that are too longstanding and difficult to eradicate. Then I think of our first, 3 AM conversation and about that Senegalese woman and I take heart. I am more glad that I met you when I did, I was about to lose hope in a lot of things but didn't.

For you, much love, also. :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

T., thank you! But you know what, I think I used to be one of those people. But you live, you learn, right? And where have you been all these days, dear friend? My blog has missed you, as have I! :P

Arumugam, this is actually part of the Brihanmumbai Health Mission. The rural stint comes later, and I am up and open for pretty much everything they'll throw at me. You know, there's this favourite actor of mine, this guy called Benedict Cumberbatch. He spent 8000 pounds to come and teach English for a whole year at a Tibetan monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling, so he cud experience a different way of life. Here, I get to do that, help people in the process, and I get paid for it. Who wud refuse such a character-building opportunity, eh? :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

Ice Maiden, *hugs* :) Thank you for your comment. :) You are lovely!

Unknown said...

"...You always astonish me with the humanistic view you have of your patients, and your countrymen...You have a deeper calling than I do, Karishma. I envy you that. "

"Thank you for writing this."

"...instead u write a lyrically honest post about it. brava!"

"it makes me realize how cocooned I am in my own job,so far away from living such experiences..."

So, why should I be quoting all these? Firstly, because I badly want to make a comment, say something important. But I'm so much at a loss, because I know that 'I have nothing to say which is of any importance'. Hence this collation of genuine appreciation [they sound like something that you would see on the dust-jackets of classics]. :)

There was a time when I used to watch that 'ek-glass-paani' scene from 'Swades' on a daily basis. I must have been 16 then. The idea was to constantly remind myself of the reality [when down in doldrums, look further down and then look at yourself] and keep my feet firm on the good earth of realism...a kind of manual instigation of emotions and subsequent catharsis. Above all, it made me feel good about myself.

And then came Karunanidhi, a migrant labourer from rural Tamil Nadu (I can go on and on about this man); further down the lane, Hariprasad, the one-handed carpenter from Assam; and a lot more, all of whom I acquainted, partly owing to my wanderlust, and partly owing to this wonderful temple-town called Guruvayur. They showed me that viewing the world in black-and-white is an out-and-out error fo judgement.

The 'downtrodden' poor, the 'happy-go-lucky' poor, the 'wretched' rich, the 'really' rich....confound it!

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to 'generalize' things, when it comes to people. No man is chiselled out of a monolith. Now, didn't I veer entirely off the course? Apologies!

Yet another post that evokes thoughts and emotions....hats off, my friend!


Tangled up in blue... said...

Rohith, thank you. :) I know you love Swades quite a bit more than I do and your wanderlust far exceeds mine. You are my favourite journeyman. :) 'No man is chiselled out of a monolith'. Very wise words, indeed. I have much, much to learn, yet.

R said...

Nothing and too much to say. :*

Sakshi said...

This is wow! I too never realised these things, even though I have worked closely with destitute women and children!

Kunal said...


Keeping an open mind is very well said by your parents. Our vision is colored and blurred by our immediate surroundings and hence our imagination about people leaving in slums(or anywhere for that matter) is nothing but a illusion. I have traveled to many places in India and outside India..and have come to believe that people everywhere are basically same..they want peaceful life, they want their children to do good..they want to have a happy life where they have the things and means which they can enjoy, have know..basically lead a good, happy contented life...and its true mostly for everyone. It is true that people who have less means to achieve these things themselves..hope that their children surpass and overcome these difficulties to have a better life..It is fundamentally..humane!!

Aayushi Mehta said...

"Tradition was a good thing to barter with, in exchange for prosperity."

Wow. I am so awestruck that you wrote this gem of a sentence.

Other than that, wonderful, positive post :) I always liked Slumdog you know, I just liked the story, I never thought too much about the portraying poverty part.

I have my peripherals going on right now, but we just work at the health centers, don't go to anyone's house. Everyday brings a new experience. Though I really doubt a lot of us can be as positive about it as you have been :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

Riddhi, :)

Sakshi, *hugs*

Kunal, I like this quote by Douglas Adams, "Prejudice is an insidious guest. It enters our minds when we're not looking and colours our vision so we can never look and see the truth again." Sometimes, it becomes very hard to see people as people and not symbolic representations of some great big idea in one's head. But it is important to try. :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

Aayushi, I liked the songs! :D And I read your post about your experiences of the PSM postings, especially about that young physically handicapped pregnant woman. It makes me wonder if I cud possibly have been half as brave as her in similar circumstances.

Ramya Sriram said...

Beautifully written. Had had similar experiences while teaching in a small village near vellore. Really changes your perspective, no?

--Sunrise-- said...

I am so jealous that you got to see and experience all this and I wish I had 'known' you BEFORE I tottered off to Mumbai so I could have annoyingly tagged along with you on your postings! :-( The lessons and little pearls of wisdom one picks up must be truly precious. :-)

Oxymoron said...

hey...a well written and indeed a very insightful post...
most people living in slums are there just because they were unluckly...but we tend to forget that and judge them on the way they look...but the thing is wonderful people with dreams and ambitions can be anywhere....

Tatterdemalion said...

I gave up medicine to take up English and the only times i regret it is when i see scrubs and when i read your blog. Not that they are on the same plane :D.

Wonderfully flowing writing that expresses such strong and beautiful ideas. Loved it!

I hope you dont mind me telling this, but pls dont use 'cud'. Its a little jarring and takes away from the feel that the writing builds up.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Sunrise, oh, definitely! I'd have loved you to be my protégé/sidekick! :D Haha, kidding! But it was a really memorable time. :)

Oxymoron, that's the wonderful thing about this city. No matter how different we look or dress or sound like, we all have one thing in common. We're all nursing our dreams. :)

Tatterdemalion, oh, I dont mind at all. If I had a penny for every time I've been told that..and trust me I am improving! :D And absolutely NOTHING is on the same plane as Scrubs, man! JD is da man! :D And thank you. :)

Antara said...

There is a concept I once studied called 'Self Fulfilling Prophecies'. Only, here it applies in a different way.

By believing that the populace living in slums is oppressed, we end up suppressing them further by not treating them as the fully functioning humans they are.

mgeek said...

Don't you think dreams take a much abstract form when they don't have the boundaries of Swiss watches and Italian suits to conform to?

S. Susan Deborah said...

Dear Karishma:

I started reading many of the posts that I've missed and my, every single post (I've read about four now) can spew a thousand thoughts in me. This post esp, comes at a time when I was wondering about mnay things in life and their meaning. It seems that it is destined that i read this post today.

Thanks, dear Karishma, you open many vistas for the troubled soul.

Joy always,