When I talk about travels in India I am often being asked how I deal with the poverty in the country (and I do feel tempted to quote Sir Mark Tully and say quite bluntly “I don’t have do, but they do”, because to assume that poverty is the problem or nuisance of the onlooker is, frankly, ridiculous and callous) – this is an attempt to give an answer, unsatisfying as it may be. This focuses on a segment of society that is ignored in the debate about India’s newfound prosperity – which is, however, just as true and consequential as this.
One undeniable aspect of India is the abject poverty that is on display. People sleep in tiny, makeshift huts on the street, cab drivers often have no roof over their heads and sleep in their cars, scores of beggars, little girls with ragged hair and women whose bones seem to rattle underneath their bright saris, men whose limbs were broken and twisted at birth to force them to make their living from the pity of others, stretch out their hands, pluck at shirts, wail and demand. The challenge is not to deal with this poverty as if it were some obstacle that the individual has to overcome by hardening oneself and losing all sense of empathy, but to see it and to realize that a majority of people live in poverty and under an immense pressure, if not to get food for the day then to pay back loans or to fulfill their perceived role in society. Pressure, not poverty, is the defining aspect of Indian day-to-day society. One can face that fact in several ways, the most common of which is a brief feeling of guilt and a rationalization that someone is to blame (caste system, government, etc.). Another way is to reflect for a second and then come to the conclusion that we (the privileged Europeans) are well off after all and do our petty problems really mean as much as we believe they do? Both ways are grossly superficial and are little more than looking away. We are afraid of tarnishing ourselves by looking at misery for too long. We are used to have everything pass us by, nothing sticks and if it does no thorn is too deep not to be loosened by lengthy complaining.
The fact is there is no one to blame, no one to complain to. One can analyze the situation and come to the conclusion that corruption is to blame or that there really shouldn’t be any social differences, but as soon as one looks at individual situations everything becomes muddled and human. The beggar girl has lost her family and fell in with people who treat her as nothing but a way to make money, but she is resigned to it and believes that this is the way life works because it is a way for her to retain dignity; the man with the broken limbs was the seventh kid of a piss-poor family and they thought to break his limbs would mean a safer future for him than to work fields that bear too little for four people; the cab driver who overcharges you has a family to feed, debt on his car and no hope to ever escape from his creditors. Almost everyone around you is under enormous pressure.
Those are aspects of existence that are very hard to look at for longer, no doubt, but this is what one has to do if one wants to understand properly. A poor man and a poor woman are nothing to be scared of. Refusing to accept them or to look at them directly is a terrible thing. Neither my guilt nor my sympathy do them any good.
To accept that also means to look at yourself in a different way. Most of the things you think you can’t live without are luxuries. You can live without every single one of them. That is not meant to be a wisdom, it’s simply a fact. As money becomes increasingly unbalanced in this world one may want to reconsider values – the printed paper isn’t the only thing that makes a life worth living, especially not for those who have enough to feed themselves and keep the roof over their heads without holes.
Where Westerners react with guilt or fear, well-off Indians, especially people who know the comforts of the West, react with indignation and sarcasm. Emotions are not hedged, like we Westerners prefer to do. Rigid structures make social maneuvers more easily calculable. This is without doubt a world that makes you harder, harsher and less sentimental. After spending time in India and experiencing poverty and instances of social cruelty first hand, I cannot be sentimental about it. It often strikes me, like a blow or a dagger, because it is real and impossible to ignore. But I hope that instead of sentimental it has made me more human.
When I travel the country in search of images to photograph and stories to tell, I pick out those that are uplifting and insightful, but there are just as many stories that are cruel and hopeless. It’s a challenge to find a mental balance between those two sides of nature and humanity. But ultimately one must resign oneself to this. It does good, in the words of the Dhammapada, to strive to do good and to avoid evil. But no person can avoid suffering, and sometimes all we can do is to keep our own peace while we’re suffering or witnessing others in pain. For someone growing up in a social system protected by egoistic complaints, bureaucratic immovability and an underlying and slow socialist materialism the Buddhist words may seem either seductive or callous, but faced with daily physical and spiritual suffering, they become a way of life rather than ultimately empty words.
There are many things I could suggest to improve the situation of poverty, especially caused by starvation and the lack of resources, and there are many people who work hard to improve the situation. There is no question that – in theory – it is possible to feed and clothe every single human being on this planet (and it is not just possible, but deeply necessary)…the practice is another matter and as long as we remain short-sighted and self-centered in our goals nothing will change.