Sunday, February 13, 2011

they're OUR poor

Last Tuesday, I went on a walking tour around one of the city's northside neighborhoods. Our guide was our broker-turned-friend; I'll call him Narayan for the rest of this post. It makes perfect sense that Narayan earns his living helping new arrivals find a place to settle into life in Kolkata because he psychotically loves this city. Jeremy thinks he doesn't know anyone who loves their hometown as much as this guy and I guess I couldn't, either, once I thought about it.

Like most of us who have true and noble passions, Narayan has his blind spots.  One of our group, a Frenchman, asked him about the terrific number of street-dwellers here. "I was here thirty years ago before the Communists governed West Bengal, and now the situation is no better! In fact, I have never seen any Communist society where they fail so monstrously to provide for the basic needs of its people!" Over the roar of the metro (the windows of the trains are always open), I listened to the response, hoping to learn something about local politics in Kolkata or West Bengal, but I was disappointed.

Basically, he gave the standard line that India is a young country, barely 60 years old. "Give us another 60 and we'll rule the world!" he said. Then he talked about the various scientific studies which have shown how, over and over again, when people are taken off the streets and given work—and maybe even a house of their own—they will soon leave it behind and return to their old way of life. He said that people here are proud and they don't want handouts from anyone, including the government. When people in India see how people in some other nations accept housing, food stamps or cash without having to exchange their time or labor, they wonder at it because it seems…well, pathetic. Finally, he said that Kolkata has both rich and poor and invited the Frenchman to see for himself how many Kolkatans enjoy a round of tennis or golf at the exclusive Tollygunge Club.

I could tell that this wasn't the first time "Narayan" was asked to answer for his city's failures, and his defensiveness (if not in tone, then at least in content) spoke to the national embarrassment that is the street-dwelling culture of Kolkata.

The funny thing was, his answer was not particularly Indian. His was a pretty familiar refrain; I have heard the same thing in the United States about our own homeless. They could be earning a living but they choose not to. They could get off the streets, but they don't want to. And while I am sure that there are as many reasons to be homeless as there are homeless people, the truth is, saying that people "choose" to be poor is not really much of an answer. It actually sounds more like an excuse. The line that people feel that accepting free food is undignified, and would prefer to go hungry sounds a little suspicious, at best. And implying that the existence of extremes of both wealth and poverty is somehow proof of a healthy or balanced urban economy is just, um, silly.

Here is an appropriate answer, in my opinion: "Yes, there are several million people in Kolkata who do not have access to clean water or a living wage. There are people whose life expectancies are half of mine who live down the road from me. Children are sold so that parents can afford to eat. And I am not okay with any of this. I am not okay with the fact that the so-called political (or religious, or cultural or economic) machine is so obviously broken, and that wealth distribution is so unequal and that women and children and the ill and elderly suffer the worst in a terrible, unjust, broken system. I don't think anyone can, or should be okay with any of that." That's the real answer, if you ask me. An answer does not need to provide a diagnosis or solution, nor prop itself up with excuses.

It made me think of an online conversation from the previous week in which the author, an American stay-at-home mother, confessed to feeling no small discomfort for living such a privileged life, all the while knowing that there are plenty of others who are much less well-off. Is she really doing enough to ease the sufferings of others? Should she be using her time, money, energy in better ways?

I thought it was an excellent article. Well-written, well thought-out and very (uncomfortably) honest—and on a topic that is a little too rare in that corner of the (American Catholic) blogging community. "Yay!" I thought. "Someone out there has just as much angst as I do!" (and who doesn't love it when they find that…)  Unfortunately, the reader response was disappointingly standard. Although some readers simply wrote in to say that these were good questions and left it at that, more often people tried to soothe the writer's anxiety. Yes, yes, they reassured her, she was in fact "doing enough." What she did, she did well, and that is enough. As if the feelings of compassion (and perhaps the dash of guilt) that prompted her to write such a post were a sufficient demonstration of love for neighbor. (Ahem.)

Maybe I took it a little personally, but I was a little indignant. I started to draft a response. WHY should we believe that since we are given more (materially speaking), that we ought to accept it (as a sign of God's blessing, or whatever)? WHY should we come to terms with the fact that some have plenty when others go without (especially if we are the ones with plenty), and WHO gets to decide if we've done enough?

"The questions you wrote about are good ones and I think some of the comments dismiss them too soon," I was going to say.  I considered writing, for the sake of full and fair disclosure, that my husband is an American doctor (with another masters & advanced training degree) and that this makes him one of the wealthiest and most educated people on our planet right now. It means that our family might never be in (material) need again. I wanted to tell her, and other readers, that instead of making me feel "privileged," I feel more than a little terrified because if it's really impossible for the rich to enter into the Kingdom, then we are going to need a miracle.  I wanted to say that I am not--that I do not want to be--comfortable knowing that I have plenty even though others do not. 

As if my discomfort would provide food or clothing for the Poor.

Mine is not an original post topic (regardless of how rare in certain blogging circles).  And neither are the questions and the realities of wealth disparities uniquely Indian.  We all live in countries where those in power continually face opportunities to profit at the expense of the people. But for heaven's sake don't make allowances for corruption or greed. It is just plain ugly, no matter how proud you are of your beautiful homeland.  And those of us who happen to be among the few in the world to enjoy clean water, good medicines and a balanced diet (if we can ever get over our addiction to chocolate as a legitimate "vegetable" side) had better work hard to stay honest and not let ourselves off the hook too early.

(More to come about privilege and wealth and I hope to write a piece about Mother Teresa soon, too!  Please don't give up me yet, folks.)


  1. I was sent to this post by Betty Duffy's blog, which I read frequently. I identify entirely with what you are saying. My husband is also an American doctor (in the US). I too feel very uncomfortable with the reality of how difficult it is for the rich to enter heaven, and I really have no idea what to do about it. In particular, the story in the gospels of the man who followed all the laws, but whom Jesus told to go sell all his belongings is extremely unsettling for me.

    Just glad to know I'm not alone in these thoughts! Thank you.

  2. Just found your blog also - I totally agree with all you have said here. I personally feel stuck knowing that my husband feels he is doing enough because he "has a family to care for" and I have no real say with what we do with our money. But I still feel terrified, and totally saddened.

    Loved your Mother Theresa post too! I feel her pain, lol (although I am in NO WAY so holy).