Two years ago when I first arrived in India the first thing that really struck me was the poverty I saw on the streets. Like foreigners who come to India of course I knew about it. I had seen images and videos of the extreme poverty more than 60% of Indian population live in. However, Nothing could have prepared me for what I was getting into. Nothing can really prepare you to walk on the streets of Delhi with a barefooted four year old little girl in rags, dirty with smog, trotting along, tugging at your blouse begging “dee dee, paisa, khana” words that, even when you don’t understand them, the soul does. Mangled children dragging themselves beside cars, reaching up to windows with excruciating contorts and women with a sleeping child in arms its little head dangling on the side, walking aimlessly between luxurious cars like ghosts from another planet, disturbed me so much I couldn’t will myself to walk away. But people did. People walked pass these beggars as if they didn’t see them. People hurrying to get somewhere wouldn’t as much as turn to look at them. Who could have told me that inequality looked so terrible? When I went back to the hotel that evening, I had one of those days when the world shifted in front of you and you know deep in your heart nothing will ever seem the same. Even if I were to leave and go back to my country, I had seen something that moved the tectonic plates of my mind. I remember thinking that evening at the hotel “I hope, I don’t ever pass a beggar without noticing.”
Then I did. I learned about the begging system, about the begging organization and how protected it is by the government, that it may very well contribute to put the government in power. In Kolkata, the first thing the sisters do is educate the volunteers about the begging system. The children are ‘adopted’ by contractors, who themselves work for a higher head. The babies those women carry are rented from the nearby slums, the same ones we pass on our way to the serving houses. They are hired, trained like any other employee to be efficient, to evoke pity. It’s a well structured organization. There are people driving in luxurious cars profiting from it. It’s an evil you cannot see, and those are the worst kinds of evils. Giving to beggars is supporting the organization. I used to liken it to sending money to drug cartels.
So I passed old ladies with their hands out stretched, ignored women touching my knee while bottle feeding a baby, not even conscious of the fate that awaits it, looked away while children danced barefoot on the hot pavement under the hot sun while another makes music with pans and sticks. Yet it is not natural. You know it takes a gradual toll on your humanity. One day I look at these ghosts from another planet with the same apathy I saw people pass them on my first day and know my heart has become hard, buried by corruption and manipulation. Overwhelmed by the system.
That is until he approaches me. He the same boy. The book seller, he comes to unearth my humanity. There must be three of them at every corner, all selling the same books, that is how you know they are hired, by some higher head, by someone who is not walking on the hot pavement under the hot sun, but some fat man in an office in Nehru Place with religious rings on eight of his fingers, drinking whiskey and laughing obnoxiously while puffing out cigarette smoke. Someone whose children are going to college.
Children selling books became distinct from the gang of beggars on the streets after I read ‘The White Tiger’. One day the protagonist, the driver, a young boy from rural India, working for corrupt, wealthy Indian people, takes his bosses to Canaught Place and while he is on a five hour wait he takes a round. He is amazed by what he sees. There are books piled on every corner. A yearning takes hold of him, he wishes he knew what the books were about. He crouches down and feels the pages.
The most knowledgeable information, best selling books by authors of distant countries, Pulitzer winning books, the most revered books and authors in history (I bought my Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” at CP) The literature men wrote to empower the world, the literature that created revolutions and progress in the West, there sitting on the floor, dormant, doing nothing for India. There are plenty of books in this county, but not the ability to read because paper is cheap but knowledge is dangerous. The West gives discourse after discourse on the benefits of literacy, ‘Encourage children to read from a young age’ and on education, ‘Education is the key to success!’ Here is where those words dispel. Reading is a right children sell on the streets yet millions don’t have. Here Leo Tolstoy’s ghost roams around haunted by his inefficacy. If he would have foreseen that literature would be a luxury rather than a right, a tool to subjugate rather than uplift, probably like Einstein he too would have preferred to be a shoemaker.
In ‘The White Tiger’ the driver’s amazement makes the old man selling books laugh. He asks mockingly “Can you read English?” The embarrassed driver belittled by his illiteracy, wounded retaliates “Can you read English?” The old man doesn’t respond.
He stands beside the auto rikshaw I am traveling in, carrying as many books his small hands can carry telling me the names of the latest releases, in pirated edition of course, as if they were his best friends. John Green, ‘Steve Jobs’, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, ‘Fifty shades of Grey’, Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho. Here is where all the famous end up, on the streets of Delhi, educating everyone but the ones they should. The educational gap keeps getting wider.
He’s a good sales man, he knows my kind. He knew I was sold the moment I glimpsed at ‘Adultery’ and he won’t let my auto go until I buy it. “Paulo Coelho madame, latest release. Best seller ‘Alchemist’. The light turned red, but he won’t budge. “Buy madam, it is very good, you will like!” It is all so ironic and the irony of it is what burns me that India’s prime motivator for others to read is a skinny little boy who himself cannot read. Knowledge passes by over his head. He sells others wisdom for 250 rupees; his first born rights for a meal. There, under the hot sun, on the streets of Delhi, he sells an opportunity for a better life that he will never have.
“I was looking for the key to the door for years, and the door was always open.” ~ Iqbal.