There is a lot of poverty in India. This becomes apparent the moment you walk out of the airport, and see the men sitting on their vegetable carts with loin cloths, or the beggars that stretch out their shaking hands, or the naked children defecating on the side of the street. It is impossible to escape the poverty; it is everywhere. Luxury hotels, yacht clubs, and tech millionaire’s homes are separated from the poor only by a thin concrete wall, and the security guards that stand at half attention. This results in a constant interaction between the wealthy and the poor. I mean this in Indian terms: the businessman that just bought a new BMW will regularly transact with man that worries about the price of rice. Middle class families often have servants that do all the cooking and cleaning; a house laborer will work for as little 30 dollars a months. Farmers contract their fieldwork out to day laborers that work for less than two dollars a day. The society depends on transactions that cross oceans of privilege.
But that is where the interaction stops, besides a friendly smile or wave on the street. In spite of the constant proximity, indeed because of it, the poor and the rich rarely socialize. The divide has deep implications for me and Chris, who have found that, unless we make great effort, we spend most of our time with the top five percent of Indian society.
That’s because only the top five percent is on couchsurfing, and has the disposable income to host visiting travelers at will. Or only the top five percent can afford to send their kids to US universities, through whose alumni networks we’ve met those hosts that weren’t couchsurfers.
On a deeper level, we’ve also found that it is the wealthy who tend to be more Westernized, and speak good enough English for us to have meaningful conversations. It tends to be with them that we share the most values, and can understand each other’s actions and ways of life. It is with this privileged slice of India that we are comfortable and communicative.
This is troubling to us as journalists, because it is the bottom half of society that is the most exposed to the whims of weather, politicians, commodity prices, etc. It is the bottom half that is oftentimes the greatest victim of corruption and inept bureaucracies, and that clings to the oldest and most controversial of traditions. Where the money is short, conflict manifests itself in the most carnal and basic ways, because many are already clinging to the edges of hunger and health.
The sad truth of my profession is that we often thrive on the bite of that suffering, on the abstraction of horror and difficulty. Conflict is at the core of all journalism, especially the feature journalism we write, with its focus on personal stories.
Reaching the bottom half is part of our job, but Chris and I have not been able to do it.
When I say “reaching the bottom half,” I don’t mean just stopping in for tea. Poverty works its evil slowly, too slowly to see in an interview. It’s a skipped meal here and there. It’s the stress of not knowing what’s going to come down the pipeline next. Most of all, poverty simply leaves one completely unable to deal with things that aren’t part of the plan, like drought, or disease. The story of poverty, in my mind, is the story of that stress—that fear of what’s coming down the line that isn’t part of the plan, and what happens when it arrives.
Our visits to slums and the shanty towns of wage laborers don’t allow us to get anywhere near that deep. When we do go, we are invited as guests, with smiles coming from every direction. They pull out two plastic chairs and bring us tea. The men sit on the ground, the women don’t sit—the white man is a caste of its own out here. If we stay for a meal, the menu is changed to include meat, a tremendous luxury for poor families. Oftentimes they won’t even eat with us, only serving heaps of meat and rice and encouraging us to keep eating — watching us eat without sitting, and forking more food out of pots when our plates start to empty. We smile and thank them and refuse a third helping, but we rarely talk, because so few speak English. The language barrier is enormous, the cultural barrier almost as big.
These meek interactions are far from enough to understand their struggle, because I have never struggled like they have. Nor do I intend to- I only plan to visit it, to touch it lightly, like one handles a cactus.
I am writing this post in a place where we may make progress, in a rural town amid the endless cotton fields outside Hyderabad. Rural is actually a mild understatement; Chris and I have to bike 10 kilometers to buy bananas. We’re here to write a story about drought and farmer debt, in a place where people depend on the success of their cotton harvest for food. Of course, we’re staying with one of the richest men in town (the priest). But the two weeks we’ll spend here will give us an opportunity to work in a different India, an older and struggling one.
Whether we’re successful in reaching through to the bottom half remains to be seen. This village, called New Brahmanapally, certainly faces a lot of hardship, but it is unclear how open people will be.
We can achieve some level of understanding, hopefully, with patience. We can take off our shoes and sit on the ground in the farmer’s presence. We can work in the fields with them, picking cotton. We can play shamelessly with their children. We certainly plan to do all those things. I hope it’s enough to get a small glimpse of what their life is like underneath, though I don’t expect much more than that.