Fiction is much more appealing than sordid facts
By M J Akbar
Charity, all too often, is a form of sycophancy. The rich give not because they feel for the poor but because they need something from God in an immediate transactional basis. They buy divine favour with donations. Sometimes such worship is less immaculate.
There was the odious case last year of fatcats queuing up to hand out dole to Kalawati, the widow of a Vidarbha farmer, because her poverty had been cited by Rahul Gandhi in a speech in the Lok Sabha. One hopes that Rahul Gandhi was as unimpressed as divinity for hypocrisy.
There is national schizophrenia and media dyslexia at the quixotic elevation of Indian poverty in Anglo-America. The Indian well-fed have perfected their formula: they exploit poverty when they can [witness how they generally behave towards domestic servants, mostly children] and keep a safe distance when they cannot. The English-speaking Mumbaikar finds it so much more pleasant to see Dharavi through Hobowood (what else would you call a partnership of Hollywood and Bollywood?) than stop at the great slum on the way to the airport. Fiction is so much more palatable than fact. It comes dressed in A R Rahman’s music.
Indifference is the respectable fact of contempt. The rich don’t quite understand why there is so much fuss about calling a child a ‘slumdog’, possibly because they treat their dogs better than they treat slum children. Is there a movie waiting to be made titled ‘The Capitalist Kutta of Malabar Hill’? One thinks not.
There was no antidote to the plague of puns on ‘dog’ that devastated the front pages of newspapers after the Oscars. You could see the agony on the face of the English language as it was tortured beyond reason, but that is minor price extracted by editorial creativity. The hype had only one explanation: we love the idea of winning even if it is through surrogates.
Mohammad Azharuddin, the ‘dogstar’, was welcomed on his return from Hollywood with a nation’s garlands at the airport and a candlelight dinner at home. The candles were a necessity, not a romantic affectation. This was life at the base camp: Edmund Hillary can’t live on the peak of Everest forever. The poor are very sensible. Fate is consistent, for them, not fickle; it does not promise fortune. Azharuddin’s parents clearly refused to invest the wages of passing glamour on upward mobility that might become unsustainable. Azharuddin ate with a satisfaction that he could not have felt for hamburgers.
The slum story of the year has appeared on the inside pages of the print medium. According to the Indian Statistical Institute’s survey of the country’s 575 districts, urban poverty was bleakest in Mumbai, the city that was being advertised as the future Shanghai. It added that the number of people living below the poverty line had risen — repeat, risen — by 20% in the last five years. Murshidabad, once capital of Nawab Siraj ud Daulah, described by an astonished Clive as richer than London when he saw it for the first time, is now the poorest district in the country, with 1.47% of people below the poverty line.
In a separate report, the United Nations World Food Programme says that the largest concentration of hunger in the world is in India: 230 million, or 27% of the world total. Fifty percent of child deaths are due to hunger. Nearly 43% of children under five are underweight, as compared to only 28% for sub-Saharan Africa. And, 70% of children under five are anaemic, a figure that has risen by six per cent in the last six years.
Television, that lightning rod of middle-class values, which screamed itself into a stupor over the Oscars, ignored these reports completely. They were not even awarded the courtesy of a crawler, the line of letters that trots by on news channels below the aggressive self-importance of the screen. No anchor had a question as to how numbers below the poverty line have risen by 20% in the last five years when every minister of the Union of India has proclaimed that the era of dross has given way to the age of gold.
But such facts are not televisual news. They don’t dance to the rhythm of music. Who shall dare tell the bloated that hunger is the ultimate siege within?
Appeared in Times of India - March 1, 2009