I rounded the busy corner at the traffic circle, dodging the mass of humanity that slides through Delhi on any given morning. Between all the movement I caught a glimpse of him, and as I slipped forward through the crowds he came into full view. He sat propped up against the stone wall on one edge of the road, his body shrouded in a tattered saffron blanket and his head wrapped in a scarf, the same place and position and outfit as always. As I approached him, my eyes were involuntarily drawn to his decaying feet that habitually protruded from underneath the blanket. I often wondered if he did this deliberately, an extra sales pitch for the alms collection that was his pursuit and livelihood.
The feet looked today as they always looked, slowly rotting but not really worse than the previous week. I had been watching their progression now for a couple of months. I suppose they had deteriorated in the interim though it was gradual and unhurried, making it hard to gauge with any kind of meaningful exactitude. It was some sort of morbid fascination on my part; the physician side of me monitoring the evolution of a pathological process, the human side watching the proverbial train wreck of one human life in slow motion, the feet merely one more element of this man's apparently multifaceted misery.
If I were to ask myself honestly, I don't know what I would do if one day the feet were acutely infected and needed immediate care. As it was, this had not happened, at least not yet, and so I perversely let things slowly and implacably progress. I was not sure what else to do. Having said that, I did not mull over possible solutions.
I dropped a ten rupee note into his bowl and kept walking. More than anything, a balm for my own soul. Though of course I knew that if I was to buy my way into heaven this would be a wildly inadequate tithe. But, like the alms collector, I am also a creature of habit and this was the routine.
The old man's rotting feet and wretched existence were an extreme manifestation of Delhi's version of the unfairness in the world. But there was certainly no shortage of other examples in the city and around the region. The kwashiorkor kids emerging each morning from the slums to pick their way across the scavenging fields that make up the huge railway station yard, their blond hair approximating the coiffed coloured styles of their middle class counterparts who dress down in similarly ripped jeans though of a very different market value; the acrobatic street performers with their equally wiry pet monkeys who sleep under bits of plastic sheeting trying to fend off the nightly incursion of scuttling rapists; the barefoot migrant skyrise construction workers perched forty floors up on bamboo scaffolding, building the Indian economic miracle and drinking arrack for courage—all these and so many more forming a canvas of macabre shadows, in sharp contrast to the bright new India, the gleaming India with pale faces and creams that help you achieve still more 'fairness'; of large homes and shiny cars; of wealth and optimism and confidence.
Indian author Arundhati Roy once used the following metaphor to describe the dichotomy: "It's as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) and have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears."
Statistics are blunting but they certainly seem to support the notion of two Indias with a deep and widening chasm between them. Roy's metaphor is particularly apt, in that whenever I read about India in The Globe and Mail or The New York Times, I have an image of a wonderfully manicured garden where I sit and read and drink fruity drinks while some well-paid musician plays beautiful soul-quenching notes on the sitar, where I retire for yogic meditation allowing the morning sun to glint through my effortlessly contorted limbs. When I'm finished I jump into a waiting car and travel comfortably over to the polished investment bank where we iron out the details of my next joint venture. The banker, the secretary, the doorman, everyone is smiling. In my dream, so am I.
We never hear about the other India, that vast sea of humanity perched on the razor's edge of survival. For us in Canada, they don't exist; they are in Roy's big convoy lost in the desert and enveloped in the darkness, invisible to our gilded eyes.
The kids in at the railway station, the old beggar man, the countless others whom one encounters on any given Delhi day, they are all a testament to South Asian resilience in the face of the unimaginable struggles fought by those in that other India.
They have no choice. They have to endure. Wherever one looks in this region, there are humbling examples of people surviving under incredible duress. Child labourers. Adult labourers. Guerrilla fighters. Sex workers. Their children (also sex workers). Farmers. Farmers cum guerrilla fighters. Artisans. Bangle peddlers. Beggars. Children of beggars. Orphan beggars. The list goes on and on, through every permutation conceivable.
Beyond this resiliency—amazing and even shaming as it is (or should be)—lies what I suspect is a deeper lesson, and one that places like Delhi push me to at least attempt to apprehend. Without, of course, falling prey to the temptress of self-indulgence, and worse still, self-indulgence at the expense of someone else's privation.
Distilled down to its essence, it is a simple question: Why and how did the man with the rotting feet end up where he did, with his outstretched bowl; conversely, why and how did I end up strolling on by, dropping a ten rupee note into that bowl as a down payment for my own salvation, all the while musing curiously about his condition?
Philosophers and their ilk have mulled over variations of this dilemma for a long time. Probably since we came out of the trees. Proposed conclusions have often radically challenged the social order and at times have succeeded in transforming it. In response, established power blocs (be they political, religious, or otherwise) have either suppressed these ideas, or, alternatively (albeit contrarily), appropriated and mangled them into formalized doctrine that, in the final analysis, ends up entrenching the very status quo the original idea purported to revolutionize. Christ and the consequent establishment Christianity form the classical embodiment of this contradiction in the West.
Explanatory models from all sides seem inadequate in the face of the tremendous yet quotidian injustice that lies behind the question.
This doesn't stop people from trying, and try some do.
I remember an old friend of mine, in the throes of alcohol-induced profundity, once threw out as reasonable a descriptive analogy as any I have heard.
Coming on fifteen years ago, my mate Aedan and I were sitting in the neighbourhood bar on Corydon Avenue in Winnipeg's Italian quarter. The objective was to rid ourselves of the cobwebs resultant from a party the night before. Aedan's apartment had been the scene of some pretty terrific chaos and it was now trashed, possibly on the eviction order of things. In an effort to cope, however misguided, we were working hard at getting a noon-day drink on and had ploughed forward into the requisite topics.
The situation on remote reserves in northern Manitoba was broached on the second beverage. Both of us had spent the last few summers in the north working in the bush and had come to count many of the local people as friends. Inevitably, along the way, we had witnessed the tragedy and travesty unfolding in many Aboriginal communities in the northern reaches of western Canada. The disparate reality between middle class Canada and these communities had been a shock. As the conversation continued, it led into the irresistible comparison between the plight of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and those in other parts of the world haunted by the spectre of colonization.
A perfect conversation for two white kids drinking beer.
"There's no making sense of this shit," Aedan said somewhat glumly as he stared into his beer glass. I wasn't sure if he was talking about the reserves or the mess at his apartment. The discussion was bouncing around somewhat erratically and he was becoming a bit morose. He took a long drink of beer and belched. Re-invigorated, he dove right in.
"The way I see it," Aedan swivelled his lanky frame on the barstool and squared his whole body to me, "there seems to be no rhyme or reason for why we drink beer in Canada while some African woman smothers her newborn 'cause she knows that one extra mouth is too many when the rest of the kids are already starving."
I nodded despite the apparent stereotyped hyperbole. But was it? Stereotype certainly. But hyperbole? Hard to say. A lot of horrific going-ons out there all over the world.
"It all comes down to the circumstances in which you are born," he continued. "That's it. Born rich in Haiti, born poor in Paraguay, poor in Canada, rich in Canada, shitty creepy parents in England, kind loving working class mother in India, the possible combinations are endless but the circumstances are everything. Everything." He said the last bit with emphasis and suddenly looked pleased and rewarded himself with another long drink. Aedan was Irish and hated the English and I think injecting the shitty creepy bit about English parents made him happy.
As he paused, the artificial darkness of the pub was split by light. I looked past him. The front door had swung open to reveal a figure silhouetted by the blinding sunlight of daytime now flooding past him. It was Aedan's roommate and a good friend to us both responsible for creating this impressive cinematic effect.
Our friend stood there for a moment and then strolled through the doorway, peering this way and that into the shadows. He was clearly inebriated despite the early hour and had lost his glasses somewhere in the chaos of the previous night, which explained his inability to see us. He had stayed back at the apartment that morning, ostensibly to clean up, which was code for locating and ingesting the abandoned beer left by the revellers from the night before. This was not an insubstantial amount, as I had noted in passing earlier myself. Now he wanted in, likely suspecting that we were already having drinks, all primed for another round of partying. The bartender, experience and wits about him, made a quick appraisal of the situation and moved to head him off at the pass.
The commotion formed an appropriately banal backdrop to the barstool theoretics.
My companion continued, wound up now. "All of this is determined before you leave the womb. Before you or I did anything," he drank again and put the now empty glass down hard to punctuate the point. The bang made by his beer glass coincided in harmony with a crash that came from behind him. I glanced over his shoulder in time to see our mutual friend knock a table flying without evident provocation.
The polemic at the bar was impressively inexorable. "You and I, we never did nothing." Aedan raised his eyebrows for effect and jabbed his finger at me. "Nothin'."
There was some yelling and it looked like our friend tried to take a swing at the barman who rather deftly evaded the would-be blow and then swiftly wrapped his antagonist in a bear hug. Gathering him up, he pushed him back out through the door, which swung shut after both of them. A few seconds later, the door swung open again and the bartender returned, quickly locking the deadbolt behind him. More muffled shouting could be heard from outside and then some thumping on the door. I wondered idly if I should be doing something, but I wasn't sure what that something was.
Besides, my colleague was in his glory and had either not noticed or did not care about what had transpired behind him. His mood had markedly improved, at least for the moment, and so I decided to let things lie.
"I get to go to university and drink beer during the day and do whatever the hell I want. You too." Aedan raised a single eyebrow with this last sentence to make sure I was aware of my own complicity in the cosmos. "It's like when I was born I won the lottery. I'd really have to lose my shit to mess this up."
The bartender had resumed his regular duties behind the bar and slung two new beers in front of us.
"Guy's havin a bad day by the looks of it," he said, motioning with his head towards the door and the scene of the altercation. I nodded. Aedan was staring at his beer, quiet for a moment and by appearances lost in contemplation. I took a long drink of my own.
"I'd really have to fuck it up. Fuckin' lottery," he shook his head. We both now stared at our glasses. The day was young.
Such musings are not simply for undergraduate Arts classes. If birthright is understood, at least in a secular sense, as luck, then it has strong implications for how we run our neighbourhoods, our countries, indeed, our world. And since we are governed, here in the West anyway, on the separation of church and state (supposedly), then we do frame society with secular structuring, for better or for worse.
In any event, if where we are at and where we are likely to end up is based largely on where we started from, and the position of this starting line is overwhelmingly influenced by fate, well then, we have some work to do. Assuming society is not a gambling hall and we have at least some moral interest in mitigating the odds. An assumption that I am willing to defend.
Nevertheless, it is not clear how to proceed from here. And, as I said near the outset, the risk of self-indulgence is a very real one.
Unlike drinking beer in the morning, a muse about justice in the universe, sparked by the very real condition of another human being's appendages, is cold at best and perhaps even sociopathic. It is most certainly a vile past time of the privileged class, of whom, on the global scale of things, I am a card-carrying member. I will grant you that. At this near futile juncture, however, and in the interest of eluding nihilism, I see little choice save continuing to skulk along in the sweltering heat of the Delhi monsoon.
This epistemic conundrum is often avoided by directing criticism towards governments, policies, systems, oligarchs, et cetera, the vast majority of which is surely warranted and deserved. Having said that, I can't quite quell a nagging suspicion that the root of the problem lies not only with dwellers in the citadels of power, but on some fundamental level, also with those people, like me, who recognize the importance of fortune, whether good or bad, yet are content to simply bask in the good stuff.
Every morning near my apartment in Delhi, before I arrive at the alms collector, I pass by an old woman who sells lottery tickets from a small kiosk at the corner of an alleyway. These raffle ticket vendors seem ubiquitous in many of the poorer hoods of the world, I suppose for reasons that are fairly self-evident. The kiosk opens early, generally around seven in the morning and is closed by noon.
The following morning, I am on the street at the usual time. But this day, having consumed far too much of the local whiskey the night previous while writing this essay, I am feeling uncertain and worried. Whether this is related to the writing or the drinking, or both, is unclear. In any case, I decide to stop at the kiosk and purchase my own lottery ticket.
The lady looks at me with some surprise and not a small amount of mistrust. Foreigners don't buy Indian lottery tickets as a rule. I stare back. Her haggard face is testament enough to her own relatively poor showing in life's lottery. She mutters to herself but gives me the ticket nonetheless and I head on down the road towards the unlucky soul whose feet have become my obsession.
On this day, I drop the lottery ticket into his bowl.