An Exercise in Poverty Tourism

Posted on March 18, 2010

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When the idea of a trip in ‘covering deprivation’ is floated for the first time in class, the only thing I think of is : how utterly condescending. For us to sojourn into the rural hinterlands to find poverty on display  to gape at. Then to feel sorry about what we see and write about our encounters in sympathy evoking prose. The idea has always rubbed me the wrong way even if the learning experience of it has tremedous potential.

I think to myself as I pack my bag the day before, well alright, an hour before we have to leave. Don’t the poor exist in the cities? The cities that we live work and make homes in. Yes they do, in excessive numbers. Behind every posh suburb in Banjara Hills and high-rise in South Bombay, there are hundreds of poor people who are magically invisible to us and only pop out when we need our cars and houses cleaned.  Why couldn’t we just take the cloaks off and see them instead of taking road trips in SUVs.

 I already know the answer to my question. Urban poverty rarely makes it into our thought process because we have so guiltlessly internalized it to some tiny little glitch of otherwise shining India Inc.  But we can allow ourselves to feel something for rural India. After all, feeling being one of those little things we can actually do.

 I try to keep my dyed in the wool cynicism to myself and we embark on our journey in search of characters to fit our stereotypes. We land at our first site, a Chenchu colony in Timmapur, Chandampet mandal in Nallagonda. Conversations began as the Telugu speakers translate and mediate for people who can’t speak the language. Cameras begin clicking away rapidly as we rush to capture this strange new world that we seem to have stumbled upon.

 I hand over mine to a friend. For one I have the half advantage of understanding the language but not speaking it quite so well. So I can inconspicuously listen and write down furiously as the people in the village tell their stories while others have to wait for their translations. Perhaps my reluctance also comes with the unease I feel at this blatant invasion. We never did ask them if we could take their pictures. They never did object, but still…

 Now, all I can remember when I think of that place is not the repository of displacement tales we collected, but the old lady with a stick in hand who shook from head to toe with Parkinson’s as she struggled to remember her childhood.

 We move onto a thanda,  a Lambadha  hamlet named Katrawath. Descendants of the Rajputs, Lambadhas are a beautiful people with striking features and tall builds. The whole village gathers around our entourage, eager to answer and participate in the conversations.

 A woman expecting her eleventh child who tells us point blank that if it turned out to be yet another girl like the rest of her seven surviving offspring, she would either “sell her or kill her”. The local health worker, gets into a confrontation with her, telling us how she just “refuses to listen.”  Has our presence made her so bold or are these kind of public arguments on private matters of reproductive health so common? I feel a strange anxiety for her if the former turns out to be true. What would happen to her after we left? Would she face problems for airing dirty laundry in public?

 By the time we have reached, our third village, another thanda at the very end of the Mandal, we are exhausted and in our words have “seen enough of deprivation”. Reluctantly we stumble out of the cars. The village people gather once again and the Sarpanch sit down to talk with us. She is unhappy with the way the village has been neglected, no public works have been started for the area. “I spent Rs 5 Lakhs on the campaign, no use. No programmes or policies have been given.” She says glumly.

 While a few are active participants in the interaction, most are onlookers. They are looking at us, possibly judging us on our strangeness, our ‘otherness’.  It is the first time I realize that we have become somewhat of a spectacle everywhere we have gone. Those who we went to observe have been observing us all along.

My mind speculates. Have we unearthed any groundbreaking truths or have the people simply given us what they thought we wanted to hear.  Did they ever sit and think about how deprived they were until we went and asked them the same?

 It reminds me uncannily of something a journalist had once said at a conflict reportage seminar years ago at the India International Centre in Delhi on the western coverage of the Vietnam War. It was not that the Victoria Falls did not exist till David Livingstone saw it.  But it was still   ‘discovered’ when a white man saw it for the first time.

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