A smile that broke my heart

[Note: The picture is used for representational purposes only. Credit: Reshu Tomar Hasija]

It was a mild winter morning in Mumbai, and being a Sunday, the streets of downtown Bandra were somewhat easier to negotiate as we ventured out into this ritzy part of town. After completing some social commitments in the area, we navigated purposefully towards an eatery we both relish, as much for its food as for the snappy, mirrored ambience.

Just as we turned the corner towards the entrance, a couple and their three children were standing in the way, saying something that sounded like they needed assistance. They didn’t seem to be homeless or destitute, so I was a bit unsure initially. However, it soon became apparent that the man was asking for money, adding that they hadn’t eaten in a while. Their dress and appearance suggested that they were from the northern State of Kashmir. The man’s face was heavy with despair that spread to the others, particularly the two older children who kept their eyes downcast through the brief exchange. These two children were dressed like their parents, the girl in the customary hijab and the boy with a pathaan suit and cap exactly like his father. In his arms, the man held an infant, barely around six months of age. His other hand was stretched towards us. “We haven’t eaten”, he repeated. I was quite taken aback because they didn’t appear to be poor. With some effort, we walked around them and manoeuvred our way along the narrow pathway to the entrance of the eatery, unprepared and unwilling for extending the encounter.

Mirrors in Bandra

The salad and soup were great, as expected, but I couldn’t get the family out of my mind. Somehow, the encounter had shaken me up, and I had lost the desire to eat. Their presence and request raised so many questions, especially regarding the children. Were they the parents of these children? Why would they need to expose themselves to begging on the street with three children in tow?

Soon, we were done, and not being prone to linger over the task of eating, we made our way out into the sunshine. As we exited the small doorway into the street, the family of five passed by us again, only this time, they looked away. I could not resist the urge to speak to them, and stopped in my tracks, took out some money and handed it over. Perhaps the difference in our situation, the solicitation, the donation, all contributed to my feeling entitled to question what they were doing, but I would like to believe it was more out of concern than entitlement. “Why are you here, why are you on the street? Why have you brought your children?” to which he replied as the others scanned the ground: “We have come away from Kashmir (Ah! I was correct in my estimate of their ethnicity) to escape the snow”. “The SNOW?” I argued, “……but you must be used to the snow……your daughter…..why would you expose your daughter….” I attempted meekly to have a conversation……soon realising as I was not getting anywhere when he replied “It’s very cold…….” playing along with the discussion, accepting the money with some hesitation. I realised I would never really know the reality of their destitution, and it was futile to ask. Yet I felt compelled, on behalf of the children, to emphasise that “The streets of Mumbai are not the best place for you all, especially your children……go back, go back to where you’ve come from” I said quite desperately, getting some of the concern out of my system, but also feeling a bit stupid about doing that. Wouldn’t they know much more about street life than I? Why was I saying this? Did I believe that they had no right to be there? Why should I question their presence? Was it just because I was inconvenienced by this encounter (NO)? Was it because it had created a turmoil in my otherwise perfect morning (I really don’t know)? 

Just as we were engaged in this subliminal inquisition, I became aware of something stirring in the surroundings. Something noticeable, something……… Looking straight at me with this wide, glorious and happy smile was this little baby, she was attempting to engage with me in a visual exchange! Her face had erupted into this beatific smile, characteristic of a baby who had not yet developed any fear of strange faces, ‘stranger anxiety’ as I knew it was called. A developmental stage where an infant is open and friendly with anything resembling an animated human face, but in this instance, I was unable to smile back, I felt heartbroken by this unexpected encounter, not knowing whether to fulfill the expectation of a friendly smile or burst into tears at the tragedy of her innocence. I resigned to my own inadequacy and impotence at dealing with the situation and withdrew, deeply humbled. I knew I could neither understand, nor intervene, nor assist seriously enough to find a solution here. The smile had broken our conversation, and my heart, and I couldn’t bear anymore.

The street


In Mumbai’s urban jungle as in other cities in India, poverty has a constant presence. In fact, our households ‘benefit’ from the inequality because of the easy availability of labour: skilled, unskilled and in-between. From an early age, we learn to deal with people from diverse backgrounds, ethnic, religious and economic. Witnessing and dealing with economic diversity, poverty and destitution is often unsettling, and the ways in which encounters are framed by those around us become a guide to our meaning-making. From being supportive, sympathetic, inactive, evasive or contemptuous, people living with disadvantage witness a wide range of attitudes. When people first confront poverty, it can raise a whole lot of questions in their minds, especially when children are involved. Why? What can be done? What is the solution? Children’s questions can be particularly hard to attend to without oversimplification. Like any complex social phenomenon, questions are far clearer than the answers. I have a distinct memory of my children’s persistent questioning and their unwillingness to let the issue aside for a long time when they were young. So many years hence, although the level of the discourse may have changed, the key questions still linger in our domestic domain.Yet, it remains inevitable that as we become more habituated to direct experiences of poverty, our reactions become more routine. Perhaps it is this sort of numbness that allows India’s inequality to perpetuate. If those original questions persisted as intensely as the first experience, we would be much more proactive as individuals and groups. It is because the majority looks away that elected and appointed authorities can too. There is no doubt that despite structural, historical and other reasons that are responsible for poverty conditions, we have seriously failed our own people. We may choose to ignore this fact to prevent ourselves from falling into despair about its enormity, but the problem is far from being solved.

Street children

One of the most disturbing experiences is to watch young children begging on the streets, especially because they have no choice in the matter; because someone else has decided what they should be doing with their time. When children ask about other children on the street, how one deals with their questions kick-starts an internal dialogue, and influences the direction in which the stories will travel until we find our own way in making sense of inequality. Whether it is on street corners, traffic lights, bus-stops or the marketplace, in Indian cities, we encounter poverty as soon as we leave our homes. If we became involved with every single interface, the enormity of the problem would perhaps wear us down. But some people have been unable to look away, and dedicate their lives for the benefit of people living with disadvantage.

Covering it up?

As a predominantly poor nation, India’s poverty is not hidden, and inequality is obvious, visible and dramatic. This is not true of other countries, although I think some recent efforts are headed in that direction. Increasingly, poverty seems to have become like nudity, something that that needs covering up, and urban planners spend more effort in hiding poverty rather than finding solutions for it. As an example, conversations about the visibility of Dharavi from Mumbai airport generates more conversations than its existence, and even much less so, its vitality and function as a dynamic hub of small businesses. The very wealthy among us can afford an elective blindness to poverty, quite similar to some statesman and politicians, who mimic the lives of the wealthy, but from government funds. They too can structure their lives to be completely separated from this reality in the name of security.

How do we deal typically with poverty? Well, if you’re poor, then you are likely to see it as your fate of being born in a particular place and time. In conversations with people who are categorised as poor, a researcher[1] once found that there was a sort of shifting scale of who was considered really poor. People she spoke to (who would be labelled as poor by National standards) felt that they themselves were okay, it was the person who had less than them (say a person with no livelihood) who was really poor and needed help. Those on the street felt that ‘others’, those who had no shelter, not even on the street, we really poor, “at least we have this spot to sleep at night”; and so on. As a concept applied to the self, poverty was seen as an attribute of someone who had less than them, even among the poor. Yet, ‘hum gareeb log’ (we poor people) and ‘aap padhe likhe log’ (you educated lot) are also a commonly adopted expressions in conversations about living with disadvantage. The label of poverty or the state of being poor is thus not a simple matter of either/or, not a single line (as Amartya Sen remarked)…..the phenomenon is subjective, complex, relative and inscrutable.

Slumdog millionaire

I recall quite vividly how we cringed as a collective when ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was released since it brought urban poverty under a magnifying glass in the international forum. This was not a documentary about Missionaries of Charity or a NatGeo programme about a cultural difference, this was a sequence of intense scenes about human degradation, despair, abuse and exploitation, despite the temporary relief offered by the protagonist’s romantic escapades. The poor can also be happy, the scenes seemed to cry out! It is very difficult to take a stance on the story and the emerging issues without either romanticising or disparaging reality. Undoubtedly, the impact on the careers of the young actors was far more dramatic than what their roles accomplished for the people who were being showcased.

Another important work on Mumbai followed soon after the film. ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ by Katherine Boo took the tag-line of a billboard advertising the sale of marble flooring as its title, and a metaphor for Annawadi’s place in the heart of Mumbai. A significant number of the young children from Annawadi[2] that Boo starts her story with, perish by the time she completes her project, and her book. It is, like Slumdog Millionaire, another important work that can be critiqued, but cannot be ignored. We have chosen only these two among the many available stories about poverty primarily because they come from an outside perspective. There are a whole range of research studies, academic writing, documentaries, feature films and stories that deal with the subject of inequality, and there is a larger story about poverty that goes above and beyond stark images to showcase how much Mumbai (and other cities) depend on economic difference, and how much commercial activity takes place in these pockets and how individual people negotiate their circumstances. India’s poverty needs to be understood and worked with from a people’s perspective and a great deal remains to be done, by the State and by citizens, before we can rest with the assurance that children do not go hungry because they do not have access to food.

India’s thriving gig economy

In a somewhat unrelated episode, issues concerning hunger came up through a side door. Recently, a food delivery chain was marked in a video of an employee on a two-wheeler who had stopped en route, opened up, and consumed portions of the food meant for delivery. He was caught on camera replacing the partial contents of the packages back into their containers for the clients. The video went viral instantly, perhaps since the delivery service was named. Some of the ensuing discussions are attended to in a recent episode of the India Explained podcast[3].Why would someone responsible for food delivery not be able to control the urge to eat? Was he desperately hungry, greedy? There is no doubt that he was acting irresponsibly, but there are other issues related to India’s emerging gig economy[4] that we need to be aware of. Undeniably, these temporary, ad hoc and low-paying jobs are providing livelihoods to thousands of young people in need of work. Snigdha Poonam provides us with an insight into the world of young entrepreneurs searching for the gaps between jobs and job-seekers who live with traditional values alongside American dreams (in ‘The Dreamers[5]’). The Guardian provides an interesting commentary[6] to the book. An introduction to the book by Penguin announces that:

“More than half of India is under the age of twenty-five and the country is set to have theyoungest population in the world by 2021. But India’s millennials are nothinglike their counterparts in the West. In a world that’s marked by unprecedentedconnectivity and technological advancement, in a country that’s increasingly characterized by ambition, political power and access, in an economy that appears to be breaking down the barriers to wealth that existed for every previous era, this is a generation that cannot – will not – be defined on anything but their own terms. They are wealth-chasers, attention-seekers, power-trappers, fame-hunters. They are the dreamers.

Snigdha Poonam’s remarkable cultural study of the unlikeliest of fortune-hawkers travels through the small towns of northern India to investigate the phenomenon that is India’s Generation Y. From dubious entrepreneurs to political aspirants, from starstruck strivers to masterly swindlers, she travels – on carts and buses, incars and trucks – through the India’s badlands to uncover a theatre of toxic masculinity, spirited ambition and a kind of hunger for change that is bound to drive the future of our country. These young Indians aren’t just changing their world – they’re changing yours.” (Source Penguin Books: https://penguin.co.in/book/non-fiction/dreamers/).

‘Rights of admission reserved’

Indian dwellings are relatively permeable to economic difference, and as mentioned earlier, there are daily exchanges between people from varied backgrounds. Increasingly however, gated communities and secure malls are regulating the movement of people through urban spaces. This has had an impact on social mobility, but have also provided large-scale employment opportunities. Undoubtedly, caste segregation and territoriality was (and is) a reality in traditional Indian communities, but many of the divisions related to social class were not clearly demarcated, especially in urban areas. By and large, we all encountered (and still do) a wide range of people in our everyday lives. Only spaces that were marked by the ominous sign ‘Rights of Admission Reserved’ and militarised zones were restricted.

More recently, our cities have developed new strategies for exclusion. Security guards, housing complexes, apartment buildings, shopping malls and metro stations are instances of exclusive entry only to those using them, but are often extended to those who look out of place. Some of these are more secular than others, of course, like metro stations, that, unlike shopping malls, do not prohibit anyone from entering who may “look like they cannot afford the ride”. Shopping malls are a different story. With the announcement that rights of admission are reserved[7], security staff can prohibit someone for entering even without providing a reason. For those of you who’ve read Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger, will remember Balram’s experiences as Pinky Madam’s driver which are a case in point. In the posh places in Delhi and Gurugram where the novel is set, he can drive to but cannot access many of their destinations. White Tiger brings us face-to-face with the dramatic reality of living in the shadows, surrounded by wealth and glamour, in constant touch with, but never being able to own it.

In a recent essay[8], Santosh Desai describes how the wealthy are becoming trapped by their own imagination (or lack thereof) regarding how to spend their money of which they have so much! Some recent celebrity weddings provide examples.

“Extreme wealth can often reveal a poverty of imagination. More, bigger, shinier. Touristy destinations. The use of celebrity props. Celebrities offer the biggest bang for the buck for they represent the mostconcentrated combination of wealth-fame using the least amount of imagination. They become the garbled shorthand for an intention to dazzle without having to take the trouble of using any expressive form of language…….Or one can buy meaning. This is a fascinating commodity for there is no limit to what it can be worth nor any boundaries that govern what constitutes meaning. Art produces a consensual illusion about meaning and the value that we agree to place on it. A masterpiece, once commonly agreed upon, can be worth anything, depending on the economy………The greater one’s wealth, the more abstract the things that money buys. Philanthropy is one way in which what money buys is the wholly intangible ability to feel better about oneself, by choosing to spend the money on other people who need it more. After all, even if one has bottomless wealth, the self is finite. Of course, not everyone is ready to go this way, for it requires a degree of satiation, which is hard to come by in acountry where the newly rich haven’t yet got over being dazzled by their good fortune.”

Little children at road crossings

As parents we are so terrified of road crossings for growing children for fear that they may not be able to negotiate their way safely to the other side. There are some children for whom these crossings are a home and work-place, and watching them raises mixed feelings, an admiration for their skill as well as despair at the fact that this is not what they should be doing at their age. I have two specific memories of significance.

Several years ago, when I was driving to work every day, I used to keep some extra food in my car to give away. I remember this young boy (he must be a grown man by now) who would arrive very early every morning at the Old Fort T-crossing where he would wait patiently for people to call to him rather than coming up to the cars. In his destitution, he remained respectful and respectable. People would give him food and clothes, and one could often see a whole family waiting at a traffic island nearby, who would receive most of these offerings. One day, some years later, he vanished from that spot and like many others, I too remember him almost every time I pass by that red light crossing. I remember him for his dignity.    

There was another incident that has remained etched in my memory. On the way back from Sarojini Nagar to home one evening in my car, there was this group of lively children at the crossing opposite Bhikaji Kama Place, weaving in between stationary cars at the traffic light. They seemed to be playing pranks with each other as they cheerful reached out for gifts from the cars, somewhat distracted by their ongoing game. I had just picked up some snacks from the petrol station and decided I could do without them. Calling out to one of the little girls, I handed over the packet to her saying that she could share the contents with her friends. What happened next was inconceivable to me at that point, but in retrospect, I have understood it differently. She took the packet, dodged the other children and ran to the roadside where she opened up and started eating. She didn’t’ share the snacks with anyone. Soon a couple of kids came up to me to complain about her and asked for more food. I didn’t have any and tried calling out to the girl, but it was time to move. In my rear-view mirror, I could see the unfolding events, expecting again that she may share the food with others after I had moved. She did not, not for as long as I could see. She kept the packet clutched to her chest as the children around her looked on. Why had the little girl not shared the food? As I thought more about this and talked about it with others, I realised that there were several possibilities. I had approached the children from my own privilegedposition of plenty. Firstly, I could be incorrect in assuming that this was aselfish act. This could have been a strategy to explore whether I would give them more, and it would have worked if I had more food with me. After all, the children must have assumed that there would be more where that came from, and the best action would be to evoke sympathy for the little boy whom she refused to share with. Perhaps someone had done the same with her. Furthermore, the street is not a comfortable, cushioned place where everyone was always caring and sympathetic, it is about survival and grit. These children were barely 6 or 7 years of age, but that had learned some hard lessons from their life on the streets.

Dharma and righteous action: The significance of being ‘good’

Your narration reminded me (Pooja) of a dialogue from Gurcharan Das’s book[9] ‘The difficulty of being good’ where he writes that in the Mahabharat, Draupadi questions Yudhistra about the classic problem of unmerited suffering – “Why do bad things happen to good people?” She asks. “When I see noble, moral and modest persons harassed in this way, and the evil and ignoble flouroushing and happy, I stagger with wonder. I can only condemn the person who allows such outrage.” While Yudhistra is taken aback by the strength of her emotions, he gently explains the importance of being good, saying thus: “I do not act for the sake of the fruits of dharma. I act because I must. Whether it bears fruits or not, I do my duty like any householder.” (p. 64)

Das illustrates how the epic Mahabharat forces us to reflect on our beliefs and our behaviour. The book makes us aware about how our minds frequently deceive ourselves. Even Yuddhistra confesses to Draupadi and Bhima saying that he is not the good man that they believe him to be. He had accepted the challenge of a game of chance at dice throwing in the secret hope and a desire to win and thereby expand his kingdom. Even when he was losing, he knew that he was headed for failure, but he could not stop as he was caught in a gambler’s frenzy. Thus Yudhistra’s ‘goodness’ mask falls off. Although Draupadi was upset and humiliated, it is possible that secretly, the knowledge of her great husband’s human frailty may have secretly even pleased her. It could not have been easy to live with a principled man as Yudhishtra who was assumed to be the personification of goodness. “Yudhishtra’s confession shakes the listeners of the epic as well, making us awarehow difficult it is to be goodin a world where right and wrong are intricatelymixed in a bewildering manner”. (p. 85)

The cycle of Karma

Reshu writes that “I too find it really disturbing when I encounter people begging on streets. They seem to belong to rural or tribal areas, and I wonder what they are doing on the streets of a big city. I must confess that I have a soft corner for people from Rajasthan, and I always stop to chat a bit when I recognize them, by their clothes or language. They emerge as profoundly innocent and vulnerable, and I cannot help being concerned about what they are doing on the harsh streets of the city and why they have chosen this path. Sometimes I feel that they are telling me what they think I should hear rather than the story of their lives. In the film Peepli Live[10],we find the desperate story of rural poverty that meanders between local politics, alcohol abuse, poverty and journalism. Perhaps some of these reasons force families to move away from village life.

Personally, I find it very difficult to deal with the reality of poverty, I am always worried that the person may misuse the money. Should I trust the person who is begging or not, give money or not? These questions have always haunted me and I am sure others too are disturbed by this. I sometimes take a firm stand and think that except for people who are unable to work for a living, it is wrong to give money, but recently, both my husband and I have somewhat altered our views. I follow an award-winningphotojournalist Akash on Instagram (gmbakash[11]) and he has been responsible for some of the shifts in my approach. He takes pictures of people living with poverty and narrates the stories of their lives. It is because of reading these stories that I became aware that several people on the streets are in dire need of instant support, and a small amount can go a long way. However, we will never know whether our aid ends up perpetuating the problem or lessening it.  

Among Hindus, the belief in Karma is a significant factor in explaining the cycle of experiences and circumstances a person lives through. Whatever we endure is believed to be the outcome of our past journey through several lives. The inherited consequences of previous actions cannot be mitigated by the conduct of others, these have to be lived through by the individual aatman or soul. In this sense, Hinduism is an extremely individualistic belief system, quite in contrast to worldly life which is dominated by social exchange. Furthermore, an individual’s cosmic connectedness with others includes the natural world of plants and animals in addition to humanity. It is towards the release from social connectivity that an individual soul yearns to be released, it is believed.
As a child, I remember that there was much more connectivity between animals and us, and also between us as people living in a community where every day, food was set aside to be given away to anyone in need. I don’t see that happening as much anymore. Our households seem to have become more separated from each other as well as from the natural world. As I was preparing my comments, I happened to pass Connaught Place around 5 am and I found so many people sleeping on the streets. As the day advanced, they began to wake up and prepare for their daily routine, begging and selling cheap goods. I felt a profound sense of connection with them, connections of a remembered past.”

[1] I am unable to locate the reference, but have a clear memory of this finding

[2]  “Annawadi is an “undercity”of some 3,000 people tucked on to a reeking swampy strip beside Mumbai’sgleaming new airport, and in the shadow of a ring of towering hotels. Here, thewaste of Mumbai’s wealthy provides pickings for those living at the edge ofsurvival.

[3] https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/indiaexplained/the-indiaexplained-podcast/e/58023547?autoplay=true&refid=asi_eml

[4] In a gig economy, temporary, flexible jobs are commonplace andcompanies tend toward hiring independentcontractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees. Agig economy undermines the traditional economy of full-time workers who rarely changepositions and instead focus on a lifetime career.

[5] https://penguin.co.in/book/non-fiction/dreamers/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/04/dreamers-how-young-indians-changed-the-world-review-snigdha-poonam

[7] More about that atanother time, but here is a link you may find interesting: http://www.capetalk.co.za/articles/240134/is-right-of-admission-reserved-promoting-exclusion-here-s-why-its-tricky

[8] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/Citycitybangbang/the-poverty-of-the-rich/

[9] http://gurcharandas.org/the-difficulty-of-being-good

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peepli_Live

[11] https://www.instagram.com/gmbakash/?hl=en

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