In poor taste

Sumana Roy | Updated on July 17, 2020

Stripped bare: The lockdown and the distress it caused to India’s poor have made discussions on hunger and survival impera   -  KR DEEPAK

In a country where people are lynched for their food choices, we still haven’t been able to tell children what the indigent are forced to eat

My little nephew is disturbed, as most children are to see adults cry. Crying seems to belong to the territory of infants, and a public activity restricted to a few social occasions, such as the wedding of a daughter or a funeral. He turns to my mother on seeing his aunt weep, asking her to explain his ‘Pi’s’ behaviour. “She is crying because people don’t have food to eat,” my mother says.

The little boy doesn’t quite understand. The accident of his birth to a middle-class family like ours has fortunately protected him from hunger. My mother explains the world to him in opposites — that we’ve just had a meal of rice and chicken curry while people had been walking back home without food for days. She spares him the news that many of the inter-state workers who managed to reach their homes in villages and town are still going hungry.

The imagination is related to memory, and so, not having had the experience that is being explained to him, his imagination fails. “Who is she crying for?” he asks.

“The poor,” my mother replies.

“What is poor?”

My mother has no answer. She shows him images she’s received on WhatsApp — people walking, crying, scavenging for food, dying. She tells me later that in her 30 years of school teaching, no student had ever asked her this question: “What is poor?” No textbook has taught her students the definition of this category, she reminds me. “We were only teaching our students to be rich and successful.”

She then speaks of her failure as a teacher again. “We teach them things like ‘Who’s the richest man in India?’ but nothing about the poor. Why do the poor never have names in our books?”

We sleep over the many questions the evening had thrown at us, only to confront them again the next morning.

Opposite our house in Siliguri is a piece of what is called ‘vested land’. It is another matter that my mother has always heard and referred to it as “wasted land”, a phrase — and a piece of land — that causes her great annoyance. In keeping with Indian civic habits, it has become a ‘waste land’, a dumping ground. In the last few months though, fed with natural compost, plants have shot up by a few feet so that it resembles a tiny forest. When my mother feeds birds early in the morning, she investigates this piece of land from the terrace. She has been noticing strange movements among the plants for some time. She explains, with an innocence that comes from having fallen out of touch with the new world, that it couldn’t be a young couple seeking a private hideout. The virus has taken away that possibility. And so she watches keenly for “creatures” in the “jungle” — though jungles have disappeared from the planet, their memory remains, particularly in the Indian languages, where it continues to be used with its older sense of wildness and wilderness.

The same morning she found a woman coming out of this “jungle” with a heap of greens. My mother was on the terrace. Once out on the street, which was completely empty, she segregated them into separate bundles. From that height, my mother couldn’t tell what those greens were. Later, after the day had begun to grow girth and dust, she chanced upon the woman accidentally, from the first floor, where she’d come to close doors and windows to avoid an impending storm. She realised that she knew the woman — the mobile tea-seller’s wife. She was cooking the greens she’d managed to collect from the dump yard. A couple of metres away was a cow, a regular on the street. The woman had not forgotten the animal; she’d carried leaves for her too. I could see how moved my mother was by this when she recounted it to me.

Why was the cow eating the greens uncooked when the woman was cooking hers — my nephew was ready with his new question. We told him about a Tagore poem in which one Anukul-babu had to face the consequences of advocating the eating of grass by humans. The little boy was unmoved by the literary reference. In the morning, he’d seen me despair after watching a short video of a man eating fallen leaves in order to stay alive. The confusion of the word “poor” hadn’t left him.

And so he asked, as if he were taking an exam, “Who is poor — the cow or that auntie?”

The cow and the woman, by eating similar food, had become the same to him.

In a country where people are lynched, trolled and ostracised for what they eat, we still haven’t been able to teach our children about what people — “the poor” — are forced to eat to fill their stomachs and their tomorrows.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on July 17, 2020

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