The line,“You will always have the poor among you” comes to mind often in India, They live under tarps and on road medians and sleep in carts or on the ground. I’m already more accustomed to the sights than I was a week ago when a girl of no more than six carrying a still infant of about six months conjured images of Slumdog Millionaire. And yes, it feels wrong comparing real people to movie characters, but that seems like the closest frame of reference for this kind of poverty. Although feeling wrong is the issue here.
At dinner with a local newspaperman this weekend, he said many of homeless are refugees crossing the porous border with Bangladesh. While no doubt true, this somehow masks the discomfort placing it within a larger geopolitical context. In Dakar the ‘Talibe’ are generally child beggars from Mali, seen in a similar context of otherness. But a new book out here challenges these views claiming that ‘what is remarkably obvious is a serious lack of interest in the lives of the Indian poor, judging from the balance of news selection and political analyses in the Indian media.” Conversely, Slumdog Millionaire and books like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers sometimes get tagged with the label ‘poverty porn’ for exhibiting the lives of India’s poor.
Last night after a nearly drug-like nap, I entered the fray of Calcutta’s streets in search of dinner. Not knowing the area yet, this is always a bit of an adventure. But as uncertain wandering attracts aggressive shopkeepers, I tend to walk with a sense of direction I don’t possess. A block away from the hotel, a man fell into step alongside me, but rather than the typical ‘where are you from’ opener, he said, “You’re staying at the Oberoi. I work there.” And so I turned to look at him to see if I recognized his face. He looked a bit older than most of the beautiful 20 somethings who staff all the desks. I assume they’re like stewardesses in the 50’s hired for aesthetic purposes and moved along at a certain age. This man didn’t fit that description, but he quickly said that he swept the floor in the main hall. I said I didn’t recognize him. He asked if I had been napping, surprising me with his accuracy which I acknowledged. He asked if I was from MIT noting that there were people from there staying in the hotel. I mentioned the Fulbright program, and soon we were talking about restaurants in the area, and he offered to show me good ones. He pointed out a Chinese one and said a good fish place was down the road a bit. So we walked and he noted that the roads would be more crowded tomorrow as Ramadan was starting. I recalled the shopping frenzy for the post sunset feast wondering how many Muslims live in Calcutta. “I’m going to teach a class,” he said, “It’s a taekwando class for kids. It’s just an hour a week, something the hotel likes us to do for the community.” I was immediately impressed and even guilty for my unfulfilled intention to visit Mother Theresa’s mission nearby. Or, I wondered, should I try to help out at the trafficked women organization I had heard about the day before. I was all intention, while he was going to teach the kids.
We soon arrived at the fish place, and he pointed it out and also recommended a Bengali place next door. Always alert to underlying motive, I half expected he would introduce me to a cousin who ran the restaurant, but a simple recommendation felt like gesture of welcome for a stranger. I asked his name and shook his hand thanking him and saying goodbye. As I turned, he said, “Sir, would you have some money to help buy biscuits for the students?” Stuttering instead of speaking, I reached into my pocket for a 10 or 20 rupee bill. A couple hundres came out first, and then I found a 20 and gave it to him. He smiled and said, “Could I have 220? There are many students.” Still speechless, I hand over a 100 rupee bill and manage to say, ”Here’s 100.” “120, that’s what I meant,” he said. We shook hands again and then parted. And then the questions finally formed- What just happened? Why would he ask for money? Why did I feel suspicious? Would he really buy food for students? Were there really students? Suddenly with a simple request at parting, some traveler’s radar flipped back on, and I retraced the conversation moment by moment looking for gaps. He had said he worked eight hours at the Oberoi. Was that possible? I knew the hostess at the restaurant works six days a week from 7 AM to 10:30 PM with only a short break between. Was it possible cleaning staff worked shorter hours? He had said he worked six days a week. That fit. I sat in the fish place and looked over the menu. The prices were good, but I realized I had gone out in search of pizza. I didn’t want fish. I apologized as I left in search of something else leaving the question behind as well. I had only given up120 rupees. Two dollars at the new exchange rate.
That night, I awoke in the dark suddenly certain he had made up the entire story. He didn’t work at the hotel. I was an obvious mark, and he knew enough to weave a convincing tale. I thought he was interested in me as a person not as a wealthy western target. My radar had failed completely. It wasn’t the money, of course, it was pride. I wasn’t they guy who got fooled, and now I had been. Having traveled plenty, I recognized the touts and the scammers and steered clear of them. Now I suddenly recognized that I could be taken, fooled, duped like the little old ladies who gave over their life savings to gardeners or maids on convoluted pretext. How had he done it? Was it that he seemed to recognize me from the hotel? Was it my guilt over not recognizing him? Was it the MIT detail that made me wonder what MIT was doing in Calcutta? Was it my admiration of his service to the poor?
Now, I have to admit I don’t know the truth. Did I misinterpret his question? Why shouldn’t he ask for help feeding the students? Did he weave a tale that I bought completely? What is certain is that I paid for a lesson, a class on class. I’m reminded of the professor character in Paul Bowles “A Distant Episode” who seeks familiarity with the Tuareg and is punished brutally for the attempt, or more of Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” in which the transgressor knows that gifts of jam ease passage into upper class homes. What I do know is that our driver yesterday earns 300 rupees a day, about five dollars, and while he is grateful for it, I can’t help but feel there’s something wrong.