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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Degree of desire

Once in a very rare while, one experiences a treat like Slumdog Millionaire. It’s hard to shake off random memories of the film – the editing that takes you racing along with the film through all its twists and turns, the vibrant images of a people on the move, of quickness of pace and wit and the energy and vigour of the vast poor of our country.

They say the middle class and the wealthy are annoyed and uncomfortable that this aspect of India has been dwelt upon in the film; which is puzzling because poverty is a reality we are all aware of. Whether it is street children begging or peddling flowers and magazines at busy streetlights in major cities of the country or rag-pickers here in Goa who we see but do not notice; poverty is a reality but the concept of poverty is quite another thing.

What is poverty to me may not be poverty to you. Slumdog ... reinforced my belief that poverty is relative. If Vijay Mallya or Donald Trump or Ramalinga Raju visited me in my 2-BHK in Panaji they would consider me poor. A person from a slum would think me wealthy, while a man sleeping on a pavement would think himself lucky to afford a small room on rent in a slum. The concept of poverty differs from class to class but the degree of desire for things we don’t have is the same in all of us.

A few years ago, I was walking down 18 June Road and saw this little rag-picker boy, grubby, barefoot, with a huge nylon sack on his back. He stopped at a toy shop next to Gulf Supermarket and was staring at a Barbie Doll with such longing that it made me wince. I thought he was looking at a toy car, but it was the doll he was fascinated with. The hopeless longing on his face made me think, ah poor little fellow, he will never be able to buy that doll. I walked on feeling sorry for him until a few metres further on I saw this absolutely beautiful dark metallic blue sports car, practically hugging the road and purring its way through the traffic. I stood there as I let this wave of hopeless longing wash over me. I knew I would never be able to afford that car and giving myself a mental shake I carried on along 18 June Road. I saw the rag-picker boy walking jauntily ahead of me.

And then it struck me. There was no difference between the little barefoot rag-picker boy with his huge nylon sack and me, a middle aged woman with a leather shoulder bag and uncomfortable shoes. Our degree of desire was the same. Our degree of poverty or purchasing power was relative.

Slumdog ... brought this home to me once more. The children lived with their reality – the slum, as did the wealthier in their apartments and mansions. They laughed and they played with an energy and joy that is typical of children in every slum I have seen. It’s the rich kids who are generally bored and sullen. Poverty does not necessarily mean misery and wealth does not automatically bring happiness.

A news channel interviewed the two slum children who played slum children in the film and they said they would like to live in a proper bungalow in a proper part of town. The question here is, would they be as happy or happier in the aseptic atmosphere of wealth glued to a television screen, or running from tuition to tuition; or would they yearn for the days when they played cricket on a forbidden airstrip and had to flee from policemen, laughing as they out-ran and out-witted them?

Like the millionaire who had bought a cabin by a river in South America, who was trying to convince a fisherman sitting on the river bank to buy a boat to catch more fish. The fisherman asked, “And then, what?”
“Why you make a profit, then you buy more boats and catch more fish,” said the millionaire.
“And then, what?”
“Why you can start a canning factory, buy reefer boats!”
“And then, what?”
“Why, you will be so wealthy you can … you can… you can buy yourself anything you want. I bought this cabin by this river for myself.”
“And then, what?”
“And then, what? You can do anything! Sit on the bank of the river and fish, even!”

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