Rich Wallah, Poor Wallah


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Today is an important day in Bombay. The Sensex, the city’s stock exchange index, broke 10,000. This is big news and cause for celebration among India’s money types.

Speaking of money, today I had high tea at the Taj hotel in Mumbai. Here’s the story of the Taj: legend has it that its founder was himself denied entry into Bombay’s swankiest hotel, due either to his low social status or indeed of his race; so when he became rich, he constructed the city’s grandest hotel. It was quite an experience. And every Asian traveller knows that the first thing you do in swanky hotel is use the bathroom, because a clean, Western-style flush toilet is a gift from the gods. It’s the mandatory bathroom attendant that’s off-putting. It seems that to truly revel in one’s wealth, one must have a poor person standing by to hear and smell your farts.

Later, a lovely sunset stroll on Marine Drive was illuminating for one reason. Again, the locals tended to ignore me, and were busy playing with their mobiles and PDAs, some of which were superior to my glorious Treo! But this is India, after all, and the occasional begging urchin is never too far behind. One adorable beggar girl looked at me and said, “Sir, you look Indian!” and immediately asked me something in Hindi. I responded in Hindi, and she asked me something else, this time too fast for me to understand. She then launched into French, and we had a brief conversation in that language. She claimed to speak seven languages, including four European ones. Of course, I gave her money; she earned it.

What wasted potential. Her charm, attractiveness, obvious intellect, initiative and communication skills would make her a guaranteed social and economic success in another setting. But here, at the tender age seemingly of 10 or 11, she is destined to be a beggar or a street person. Therein lies the foundation of the some of the more distasteful aspects of Hindu philosophy, in my opinion formulated largely to rationalize the brutish lives of so many undeserving of the fate. Want to keep the squalid masses from rising up? Convince them that they deserve their station because of misdeeds in past lives. Bullshit, I say. An amoral fool like George Bush rises to wealth and power, and a smart little girl is relegated to street life, not because of some immeasurable past life actions, but because of the inequalities of economics, power and economics in this life. Don’t forget it.

I’ve just come from a series of artistic events as part of an open-air festival in the city. The David Sassoon library –a magnificent place in which I should have scheduled a book reading– was host to a stand-up comic. And the courtyard outside the Jehangir Gallery saw a most pleasing circumstance: puppet shows, musicians and Bollywood-style dancers. As readers of this blog know, I’m a fan of athletic dance, but generally I dislike the Bollywood style. However, tonight I was mesmerized as several young men gyrated in muscular displays of stereotypically macho Bollywood dance. I saw the dancers afterward and was stunned to realize that they are all barely 15, shorter than me, and each weighing probably 140 lbs soaking wet.

The remarkable thing was that the festival was quite egalitarian. All classes were able to attend –a remarkable thing for class-conscious India. Street kids and Bombay elite alike gawked side-by-side at the puppet shows, but of course only one group was treated to McDonald’s afterwards.

I am continuously amazed by how much Bombay looks and feels Western. During tonight’s festival, I actually forgot I was in India. I could have been in Queens, NY, or Mississauga, Ontario. Then my reveries were burst when I saw security guards chasing street families away from the garbage bins.

Globalisation has produced unprecedented wealth in India, seen superficially as the Westernization of fashion, language, art and commodities. But it has seemingly failed to help those who were always at the end of the feeding trough. The poor have not disappeared, they’re just harder to spot amongst the glitter and flash of all the new wealth.