Saturday, July 21, 2007

“Lost” in Delhi -- Villagers from Maharashtra

30th June 2007

On Delhi’s roads, we are no philanthropists. We are perhaps as thick-skinned and stone hearted as the folks in the next car. Yet, we fell for a trick that left us lighter by a thousand bucks!

Having lived here for a few years, we recognize the regular beggars and conmen at traffic crossings. As a rule, we never give alms to able-bodied adults; or to the Saturdays-specials -- saffron-robed Babas who walk around with the sooty “Shani” cutouts dunked in oil tins. We know that the Rajasthani tribal women walking around with babies are a part of a larger, profitable enterprise that is perhaps heartily endorsed by the traffic cops.

Our rule has its exceptions, of course – we cannot bear to see children and the elderly who go about shivering on winter nights and on scorching afternoons, hawking assorted toys, flowers, books and glossies.

Usually, the moment we stop at a red light our mental barricades go up. We become deaf to the tapping on the windows; we glare and shout at beggars who make a show of wiping our windscreen with their scratchy rags. We sit pretty in our middleclass A/C cocoon, eyeing the outside world with a mixture of nonchalance, disdain and pity.

So if this is the usual scene, what is the new trick?

You are some distance away from Nehru Place - the nearest traffic crossing, stopping by the roadside to pick up some ice cream. Someone taps on your window. You turn to see a tired, lost, weather-beaten face; eyes that are on the verge of tears. Is he seeking directions?

You roll down the window a bit. “Please don’t mistake me”, he begins the well-dressed man in Marathi-Hindi, “I am not a beggar. My name is Gajendra Shinde and I am from Paladi-gaon near Pune. I was on the train to Haridwar with my wife and daughter… yesterday night all our luggage got stolen.” He pauses, and adds shame facedly, “ We now have no money for food, or to get back home..”.

My eyes turn to see the wife and daughter step put of the shadows. The woman clearly looks like she has been transplanted out of Marathwada to Delhi...the sari drape, nose-rings and bangles. The daughter is around 10 and looks like she would collapse any minute from hunger and exhaustion.

I roll up the window and wait for my partner to return. She is better at reading people. It is sweltering hot outside; Delhi is going through the hottest week of the year. You remember the reports on rural indebtedness and of farmers forced to commit suicide. You remember your Ayah from rural Aurangabad – an amazing lady who helped raise your first child. You know how Delhi treats its women and Maharashtra is far so away...

My wife returns with the ice creams. We consult and ask more questions – How come you are so far away from the station? How long have you been wandering like this? It already late evening - what do you plan to do now?

The answers are very convincing- “Somebody told us to go to Deshbandu College where there are students from Maharashtra…we’ve been roaming around since today morning…nobody is helping us… Haridwar is out of question now, we just want to get back to the Station and take the first train back home…the tickets for us would cost about Rs. 700”

Our hearts melt like the ice cream on the dashboard. We know how it feels to be lost in a strange place. In an unprecedented move, we end up giving them Rs.1000 – a neat round-figure for the train tickets, bus-rides, food and wish them a safe journey back home to Paladi-gaon.

We bask in an afterglow for a while but it soon evaporates. At a friend’s house, small talk on traffic delays turns to other miscellaneous hazards. “Something crazy happened to my colleague at CP yesterday”, we are told, “she was starting her car at the parking lot when a family from Maharashtra approached her…”. Our hearts, still floating in the ‘milk of human kindness’, now sinks.

It turns out to be the very same story – and, perhaps, the very same family. A rural family headed to Haridwar, stolen baggage, a hungry daughter, nowhere to go…and a thousand Rupees down the drain. Then again we hear the same story from a cousin in Chennai.

We still wonder – how could they feign so convincingly? Was the little girl starved deliberately to make the whole performance such a convincing act?

All shades of doubt were erased last week when another “lost” Maharashtrian couple approached us near the Saroniji Nagar market. But now we are better prepared; our thick hides have been reinforced by a stronger dose of cynicism -- It has been an expensive lesson after all!