Out of view: the unnameable poor in India and Bangladesh

My friends in teaching jobs in Afghanistan and Korea or aid organizations in Bangladesh, nearly all returned to the United States, to ask themselves hard questions about their educational pursuits or their student loans. Suffering offers infinite growth. But faith is like a blanket, only large enough to keep so many children warm. 

Adam Klein
11 May 2012

On the ring road in Bangalore, rusted girders, hemmed in by corrugated tin walls, marked out the area of a proposed flyover. In 2005, construction had already been delayed for two years, and the traffic snagged around it for hours as the tech workers on scooters, autos, or in workplace vans - like some kind of migration of beetles - attempted to shuttle home. From those girders, people emerged, taking advantage of the congestion, begging rupees or selling Q-tips.

One man was selling balloons at 11PM. The balloon wallahs are all over Bangalore, selling shiny, buoyant emblems of untroubled children everywhere. But it was jarring to see that man so late at night when few children - other than the kids forced to work the same street - would be awake and urging their parents for something frivolous.

He did not use his voice like other hawkers but rubbed his balloon with his thumb; it emitted a squeaky sound meant to draw attention. He walked as though afflicted by palsy. What was left of his frayed kurta, the long white shirts worn by many in India, was black with soot. The balloons framed an emaciated face, twisted by anguish and humiliation, his cheeks fissured by starvation - the face of someone barred even from a hospital. All the coloured balloons in the world couldn’t diminish the gravity in that face, one in which poverty had carved a mask.

Each day the poor tell us something that we find harder to hear. The poor, we assume, are a product of something greater than us. They are not brought about by our consumption, nor can poverty be fixed by a different relationship to consumption. If poverty’s cause is greater than us, then the poor should talk to entities greater than us: governments, social workers or God. These are the answers to their continuing struggle. We don’t waste time imagining they’ve ever had normal childhoods, loving families, a time before the ravages -the consequences - were hefted onto their shoulders. We accept, when we consider solutions for their problems that the poor are most often born poor. They are breast-fed consequences. To rob them of poverty would be to rob them of fate. It is accepted in the casual way we accept genetics and history. Things that are passed on.

I cannot hear what the poor are trying to tell me, but I can hear my reaction and the reactions of those around me. My co-workers hated the traffic in Bangalore, though it’s far less terrible than the traffic jams in most cities in the US. It’s not lost time they were reacting to. It was the specters, the women who wept at your rickshaw and wiped tears with dirty bandages, or the child whose head was mapped by scar tissue, the ear entirely burned away. Perhaps it was an accident, or more likely, we imagined, his parents did it. We’ve heard of such atrocities. But perhaps atrocity has made this child better suited for the conditions he inherited, able to earn more from sympathy than from Q-tips. Sometimes we (those of us gathered in our work vans, or in rickshaws, making our way to the Dell or Microsoft offices) gave a mother or her child money, but we always felt sick seeing them.

My co-workers wanted to go home, back to America or Canada. Once they saw the poor -even if they imagined the tears were a sham, the bloody bandages a costume - they dreaded the interaction. There is something wrong in the world, something brutal and repugnant about it. And once you’ve seen it, you want to forget it. You want a flyover to fix it, anything but this place where all of us are stopped dead in the same place.

A co-worker leaned into me confidingly. “I want to go back to my condo in Florida. I hate the filth and the squalor here. I love my students. If it weren’t for them, I’d never stay. But these people live like this. I don’t know how they do it.”

I felt defensive about India, not that it needed defending. It has flaws like any country, but enigmas like no other. So I asked him if he didn’t mind the fact that American school kids are frisked before they go into class, or that our inner cities were ravaged by crack, that the hungry could afford junk foods, but not decently-prepared vegetables, or that random acts of violence - not just the violence of hunger - shadows our corners.

“Not in my neighbourhood,” he said. And maybe it’s true that he experiences none of those things. There are neighbourhoods everywhere, sealed off from other neighbourhoods, neighbours from neighbours. India has such neighbourhoods. But the neighbourhood through which we were driving was like a vast, unravelling cornucopia, with fruits and flowers displayed to look like they were tumbling toward the street, incense burning at cigarette kiosks, bullock carts and what appeared to be drifting water buffalo grazing at lane dividers.

“Doesn’t this seem truer?” I asked him. Truer that most of the world lives in close circulation with others. They’re not unused or averse to wild dogs or the occasional monkey. But this landscape was a depiction of hell for him, while heaven was a place where we could all go to be alone. God, whichever he believed in, was above all singular.

Before I moved to Bangalore, I was a teacher in Bangladesh, a six-hour bus ride from its chaotic capital, Dhaka. Bangladesh is notorious for its rivers, though today they are mostly sluggish gray channels, lined with trash and enormous crows. Like anyone venturing outside Dhaka, I had to take a bus to a ferry to arrive at my work site. When the water wasn’t too rough, the buses would drive onto the rusted ship hulls, sometimes ten buses at a time. Once parked, the beggars held you captive. Widows and the disabled would make their way through the bus before you could disembark. Those without legs propelled themselves on gauze-wrapped hands. They would invoke Allah, and those who could, dropped coins in the tin cups tied by jute around their necks. Outside, people would haggle for the price of fish from weary fishermen. There were less fish in the river, and less trees along the highways-less life in the people who had depended on their abundance. 

The widows would board the buses and look to other women with special pleading. These women had husbands who were bureaucrats and politicians and NGO workers – the men most often feared in their towns, with sons also feared. These women passengers, in their elegant shalwars, embroidered silks that seemed never to pick up mud on their hems, had decent homes, extended families. The widows, on the other hand, had eyes that reflected the vast gray waterways, like wet clay. They slept on ships, or in the brothels on the shore. They could not remember if they had just asked you for money or not. But there were always young women who gave to them: alms to the poor, given out of doubt, of which women in this country seemed particularly born and destined. What if a wealthy woman’s husband died? Wouldn’t she, too, be condemned to this life? Or if a son died? What if they went insane with grief, were brutalized in their marriage, or simply discarded by men? Could they ever be so shameless, or so alone that they would beg on a ship? Would they be abandoned, forced to drag their hand wearily along the curtained bus windows as it disembarked the floating craft?

I asked my village classroom in Bangladesh if they gave money to the beggars on the buses. They all agreed that it was in the Koran to give to the poor. Economic disparity is there - in the word of God. So I asked them if they’d ever asked a beggar what his or her name was. This, they said, was wrong. It wasn’t kind. I considered their assured collective response: Is it wrong to call attention to the humanity of the poor? Does it injure them to ask their names? Does it make them distinctly aware of their pain if we were to say the names their mothers gave them? Or is it too painful for us to know they have names?

My students believed that the poor should love Allah as much as they loved Allah. But how, I asked them, could they expect the same faith from people denied the same benefit of faith.

I once met a heavy-set missionary, with blonde hair and Texas accent, at a restaurant in Dhaka. She said she believed that the greatest and smallest catastrophes were God’s will. She did not like to use the word, “Muslim.” The “M-word,” she called it. She insisted that the most humane deeds went unrewarded, unnoticed even, by God, if they were performed by non-believers, non-Christians. If a Hindu were to do exactly the same things Mother Teresa had done in Kolkata, she would be locked out of heaven. Alternately, the most brutal war criminal or a sadistic torturer, if he acquired faith, would be welcomed.

I asked her and I asked myself why would people ever be concerned with ethics - of good deeds or right action - if the realm of ethics rested solely with God, and not even with God’s intervention, but merely the claim, in word only, that one believed in God’s divinity.

Mustn’t ethics - actual deeds rather than sentiments or beliefs address the great disparity between those who live with nothing, and those who perpetrate their exploitation? In her logic, deprivations did not arise from the greed of others, the dehumanization that occurs as a result of ideology, environment, population, or economic systems. These issues are unchangeable. Only conversion can save us.

In all mythologies, deities take different forms. They arrive at your door in need, and if you invite them in, they may reveal themselves. After they depart, a crusty loaf of bread becomes abundant, feeds thousands.

The man with the balloons is in pain. It would be wrong to ask him his name. It would be a condescending experiment. My students are right. It would not be kind. It would not lift his burden, though it might make me feel important, or charitable, or truly concerned. The missionary, rather than think of asking for his name, prefers to deliver to the multitude a single name: Christ. Salvation belongs to every beggar, every balloon seller if they take it. It eases her mind. Each one of them is a fish delivered back to the river. The missionary and I do not share the same beliefs. But we are both afraid of what we see. We are looking for ways to ward off what we know is suffering that is beyond reason or faith. She calls it the will of God. I call it the cruelty of capitalism, racism, caste.

Our condition - whether we are rich or poor - is one of fortune, but fortune can change. Or can it? Do the rich become poor and the poor become rich? How often? Are there even enough resources to bring the world to the same level, the same quality of life? By this, I don’t mean an American “middle class” quality of life. I’m imagining some life between the precariousness of a farmer who does not own land, and the lives of bankers. If we could average world incomes and resources, could we live on it? Yes, a co-worker tells me. The poor are more than ever being lifted out of poverty. But how far out? An inch? Just dangled above it? There is definitely enough to go around, my co-worker says. And I believe her, because I want to believe that there is abundance, the possibility of justice. I want to believe that what I perceive as inexhaustibly terrible is just my particular blind spot, my own lack of faith.

My arrival in Dhaka occurred shortly after 9/11 and the war on Iraq. It was Bangladesh’s Independence Day celebration. I stood with other Peace Corps volunteers among throngs of people outside Louis Kahn’s Parliament Building. It was a festive, jostling crowd; and one could encounter a humbling sense of pride in Bangladesh despite its renown for being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, losing landmass faster than any country due to climate change. Most of the children held balloons. On one side of the balloon was the familiar image of Mickey Mouse. On the other, the equally familiar twin towers and the planes in mid-flight. Later under a tent strung with Christmas lights, people were selling Osama bin Laden palm puzzles, 15 squares that could be shifted around in every which way until the picture of the now deceased leader became evident. In truth, his face was evident in any arrangement, unmistakable. Restoring the features to their photographic order was a kind of rosary. Perhaps the poor have different gods, different rescuers. For each god leaves someone out, and all justice must deliver us from those responsible for oppression. I asked to buy one of those puzzles, but the sellers were suddenly shy. It was too evident I was not a convert.

The things we fear are the things for which gods and governments show no promise of resolving. Every religion and every society espouses fairness and order. But the souls of the poor have swum through the net. I will not ask a beggar his name because it’s a false pretense of sharing a moment’s equality. My horror at the world is not his. Mine is the horror of conscience; his is the horror of fortune. No horror is denied him. But I am spared, except that I must see him, and in him, the entire question of suffering in the world.

On that first day in Dhaka, we were shuttled to a hotel in the wealthy district of Gulshan. Even there, the views were gray and disordered, the skyline unfinished, held up by spines of bamboo. In front of the hotel, a colony of drunken lepers made a fire of trash, almost bashfully holding their hands out for money. We climbed the flights of stairs and dropped our bags and stood staring out the windows at the shanties and the canal below. The canal was filled with garbage bags, black, knotted, monotonous, shapeless balloons that we imagined were deposited by the people living in the makeshift hovels along the water. Then we saw our room service attendants carrying garbage from our rooms and throwing the bags into the water.

An older volunteer wanted to take us to a Swiss ice cream parlour. We thought he was joking but we followed a few steps behind him, pointing out the electrical and phone wires that everywhere had fallen from their poles and were now laid along the streets, cows uneasily resting on them. A child beggar made his way to a volunteer and began to ask for money. The volunteer turned to me and said, “Never give them anything. They give it to their beggar-pimps.” How versed he was in the subject of begging; he had the Lonely Planet book of travel ethics memorized. But the boy kept insisting, tugging at the volunteer’s shirt. Finally, he yelled at the boy, “Go away from here! Leave me alone,” as though he were hollering at ghosts in his childhood bedroom. The boy stood back and began wailing. “They practice crying. They know they can get money out of tourists that way, so they pretend to cry.”

Each day the poor speak to us, and they become harder to hear. We crave redemptive stories, ones in which people engage in good things that are inconvenient and irrational. They give when they see no reason to give, or when they have little to call their own. Or we believe that those with economic clout and careful data give to the right sufferers, providing lessons to others—those who don’t quite fit the mission statement, or keep an adequate accounting of our tithing.

Individuals are not God, but we imagine God acts through us, mysteriously. When we give, we give in the limited way God does. We give selectively, as faith tells us salvation is given.

My friends have now scattered, to teaching jobs in Afghanistan and Korea. Some stayed in Bangladesh, joining aid organizations. Nearly all of them returned to the States, to ask themselves hard questions about their educational pursuits or their student loans. Suffering, unlike the oil and housing markets, wasn’t a bubble, a speculator’s market. It offers infinite growth. But faith is like a blanket, only large enough to keep so many children warm.

I, too, returned to the States when my contract in Bangalore ended. I arrived in time for the New Orleans floods. But I was living in California, where wealth assured a more coherent response to the Silicon Valley tech bust. Besides that, parts of California are insured for catastrophes. Houses go right back up and all those fault lines are magnets for real estate. The San Andreas is a gilded jaw. In Palo Alto I walked down streets so pristine that the tulips bursting open on Easter seemed almost gory, the manicured lawns like perfect baskets full of expensive fruit and cellophane grass. And for a while, looking at those well-fed lawns made it impossible to imagine further devastations: Haiti or Japan, or the dun-dry villages of Kandahar, the victims of the Arab Spring, or even the old man, Osama bin Laden, who must have—like anyone—lost faith, there, watching porn and beheadings and drone strikes, on his television in Abbottabad.

As the sprinklers ticked from lawn to lawn, it might have sounded peaceful like a clock in which minutes are ordered into days, but in the chaos of spring, I also saw the colours of the balloons, and wondered if the flyover was ever built, and where the next girders would rise. Surely the balloon man would relocate there: not to accuse the faithful, but almost as a pilgrim, following the march of development. For me, he is the reminder of the incompleteness of God’s love, and a reminder, too, that I’ve neither imagined, nor asked his name.

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