Prema – all of 13, twelve years back, was an unsmiling child. Every summer morning, I sat watching her on the portico. In her hands, the broom was aggressive – scratching and scarring the floor with every sweep.
Giving a final thwack with the broom, she went around to the backyard – to the voice that called her to breakfast. Special brunch served personally by the lady of the house, on exclusive cutlery – Prema’s own plate and bowl. No one in the household is allowed to use it. I get yelled at when I rebel every once in a while and serve myself a snack on her plate.
Grandma was a fierce fighter for Prema’s rights, for what Prema deserved. She deserved to be served her food where she works – she need not drag herself to the dining area, or serve herself. She deserved to drink water from her own bottle, while everybody else had to use common glasses. That Fanta pet bottle that should have been discarded weeks back, but had been saved just for this.
Cos.. you know how it is.. Grandma does not like to bring back utensils Prema touched, ate and drank from, into her oh-so-pure kitchen.
Apparently, Prema deserved to be belittled – softly, politely, every day.
Her poverty-ridden life served her daily meals with an accompaniment of humiliation.
My elite polite life served me confused inability to question the injustice.
Casteism is easy to stand up to. One might even argue that it goes away with the “older generation”. Not this intellectualized hypocrisy.
For casteism, it was not. Liberals do not do caste, remember? This is all about hygiene!
You know how it is… these poor people don’t take bath properly and are brimming with infections and diseases, and “we” do not want to catch anything disgusting from them? They neither use soap with anti-bacterial properties nor carry around sweet little bottles of hand-sanitizer liquids – like “we” do.
It is “keep distance” – from the unhygenic.
Somehow, “socially” hugging people – the elite kind of people – is hygienic. Skin infections, after all, affect only the poor.
Somehow, sharing a drink or eating from the same plate – with the elite kind of stranger you just met – is hygienic. Elite saliva is all clean and clear.
Somehow, gorging on street-food in the rains is hygienic. It is so kewl & fun and such a liberating experience of the “real india”! And of course, “we” can pop in a zinetac, a cetzine and, if necessary, a cefaxelin later.
Only the beggar boy touching “us” with just the tips of three of his fingers is unhygienic!
“I am not comfortable with this. I don’t mind giving 10 rupees.. it is after all a job, you know?. But I am not comfortable with this touching”.
“Yaaaaa.. it is TERRIBLE!”
I am so horrified, that I even forget to pick on that ultra-moronic “begging is after all a job” part!
This is no hygiene – this is just “keep distance” – from poverty.
“Keep distance” – from poverty..
Said disguised in high-sounding words, with a smile, and a “you know how it is..”.
I can’t fight them – these liberal, open-minded hypocrites.
I can only escape..
“Keep distance” – from hypocrisy.
At least, I can afford to now – after years of independence and learning to stand up for my beliefs.
Prema still can not.. She can not afford that luxurious bit of self-esteem – ever.
Years back, there were hand-me-downs..
She wore my faded t-shirt.
She wore my old party skirt
She swept while safety pins provided old-age support to the elastic waist band.
I looked on..
Wearing her helplessness.
Years later, there are hand-me-downs..
She now wears my aunt’s not-good-enough saree.
Her infant son wears what my niece has outgrown.
She sweeps while my aunt yells at her to leave the gurgling-cooing-nuisance at home.
I look on..
Still wearing her helplessness.
Only hand-me-downs it will be.. For ever.
Given with generosity..
From a safe distance.