Keep Distance

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.
Damned poverty!

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.


6 thoughts on “Keep Distance

  1. That was straight – bull’s eye. Is there a way to call beggars in euphemistic way as I am not aware of that word. ‘Financially-challenged’ might be one. With or without theri knowledge, people rub off their hands after being touched by one. Agree?
    Prema’s kids may have a better education and become one amongst us in the future – only if people wear off hypocrisy..

    A great post ..

    • Thanks 🙂
      I’m not aware of euphemisms either.. Panhandling may be – that too only because not many people know the term.

      “With or without their knowledge, people rub off their hands after being touched by one. Agree?”
      I’m not sure I agree. Yes, people cringe – I had assumed it was because they do not like the intrusion into their private space, and they do not condone begging. May be I never looked closely before this incident that I mentioned.

  2. This is sad, but true. 😦

    I try not to differentiate as far as my maid is concerned. I serve her food or coffee in the same utensils that we use. I give her water from the common pitcher if she asks for it. However, I do give her my used clothes, sometimes not-so-old ones too, if I haven’t been using them. I give her money for medicines, etc once in a while, and new clothes for Diwali. I also help fund her son’s education, along with some other neighbours. I give her things I am not using from my kitchen, sometimes food too. She is always neat and clean and well-groomed, so I don’t really have any problem with her. I think I do treat her fairly, and like a human being.

    That said, I kind of agree with the feeling irritated with beggars touching me. Some of them use it as a tactic to get money out of you, and that is what bugs me more than their shabbiness. I don’t know what kind of light it puts me in.

    • That is the same that happens at my home TGND – and I think it is absolutely fine. If I were in the maid’s position, I would probably have come to an acceptance about the hand-me-downs.. after all, I can’t afford to buy fresh ones and if the monetary & material help I get this way helps me channel my salary to some other high priority need, it is ok. But I would feel belittled if I am treated almost like I am untouchable. That hurts – for generations to come.

      About begging – the irritation is totally understandable. The beggars who do this constant persistent touching, touching feet (I am very uncomfortable with that – personally, against anybody touching anybody’s feet as a mark of respect/submissiveness) etc are trained to do that – simply because people would get irritated and give them money just to get rid of them. I think the problem comes only when the core issue – the begging & tactics employed – is seen to be secondary and this ‘hygiene’ is held high up as the main problem.

  3. I get annoyed by beggars poking at me. Never thought about germs, though. I just don’t want ANYONE poking at me, poor or not, lol!

    I don’t think being poor is the problem in many cases. But even middle class people from different castes are treated differently. I know exactly what you are talking about. I really cringe at some things I hear, but you cannot change people’s mindsets. You can only behave differently and try to set an example.

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