It was a sunny December morning. A stiff breeze whipped the leaves off the trees. In my little village Mundakotukurussi in Kerala, I soak in the sounds, sense and sights from a window. In the distance I could hear the whirr sound of the mill across the road from my house. The warm spicy scent of coriander seeds being ground wafts through the air.
All day long the mill works. Rice, wheat, coriander, chilly, turmeric, coconut and sesame…. In a strange way the mill is symbolic of the village and its economic well-being. Its constant note of industry the music of prosperity.
In Mundakotukurussi, there are neither vagrants nor the homeless. Even the poorest man has a roof of his own over head and I think of how in The Better Man when I sought to capture the spirit of this village, I knew I had to be careful to not portray this village as the clichéd image of an Indian village. For while Mundakotukurussi may be rife with emotions, complexities and politics, there is no actual instance of brutal poverty.
The only homeless man in this village was someone who refused to have anything to do with his family after a quarrel. And even he has been carted off to an old age home by the villagers and when he needed to be treated for a stroke, they took a donation drive to pay his hospital bills. Genteel poverty exists – that is no escaping this truth. Luxuries may not have too much of a place in many houses but no one sleeps hungry or worries where the next meal is coming from. Children go to school and there are jobs available if one is trained or inclined to do them.
Once upon a time Mundakotukurussi is used to be called Moscow because of its Marxist leanings. Today several political parties – The Congress, The Bharatiya Janata Party, The Muslim League and the Communist Party of India – Marxist, all exist and thrive in this little village. Nevertheless this hasn’t changed the almost egalitarian society that so characterizes this village.
And as I sat there in Mundakotukurussi my mind wandered to the drive I took a few days ago from Bangalore to reach my village. 500 kms and three states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I drove through many villages, three cities and one big town. And perhaps it is this drive that made me look at my country differently than any other experience.
Everywhere the world media talks about the heart wrenching poverty in Indian villages. India still has world’s largest number of poor people in a single country. As per the Millennium Development Goals India Country Report 2011, of India’s 1.2 billion inhabitants, an estimated 37.2 percent are below the poverty line. And of the total urban population 25.7 percent are below the poverty line.
But there is a world of difference in the degree of poverty that exist in a village and a city in India. Perhaps this contrast in accentuated by the affluence that one get to see in many Indian cities. Sometimes the quality of life amongst the urban middle class would even beguile ourselves into actually believing that “India shining” is the undisputed truth. Where is this poverty the development agencies seem to talk about? I wonder. It is then a drive such as this prised my blinkers away.
In most Indian villages there is usually a handful of the very rich while the rest totter in and around the ‘below poverty line’. Good roads, power, drinking water and sanitation may all seem like distant dreams. But there is still to life a certain sense of wellness. Expansion of non-agricultural employment, the casualisation of labour contracts, agricultural labour becoming caste-heterogeneous, the improvement in agricultural wages etc. have all lead to a decrease in drastic poverty in villages.
What is alarming is urban poverty. The main causes of urban poverty are predominantly the breakdown of an agricultural livelihood that makes villages abandon their homes in search of some subsistence living in the towns and cities. In this process, they even lose the open space available in villages. When they come to the cities, they manage to forage food but everything else eludes them. In fact, sometimes they live in conditions that are sub-human.
While many of the Indian government’s development planning has focused on over all poverty reduction, somehow this doesn’t seem to percolate down to the urban poor. I think of the cities that I passed through. Starting from Bangalore in Karnataka which is a IT hub, corporate capital and glitzy cosmopolitan city flaunting the world’s best brands and expensive designer labels. The homes here would rival that of the rich and famous in world capitals. In fact, in a survey conducted by the global HR consultancy service Mercer found it the best city to live in India.
Then there is Salem in Tamil Nadu, the city with large textiles, steel, automotive, poultry and mining industries. The next city I drove through was Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, an important textile, industrial, IT and manufacturing centre. Palakkad in Kerala is a large town. Each of its urban centres has its wide roads, bustling shopping zones, a multitude of humanity all of which made me lean back into the seat of my car with a complacency of thought- India is certainly making rapid strides in all spheres.
Then my eyes lit on a street overflowing with garbage in one city, a group of raggedy migrants in another city, a hovel made of cardboard and tin in another and my breath snagged. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. In many ways I had always considered cities as nerve centres that could change the economic destiny of a person if they wanted to. Instead what I saw in the cities (and with a certainty knew would be replicated in most if not every Indian city) was an abject poverty that wrenched my heart. My own tubular vision until now made me feel both ashamed and guilty.
Of the five novels I have written the first four The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting dwelt in the world of the middle class. This is an almost monogeneous strata where the human condition is dictated by societal pattern and the demands of the human mind. With Cut Like Wound I moved to the urban landscape where there is no escape from the abyss that exists between the rich and the poor. For the first time in my writing social commentary made its appearance. That the urban poor is a reality and that I cannot close my eyes to it made a conscious appearance in my writing.
In my travels as I have trawled various Indian cities, be it New Delhi or Kochi, Hyderabad or Bhubaneswar, everywhere I see the same multitude of images again and again: The speculating eyes of a young man, follow a Jaguar being driven down a road that he is sweeping. The parted lips of a child outside an ice cream parlour watching a teenager dressed in expensive clothes buying an ice cream the cost of which would be enough to buy the child a full meal. A diamond dripping woman emerge from a designer store with a hand bag that would have paid to keep a family housed for a year. I see the plethora of riches and the absence of a social conscience. I see how in the urban landscape the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and how every day for them is a feat in survival. And I ask myself: What am I going to do about this except perhaps be able to write about it. And ask the world – why? And how is this going to change….
Anita Nair is the best-selling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound was published in late 2012.