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Living with the Poor

Plassey, Bengal
April 30, 1970

Dear Jyotsna,

If one has to see the real poverty in our country, it has to be in Bengal. In other states, the poor may not have shelter or two meals a day; the poor here don't even have clothes. It's terrible to see women being not able to afford enough clothing to cover their womanhood.

"...He may not be an educated man; a righteous one nonetheless."

 The refugees who come from East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) the tribals of Santhal, Rajwad, and Buno communities wear clothing as big as handkerchief. That too is thin and worn out. In Uttara Kannada district, we have seen members of the Halakki tribe not wearing a blouse, yet they are nicely covered in beads and other decorations, and always wear a sari (a.k.a. Saree -- Indian drape).

The sugar factory has appointed a lot of these women to cut and bring infected sugar canes from the field. They have to get up early in the morning, walk to the distant fields, identify the deceased canes, cut them, and carry them to my laboratory, which is about eight to ten kilometers away. You won't believe that they get paid just one rupee for it. However they get a small bonus depending on how infected the canes are. I cannot increase the numbers so they can get paid more, because that would indicate that our insect control procedures are ineffective. That is why I have made arrangements to pay a bonus to women who bring less infected loads through our expense budget.

When I see twenty or thirty women laborers walk into the lab with cane loads on their heads, I feel like they are engaging in some kind of religious activity. They unload themselves in the yard in front of the lab, and collect the insects in the dishes we supply; they get busy chatting or singing softly. It is obvious that they do not have enough to feed. One of them has become old in her youth. When she told me that she had not eaten since yesterday and only after she received today's wage, she would have to buy rice to eat porridge, I felt sick in the stomach. Our country is one in which the prime minister's hairdresser gets thousands of Rupees, and the hardworking women laborers get just one. Another woman, a new mother, had left her infant with her mother-in-law. I felt so bad that the baby was not fortunate enough to suckle the God-given milk. Her sari was wet with overflowing milk.

So many times I wriggle my hands out of my helplessness for these fellow human beings. Not the laborers! They have spread word that this insect boss (Poka Babu) is a good man. I often distribute bananas grown in my yard. I am also the small loan lender for them. All they need is one buck or two. After they finish their work, they surround me to call out their names and watch me type their names on the typewriter so they can get paid. Then they tell me, "We will see you tomorrow Babu," and run to the cashier like school children.

Please do not think that all my sympathy is only for women. The other evening my laundry man (Dhobi) asked  "Today there was no income, Babu. Can you loan me two Rupees?" I was raised not to get into money lending with acquaintances, but I could not deny his small request. You should have seen his face bloom like a flower out of gratitude. "I knew that you would not deny me, Babu. You will have the Punya (divine credits) of feeding four children and my wife and my old mother today." He even tried to smile.

One day, my assistant Hussain's wife was busy with a naming ceremony for their child and he did not bring his lunch box. I told him not to ride bicycle for 20 kilometers in the hot sun just to have lunch and instead brought him to my home. (They don't build restaurants in a condemned place like Plassey.) There was not much food at home, but we shared whatever I had. In addition I gave him a banana and a glass of milk. I do not know if his stomach was full, but I had the joy of sharing a meal with a colleague; it is my philosophy that instead of throwing a dinner party in a restaurant, it is better to provide a simple meal when it is needed most.

Yesterday, in  Hussain's village, there was a fire and forty houses got burnt. He told me that if he could have fifty Rupees he could help two of his relatives fix the roofs before the rainy season. There was a remote chance that it would ever be returned, but I thought it was the best way I could spend those 50 Rupees, and gave him. The poor dhobi proved to me that not everybody wanted to borrow money to blow away; as he returned eight pairs of clothes, he said  "Babu, your two rupees are now adjusted. You don't have to pay since I owe you two rupees"  to my welled eyes. He may not be an educated man; a righteous one nonetheless.

Sincerely yours,


See Also:

Opinions are that of the author only.  Translated from Kannada Letter, First Published as Preyasige Patragalu, Manohara Grintha Mala, 1991

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