Maverick: How to milk the poverty cow
By Farzana Versey
Covert February 16-28
She picked up a broom to sweep away imaginary dust. The industrialist’s wife who was with her promptly demanded another broom and started swiping the ground. The lady who started it is a White woman, a certified poverty seeker, do-gooder. Had she been any other colour, our Mrs Big Businessman would not have touched that broom.
We are pretty sick of the humhog millionaires making a noise about some film which is showing us in a bad light. Little do we realise it is how we have been selling ourselves for years. For us ‘below the poverty line’ is a tourist destination; every celebrity is given a round of our malnourished, malady-stricken society before they can return with their sanitiser cleaned hands and open the door to a world of 22 degree air-conditioning and a dance for charity shindig.
Let us not blame the outsiders for using our skeletal people with bulging eyes and tummies smiling the smile of helplessness as they elevate struggling to an art form. We sneak in these images of snot-filled noses and broken limbs and bloated carcasses near every monument, bling bangle and holy river.
What is the purpose behind tour operators doing a ‘Beyond Bombay’ (not Mumbai) and a ‘Reality’ outing? Why is it so important to take a foreign visitor to see Dharavi and the work being done there? How many people travel to see locals work, unless they wish to buy Belgian glass or Swiss cuckoo clocks? Do we market anything that says ‘Made in Dharavi’? Then why make it into an exhibitionistic arena and blatantly refer to it as slum tourism?
One report mentioned, “Breathe in the smells of Colaba Causeway, grab a beer at Leopold Cafe and inspect the infamous block of lock-up cells at Colaba police station. Let the hustle of Tardeo market tear past your window, take note of the Shiv Sena headquarters in Dadar and try to get a bit role in a Bollywood film.”
I have visited Holocaust memorials and have to admit that it is purely a voyeuristic exercise to watch the rooms and photographs. The difference is that it is history and we can respect the gravity of the situation aware of its distance.
Must we make a spectacle of our people living lives of deprivation? You might well ask what my objection can be when we have beggars at every traffic signal and emaciated cattle roaming the streets.
This is our reality, and there is no shirking away from it. But we are not making them into poverty mannequins where people can window shop and check out the wares. Those selling these cities of grit and grime images compound the insensitivity by claiming that they are showing the India of a few best-sellers written by some Australian who did time in prison, an expat who did his Manhattan take on Mumbai and those who have capitalised on our slums. One wouldn’t be surprised if the Booker winning novel’s cutting through the swathe for a firang market becomes the new tourist trap. How about a tour of Gurgaon with a former rickshaw-puller turned businessman, a rags-to-riches story of exposing the overdone underbelly?
A fallout of all these let’s hang out of the local train and smell the excrement and then sit in some streetside foodstall is that the eateries up their ante; a small seafood joint is now a pricey place. It continues to play the low-class act to cater to its avowed purpose of being simple. A five-star hotel in Chennai has introduced “authentic Nair tea” for “those who are rich and famous and can't be seen sipping tea from a glass tumbler at a roadside stall”.
This is bringing the streets to the fine-tuned ambience of luxury. It becomes a mockery, not a taste of India.
An ad being aired by the tourism department consolidates this view when poor guides and taxi drivers are reprimanded for taking advantage of the guests; no one seems to realise that tourists can also be other Indians. Apparently, they don’t count, unless they pen three-word odes on heritage sites about how Pinky loves Tinku for which they will be ticked off.
If they were slumdogs, then the marketing guys might have condescended to wag their tails for them.