|Not quite jewel-crusted, but my toilet did have a flush|
There were two Australians (including Sid), two Americans, a Newzealander and poor little Ms-Indian-Me at the table, and we had just finished the most amazing Indian meal at a restaurant near Leicester Square.
The comment came about rather innocently, as such comments usually do. I asked the Texan if he had ever visited India and his wife started a story about how he used to keep saying that he didn’t need to visit India because it couldn’t possibly be that different from Mexico City – loud, colourful, lots of poor people and great food – until he saw a documentary about how so many Indians live without sanitation. Then, he changed his mind.
I didn’t bother asking whether he was keener to visit India now.
I am never quite sure how to react to such comments – and they come up in conversation often enough. I don’t think they arise out of nastiness at all. People are just genuinely bewildered that such poverty can exist at all. And it is precisely because such statements are true that I feel at loss about how to respond.
The easiest thing would be to turn around and say, “Yes, 665 million defecate openly in India. But we always had a toilet at home. It even had a flush!”
A lot of Indians do that, they make it point to mention how back in India they had so many servants, and a chauffeur, and a huge garden with one gardener to water, another to weed, and still another to sing and dance to the plants. I guess, they want to define themselves as far apart from the miserable minions that the West see in documentaries and films, as possible. I can see where they come from.
Only, then we immediately come across as evil, feudal and insensitive. After all, the general assumption is that if you are living in such luxury surrounded by such inhuman poverty – then you must be exploiting the poor. How could you otherwise, so casually, talk about having servants. The whole servant-structure is seen as rather exploitative here.
So what I really want to say is this: Yes, there is immense poverty in India. Horrifying poverty. But I am not ashamed of the poor of my country. I am ashamed of the caste system, the criminalised politics and religous riots, but not the poor. With or without toilets, they are no less human than those Swiss with their toilets that even clean the seats automatically.So whatever else you want to be overwhelmed by, don't be overwhelmed by the poor.
And yes, I was privileged, but I was not evil. I was just at loss about how to address a problem that is so immense and so overpowering. I was just one tiny Indian, earning a middle-class salary, trying to enjoy life while still hoping to do my bit to help the poor: pay my taxes, vote diligently, sign petitions, and occasionally join a protest when I thought something egregious had occurred. It was no more, no less than what an average European would do.
But it is too much, too complicated for a casual dinner table conversation. So I usually choose to just remain quiet.