In my spare time, I participate in a little project called the Bond of Dignity. It is an ongoing social experiment that aims to investigate what constitutes “dignity.” The way we do that is we engage people in our lives that might otherwise appear invisible to us. Beggars, people working on the streets, living on the streets, working in ours homes, offices. Anyone really. An immigration officer (although the scope for engagement is limited there). The first step toward this engagement begins by eye contact. The most basic acknowledgment of the other’s existence that a human being is capable of. It goes from there to a verbal acknowledgment and perhaps onward to conversation. In a city like Delhi, where no one really belongs, this has been a critical piece of the puzzle for me. Because people come to this town to make money or find a better life, the city has developed a culture of grabbing and posing. You grab what you can of the land and resources and use that to assume a pose that you show to others. In an introductory workshop that we ran as part of this project, a long conversation occurred among the participants about the so called “show-off culture” in Delhi. This was really unexpected but now, it appears that this “posing” is very much a symptom of the crisis of dignity and makes total sense that it was an integral part of the dialogue that day. It is very palpable in the public space.
The poor are invisible because they are ignored by the privileged and the rich are invisible because they have walled themselves inside concrete bastions where their dignity can appear to be preserved. Once my parents and I, dressed in our best outfits for a wedding party, got locked out of our house without the car keys. It felt like our dignity had fallen off a cliff into an abyss. Our fancy outfits seemed comical and we were left out in the cold in more ways than one. The poor do not experience existential angst because of their invisibility beyond a sort of lamentation of misfortune but the rich do. They deal with it by showing off. The public space ceases to be a place of trust and becomes a war-zone where people are either ignoring you or judging you. It is quite natural that people will need larger cars to protect themselves from the threat of exposure. Nobody really knows each other.
Today we did another little exploration. We collected warm clothes from our own homes and through generous donations from our friends. We sorted the clothes into “male”, “female” and “child” categories. We then approached the homeless shelter that we usually work with. The managers suggested that we donate the clothing to a different shelter. They then presented a rather disappointing narrative about the “people on the street.” They said that the people do not realize the value of food and clothing that is given to them. They will often throw food away and burn clothes to make fire for warmth. I am aware that there has recently been some speculation in the press about the unwillingness of the homeless of Delhi to use the services of shelters. The managers were understandably eager to explain the efforts they go to to try and rehabilitate the homeless. But in the quagmire of drug addiction and ensuing mental illness, it is difficult for them to “civilize” people enough so that they can fit into the culture of the shelter.
“They don’t want to live here because they can’t live with discipline. On the street they can smoke where they want, litter and do drugs. At the shelter that’s not allowed so they don’t come,” one of them said.
“If you walk by them with warm clothes, they will pretend to be cold or close their eyes for effect,” another volunteered.
This lack of trust, general resentment and the tight holding to a narrative on the part of the management was rather a dampener in our charitable plans. I do not for one second, doubt the management. There can be many reasons for their perspective, including a degree of frustration, lack of resource and more likely a general fear of appearing incompetent to what they believe is a ruthless press. The first lesson that I learned here was that making the decision to give to somebody involves more than just the giving. It involves the understanding. We decided to take to the streets and do our own reconnaissance.
We walked around and engaged people on the street in a little chatter. The ensuing interactions gave us many answers and true to my expectations, many smiles. Some interesting stories. We heard from a boy who ran away from home in Aligarh because:
“Mere koi yaar dost nahin the.” (I didn’t have any friends).
What struck us was that “the poor” are not one category of people. They are all as different from each other as we are. They have different viewpoints, different reasons to be here and different priorities. The unwillingness to stay in the shelter cannot be explained away as being for one reason or the other. The people who live in the area possess individual personalities and histories and that determines who they are and what they are willing and unwilling to do. It is not necessarily just simply determined by a “lack of education” or by “drug addiction.” Someone might be unwilling to live at the shelter simply because he likes to sleep on the pavement. We spoke to a gentleman who came here to work in a factory and then was jilted.
“I have my aadhar card, my license, everything,” he said. He said he wasn’t afraid to do any work and the employers were trying to jerk him around by having him come out to Mayapuri (very far) every day and he told them to come clean with him. So he just gave up the idea and now hangs out on the pavement before he can make his way back to his home. I didn’t offer him any clothes simply because he seemed to know exactly what he needed and what he wanted to do. Clothing wasn’t his problem. Not all “poor” people need woolens. This told me that this model of one-on-one engagement works to alleviate problems of mistrust. When you make eye contact with someone and really listen to them, you can pretty get a good idea of who they are. Once you know that, it doesn’t matter so much whether there story is true or not or whether they are “pretending” so they can get a free piece of warm clothing. I simply took everything they said at face value. If I offered someone a piece of clothing, I made sure the offer was motivated by the conversation we were having.
The conversations would get very private very suddenly. Before we knew it, we would be asking them things like “who supports your family back in your village.” My co-conspirator pointed out that in our circles, if someone is separated from their spouse for example, we avoid the topic like the plague. Sometimes for months and years of knowing someone but people on the street hide behind nothing. Physical privacy and emotional privacy are directly linked. After all, if someone lives in a hut, you walk right in but if they live in a palace, you have to walk through gardens, gates, antechambers and what have you.
Living on the street is a lifestyle just the way living in a skyscraper is a lifestyle. Whether you like it or not, it is something someone has chosen and your decision to help them has work within the context of that choice. Later in the evening, I spoke to my mom about it. She said that “giving” is a good thing but it cannot encroach on someone’s sense of freedom. A mutual respect for choices in life irrespective of social standing is a critical aspect of giving and receiving dignity.