Branded Clothes and Fake Smiles
Delhi, just like any metropolitan city in India, is characterized by a stark inequality in income. It’s a beautiful city to be in, with its diverse traditions, multifarious cultures and rich heritage. As the political capital of the country, and the hub of economic development in India, it is the seat of power. It has managed to provide ample comforts to most of its citizens, and lavish luxuries to an elite few. However, there are still those belonging to the lower rung of society, who haven’t managed a share in what this city has to offer.
When I arrived here last year, as one of the fortunate few to have gained admission in Lady Shri Ram College, one of the most prestigious academic institutions of the country, I felt a sense of pride, which I believed to be justified. The first year went in parties and social gatherings; I was acquainting myself with the Delhi culture and its people. I still recall those late night parties at F-Bar, the fashion lounge in Delhi. I remember flaunting my Gucci bag and silver studded Jimmy Choos, experiencing a sense of smugness on being introduced to the so-called ‘socialites’ – the cream of Delhi’s society, with their genuine branded clothing and fake smiles. I recall the free mojitos at Urban Pind Lounge on Wednesdays, the silver apple flavoured hookahs at Mocha, the leisurely afternoons spent at the Delhi Golf Club over sandwiches as my friends played golf. I recall the shopping sprees at Mango, the thick crust pizza with extra jalapeños at T.G.I. Friday’s, the head banging at Cafe Morrison, and the road trips to my friend’s farmhouse located on the outskirts of the city, where we’d spend our nights over beer and poker.
This was Delhi. The Delhi I’d heard of all my life. And I was thoroughly convinced that I’d seen it all. I’d been there and done all of that, and lay comfortably deluded and blissfully ignorant of what lay beyond my senses. But when reality dawns on you, unveiling the silken curtains of illusion that shield the ugly truth, leaving it naked and exposed for you to see, it’s as though the world you created around you crumbles. And once this facade crumbled in front of my eyes, I was left inundated by questions for which answers never existed.
It all happened on that fateful Friday afternoon, when I was on my way to a particularly posh gallery to view a particular designer’s exhibition. Delhi is famous for its haute couture, and I wanted to pick up a few designer sarees for my mom’s birthday. It was a sultry day for most. But for me it was just any ordinary day, since I prefer not to expose myself to Delhi’s heat. I was in my friend’s air-conditioned BMW, and its tinted glasses cut me off from the city’s heat, squalor, sweat and grime. When our car halted at the red light of a busy crossing at Lodhi Road, we were suddenly surrounded by vendors selling packaged strawberries, garlands of white flowers or gajras, pirated books, cheap plastic toys, cut pieces of coconuts, and sundry other things.
I was oblivious to these vendors and beggars. As I sat humming Good Charlotte’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, I was suddenly thrown off by a rap on my window. I saw my friend beside me scrunch up her face in disgust and turn the other way. I squinted through my tinted window at the figure of a woman draped in rags with a begging bowl and a small portrait of Santoshi Mata. These details, however, skipped my notice at first since the woman carried a mutilated baby in her arms. I was utterly horrified and unable to react.
“Ugh!” exclaimed Sonika beside me grimacing. “It’s a shame that they’re even allowed to live. Don’t bother with them, Bhavika.”
My hand had reached my purse in order to pull out a tenner, when she stopped me by remarking “They’re the scum of the earth. Absolute eyesores. Polluting our environment more than anything else.”
Her boyfriend, Ashim, who was sitting in the front seat, rolled down his window. But it was for no altruistic and charitable deed that he did. He merely wished to ash his cigarette.
“Beta, mera bachha bhookha hai (Son, my child is hungry),” she implored. “Bhagwaan tera bhala karega (God will be merciful towards you).”
Ashim smirked and replied, “Marne de (Let him die).” Then turning towards us he said, “To hell with these guys, man. They’re irksome to the core.”
I hadn’t recovered from my horror yet, and my eyes remained transfixed on the distorted child she carried. My mind was urging me to help the woman, yet my hands refused to move. It was as though something was blocking the pity from flowing to my heart. And that ‘something’ was not any innate badness that I possessed; it had been created by those around me.
Those few moments seemed like hours to me. My eyes darted to Ashim, who was now busy abusing Delhi’s congested traffic on his Blackberry. Sonika was holding out a few hundred rupees to a vendor selling her a pirated DVD of The Devil Wears Prada. My eyes then darted back to the dishevelled woman, who was now walking away, her child clasped to her breast. The traffic signal turned green, our car moved ahead, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her. As we drove on her figure became smaller and smaller, slowly fading into the blur of cars and smoke. I could soon see her only as a dot in the distance, a dot that stood for all women. Women who face abject poverty and vicissitudes in life. Women who are exploited and suppressed by the society they depend on. Women who need to emancipate themselves socially, economically and politically. Women who depend on us to be uplifted, but are shunned by those they rely on. The child in her arms depended on her for its sustenance, without realizing that she herself was dependent on a world too occupied by its own selfish motives to care.
I tried to ignore the guilt pangs and pacify my conscience. So what if I hadn’t offered her charity? It wasn’t as if one ten-rupee note paid to one beggar would reduce the level of impoverishment in our country, bridging the income divide. What I failed to realize (or chose not to realize), was that every drop makes an ocean. We have to start somewhere to get somewhere. One altruistic deed may not affect our country’s poverty levels; it may, however, affect someone’s life.
I admired the rich hand-stitched kantha embroidery work on the saree I picked up for my mom from Friday’s exhibition. It was a lazy Sunday morning, and I was sitting on my balcony enjoying the cool breeze and the hot aroma of my coffee. The saree was of a turquoise hue; its kantha work was intricately spread, and its motifs were elegant and beautiful. It was an expensive piece, yet it left me satisfied. I turned to the newspaper spread out on my table and the headline caught my attention. ‘Begging an Organized Crime: Child on Lodhi Road drugged and maimed by father.’ I was shaken out of my dreamy stupor, as a thousand thoughts rushed to my mind. ‘Two year old boy handicapped by his father ... used as a prop by his mother ... mother regularly beaten and sexually abused by the child’s father.’ The memory of the disfigured child and his wretched mother came back to me, a picture that had imprinted itself in my mind and would refuse to fade into oblivion, no matter how hard I tried to push it away.
The hollowness and superficiality of my life dawned on me, as I clasped the rich fabric in my hand. It suddenly felt no different from the dull and tattered cloth worn by the poor and the homeless, in a fabricated world.