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Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Today I visited a place.
It was different.
From the places that I have visited in the past.
It was a complete diversion.
From the luxury hotel I have been staying in at Chennai.
The place was Rajiv Gandhi Nagar- a slum on the city beach inhabited by a community of fishermen and their families.
The vast sea and the beach were there.
But instead of the sense of beauty and sublimity that such a setting would usually inspire, desolation loomed large in the hot, humid horizon.
A settlement of dingy shanties made of crude materials; filth and garbage piled up by the road, stench emanating from it, starved dogs and flies hovering around, murky puddles, stuffy, dark huts, half naked children and emaciated looking aged people.
One of the areas affected by the Tsunami six years ago, killing 60 from the community and causing massive structural damages.
The fishermen and their families live in the most sordid conditions dreaming of a better life which does not seem to be materializing.
They are expecting the government to build them proper homes.
They don’t have access to clean drinking water so they have to consume brackish water.
They have no toilets or sanitation facilities.
Interestingly, according to the leader of the fishermen, the government announced the state budget but nothing was mentioned about their rehabilitation.
For the last 45 days, the fishermen could not go about their business because it was the underwater breeding period and the government paid a compensation of a measly Rs 750 for the whole period (the cost of a fishing net being Rs 8,000).
Smaller examples of suffering:
A 60 year old widow diabetic and suffering from an eye complication after a wave hit her desperate to get help talks to a so called journalist who swindles money off her.
Three families share a single hut- the men folk sleep on the beach at night.
A young man claims he drowns his sorrows over his hopeless situation in alcohol.
Stories of poverty. Stories of want. Stories of exploitation.
We hear them every day. We are bombarded with such news by every newspaper, TV and radio channel.
Stories from all around the world, near or far.
The danger is- we have become numb to the effect.
It is terrifying.
We are so overwhelmed by stories that we have become insensitive to issues.
My other journalist friends stood at a distance talking to the slum dwellers.
We had come to ‘experience the other side of life.’
I stood and talked to the slum children who had stars in their eyes and wide, ready smiles greeting me.
I smiled back and patted their faces.
How genuine was my smile?
How genuine were my sentiments of solidarity?
Was I thinking of the AC bus or a relaxing, cold shower back at the hotel?
What about high ideals of ‘changing the world?’
Or making a difference in society?
Sometimes guilt is good. It prompts us to action. In little or big ways.
We tend to become so accustomed to a cushy life that we forget.
We forget how privileged we are. We forget to appreciate. We forget to be grateful.
“I want to complete IAS,” says a scrawny little girl with pigtails who has been fortunate enough to be enrolled in a nursery school. The other kids surround me and extend their hands to me in warm greeting and attempting to communicate with me in broken English.
Hope- stuff that dreams are made of.
These kids may or may not be aware of the extent of their deprivation.
Yet they hope. They have dreams.
Do we have a duty here? A calling?
Or are we just hypocrites?
Talking about spiraling poverty rates and famines during socialite dinners?
Clucking our tongues sympathetically and making high claims of altruism and charity while living a life of inertia?
At least don’t pretend if all you can do is talk.
Don’t pretend that you care if you don’t.
It is very important to look within yourself and check your motives, even when you give.
Actions are more important than words but then the thought behind the action is what counts the most.
I can’t claim to change the world.
But I can change myself. And that is where it all begins.
That is half the battle won. The other half depends on what direction you channel the energies of the changed you.
Maybe that is what making a difference means after all.

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