The Poor Will Be With You Always

It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.

In his book ‘No Full Stops in India’, Mark Tully says the question he is most often asked is ‘How do you cope with the poverty in India?’ His reply never varies. ‘I don’t have to,’ he says, ‘the poor do.’ For anyone coming to India for the first time the reality of that statement may come as a shock but it contains a truism that is beyond doubt. India’s poor seem to deal very well with their poverty while the, relatively-speaking, well-off tourist often finds it shocking. Nonetheless we check our change to make sure we haven’t paid more than the few rupees asked or we shake our head in disbelief if we are asked for 50 rupees for a Tuk-Tuk ride which we thought should only cost 40. We cope with the poverty by pretending it doesn’t exist.

It does exist though and its existence is often all too visible. The rickshaw driver who has just driven you to a restaurant will, if you ask him, still be there to take you back to your hotel for a round fare of about 60p.  This is a ridiculously low fare for a hire that may well have lasted two or three hours but we pat ourselves on the back, convinced we are helping the local economy and that things aren’t really that bad as we hand over a 100 rupee note and tell him to keep the change.

It has been said that the tears shed over India’s poor would flood the Ganges several times over. It is pointless, therefore, to add to that deluge. It is better by far to see what is right in front of you and admit that you are helpless to do anything about it and live with it. Millions of Indians live far below what world economists have defined as the poverty line. Millions more live in housing conditions which go far beyond unsanitary, if indeed they live in a house. That Tuk-Tuk driver you who has just dropped you back at your hotel may well spend his nights in his vehicle at the rickshaw stand. The lady to whom you pay a paltry sum to do your laundry at her local dhobi probably sleeps there as well. That level of poverty is scandalous but what makes it more so is that we in the West seem to have learned to live with it. As India slowly emerges as one of the new BRIC economies perhaps all of this will change, but I fear not. As I have said the poor of India are dealing with their own poverty and dealing with it very well.

There is, however, in the midst of all of this a very inventive kind of enterprise that gives hope to all. As the fish stocks in the backwaters of Kerala dwindle local fishermen in Kochi, who were utterly dependent on the catches made with their world-famous Chinese fishing nets, have taken to casting those nets ever wider to secure a different, more gullible harvest. In order to supplement their reduced incomes they invite tourists to come and help them land whatever fish they catch and experience the joy, or disappointment, and the sheer hard work involved in hauling up one of these leviathans. If you don’t fancy actually hauling up the nets you can just stand back and take some photos but if you do opt for a spot of net hauling and, if you are lucky, you can take your prize to a nearby eatery where they will cook it for you, and you have to admit that it doesn’t get much fresher than that. Of course all of this comes at a cost. Exactly what the cost is I don’t know because I didn’t partake in this particular tourist fantasy of being a Keralan fisherman. Think about it for a moment. You turn up at the nets and pay the local fishermen to help them haul up their nets and then, if you are so inclined, you can buy one of the fish you have just helped land . If all that hard work has left you feeling a bit peckish, you can take your fish across the road to a restaurateur, who is in on the deal, and he will gut and cook your fish and then sell it back to you. Believe it or not this is an enterprise which has them queuing up.

India may be poor to a degree that still astounds us but its people are amongst the proudest, most independently minded and generous I have ever met. A noted Indian academic once said that everything that was good about India was shaped by British rule, which is nonsense. Rulers do not shape the culture of their subjects, they destroy them. If it was correct then it must follow that there was nothing of note in India before the raj, a supposition which is preposterous in a country and a culture which has survived for so long.

That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.

Be well, be kind and never give up.