How beggars are made...

Tonight we watched a story unfold: of how doctors take money to amputate perfectly healthy limbs of beggars from the Mafia that runs the show. IBN-CNN must be commended for this expose, “Why beggars don’t scream” , but will it stop here?

Another televised drama? We have been promised that the case will be pursued, the offending doctors will be arrested…ministers have assured that action will be taken.

Let us look beyond that. Will it stop at these three doctors trapped in the sting operation? Is it restricted to Ghaziabad? What about instances of quacks operating?

The existence of a beggar mafia has been fairly common knowledge, and some of us who have done stories know that territories are marked by groups. The police get hafta (bribe), the kingpin gets his cut and usually the beggar gets just food.

I suspect that not much will happen to the doctors.

A few years ago I had followed up a case of neglect that could have led to death. A wrong blood group diagnosis prior to surgery. In a chawl at the far suburb of Ghatkopar in Mumbai resided this lower middle-class family; they put all their papers and trust before me. It was late night when I left them.

Next morning I decided to meet the doctor. I entered the clinic and after a very long wait his wife, also a doctor, told me he was not in town. It was a lie for the fruit vendor outside had in fact given me the exact address and also confirmed his presence.

When I went out, I told him he wasn’t in. “Aisa kaise ho sakta hai? Hum ne khud dehka aatey hue aur unki gaadi bhi yahaan hai.” (How is it possible? I saw him enter and his car is still there.)

It was raining outside. I crossed the street and lay in wait, hoping for something. Nothing. The showers were getting incessant and I was drenched. It must have been the time of a blink of an eye when I saw THE car get out of the gate. I couldn’t move. Where would I? How? It was a helpless situation. I left. An hour later a colleague from a magazine told me that he had got a call from the doctor, he was a nice man, very influential. The message was that I should keep shut.

I did not.

What happened? Did the family get anything out of it? No. Except that they had raised their voice. No action was taken despite their case being put before the medical council.

Slowly, it was almost forgotten…a year or so later I was shocked to read that this doctor had been given some award by his own fraternity.

The media today has a greater reach, more influence. It should use it as a weapon against offenders and act as a shield for those who need protection.

As for me, that scene still haunts me of a car that escaped and the rain that wouldn’t stop. It haunts me that I could do nothing. Absolutely nothing.


The little Prince?

As I switched on the TV on Sunday night and saw the ticker talking about Prince being rescued from a ditch, I began to wonder what the heck was good ole Charlie upto. Or did William fall off a horse? Or was Harry punch drunk? And why was Manmohan Singh sending them blessings?

Or was it one of our Rajasthan type ‘hukooms’?

Or was it a police sniffer dog that was chasing a Tashkar-e-Taiyba terrorist who seem to be so easy to find?

Then I squinted my eyes as I read that the Haryana chief minister had offered Rs. 2 lakh to Prince. All this was breaking news. Later, images were flashed and I got to know that the whole country had been riveted for two days by the ordeal of a five-year-old who had fallen into an open sewer.

He was hailed by commoner and cynic alike as a hero.

I was just glad I wasn’t around to be “glued to the TV”. The Prince episode makes me sick. It has exposed the malaise that besets urban society – boredom.

K. Natwar Singh, our former external affairs minister, dedicated his column in The Asian Age to “A new little hero for India”.

He asks with utter naiveté, “How did a billion Indians adopt him as their own, why did so many perform pujas and collective prayers?” and then proceeds to answer with the even more naïve, “Because we are an emotional and sentimental people”.

Where are our emotions and sentiments when children walk around like zombies with bloated hungry stomachs, who die before they are born, who live in pipes that are not even two-feet wide? Where are our emotions when tribals are displaced, slums are demolished, people killed in cold blood?

He gushes, “What a wonderful, heart-lifting, skillful job the rescue team, the doctors and the administration did.”

Where are the rescue teams when calamities strike, when women are raped, villages plundered?

He further states, “The chief minister of Haryana has given Rs 2 lakh to the boy’s parents. The Prime Minister has announced free medical aid. This is not enough. Also announce that Prince’s education from primary school to university will be met by the government of Haryana.”

Where are our politicians when many such children die due to lack of basic healthcare? Why did Prince get Rs. 2 lakh? If it is compensation for the neglect of the authorities that left the sewer open, then the person responsible ought to be thrown out of his job first. This is a sop and will encourage the powers-that-be to become heroes by default. The prime minister should be sending his blessings to all the impoverished children of India for displaying resilience every single day of their lives.

On what grounds must the Haryana government sponsor the child’s education? Because a CCTV was monitoring him and he survived on biscuits and chocolates?

Why are TV channels being lauded? They want reality? They should park their cameras in villages where some kids run hard and fast hoping to become athletes if only they could afford a pair of shoes. Then let us see how many people pray.

Natwar Singh is extremely insensitive when he says, “The other reason is that this happy ending took our minds away from perpetual doom and gloom, from terror attacks in Mumbai, rape in Ghaziabad, abduction in the Northeast, violence in Somalia and Sudan, American folly in Iraq, an air crash here and a train disaster there, Israeli bombing of Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah retaliating with deadly determination, from a suicide by a girl in a Delhi school to murder in Vasant Vihar, I could go on and on.”

I am quoting from one article by an articulate, apparently intelligent man (never mind that he makes a comment like, “This five-year-old kid obviously has a very strong horoscope and a very strong constitution”), but this obviously seemed to be the mood around.

So, as citizens of the world, must we ignore the gut-wrenching happenings around us? Must we use a personal trauma as ‘time-pass’ and in turn transform an unlikely candidate into a hero?

To call Prince “a role model to millions of children of our beloved India” would mean waiting for every child to fall into a ditch, literal or metaphorical.


Megha chhaae aadhi raat, bairan ban gayee nindiyaa

Yesterday I was out. I took my mother for her post-op check-up. This wasn’t the bhutta and garam chai kind of rain. It was frightening.

We had to change route four times to get to the hospital. I am not complaining. I cannot. The scenes I saw in the street wouldn’t let me. People were holding on to each other, vehicles were stalled, rows of shops that I always grumbled caused traffic snarls and stared at me with the latest fashion accessories were shut. Above one row the windows had come off the hinges.

For the first time I think I looked at my school with affection! It looked lost – I could see the doors of the classrooms closed. How we would wait for the rains for a holiday to be declared and then make paddle-boats of our shoes before we reached home to the safe cocoon of hot chocolate, warm hugs before our hair was towel dried as every strand whipped our faces wet.

Was such innocence dead?

Yesterday, I was surprised to see it still alive. Groups of young boys soaked to the skin were patrolling the areas to help; a young couple whizzed past on a motorbike till it whirred to a stop… the guy looked behind and she smiled and held him close; urchins waved at everyone as they bathed in the muddy water; as we made our way towards Bandstand, a cop in a yellow raincoat motioned us to turn away.

We went via Mount Mary’s church. The carts with candles were covered with sheets, but some were left open. Faith’s flame could not be doused.

This is a view of the waters before the greater deluge where once there was a street.

Here is Bandstand just before we were stopped.

Mount Mary’s Church with the plastic sheet-covered candle stalls.

These are the downed shutters of shops and in the far right corner a man who has found shelter.

I did not get any vicarious thrill clicking these photographs. Some little kids did in fact give me their practised ‘Canon’ised smiles, but I refrained. I just had the camera in my bag and these are the places where I have walked, driven through, prayed, shopped almost everyday of my life.

I did not want to see people “bounce back”. This is what makes others take us for granted. TV channels invite politicians, cops, bureaucrats, admen, citizen’s initiative types who are not in touch with the ground reality. They talk about how Mumbai pays Rs. 60,000 crore in taxes, but the appalling drainage system (said to be anywhere from 70 to 150 years old) is blamed on encroachments.

The pictures I have shown you, the places I have mentioned are the so-called elite areas of the suburbs. The road where the cop stopped us from entering houses Shahrukh’s, Salman Khan’s and Rekha’s homes.

The encroachments are not only the slums but the illegal buildings. A very fancy atrium structure has come up at the end of the lane where I live; it has caused complete havoc in this once-beautiful stretch. Its silly little waterfall mocks me when it ought to be mocking itself.

I cannot complain. I will not. I saw the municipal guys clearing the garbage, emptying your filth and mine in the trucks despite the downpour. That would have made for a great picture. But it would have taken away their dignity.

These faceless, nameless people may never ask for it. It is the least we can give them.