Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stop Slum Tourism

There is much anguish over Oprah’s episodes on India shot during her Jaipur Lit fest visit. Here is a caustic review of the episode. Before I went all ballistic, I checked if the videos are available in order to get a personal perspective. Because more often than not, while no malice is intended, ignorance comes across as arrogance, and before you know it, everyone is yelling about insult to our culture. Unfortunately, the videos are not available where I reside. So I read the review a couple of times to distil the reviewer’s anger from the details of the show itself.

I was mildly irritated with Oprah’s ‘eating with your hands’ query – at best it was daft, at worst it was pathetic. Most westerners I know perfectly understand that eating styles are dependent on the food, and using forks, knives and spoons is not an indication of ‘advanced civilization’ or economic prowess.

I was not so angered by her ‘you still live with your parents’ questions. I’ve been asked this question many times – and there is only genuine curiosity behind it. After all, we Indians exhibit the same level of curiosity and prejudice at their concept of relationships, be it parental or marital. Since I’ve not watched Oprah’s episode, I will give her this benefit of doubt, and hope that she was not mocking the concept of living with parents, but was merely trying to understand how it works. Besides, her ‘exposure’ thus far to India, Indianisms and Indians is through the super rich, who represent only a small, miniscule dimension of India.

There is another reason for my tanda reaction. A couple of years ago, I had seen a British documentary set in the slums (can’t remember if it was BBC or ITV). The documentary was not about poverty, but about parenting. The show focussed on how, despite tough circumstances, the Indian parents did all they could to bring up children in a responsible, loving way. It was more of a harsh criticism of a section of British benefit-mongering parents – the ones who whine about ‘tough times’ despite the government giving them free housing, free schools, and money to spend. The host of this documentary stayed in the slum. In one episode he was invited to an upscale party, and one of the Page 3 bimbos asked him where he was ‘put up’. The host informed her about the documentary and that he was staying in the slum. Ah! How the painted lips parted and how the fake eyelashes fluttered. ‘Oh you have too much guts!’ she tittered, ‘Make sure you don’t catch an infection!’ This Indian did not even attempt to feign any sympathy towards the sad state of some of her own fellow countrymen. So, yes, I cannot work up the rage that the writer of the article directs towards a clueless American.

But I was angered and saddened by the slum tourism; I agree it was in very poor taste.

I am reminded of my maid Gauri in India – and I believe she is representative of the ‘economically weaker’ section of India. Gauri is probably 15 years elder to me. She was an efficient worker, quiet and punctual. It did not take long for us to become good friends.

Gauri’s husband was an off and on alcoholic, never holding down to a steady job. She had two grown up daughters. The elder one had eloped with a mechanic, and had two kids. Soon, she became a victim of domestic violence and she left her husband. At 25, she was a single mother, working as a maid, and then as an ayah in a local school.The younger daughter was more settled – she worked in a garment factory where they gave her PF, medical benefits and so on. She worked in gruelling shifts, the heat of the automated sewing machines giving her boils and rashes. A son was living elsewhere. Another son had committed suicide.

On some days, Gauri would shed silent tears, thinking of her dead son – having seen him hanging from the hook meant for a ceiling fan. Her baby, her child, her son – for whom she had a lot of dreams, whom she had nurtured for 16 years – gone in a gruesome way. And her poverty prevented her from grieving – she had to get on with life; there was no taking time off. Hunger knows no grief.
But on most days, she was very cheerful, chatting about many things that affected both our lives – expensive Bangalore, traffic, government and so on. Once in six months, she would go to some place near Hosur where a special puja for Shakti was held. It was a women’s only event apparently, and it required some strict practices such as fasting and so on. She would return from the place, with a specially packed prasada for my home. She would smear kumkum on my forehead, and pray for me. What she prayed, I don’t know – but it gave me immense comfort. This stranger, who had so many problems in her own life – had a place in her heart to pray for people who are outside her family. It was, and still is, very humbling.

When I had to leave the country, Gauri invited me to her home for the traditional thamboola. It was the first time that I visited her place. It was two miles away from mine. It was in a small compound that housed at least four other houses. There was a common toilet situated towards the edge of the compound – so everyone in that enclosure shared it.

Gauri’s house was two small windowless rooms – each not more than 5X5. All their possessions were in trunks. One such trunk also acted as a kitchen counter – while the cooking took place on a kerosene stove kept on the floor.

When you see poverty of that kind, you physically shrink. You feel ashamed of everything about yourself – your clothes, your watch, your slippers, your combed hair – everything. The poverty is not your fault, yet, the guilt is deadening. What did Gauri feel when she came to work in our homes? How did she feel when saw our comfortable beds, our clothes, the abundant water supply, the money we spend on provisions and luxuries?

Gauri’s second daughter (the garment factory worker), who was recently married and expecting, greeted me warmly. Her husband too was there – he had decided to shift base to Bangalore since the opportunities were better. He had done his market research – drivers were in high demand and the salary was good. He had a clean record, and he was confident of finding a job. His priority was to shift this family to a better place, he informed me. He spoke politely and articulately.

Gauri showed me her dead son’s photo and wiped her eyes. We chatted about their future plans – their eyes burned with pride, hunger and passion for a break. There was no doubt this family would make it – if not in this generation – in the next they definitely would.

Gauris of India are nonexistent as far as the government is concerned. Gauri’s situation won’t change no matter what political party comes to power. Gauri’s situation can only be changed by her own hard work, her own savings and strategy.

Bangalore may be a place of unlimited opportunities, but it is also a place where cost of living is ridiculously high. Even if all of Gauri’s family members earn money, they won’t be able to buy a plot of land or build a home. Even if they have to move to a bigger, rented place with a toilet inside the house – the rent will eat into their earnings significantly. Like all families, Gauri’s family too has debts. The difference is that these are hand-loans, given out at exorbitant interest rates. No banks give people like Gauri loans. After all, they can’t furnish any collateral and neither can they show proof of a steady employment. Thus, the earnings go towards paying the interest for the hand-loans for years together. So for a Rs.10000 loan, one could end up paying more than treble or quadruple the principle amount as interest before ‘settling’ the dues.

Those of us who have Gauris at home know this well. And we all exist in a complex ecosystem and relationship that no one in the world can understand. None of us – my neighbours or myself - formed any kind of ‘Gauri upliftment committee’. It was an unspoken agreement and we did everything in our power to enable Gauri and her family members grab opportunities. We took care of their clothes, provisions, children’s education, medical care – freeing up their liquid cash to take care of the savings and debt payments.

Before I left their home, Gauri and her daughter gave me the thamboola. I know how expensive it would have been for Gauri to buy a coconut. I know what a rare delicacy a coconut is in her family. I felt very small as a human being as I accepted it – from the pregnant girl who had no access to a private toilet, who had no access to a warm bed during those difficult months. Yet she stood there, radiant in her smile, with her blessed child inside her. The coconut was more than a traditional symbol. It contained all of Gauri’s dignity and self-respect. It contained all of her love and affection that she showered liberally on me – a stranger - whose house she cleaned and dusted – as if I were her own family member.

The cruellest thing one can do to someone like Gauri is to throw her poverty at her face. Point out the small dimensions of her house and the wretchedness of her existence. Indeed, had I told Gauri that I will pay her money, buy her clothes and provisions, and in return, I want to make a video of her pathetic living conditions – she would have agreed. Because when it comes to a battle between self respect and hunger, hunger inflicts a crushing defeat on the former. Oprah’s ‘marvelling’ at the cramped space, the lack of storage, the lack of ‘shower’ in the bathroom – is just as distasteful.

No matter how good your intentions are, there is something very crude, very base, very shameful, very nauseating if you walk into someone’s home and highlight their poverty. I would be humiliated if a person living in a 20 bedroom mansion came to my home, enjoyed my hospitality and then commented (very kindly) about the smallness of my home, and made me cry about my inability to earn more. Why should it be any different for a family living in the slum? Is the self respect I have any different from the self respect a man in the slum is entitled to?

Very poor judgement, Oprah. Having seen the worst of life, you should have known better.

© Sumana Khan - 2012


  1. This is one thing I see again and again on BBC, coverage of slums in India. Recently as I was speaking to another parent during my daughter's swimming lessons, she seemed much interested in my roots and started asking me about India, how we travel there, what kind of houses we live in there, if our kids can afford to go to school there. When I explained, she was kind of disbelieving, because her whole idea about India is from BBC shows, which only shows the drastic situations. She kept repeating how she saw children in pathetic state walking around open drains.
    I had a plumber in my house last week and as he was working, he kept asking me about my whereabouts and mentioned "India must be full of horrendous roads and drivers, isn't it? Because I have seen them on the show 'World's Most Dangerous Roads'!
    By the way, I keep wondering who is giving these people permissions to shoot whatever they wish and then air them back on their national channels? I don't think BBC or another channel can just do the coverage without permissions. At times I even wonder if it is our own government's ploy to get funding from these so called first world countries?

    1. There is substantial aid invovled. The tragedy is that a lot of foreigners are on the ground, actually doing some great work - while the government does nothing.

      And there is nothing stopping Indian channels from doing a hard-hitting documentary on the drugs, trafficking, teenage pregnancy problems of any of these nations!

    2. And I don't know what I should feel more angry about - the fact that the shows on foreign channels reflect the reality, or the fact that as a nation, we've not done anything to tackle such sad living conditions.

  2. I so agree with you and have the same thoughts as you have on what these shows portray and how they portray.

    However I'm sure I couldn't have worded it as nicely and so aptly as you have done.

  3. I remember a few days back Mom went to our maid's house and when she came back, she was crying. There were six of them living in a room which was as big as a bathroom in our house. At such times, you feel so ashamed of yourself. Yes, you said it right. And after that, you realize that all your big problems are so small, so insignificant.
    As much as I hate the fact that the west glorifies the poverty in our country, but the fact remains that it is real. It exists. What I find irritating is the generalization.

    1. I agree...it is real. I have seen documentaries where they've handled this really sensitively. I suppose if you are making a huge contribution towards a charity (directed to the slum), you would want to gain a first hand experience. I only wish she had been more sensitive.

  4. I teared up reading this post. It hurts me real bad when I see such in-your-face differences like a huge mansion beside a slum, a lush and high-end apartment complex beside an open drain the size of Tungabhadra beside which dwell people in small huts. Why are we so blind to our own people? Why can't we be more understanding and provide opportunities for them to grow? Here we is we as a nation. Rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer. I wonder if the same continues, how wide and uncrossable the chasm will be, between them. I'm sad Oprah asked the questions she did. I become sad when I see small toddlers of construction workers sitting on mud, stones and gravel without an underwear. Such unhygenic conditions. I turn away as I walk because I fear I might cry. I resolve to do something about it and then the resolve slowly fades away. Yes, I am one of those people who want to do something but end up doing nothing. And I am sad about it.

    1. Yes..those toddlers, those poor men and women. THey are even worse than the Gauris. At least Gauri has a ration card.

      In a country where we have large infra projects, and talented architeccts -it wont take long to create decent living quarters. But like someone said - these people form a large vote bank - so keeping their hunger alive is key to getting votes.

      I have seen the quarters meant for police - especially the constables. I can understand why they are so angry, frustrated all the time.

      At your level and my level, we can only help individuals like Gauri. Our success lies in elevating one family out of the abyss...that's my take.

  5. Some people see poverty as "quaint" and "romantic".... while sitting in their own comfortable and luxurious homes, of course. What oprah said was in very poor taste.

    1. Ash - I grew up in a small home - a single bed one - and yes some of the richer friends found this a bit shocking...LOL!

  6. A fresh perspective to something you have rightly pointed out as 'Slum tourism'! On the same lines, I think shows like Satyamev Jayate are runaway hits. Are the victims, that are so dramatically portrayed on the show and others who are seeing the show, actually benefiting?

    Media stars like Amir Khan and even Oprah, show us only what we want to see or what we like to see. The shows format is made so as to appeal to the audience obviously but how much of a difference does it make I wonder. So the fact remains that we see these shows to watch something different. Just watching these shows creates a patriotic feeling in many people,I'm sure. So much so that we feel, watching the show itself is a great service to the nation or has helped do justice to the victim.

    Thank you, you have given me more food for thought....!

    1. Welcome to Kaapizone, Rohit :)

      I find Aamir more sensisitve as a host. Perhaps one show cannot bring about changes the way it is desired - because all the problems shown on SMJ require a cultural and policy change.

      From what I gather, Oprah wanted to show the rich and poor of India - and how family and god form the cornerstone of every Indian family. I am sure she did not go the rich man's house and gawk at their bathrooma and tiles. I think the same manners should have been accorded to the poor man too.

    2. @Rohit, Please do not compare Oprah with Amir. I agree they are from a commercial background and look to make money. And they are making. But Have you seen Amir being insensitive in questioning people? You have seen him cry with the victims when they do and you can see that you too have moist eyes. Yes, it is a bit dramatic but it gets the message across quite fine. A TV program cannot give solutions to problems, we need to find solutions. It only helps us realize and acknowledge that we have a problem.

  7. What did Gauri feel when she came to work in our homes? How did she feel when saw our comfortable beds, our clothes, the abundant water supply, the money we spend on provisions and luxuries?
    This is something I have always wondered myself... The guilt tears at you even though you actually did nothing to cause it.

    Your last para is hard hitting. So true :-(
    Wish ppl wud grow some sensitivity...

  8. I watched the episode . it's true that Oprah's attitude and comments were in poor taste. However I think the show (totally unintentionally) highlighted the fact that despite the circumstances, the family were doing their best to educate their three daughters and were not exactly taking their poverty lying down. The older daughter (who was 12) spoke impressive English, and was the picture of a quietly defiant dignity- considering only she understood Oprah's remarks.She truly held her own and was easily the most interesting person featured in that episode- an episode which featured an entire rich joint family, who also had daughter her age, and Aishwarya Rai!

    1. Bravo to the little girl and her family! Yes, from what I read, I figured Oprah's intent was to focus on 'family', and her observations were not malicious - but definitely ill-mannered. And Aishwarya Rai..meh!

      Welcome to Kaapizone :)

  9. Slum tourism,Disaster tourism...what is the world coming too?

    Similarly,I fail to understand the popularity and box office success of Slumdog millionaire and the more recent Trishna at film festivals,maybe those in the developed world want to see and are 'fascinated' by something shocking,on how little choice some people have over their destiny

    Oh,and you must watch this documentary on outsourcing,where an American,whose job is lost to a 'Tata company' as they call it,visits India to see how many people his one lost job supports here,from techies to cab drivers and campus guards.In the end he goes back feeling quite humbled and grateful that he lives in country where poor people are fat:)

    1. Welcome to Kaapizone, Arumugam :)

      Yes, there are some hard-hitting documentaries which are shot very well - and these are the ones that have forced a policy change. THe rest - which just choose showcase sad conditions for TRP are really in poor taste.

      It is a double-edged sword - on one hand, a well shot documentary can generate enough interest and therefore funds; and on the other, it stereotypes a nation. In India, there is no dearth of funds - whatever is shot in India only highlights our apathy and corruption indirectly.

      Slumdog Millionaire - I watched it on DVD - and stopped halfway. I found it too disturbing. I was really glad I did not go to the cinema hall to catch this amidst my Brit neighbours...I would have been terribly ashamed, and I know I would have walked out midway. My anger is not against the film makers. My anger is more against our system (of which I too am a participant)that allows so many millions to live in such pathetic conditions.

  10. Sumana, Ophra sells because of the crudeness. Poverty sells. Yeah now want to see what her Angel network will do for these people.

  11. Such a touching post, Sumana!
    First time commenter. Coming here from IHM's blog.

    1. Thank you Sushma. Welcome to Kaapizone :)

  12. Oprah's whole behavior was in very bad taste! As a seasoned TV show host, she showed a shocking lack of sensitivity and I agree with all your points!

    As to eating with your fingers, someone should have asked Oprah how she eats a hotdog or a burger!!


  13. not many people would actually visit their maids...so kudos to u for doing just that!

    when our maid brought a new house, a modest 10x15, she invited us for the housewarming, and imagine our surprise when we found that we were the only people from our apartment who attended! she works in at least 7 homes and had invited all of them but none of them chose to show up...

    and to mock the existence of the people like Oprah did shows total lack of empathy.