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Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Curious Case of Mindset


I found this on the local train heading back to Thalassery yesterday. It surprised me to see this notice posted at eye level in the compartment/bogey that I was in, not because it was there on the wall in front of me, but because it depicted an attitude that seemed rather archaic.

There used to be a point in time, in fact it still happens nowadays, when passengers find themselves disturbed by the odd "hawker/vendor" passing through, selling anything from a bottle of water and some snacks, to books and interesting examples of stationery. A most recent example of the latter was the "unbreakable pencil" that had many of my co-occupants fascinated on my last visit to Trivandrum. Needless to say, sales were phenomenal as people, myself not included, just gobbled it up.

Very much like these hawkers, most passengers on trains in India, specifically those that travel by "Sleeper Class" and below, have also been on the receiving end of an outstretched hand and a sympathy-evoking expression. These "beggars" as the notice warns us, come in all shapes and sizes, from aged and decrepit to young and malnourished. On occasion, there are even hermaphrodites who take it upon themselves to harass young, male travelers in the hopes of extorting more than a fair share, as the harrowed individual tries to get them to leave, whatever the cost. This though, is not as common an event. There is no dearth of people seeking alms on trains, which is hardly surprising when you consider that more than half of India's population lives below the poverty line. Personally, sometimes I give and sometimes I don't, although of late I seem to be doing more not-giving. But in spite of this "begging" that is mostly a headache for India's railway patrons, I haven't really heard the word "urchin" uttered in this context for at least a decade.

The word urchin, as defined by most dictionaries, refers to a small boy or youngster, usually one who's a bit of a rascal. Some might even choose to use the word "scamp" as a synonym. In the context of the sign in the train, however, it refers to beggars of less advanced years. What? Is it even necessary to make that sort of classification? Is it still allowed? To quote a similar example, the last time I heard someone use the word "Mohammedan" in conversation, I froze. The person who used it, albeit from my grandparents' generation, thought nothing of referring to Muslims thus. Clearly though, he was a product of a pre-Independent India still heavily influenced by the British who hadn't yet left. But, it is safe to assume that no one refers to Muslims as Mohammedans in this day and age. So why should they refer to little, malnourished children as urchins?

The reason for this reference, if nothing else, may very well be the fact that some of the signs and warning on trains today date back to India as it was before 1947. There's no need to change something that still carries a well composed message, is there? Unfortunately for the Indian Railways, as with most people who don't see anything wrong with "beware of urchins" warning on the train, the issue is of the attitude that one displays towards those less fortunate. It's a clear cut example of the "Us and Them" approach that will probably not go away anytime soon, admittedly. Even for someone like me who is turning out to be quite a miser in this regard nowadays, I understand that by giving them an extra rupee or two I'm only exacerbating the problem. Giving them a measly buck here and there isn't the answer, but neither is denigrating their status and classifying them in any manner.

All in all, I was a bit shocked by this. But, obviously not as shocked as the people around me, who couldn't figure out why in God's name I would photograph something like this. Well, that's just me, I suppose.

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