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Dispossessed

By Ashwin Parulkar, Saba Sharma, Amod Shah, Shikha Sethia, Rhea John, Anhad Imaan and Annie Baxi

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From ‘To See and Be Seen’ by Saba Sharma

It is a Tuesday, and this means many residents of the basti will go out into the city to beg for food, rice, money and sometimes the rotting vegetables discarded by others. You take what you get— as Savitri puts it, ‘some people give, other people don’t. And some people set their dogs on you’.

The older, more disabled people will go and sit at the bottom of the 500 steps to the nearby Pahar Mandir. Each devotee is greeted with a ‘ram ram bai’ or ‘ram ram babu’, and almost each leaves something behind—a piece of coconut, prasad, and occasionally some coins or a note. But it is rare to hear the greeting returned. The day’s earnings will be split in accordance with age and relative disability. In the crudest terms, those with the most deformities take a greater share of the total, but only because the believers themselves favour them. Those who can walk will not sit at the mandir and instead walk into the city, roaming for hours on end, under the burning sun.

Another one of Prabha’s neighbours, Jalmati, explains this, ‘you don’t feel right if you just sit and beg. It’s better if you’re walking, moving around’. Long walks culminate in door-to-door visits—many of the benefactors are regulars, and know when to expect their visitors, according to what day of the week is it. Occasionally, the party will, with unconcealed delight, reveal something special provided unexpectedly at one of the houses—a batch of idlis made on demand, or a cold glass of nimbu paani on a hot day. Sometimes the day’s earnings are compared with the others’, or eatables are shared.

Despite the seeming normalization of begging, the frankness with which it is discussed, the ‘schedules’ and ‘rounds’ that regularize it in the basti, it is still experienced and internalized as something to be ashamed of. ‘Naraaz mat hona’ (don’t be angry), Jalmati says to us once, smiling nervously and peeling the discarded beans she has received on that day’s rounds. On another occasion, when we wake up uncharacteristically early in the morning to accompany a group on one such trip, we find that the embarrassment at this prospect has caused them to leave half an hour earlier than usual. After this, we abandon our ‘participant observation’ fervour, and the incident is only referred to obliquely, with sheepish looks on both sides.

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