We have come to a place with a name so vague to me that I cannot even spell it right. I walk two steps behind her like any other visitor would – simply because I know nothing about the place. I shadow her movements and mimic every action of hers lest I do something foolish.
As we go down the road of mud, I bow my head and my hands fly to cover my mouth in reflex to the foul odours that begin to pierce my nostrils. However I grimace as I see faeces strewn on the same road that we are treading. I recall the instructions given to me – do not give away hints that you are disgusted no matter how repulsive your environment may seem. Looking up at Vasudha, our customer care representative walking ahead of me, I secretly wonder how this woman goes through the same ordeal everyday.
We continue walking down the lanes that become narrower with each passing step. We cross many by-lanes as we move forward and for some reason it feels like someone has placed us in an odd maze of people and things. Needless to say, Vasudha knows where she’s headed – I am the only one who’s lost without a clue. Add to this the inhuman conditions and environment I am exposed to.
As if the open gutters alongside the broken walls of people’s homes (shacks and hutments) aren’t bad enough, there are stagnant pools of water after every ten seconds of walking. Flies swarm around the place that is already littered with all kinds of wastes and I see people sitting on their doorsteps indifferent to any of this while I struggle to keep a straight face. I cannot decide what is worse – the smells or the sights around me.
Soon our walk brings us to our destination – Shanthamma’s home (an odd structure made up of plastic sheets and thatched walls). From where I stand outside the door, I can already see the open back door. Given the dimensions of this room, I imagine if I take four steps from the front door into the house, I would possibly be standing outside the house and probably in the neighbour’s compound.
The strong aroma of garlic and chillies being sautéd for lunch waft through the air and make their way to us from the inside. Shanthamma, our customer runs to tend to her cooking while we follow her inside to seat ourselves in a corner on a modest plastic mat on the floor of her home. I look around in bewilderment at this room that she claims is her home. I simply cannot fathom how anyone can survive here – let alone live.
In one of corner of the dimly lit room I see an old bed with a plastic mat and a pillow on it. Right next to this I see Shanthamma hunched over a small kerosene stove cooking rice and dal. To my left in the corner I see a small wooden almirah, the door of which has come off at the hinges. On top of it I see a small photo of Lord Ganesha adorned with flowers, illuminated by a small lamp.
As sweat trickles down my back I look around to see if there is a fan. But I am surprised when my eyes are greeted by the sight of a bare ceiling constituted from plastic sheets with holes. Involuntarily my mind wanders off to imagine what the condition of this room during the rainy seasons would be, when I am brought back to reality by a tap on my shoulder.
I realise Vasudha is talking to me. Shanthamma wipes her hands on her saree as she politely stands in front of us offering to make tea for us. I remember being told to decline such offers only too well as our company does not believe in imposing any kind of hospitality on the part of our already poor customers. And so, I refuse as politely as possible saying that we just had coffee from a nearby stall.
Then I look at Vasudha for an indication as to what happens next. She quietly informs me that we are waiting for the remaining group members to arrive. Just as she finishes her statement, we hear sounds of some women approaching. The minute they enter the room there is a loud cacophony of voices and I see some of them slap the host on the back. Feeling alarmed I turn to Vasudha for an explanation who for some reason smiles and tells me that these ladies speak Kannada and this is how they usually greet one another. Before she can say anything more, I for one, have decided to maintain a safe distance from the group lest they decide to greet me too!
After a whole lot of commotion, all the ladies squat down on the mats in front of us while a few sit on the doorstep (owing to space constraints of course). Then the drill begins – Vasudha introduces herself and talks about our company, the purpose of our visit and so forth. Just when I think things are going well, she turns to me and asks me to introduce myself to the group. I am caught completely off guard and it takes me a moment to process what she has just said.
Now you might wonder what the big deal is, but let me tell you something. For the past two years of my life, I have been attending various personality development programs, seminars and doing corporate presentations. Not even once have I fumbled or been baffled by an audience. However this was an entirely new scenario. I did not understand a single word of Kannada, let alone speak the language.
“Neku Kannada gothilla..” I mumble sheepishly. (I don’t know Kannada.)
One of the elderly women in the group takes pity on me for not knowing their language and is kind enough to tell me that I can speak in Tamil as a majority of them know the language. I am relieved that one hurdle has been overcome. Then comes the second – what do I tell them about myself? Over the last four months I have perfected my answer to the most annoying interview question ‘Tell me about yourself’. But here that answer just seemed so irrelevant and pathetic. What do you tell a strange group of illiterate and poor women about yourself to create a connect?
So I did the only sensible thing to do. I told them my name, where I come from, about my family, what my job was and why I was here in an alien place amidst them. Call it luck, but it worked. Some of them who had been to Kerala previously actually knew about the State and excitedly started naming all the nearby places and things they could remember about the place. I hardly had to speak complete sentences. Trust me, I have never felt more relieved about a conversation!
Then on, the proceedings went on fine. Vasudha briefed the group about the various loans they had applied for with respect to their families’ or business’ requirements. One by one she questioned all of them about their respective loans to see if they knew their loans’ terms and conditions thoroughly.
When it was Shanthamma’s turn, Vasudha asked her why she needed a loan of Rupees 15,000. I was surprised when Shanthamma replied it was for a colour television for herself at home. My eyes shot up to the ceiling of sheets spanned by gaping wounds and I opened my mouth to say something, but then decided against it. Seeing the look on my face, an amused Vasudha asked me if I wanted to ask or tell Shanthamma anything. Of course, I did!
“Amma.. Do you really need a colour TV now? Is it not more important to fix the roof above your head before the rains start?” I asked her cautiously.
“No.. I can always put some pans on the floor when it rains. But, what will I do when I want to relax? I cannot always go to someone else’s house like a destitute to watch TV, can I?” came the reply.
Hearing this the whole group voiced their agreement with Shanthamma while I just sat there wondering how I could convince my brain to accept the reasoning behind her answer. Vasudha tapped my shoulder and signalled to me to fake acceptance and drop the matter, which I did.
The next one hour continued to be full of surprises for me when I heard the women voice the purposes of their loans – one for a refrigerator, another for a mobile phone, some for their children’s education, some for buying tailoring machines and so on. What surprised me was not the things they wanted but that these were all things that I thought could be purchased by anyone with some savings; things I had taken for granted.
I cannot put into words the revelations I had sitting in that shack during the two hours I was there. When I came to Bangalore to join employment, I had considered only two things – my handsome package and the posh life that came with it. Granted from all those classroom training sessions, I knew our customers were the urban ultra poor. But what I saw before my eyes was far worse than anything I had ever expected. It was a wake up call. The living conditions of these people made me realise how many of us take most things in life for granted.
Now you may think that I am making a mountain out of a mole hill. You are free to think so! The story I shared may even seem very insignificant to you. But I sincerely hope you are able to take away from here the point I am trying to make – to be grateful for all the good things in life; to appreciate the people and things around you no matter how bad you think they may seem; to remind yourself to be thankful for all that you have – for it could have been worse. And honestly, if this post has had any impact on you, I’d be the happiest.
Meanwhile, thanks for being such a patient reader! That’s 1720 words you just read. 😀
Do you know of or have a similar instance that you would like to share? Anything you’d like to say with respect to anything? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.