I have just started reading Ash in the Belly
by Harsh Mander. A few pages down it is my belly that is knotted and and on fire. The last time this happened to me was when I read Bitter Chocolate
, Pinki Virani's shocking and disquieting account of child sexual abuse in India. The first pages of Mander's book brought to life the spectre of hunger and malnutrition I have often written about in this blog. How many times have I not spouted statistics hoping against hope that they would awaken our far too numbed consciences. I speak of you and I who have so often stood with an empty plate in front of a lavish if not gross display of food at upmarket weddings, wondering what to put on our plate? Will it be Italian or Kashmiri? Thai or French? The sight of so much food can even give you visual indigestion and let us not forget that this happens after we have gorged ourselves with snacks and glasses of bubbly! And then, armed with our over laden plates, half of which we will ultimately throw, we have sat at a table with our peers chatting about the Foreign University our child is or will be attending, or the latest outrageously priced bag just come in at a luxury store? I guess many of us would have experienced some shade of the above.
Maybe we think we belong to the slightly more intellectual variety and would be discussing the latest film or best seller. Perhaps the Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins which does give a rather believable scenario of what might happen to humanity in times to come.
Today I am going to talk to you about real Hunger Games played by real people who are our brethren. The First Chapter of Ash in the Belly is entitled: Living with Hunger. Women in a small village of Uttar Pradesh talk about their lives and about the lessons they have to teach their children. Unlike us they do not teach alphabets, numbers or colour recognition. The one and only terrifying lesson their children have to learn is: how to sleep hungry
! To avoid their children having to sleep hungry they do the unimaginable. Brace yourself before reading what I write now. It is from page 6 of Ash in the Belly: On days where there is no food in the house the whole family sets out to find food. They scour the harvested fields of the landlords with brooms to garner the gleaning of the stray grains of wheat and paddy... they follow field rats to their burrows and are skilled in scrapping out the grains stolen and stored underground by the rodents...after each weekly market ends, they collect in their sari edges, grain spilled inadvertently by traders or rotting waste vegetable... they even sift through cow dung for undigested grain
. (Ash in the Belly page 6)
. The grain thus collected is cooked with water, salt and turmeric to quell the hunger pangs of their children. And if there is still no food then the little ones are given cannabis or cheap tobacco to soothe them to sleep.
I do not know how you feel after reading these lines, but I felt ashamed and guilt ridden for every grain I would have wasted in the six decades of my life. Go to your rubbish bin now and just look at the all the things that could have allowed children to not sleep hungry. But as Mander says in his book that the poor do not matter anymore. They have disappeared from our lives: from our films, our songs, our poetry, our literature. They have become invisible. They are assassinated everyday because of our indifference.
People are starving across the length and breadth of India. Unlike us who ponder about what kind of food we will eat today, these people's menu is restricted to 'delicacies' that never appear on the lavish and vulgar display we are used to. Have you tasted basi (fermented rice water) laced with leaves gathered from the forest; have you eaten a paste made of young bamboo or kaddi a poisonous wild plant immersed in the river water to get rid of some of the poison and then laced with jaggery to mask its bitterness? And yet this is what millions of people in our country eat to survive.
The book has revealing chapters: living with hunger, hunger amidst plenty, ways of coping. I have not read them yet but know that each will reveal another tragic aspect of a reality we refuse to acknowledge. The data given in the book is frightening: 230 million men, women and children go to sleep hungry every night; 76% of India's household are calorie deficient; 42% of the world's underweight children live in India. Need I say more.
The book also gives us a list of schemes launched by the Government to supposedly tackle this problem. I counted 12 with fancy acronyms using a wide range of letters from the alphabet. Each sounds fancy and a panacea to all problems ailing the poor. Some go back to 1975. But nothing has changed. These fancy schemes with huge allocations seem to benefit everyone except the stated beneficiaries. We who have a voice and could ensure that things worked as they should keep mute as always. It is not our kids who have to sleep hungry. At most we grumble because such schemes affect our taxes.
We have time and again heard about the humongous quantities of grain rotting in different parts of the country. Have we ever raised our voices? Why should we? We all suffer from a syndrome called indifference.
Next time you throw or waste food, think of the child who has sleep hungry? Will you?
I for one intend to keep on raising this issue in my writing with the hope that perhaps one person will hear the cries of the invisible millions.
I am now bracing myself to read the next pages.