Written and Posted by Saif Farooqi @ his blog on Friday, October 31, 2008Life could have such a dark picture, I would have never realized it. About three years ago, in July 2005, I worked in a research project in which I had to interact with people who are stigmatized and marginalized.
The research project was about the self-esteem and health issues of six stigmatized groups, namely, the downtrodden, beggars, lepers, physically handicapped people, eunuchs, and widows (in some parts of India, being a widow is considered to be a taboo). I mainly had to interview the downtrodden, but later I was also assigned to interview beggars, lepers, and the physically handicapped people.
To interview the downtrodden I, with a group of people, had to go to the slums. I had never seen a place like this before. It was a totally different experience for me. Wherever I could take my eyesight, I could only see trash spread all over the place. My first reaction was that how could people live in such a dirty place. Within a few minutes of staying there, I could realize the extreme level of their poverty.
Their destituteness was clearly reflected in their behaviour. They were extremely needy and always expected to be helped by the people who are financially better than them and also who are on the upper strata of the society.
When I interacted with them initially, they thought I was a government official who had come to help them with some funds. When they realized that I had come for my own personal benefit and that I am not going to be of any help to them, some of them reacted with a lot of aggression. Despite that I, somehow, made them agree to give interviews. Initially they were a bit calm, but later I believe they got offended by some of my questions and got extremely angry. Some of them abused me with the foulest of languages. Once, if I had not left at the right time, I would have definitely been beaten up by the people over there.
I had also gone to the snake charmers society. I was shocked to see the conditions in which they lived. It is hard to express in words, the kind of condition they were living in. The whole ambience was quite frightening. They were all drunk and because of that their eyes became red. They were extremely loud in their behaviour. When I first went there, all of a sudden there was havoc created. When I sat down, I do not know why they all surrounded me and kept staring at me. One of the snake charmers tried to snatch my money and was extremely abusive in his use of language.
However, I was not at all offended by this kind of behaviour. Their behaviour clearly showed the kind of anger they had towards the society and the kind of frustration they had with their own miserable condition.
They lived in extremely dirty places with trash spread all over the place. They did not have clean water to drink. They used water from drains, ditches, and nullahs. They did not even have proper houses to live. They stayed in small tents made of recycled plastic. Inside the tents it is really congested and dark. Spending just ten minutes inside the tents became suffocating for me. The snake charmers lived in even worse conditions. They stayed under a bridge and the place was so dirty that one would feel like to vomit. It is not possible to believe that they actually lived over there.
Although some of the downtrodden behaved quite aggressively, many of them were very cooperative. They were happy to lend a helping hand and contribute in their own way to the study. They gave a detailed account of how they are mistreated by others and how they are looked down upon by other people in the society. They said that government officials and even NGOs always promise to help them, but they do not do anything at all. They also told that many a times the government announces funds to be given to them, but none of those funds reach them.
Most of them said that they are always abused and even beaten up by others and that they cannot do anything about that. They said that many a times people make them do a lot of work, but do not give any money to them in return. When I asked a young rickshaw-puller about how often has he been treated like an animal, he smiled embarrassingly and said that it happens all the time. The way he said those words really touched my heart. These people have been continuously humiliated and abused by others. It would not be an overstatement to say that their life is a living hell.
Interviewing the beggars was a big challenge, initially. It took me a lot effort to make some of them comprehend, properly, the questions that I asked. Probably their living conditions had made them incapable of having such a conversation. Like the downtrodden, the beggars also had always been humiliated by others. They told that they are always abused and at times even beaten up for very trivial matters.
The beggars used to gather at a place where they get food and other necessities from others. But, the people used to give them such things just for name sake. Usually people give beggars raw rice and pulses, but the manner in which they gave such things is extremely humiliating and disorderly. They give a fistful of either rice or pulses to each beggar. Rather than giving it to them properly and humanly, they just throw it while standing and do not even bother if it is falling in their bowl or its falling on the ground. Usually, most of it used to fall on the ground.
I was asking one of the beggars about the kind of food that he gets to eat. Immediately at the same time a woman came and threw some rice to him, out of which about three-fourth fell outside his bowl. He smiled and said that this is the kind of food that he gets.
It was nice to see a totally different side of beggars. Interacting with them made me realize that they are like any other individual. They also have families and they are also worried about the future of their children. Like any other person, they also have some unfulfilled dreams. Some of them were even cracking jokes with me. All this was something that I had never realized before about beggars.
Interacting with the physically handicapped people was a good learning experience. The way they led their life is really inspiring. They had accepted their disability without any complaints. They had a lot of self-belief and positive thinking within themselves and did not let their disability deter them in any way.
They said that they felt happy if people genuinely helped them, but did not like anybody to sympathize with their condition. They also disliked to be labeled as physically handicapped. They said that they do not really like the term and do not think of themselves as handicapped. They also said that due their disability they have to face a lot of struggle in their life, but they are prepared to fight it out even if it requires them to do so for the rest of their life.
While asking questions about their disability, I could clearly see their facial expression change to that of being a bit of disgust. I had to tell them that these are routine questions and that they should not take it in a bad way. I also apologized to them for hurting their feelings unintentionally. I felt bad when one of them said to me that my questions have made him realize that he is a physically handicapped person. But, on the whole they appreciated our (me and my colleagues) effort and felt happy for our concern towards them.
If interacting with the physically handicapped was inspiring, then interacting with the lepers was very disturbing and depressing. I had gone to a Christian Missionary hospital to interview the lepers. It was really sad to see the lepers suffering from the excruciating pain they had due to their disease. Their pain was so unbearable that almost every where, in the hospital, I could hear the patients moaning and crying.
Some of them said that they have been abandoned by their family and that nobody comes to see them. They said that now the hospital has become their home. All the lepers that I spoke to said that the pain, due to their illness, was so unbearable that they were eagerly waiting to die. Among all the patients that I talked to, I remember one of them, who was probably in his worst condition. Both his hands were infected and a lot of water was pouring out from his eyes. He could not even wipe the water that was coming out from his eyes. I could clearly see the kind of discomfort that he was going through because of this. As mentioned above, talking to the lepers was a very disturbing experience for me. I was truly badly affected by this experience for many days after.
The whole experience of interviewing the four different kind of stigmatized and marginalized people was a big eye opener for me. I always knew that such people existed. But, actually interacting with them and spending time with them was something different. I became more sensitive towards them. I could understand them in a better way and got a lot of awareness about their needs as well as the various problems that they face.
It has been more than three years now, since I worked in that research project. But, I still remember each and every detail of the happenings of that time. The anger and frustration of the downtrodden, the helplessness of the beggars, the struggle and fighting spirit of the physically handicapped, and the unbearable pain of the lepers, everything is still very clear in my mind. The whole impact that this had on me has changed me as a person to a great extent.