In auto, at the Juhu Link Road traffic light, a splash of green and yellow on the pavement caught my eye.
Normally, I rarely looked at the pavement – the hoardings of SRK selling practically everything infinitely more attractive that stray dogs napping while the world rushed about around them. But today was not a normal day – today was a Friday, and seven people were sitting around this huge pile of lemons and chilles stringing them together along with a piece of coal. By Saturday night, all those green and yellow garlands would be hanging from vehicles and on shopfronts, the tang of lemon and the hotness of the chili combining to ward off the evil eye.
I’ve seen these garlands being hawked at traffic lights on Saturdays and Tuesdays. The garlands are normally sold by young boys, presumably the same boys who sell tissue paper and Chinese toys on other days. But the people making the garlands were all adults – five men, two women, all of whom looked eminently employable. And yet, here they were, stringing lemons and chillis!
The traffic light changed, and the auto moved on. Past the flimsy shelters where these people lived – waterproof material strung between iron rods. An old woman was sleeping under one, with two little boys sitting near her, munching fly encrusted bread. Those kids must have been the same age as mine. If mine kids, living in a dry house, eating well-balanced meals, drinking chemically treated boiled water, and having access to the best doctors could remain almost permanently ill the last few weeks, what must be the fate of these children who do not even have a place where they can keep dry in the monsoons?
Traffic can never move fast on Mumbai roads, so I had lots of time to see the houses on the “other side of Juhu” – the non-Bacchan side. Calling them houses was no different from to calling a bullock cart a BMW – many of the waterproof sheets had been repeatedly darned, and you could barely see the pavement for the flies.
Two dogs sleeping in one of the shelters – the people barely had enough space to put down their bodies, but didn’t seem to mind sharing that little space with the canine friends who guarded them at night.
A lady trying desperately to get the pile of damp wood in her stove to burn and succeeding only in filling the interior with smoke.
We turned off at the junction, and the “real Juhu” took over. But the mind continued to dwell on the pile of lemons and chillies and the people working around it.
The garlands were normally sold at Rs. 5 each. A single lemon costs one rupee at the vegetable stall where I buy my stuff, and you can get a handful of green chilli for the same price. Bought in the wholesale market, the raw-materials would perhaps cost a little over a rupee. I estimated there must have been about 400 lemons in the pile. Assuming the kid who does the selling is paid a rupee per unit sold, it would mean each of the seven persons stringing lemons and chillis would make less that Rs. 200 for their effort.
An income of Rs. 200 twice a week! Is that enough to feed a family? To clothe them, if just in rags? To have a bit left over for medicines when people fall ill?
Is this just the supplementary income? But if it is, why do they continue to live where they cannot put a foot down without stepping on flies? The rains are a delight to watch, but not when everything you touch is as damp as you are.
We speak so glibly about poverty alleviation. About access to capital, and sustainable livelihood options. Will a microloan make any difference to the lives of these people? Would they want to buy more lemons and chillies, and if they do, would they be able to sell them. The population of Mumbai is increasing, and so, presumably, is the population of superstitious people willing to buy the good luck charms. But so, too, the number of people wanting to make the garlands is increasing.
Is there an end to the poverty that is India? Is the reservation of seats at institutions of higher education of any relevance when it comes to solving the real problems of the real India? Are there any answers? Can there be any answers?
Juhu is the people who need to hang lemons and chillies from each of their many vehicles to ward off the evil eye that always follows prosperity. Juhu is also the people who sit in the drizzle stringing together lemons and chillies, and dreaming of someday perhaps being able to season their food with some of them.
Juhu is both. So is India.