The other day I met a starving person. I had no desire to meet such a person but I do not know why I could not help talking to him when I saw him sitting near the entrance of a park where I often go for morning walk. He was looking very old, very lean and thin, wearing tattered clothes. The sight did not surprise me, though I had not seen him earlier at that place. We see such persons every day in different parts of the city. What surprised me was that he was reading a Hindi newspaper. Out of curiosity I went near him. He was so engrossed that he did not see that somebody was standing in front of him. I had to take initiative to attract his attention.
‘Is there anything very interesting that you are reading?’ I asked him.
He looked at me. It was his turn to be surprised. Perhaps, no one had ever asked him such a question. Or, perhaps not a well fed and dressed person like me. He looked at me as if he had not understood the question.
I repeated my question.
‘Yes sir. Something very interesting.’
‘Really? What’s that? Do you read newspapers every day?’ I asked too many questions in one breath.
‘I rarely get opportunity to read newspapers. I got it lying here. Somebody might have thrown after reading it. I picked it up to sell it along with other scraps of papers which I collect from the streets. Out of curiosity, I started reading it.
‘What is that?’
Sir, I read that some big people, described as intellectuals, are very angry with the government. You must be knowing that, Sir.’
‘Yes. I have also read in newspapers.’ I admitted.
‘Sir, I have read that they are saying that the government is very intolerant, that this country is no longer safe. Some of them are even saying that they would not like to live in this country. Is it really so bad? I do not find anything unusual. I’m a poor man. I find every day the same, except when I get two meals. Normally, I go to bed which is footpath without eating full meal in the night but I cannot think of going out of this country. How can I go anywhere? I have no money. These people must have tons of money to go to a foreign country and settle there.’
I was not prepared to hear such a discourse from such a poor and uneducated man who was perhaps a rag-picker. I did not know how to explain the intolerance these intellectuals were complaining about. Somehow I said: ‘You must have read in the newspaper the reasons they are giving.’
‘Yes Sir. They have given some reasons but I am unable to understand those reasons. I was trying to find out if they are angry or upset that there are crores of people like me who do not get two square meals a day. But I could not find. That’s why I was reading the same news again, thinking that I might have missed something. Why are they not worried about people like me?’
I thought of asking that man to shut up. Instead of enjoying morning walk, I was wasting my time talking to him. But somehow I could not ask him to shut up. He was looking at me for an answer.
‘It is not their job. It is the job of political leaders to worry about people like you.’ I could not think of any other explanation.
‘Political leaders! All of them say they are worried about people like me. Many of them promised but could not do anything. My father, he was also a poor man like me, once told me that even before independence our leaders, who had fought for our country’s independence, had promised that once the foreign rulers were thrown out, they would remove poverty. I have heard that Indira Gandhi had once said that her enemies wanted to remove her because she wanted to remove poverty. Nothing happened. Sir, I come from a state where a poor man, not as poor as me, became Chief Minister after promising that he would remove poverty. All that he could achieve was to remove the poverty of his family. Today, all the children are very rich and move in big cars without doing any work. I had some hope from the communists but when I saw a photograph of some communist leaders, as well dressed as you, discussing some big issues, not poverty, in an air-conditioned room and drinking mineral water, I knew that they were not different from others. What do you say?’
What could I say? With some difficulty I murmured: ‘Yes, I agree with you. Our political leaders could not do much. They may have their own limitations.’
‘Sir, will these persons who are angry with the government now do something for people like me?’
‘I don’t think so. There are intellectuals. They are worried about bigger things.’
‘What is the meaning of intellectuals?’ He asked.
I was glad that he had asked a question which I could answer with confidence. I explained: ‘An intellectual is a very wise person who examines problems of the society and suggests solutions.’
I saw a ray of hope in his eyes. ‘Really Sir? Can these wise persons, these intellectuals, understand our problems, problems of people who are starving every day? Can they suggest solution? When will they do that? Will the government act on their solution?’ He asked.
I could not say anything. He looked at me. ‘Sir, will these intellectuals ever get angry that crores of people are starving in this country? Will they ever suggest how starving people like me can get two square meals? Will they ever get angry that the government does not act on their suggestions to provide two square meals a day to the starving people like me?’
‘I do not know.’ I hurriedly entered the park. I had no patience, in fact no courage, to face him.
Will any intellectual answer his question? Question of starving people of India? There are more than 190 million of them.
Perhaps, no intellectual will take up the issue. Most of these hypocrites are busy with more ‘important’ issues to be in news and in public memory.