A few weeks ago we were parked opposite the Raheja Arcade – li’l A, Sunil and me in the car while P and S had gone to the bank. A was watching the perpetually interesting traffic while my attention was drawn to the various actors on the pavement. By ‘actors’, I mean the usual foot traffic that’s typical of Indian pavements.

A coconut seller (probably in his 40’s) had laid anchor on the stretch of pavement close to our car. He had a standard wooden cart laden with fresh green coconuts. He also had other sackfuls of coconuts – one of which his wife loaded on her head and headed off (presumably to sell at a wholesale rate somewhere). She didn’t return for another 15 minutes – during which time I sat transfixed watching the rest of her family. A drama began to unfold in front of me – not quite the Shakespearean kind but more the slow, poignant and inexorable kind that Satyajit Ray is famous for.

The coconut seller had his two young daughters with him – the older one was probably six and the other close to three. The older girl was dressed in a bright colored South Indian traditional outfit and the younger girl was a bit more shabbily dressed. The girls each had an orange-yellow plastic bus toy tied at one end with a piece of string. The 12′ x 8′ section of the pavement trisected by two trees was their ‘playground’. In between their playing, the kids ‘snacked’ on one of the coconuts which their dad lovingly cut for them – what a doting look he had. The six year old’s facial expression was mostly inscrutable but I could detect a resigned look one usually sees on older countenances. The three year old was more playful but she was clearly missing her mother. The mother’s return was celebrated with glee.

The above sequence I observed would be repeated throughout the day for all 7 days (don’t think the family could afford taking a day off). The girls would probably take a nap (if they did) right next to their father’s cart. For my non-Indian readers, I need to mention that the concept of public toilets hasn’t really taken off in urban India. This was a grim and sobering sight. The depressing part is that there are tens of millions of such families. Want to hear something even more depressing – there are hundreds of millions in India who are worse off than the coconut seller’s family.

A few closing stats:

  • India ranks 66th on the 2008 Global Hunger Index of 88 countries.
  • India has 828 mil (75.6% of pop) below $2 a day. Sub-Saharan Africa is better – 72% of pop (551 mil) are below $2 a day. Source: World Bank.

(Jan 22, 2009 Update)
Hope, optimism and dreams are powerful things. This morning I read this article Born on the road, she aims for Miss India and I was uplifted – ever so slightly.