I walked into Oberoi Grand – an oasis of luxury and quiet amidst the hustle bustle of the streets of Kolkata looking forward to a peaceful night after a strenuous day of travel and work. Just before sinking into deep lap of a comfortable and oversized armchair, I pulled aside the drapes to see why there was so much noise below.
It seemed like a street market with hawkers and vendors screaming out for customers for their simple wares. But their cacophony was enough to disturb any illusion of serenity that I was hoping for after a tiring day. I drew the curtains back and tried to forget the racket- I ate a hearty gourmet dinner, exchanged a few messages with family, enjoyed a long hot bath to ease my fatigue and terrible headache.
By the time I was about to hit the bed it was nearing midnight. I switched off the lights and remembered the legendary ghost of the Oberoi Grand and turned on the light again, before finally putting it off. Suddenly, I felt stark quietude. The noise of New Market outside had melted away. Kolkata seemed dulled and slumberous.
Out of curiosity, I jumped out of bed and pulled aside the curtains a little. I expected to see the remains of the street market – the scene seemed just like that. The temporary shops had all wound up and wooden carts seemed abandoned, there was litter all around the empty street and a few stray dogs were smelling about for victuals.
But then what I saw made my heart skip a beat. An old tattered woman was tucking in plastic sheets over her temporary shack. In place of the wooden cart had appeared a makeshift residence. Magically, the entire roadside looked like a row of jhuggis (slum dwellings). . I could see her fixing the corners of her shed and thumping out a dunlop to sleep on.
My stomach turned. Her condition seemed so pathetic. And from the sprawling lavish, tasteful and cool confines of a luxuriously soft bed, terribly unfair. I felt myself go numb and my eyes moistened.
I thought philosophically about the concept of God, Karma and destiny. I could not quite fathom what had put me in this comfortable opulence while those down below (literally and otherwise) who were equally human, with the same hopes, dreams and desires, destined to such squalor. The distance of my first floor window and them must not have been more than 20 feet. But neither could I really go outside and change her circumstance, nor she come over to my side. The distance in reality was very small, yet insurmountable. I remembered the words of a saint who had said that compassion and empathy did not allow him to accept wallowing luxury which was constantly offered to him by his followers when he knew well that millions lived in stark poverty. I felt deep ache.
It is not that one is not aware of living a relatively privileged life in a vastly poor country or unaware of suffering in general and poverty. But that day the reality hit me in a much more real manner – experiencing it from such close quarters, it was a little too close for comfort.
And as typically and rightfully as it could happen, it happened in in Kolkata – the City of Joy. The metropolis that has celebrated its success as much as its grungy shantytown.
I stared at the poor woman a few yards away and then at the 5 star room I was standing in, when a poster that stood between us caught my eye. It was a huge hoarding of Mamata Banerjee celebrating the 67th Republic Day of India. It said ‘Ma Mati Manush Zindabad’.