FORGETTING CALCUTTA


Late in 1996, some fellow members of the Human Rights Action Group and I participated in some good old non-violent action to show the French government that we disapprove of their resumption of nuclear testing. We were willing to get bruised, bloodied, and arrested for this issue which we deemed so important.

It seems a little weird though, that we then went to a cafe and bought coffees and chocolate slice. We each spent at least six dollars. Okay, maybe I'm being hyper- sensitive, but I'm often asking myself where I should draw the line. Most of us know that coffee and chocolate are cash crops which the 'first' world consumes at the expense of the livelihood of many members of the 'third' world who grow our coffee instead of their beans. And while I deem cafe life pretty important to my social being, I grapple with the amount of money I could direct to other areas say to those numerous areas in the world where one dollar is enough to provide a child with sustenance for a day.

I guess I'm just trying to sort out where to draw my lines. How can I live accountably? Though I can be smarting with pain at the stories and pictures brought to me from Hiroshima, and I'll risk arrest and abuse to show it, I can't forget my experience with the dead and dying people of Calcutta. In this city, people aren't in danger of nuclear fireballs, but of starvation and exposure. The solution to this problem doesn't involve protesting outside an embassy. It necessitates a lifestyle change.

Dipali is thirty years old. She lives in a shack made from mud and paper. She and her husband eat leaves supplemented with any scraps of food they find. Her malnourishment prevents her from working. His job breaking up blocks of charcoal means that they can occasionally buy milk and other foodstuffs mostly, though, his meagre wage pays the ten rupee/week rent on their 6 square foot plot of land. In the corner of her room, Dipali has a tiny pair of shoes. They are memories of the baby she coudn't keep alive, but cannot forget.

Aruti also lives in a shack made of newspaper. The rent is also 10 rupees/week. She is lucky, she has five daughters to love. But keeping this family alive means seventeen hour working days for Aruti, who leaves her home by the railway track every morning at six or seven, and, winding her way barefoot through the broken glass and rubbish around her slum, she comes home at 8 or 9 at night a few rupees richer. Even her two eldest daughters, one 16 and one 10 work twelve hour days to help provide for the family. They eat curried potatoes, rice, and dhal.

When I was in India, 30 rupees = $NZ2.00 or $US1.60

Heidi Bentz Ashe

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