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Updated: August 7, 2010 14:03 IST

Barefoot: The loneliness of hunger

Harsh Mander
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Forgotten....Photo: Ayan Sharma
Forgotten....Photo: Ayan Sharma

Most destitutes not only have to deal with hunger but also with the loneliness, despair and shame that come with social isolation…

We visit Urmila, a grey-haired and disabled widow in her small thatched home in a village in Bolangir, in the hunger belt of Orissa. A hen is wandering in the courtyard. Urmila says, “Look at this foolish hen. She knows I have nothing to give her, but still she comes to me. Don't shoo her away, as she is my only guest.” She poignantly evokes her own longing: “My hunger is not only for food, but also for love.” But, paradoxically, she is also terrified of people, confining herself most times to her home, and avoiding the main streets even when she goes out to bathe in the river. “I am scared because I live alone.”

The experience of hunger is a complex one, of intense physiological deprivation combined often with despair and shame. It is an urgent craving for food, an intensely personal experience of fatigue, weakness and a longing that demands appeasement. It involves loneliness, social devaluation and a stripping away of self-esteem.

A daily ordeal

Most of the intensely destitute people we met live not just with the afflictions of prolonged hunger, but also with the daily ordeal of profound loneliness. They are socially isolated and devalued in a variety of ways. For Kava Manat — disabled from birth, dragging himself indefatigably on his calloused hands — life's greatest regret is that he could never marry and make a family of his own. If he had a partner, he would have had someone to share life's joys and sorrows with, someone with whom he could have travelled through life with dignity and support. He would then not have been so anxious about his future. He says, “Poverty and hunger do not only just kill a person; they also destroy his self-esteem.”

Antamma, an old widow in Andhra Pradesh abandoned by the children she brought up with great struggle, says she skips celebrating smaller festivals, but bigger festivals like Sankranti, Deepavali and Holi she celebrates just with herself, in her own way, within her own means. She does it by eating a little more rice, or maybe treating herself by cooking for herself a quarter kilogram of vegetables. Sajna Nag, a secluded ageing widow says, “I now do not know when festivals come and go. But when my husband was alive, I used to await these eagerly.” Lakshmanna — who is furious at her sons' neglect — escapes during festivals to the fields. There she sits alone and weeps, nostalgically recalling the past; and finding some solace by roundly cursing her sons.

Laibani Manjhi, abandoned by her husband after she acquired goitre, refuses to attend social functions because she fears that she will be taunted both for her neck swollen with goitre and her husband's desertion. Leprosy patients like Vali and Dhanu are never invited for any celebrations. Dhanu is shy in gatherings, and never leaves his home except to graze the goats, his only companions. He never joins to watch entertainments like the nautanki; and when he walks past people, women snatch away their children in dread of his touch.

Old people living alone sometimes spend days without speaking to anyone. It is a burden to cook for oneself, especially for old men who are unaccustomed to looking after themselves, and therefore it is not uncommon for them many nights to drink water and try to sleep instead of cooking food. Men who lose their wives at an old age often are bereft of the most basic skills of cooking, and of how to manage to find and stretch food to fill one's stomach, when there is no money to buy food. It is better when a couple grows old together, but as one Rajasthani woman remarked, “How long can old people talk, remembering their old days?” They are constantly haunted by the fear that the other partner may fall sick or die, or that they may themselves become incapacitated and become a burden to the other. “It is okay until one's hands and feet work, but what will happen if we are bound to the cot one day?”

Not an option

Migration to find work in the cities is an option closed to most destitute people, because of the age and infirmity of. However, there we met some whose children do migrate, but although this sometimes helps them survive, it leaves them solitary and lonely. Aged and disabled Indradeep in Bolangir depends critically on the occasional remittances sent by his son Sadhu who migrates to the brick kilns of Hyderabad every year with his wife. Together the couple take an advance of Rs. 8,000 from the ‘sardar' or labour contractor, when they set out annually from their village: the last year they gave their parents Rs. 500 out of this, and also released their mother's jewellery from mortgage with the local moneylender. But the elderly couple miss the daily support of their caring son. On some occasions, prolonged migration frays family bonds. Initially the village postman used to deliver to the widow Malti Bariha at her doorstep money orders of Rs. 300 every month from her son Charka. But the money has stopped and the visits, both of the postman and her son, have become more and more infrequent. She also regrets that her son was not by his bedside when her husband passed away. Somi, also a Rajasthani widow says, “My son has migrated permanently with his wife to Gujarat. He has snapped all ties with his village, so that he is not forced to remember his ailing mother.”

Local communities are typically indifferent, and sometimes even hostile to such destitute persons. Mentally slow Betkai Tandi is labelled badiand jhaki, which mean‘fool' and ‘mad'. She asks sadly, “Do I look like a fool? Am I mad? Tell me, am I? Yet see how the villagers treat me. Their children throw stones at me when I walk past.” She lives alone with the ghosts and demons that haunt her solitary world.

We encountered no forms of institutional community support to these destitute persons in any of the villages in the three states that we studied. The only exception was the surviving tradition in some villages of collecting chanda or voluntary small contributions for organising the weddings of daughters of widows and people with disability. Offering work to aged or people with disability, or single women, was itself seen as an act of charity, even though the wages were a pittance, and the conditions and work hours highly exploitative.

This social neglect is because of the perceived lack of worth of individuals who are viewed as unable to produce and contribute — though in fact they may be doing so. “Did you ever see people on a winter night trying to warm themselves with ash that is already scorched and cold? They will look for fires that are still burning.”

Desires and dreams

Udiya Bariha had a lonely childhood. She was never sent to school as she was blind, so she played alone at home. There were some other blind children in the village, but they never met. She felt there was no question of getting married. Both her parents died in quick succession of some fever, and she has lived all alone since then, when she was 15 years old, toiling for 60 long years and only lately begging for her food. No one ever visits her. When we ask her if she was happy, she immediately replies that she is. We then question her if she has any desires? She hesitates for a long time, then answers haltingly, as though unfamiliar with even the thoughts: “It would have been nice to have a good house, clothes, food…”

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