The White Tiger and its forensic scrutiny of class is now a Hollywood film but the author of the novel, Aravind Adiga, missed a trick when he portrayed his upper middle class characters’ contempt for the poor. The real pools of pure concentrated class hatred are the middle class and nothing embodies this hatred, the desire to make the poor invisible, to airbrush them out of the landscape, than Resident Welfare Associations.
The minutes of one such RWA meeting in New Delhi ruled that, in the interests of preventing noise pollution, street vendors should not make their traditional cry.
It so happens that the cry of the street vendor qualifies as one of the few charms of the otherwise dismal urban landscape. It is reassuring to be indoors and hear the cry. It means the world is up, men are at work and bringing things you need to your doorstep. Each one cries out his catchphrase in his own characteristic timbre and volume, from a booming baritone to the bell-like clarity of a tenor. Some cries are a longish sentence while others are just one syllable, elongated to sound musical. Some sound imperious. Others are sung in the tones of a tender, lilting lullaby that can waft hauntingly in the air long after he has turned the corner.
The RWA said that instead of the efficient system of the cry alerting people to their presence, the street vendors should instead walk to every house and flat, up and down various floors ringing the bell to ask if anyone wants to buy their produce.
Even the youngest and fittest vendor would never be able to run up and down floors ringing bells randomly, and no doubt getting an earful from the same people who formulated the rule on the day they didn’t want his gobhi. It’s a way of killing a man’s effort to earn an honest living.
The injunction had nothing to do with noise pollution. New flats are coming up nearby where deafening drilling is going on. Residents honk on the street, either to pick someone up or in rage because someone has parked on a spot that, incidentally, doesn’t belong to them but they seem to think it does.
No, the purpose of the new rule is to harass the poor and deny them access to public places. When RWAs see part-time domestic help sitting in the local park, enjoying the winter sunshine and chatting with each other after they finish cleaning someone’s home, the blood bubbles in the brains of these burghers. Some parks have been sealed off totally with locked gates because it offended their sensibilities to see public spaces being enjoyed by the poor. Drivers are also favourite targets. In the long tedious periods when they have no work, if they congregate in a particular spot to chat, the venom tap is turned on in the WhatsApp group. “They stand around gossiping or playing cards, smoking and peeing,” said one resident, conveniently glossing over the fact that the RWA has failed to provide a public toilet.
A suggestion once to an RWA that the presswallah who has been ironing their clothes for 20 years in the heat 365 days a year should perhaps be given a proper little ‘work station’ with counter, a fan and chair provoked explosive snorts. “The spot will become a den of thieves. His driver friends will come and turn it into an adda,” protested one resident.
No spot on the street can be considered as available to the poor yet the middle class themselves colonise the pavement outside their homes with pot plants and hang “No Parking. Tyres will be Deflated” signs outside their homes even though it is public land.
The abiding principle is segregation. In many apartment complexes, domestic staff has to use a separate lift. At children’s birthday parties, instead of being served the same food, the drivers are sent off with separate ‘driver boxes’ containing stale pakoras. Some housing complexes have laid on outdoor gyms during the pandemic but maids and drivers are banned.
Urban planning displays the same disregard for ordinary Indians by favouring car owners. On every middle verge in New Delhi, high railings have been erected to stop jaywalking. What it means is that if pedestrians want to cross over to the other side of the street, they cannot. Instead, they have to walk for a kilometre or more to find a place to cross over.
The RWAs are a distillation of the impulses of the wider middle class — indifferent to those who are not so fortunate, impatient with democracy, drunk on the power to lock, ban, and cordon off, and filled with an insatiable desire to throw their weight around.
And this is when they don’t have any real power. Imagine if they had the power to impose their will, how many polyester Pol Pots would be born.
For crying out loud: One Delhi RWA has decided that street vendors cannot make their cry
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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