Listening to India’s poverty woes lunching on Teriyaki Glazed Salmon, Hijiki rice in Manhattan

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Ellen Barry

NEW YORK – Soon after Ellen Barry, the South Asia Bureau Chief of The New York Times, winner of the 2017 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia, started talking of some native customs in rural India, narrating how newly-wed brides have to wash the feet of her mother-in-law, in some cases drink that water as a mark of respect, humility, social hierarchy, an Indian woman sitting with her family, began to get visibly ruffled. She shook her head, made her discomfort and disgust clear, gave piercing looks at her husband and son – both of whom sat stoically staring ahead at the speaker. She indicated she wanted to leave.

I was in the same room, at the Asia Society, in Manhattan, savoring lunch. The lunch was delicious – Tatsoi and baby spinach salad with daikon, strawberries, drenched in Yuzu vinaigrette; followed by excellent teriyaki glazed salmon with bean sprouts, mushrooms and Hijiki rice. I was on my dessert – a concoction of green tea and dark chocolate cremeux tart with raspberry tuile quinoa crunch and chocolate mirror sauce, when Barry started to speak.

Listening to Barry, who had won the prize for her captivating stories on two young sisters who try to escape the confines of their poverty-laden life in rural India, migrating to Bengaluru – and in whose honor the lunch was for, and an award ceremony – was fascinating, yet decidedly difficult.

The feeling was a palpable one, like when I watched ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ thought it was an epic film that wallowed in showcasing India’s filth and raw poverty, gloated over it, in fact. But the West loved it. And I knew that despite the feeling of revulsion I felt at some of the scenes, they were only too familiar everyday routines in every city in India. Truth portrayed as it really is, on celluloid.

Barry was just talking of what she had experienced in India, and like I squirmed watching ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the Indian woman in the room was finding it hard watching and listening to Barry’s narrative. She got up and a bit later, with her husband trailing her, left the room, and its horrors. Her son, though, sat it out.

Barry gave some startling figures of patriarchal India: India has the lowest percentage of women working in South Asia, lower than Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even when family faces dire poverty, perdition, death from starvation, they would rather confine a woman at home.

Barry also humanized the rural girls of India, spoke of the thriving, ‘underground’ rural romances that brew in factories and manufacturing hubs, where girls get to meet boys from the same social strata, and love blossoms.

“We don’t read too much of India where women are sneaking around to get married, trying to get married,” she explained.

Often times, these sneaky romances – with the girls suddenly experiencing freedom, and hankering, just like any girl around the globe, prized objects like a cell phone, to be able to talk to their amour, apart it from being a status symbol too – end up in disappointment, though.

Barry explained that unlike a country like China, where mass migration from rural areas to urban centers is a one-way ticket, in India, the reverse is true. The few girls who are sent out to work away from home, in rural India, are often cajoled to come back home after a brief stint. They don’t end up escaping the vicious cycle of poverty, are in a sense, recycled back, to their pitiable conditions.

“It is too risky to let your daughter go (to work) and lose her forever,” Barry said, describing herself as a “space alien” who had come for the villagers, when she went to do her stories in south India.

Barry didn’t hold back chilling, uncomfortable truths: she spoke also of gang rape of some women who tried to fight back against the system, how one of the women who was getting assaulted, called her on her cell phone for help, instead of the local police.

While she praised India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she came down on the government’s efforts at job creation, and demonetization that severely affected the poor – the political effect of which she admitted, took her by surprise, as BJP swept to power in Assembly elections, especially Uttar Pradesh.

“Despite Modi’s promises, people don’t understand that the jobs are not there,” she said of India’s looming unemployment problems, citing also layoff in call centers. She softened her tone when speaking of the country itself: “India is a hopeful country, full of people who see a way up and out.” Barry, however, didn’t speak of the unique ways of ‘jugaad’, of how Indians made do with little or nothing, but likely had that in mind.

Barry did make some rather outlandish comments, with one on “Everyone in Delhi reads seven newspapers because they are so cheaper!” one that stood out for me.

Even if that was said in a jocular way (though Barry was talking in a serious tone, when she said it) that may hold good in a state like Kerala, where 2-3 newspapers are consumed daily. But really, even the retired in Delhi don’t read more than two newspapers, unless things have changed too rapidly since my last visit to Delhi, last summer. Unless, of course, Arnab haters have taken to shunning TV, seek desperate solace in the print world.

I had a brief chat with Barry after her talk, and she was kind enough to inquire as to what was happening in the Indian American diaspora. Of course, I didn’t tell her, as she knew it well enough: some lucky girls from rural India are in the US too. They are the ones who escaped that world which Barry opened up for some in New York, last week.

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