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Have you seen India's 'invisible' people?

Last updated on: August 15, 2017 07:04 IST

Flesh-and-blood people can be invisible even when they are standing right in front of us, says Geetanjali Kishna.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

The invisible people illustration

Last week, Sanjay Singh, our presswallah, didn't show up to collect the clothes for ironing.

The next morning when he arrived, the pile of laundry was huge.

"I'm still a little tied up with an urgent personal matter," he said, adding he won't be able to iron the entire pile.

The conversation that followed was startling, for it made me realise that just like flesh-and-blood people like them can be invisible even when they are standing right in front of us, so can their brick-and-mortar houses.

Last week's rains had brought showers of inconvenience to the Singh household.

"My one-room house is located in a depression and rainwater tends to pool inside," he said.

Fed up of essentially living in a puddle, his wife and he decided to take the day off to remove the water and raise the level of their floor.

"Unfortunately, when we started piling bricks to level the depression, somebody alerted the police," he said.

 

Singh suspected that one of the affluent households next door to his camp had complained about him when they saw him bringing in the bricks and sand.

"Since our camp is supposedly unauthorised, the police stopped us from using bricks, even though all around us, so many people had managed to transform their shanties into double-storied apartments," he said.

Where exactly did he stay? I asked curiously.

"Our camp is inside New Friends Colony," he said. "Not far from a government school."

I was stumped.

I pass down that road every day, but had seen no such thing in my neighbourhood.

Was it new, I asked?

"It's been around for 60-odd years," he said. "All of us who live there have bank accounts, electricity meters and Aadhaar cards with this address."

His father had set up house here 40 years ago, he said.

Perhaps the camp came up to accommodate construction labourers, I surmised, still clueless about where exactly it was.

When I said again that I couldn't believe I'd never seen it, Singh said, "Ever since we were children, my father and the elders in the camp told us we must never emphasise our presence here. So we live here quietly and get on with our lives."

Like Singh, most of his neighbours in the camp serviced the needs of the affluent households in the neighbourhood.

"It seems somewhat ironic that while, on the one hand, people like me are essential to the efficient running of these households," he said, "yet, most of them remain blithely oblivious to how we live and what we must do to survive."

So many employers did not think it necessary to provide a toilet for their staff nor ever wonder how they performed their normal biological functions.

"My father used to say that people like us are invisible even in a crowd because many people look but don't want to really 'see' us!" he said, adding, "Although, given my abortive attempts at home improvement yesterday, being visible isn't necessarily a good thing."

I thought long and hard about my conversation with Sanjay.

The next time I passed the area where Singh said the 'invisible camp' was, I stopped and peeped over a fence. There it was, a scattering of tenements with young children playing quietly outside.

In contrast to orderliness on my side of the fence, it was a mess of clotheslines, garbage and stagnant water from the previous day's rains.

There wasn't much point in my standing there, and the children were looking at me rather curiously.

So I left, hoping that Sanjay Singh and his 'invisible camp' would be more visible to me in the future.

Geetanjali Krishna
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