Who would have thought India would be cold? But it is: down to the forties at night, with a freeze expected on Friday. And while New York is obviously colder, our apartment here is a cement box with marble floors and drafty windows — a lack of insulation that will spare us the worst of May’s 105-degree average, but for now requires of us an electric heater in the living room and four blankets on the bed.
The guard outside our building has a harder time staying warm: his only help is an old blanket and a fire he builds out of discarded plastic cups. This dismal fire has illustrated to me the true nature of poverty: it’s not homelessness, it’s hopelessness.
The poorest people aren’t necessarily the ones unemployed and begging on the streets. They’re the ones forced to endure inhuman conditions because they can’t survive any other way.
Like many upper-middle class Indian neighborhoods, ours is surrounded by security guards. The daytime guards (the smiling, round-faced one is perhaps forty; the thin one with the harsh gray beard is probably fifty-five) sit at the entrance to our street just across from our building, chatting with passing servants and raising a metal barrier so cars can pass by. After eleven PM, though, when the iron gate clangs shut and the temperature marches downward, the nighttime guard retreats to a three-sided wooden shelter to doze and shiver until a car honks at him. Then he gets up and opens the gate.
A simple electric motion detector could do the exact same task; but in India, it’s cheaper to hire a man than to buy a machine.
I don’t know who hires the guards or pays their salaries; but whomever does so does not provide for their comfort. There are two plastic chairs and the wooden shelter, and there is the blanket and the plastic cups. Firewood is not provided. We learned this one cold night when the guard — one of three sixteen-year-olds who alternate the night shift — begged us for paper to burn.
India has lots of destitute people. But India has many more people employed as human motion detectors. At my office building, a woman stands in the parking lot in sub-basement three; all I’ve ever seen her do is stand there. In my office itself, a guard sits at the reception desk to watch who comes and goes; he’s here before we arrive and he’s here until everyone leaves, and I heard he sleeps here at night. Outside a trendy bar in a nearby neighborhood, I’ve seen the same bushy-mustached guard every time I’ve passed by since August; the entirety of his responsibility is to open the door.
This is what poverty forces you to do: endure physical suffering or abject boredom because you don’t have any other choice. Poverty is sitting all night long because someone has to open the gate. Poverty is accepting a job out in the cold from an employer who won’t provide firewood, knowing that you can’t waste your money buying any yourself. Poverty is being trapped in the mind-numbing present because you can’t afford the time or money to invest in a slightly better future.
Just down the street from our apartment is a small stone mosque — a sixteenth-century ruin listed as a protected monument by the government, surrounded by a small park and still used for prayers during the day. This place, at least, provides some measure of comfort for its night watchman; when I pass by late at night, I see the guy warming himself in front of a small fire. At least this guy gets firewood.