Simulating Poverty – Down and Out in Paris and London

Exercises like the above beg the question, how far does one have to go before empathizing with a whole section of the world if they have to simulate a refugee run. I personally think it is demeaning and ostentatious. It is not so much the fact that the refugee has to rely on charity that is demeaning, but such saintly clowning by the haves to empathize with human plights  so far removed from their daily lives that is far more gagging.

This is a stance though. A stance taken against a good initiative that is unnecessarily judgemental on a charity. Compare this with a scene in Down and Out in Paris and London where a group of tramps are ushered into a church and fed much needed warm tea in exchange for an unspoken fee of sitting through the religious mass. As soon as they are fed and the mass starts, the tramps hoot, jeer and turn rowdy disrupting the proceedings. Dispersing, they promise to come back again. It is an interesting perspective.

“As an example of what I mean by luxuries which are not luxuries, take an extreme case, such as one hardly sees in Europe. Take an Indian rickshaw puller, or a gharry pony. In any Far Eastern town there are rickshaw pullers by the hundred, black wretches weighing eight stone, clad in loin-cloths. Some of them are diseased; some of them are fifty years old. For miles on end they trot in the sun or rain, head down, dragging at the shafts, with the sweat dripping from their grey moustaches. When they go too slowly the passenger calls them bahinchut. They earn thirty or forty rupees a month, and cough their lungs out after a few years. The gharry ponies are gaunt, vicious things that have been sold cheap as having a few years’ work left in them. Their master looks on the whip as a substitute for food. Their work expresses itself in a sort of equation—whip plus food equals energy; generally it is about sixty per cent whip and forty per cent food. Sometimes their necks are encircled by one vast sore, so that they drag all day on raw flesh. It is still possible to make them work, however; it is just a question of thrashing them so hard that the pain behind outweighs the pain in front. After a few years even the whip loses its virtue, and the pony goes to the knacker. These are instances of unnecessary work, for there is no real need for gharries and rickshaws; they only exist because Orientals consider it vulgar to walk. They are luxuries, and, as anyone who has ridden in them knows, very poor luxuries. They afford a small amount of convenience, which cannot possibly balance the suffering of the men and animals.”

Investigative Journalism

There are chinks in this poverty porn novel where you can make out that George Orwell, at any time, can easily slip out of his self inflicted exile into relative stability. He is poor, he stays in bug ridden matchbox rooms, consorts with consumptives, goes hungry for days on end and so on. But the eject button is within reach.

Many first world travelers, and the creamy (and even the non-fat) layers of third world countries indulge in poverty porn. Yours truly once embarked on a 2 month trip with nothing more than a rucksack (come to think of it, it was an REI travelpack) and a camera on a plane across the world to experience life. I came back suitably smug with enough concocted adventures about South East Asian boats, goats, spices and vices.

This is just morality shagging. Experiences one inflicts on oneself to become unbearably preachy about inequality or justice with “when i travelled..” or “you have to see it to believe it..” kind of expressions.

This is an inherent challenge of investigative journalism. Wide eyed outsiders attempting to go through the rituals of the investigated but without the attendant risks and without shedding accrued advantages. No different from the white man in khaki with a video crew tagging behind him expounding to faraway rubberneckers about a goliath bird eating spider while natives lounge about in the background self consciously watching the outsider’s wonderment at their everyday life.

Despite the unfortunate odds stacked against him by virtue of his social class, Orwell does an impeccable job of chronicling the grimy, excruciating life of the tramp, the moocher, the poor and the downtrodden in Paris and London.

I might not be able to convince an Indian tramp that the life of his British counterpart is worse or the other way round. But I can walk away suitably guilty into a tea shop for a quick contemplative bite. Now restaurants, that is a whole different story for another time.

2 thoughts on “Simulating Poverty – Down and Out in Paris and London

Add yours

  1. His usage of bahinchut is spot on but again he was born in India. I haven’t read Down & Out but one book I did read was Aman Sethi’s A Free Man. Check it out if you haven’t (here I go once again adding to your tbr pile 😛 )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. haha.. this year I am real slow in reading. if i cant read it then i might choose the next best thing. Call you for beer and hear you expound.


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