Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Poverty of Soul

I think my friends must have heard me saying many times over that poverty resides in the soul. It's not something that can be mitigated by merely removing material deficiencies. Material deficiencies are a mere symptom of a malady that resides much deeper within, as I mentioned, perhaps as deep as in the soul.

As I disembark from the train in Nagpur junction, proceed through the streets of this city, which is small by no means, yet not out of its age old slumber, as I move to the outskirts to reach my home, as I enter my house, meet my family, talk with the people of this so-called well-to-do locality, I am acutely conscious of a deeper variety of poverty that prevails here.

That kind of poverty is not so apparent in a hustly-bustly society of a city like Bangalore, atleast in the quarters that I deal with. However, there are other mutants of the same germ present there, more subtle, often more severe.

Do I carry a consistent definition of poverty in my mind? I don't know right now. Prof. Amartya Sen describes it quite scientifically in terms of deprivation. That's with the aim of objectifying the concept, so that it can at least be measured, if not mitigated. That mathematisation may not be helpful to spot poverty outright in the day to day life. Poverty, nevertheless, is quite a blatant thing, in spite of its subtlety. Let me see. Here I try to observe some aspects in which it appears, apart from plain deprivation of material wealth. Perhaps, this list will help discover the common traits among them all, that would elucidate that central essence of poverty.


There can't be a count of the number of ways in which ignorance manifests itself. Lack of access to information, possibilities...The very thought of trying to enumerate the various forms of it seems mind-boggling. A poor man would behave consistently in a manner that shows how he hasn't considered, or hasn't been able to consider, the job at hand in its entirety. I want you to interpret it as: 'Being cosistently unable to handle problems with sufficient initial analysis of the problem is an evidence of poverty.' For example, the silly strategic mistakes that a common man repeatedly makes in choosing a career for his child is not often due to lack of opportunities, but due to the lack of information and research about them. The first wrong step taken closes down tens of other more rewarding, albeit less conventional, ways of making a career. In families of our economic strata, there's such a strong emphasis upon going into engineering, medicine or science! A potential brilliant sportsman ends up being an ordinary clerk. Poor man's next generation inherits his poverty. Arts and commerce colleges are starved of good students, while engineering and medical colleges are mushrooming all around producing a horde of substandard technical education.
For example, right from my childhood, I had shown very strong artistic bent of mind. In my present station, I feel that it would have been quite reasonable for me to have been actively encouraged to pursue multiple streams of artistic activities, perhaps even at the expense of a scientific career (which I love no less than arts). Unfortunately, I haven't just remained bereft of any such formal initiation, but have a strange internal obstacle against initiating myself in such a thing. Last year, I felt an irrepressible urge to demystify the black art of water-colouring by joining some training. I made preliminary enquiries. In fact, I even landed up in the first class of one such institute. But, quite tragically found a good argument not to carry on with it. I haven't relinquished my lonesome, painful struggle to discover the secrets of water-colouring all by myself. But, I am well aware that it could have been much faster and easier. If it's not clear yet why this qualifies as an evidence of my poverty, I hope to make it clearer, when I sum up later in this essay.

Inability to Enjoy
This point is not entirely orthogonal to the previous. It refers to a person's inability to prevent a happy moment from turning morbid. The most natural method of enjoying a happy moment is to be just happy. However, we humans are particularly efficient in maligning moments of pure elation with morbid emotions. For example, an achievement may promptly be turned into an object of vanity, an interpretation that completely nullifies the purity of elation that an achievement can cause. Another morbid thought is the fear of losing the joy that's there in the present moment. Then, there are comparisons and jealousy. And sometimes a vain attempt to convert all experiences into a common measure of value, for instance, money. Stories of heroes rising from the dust into positions of power, and then turning into oppressive villains is not rare. It could be because our hero struggled hard to earn material objects of richness through his struggles, but couldn't flush out the morbidity that pervades his mind, a more profound aspect of his poverty. I have had first hand experiences in seeing opulence and starvation residing side by side in this regard. Often, judging in this manner, I have found myself qualifying as a famished creature.

The Strange Distinction between The Ordinary and The Extra-ordinary
A poor person will often not do good things things capable of directly hurling him out of the shackles of poverty simply because he thinks that it requires some kind of unnamed qualification even to try doing good things. A peasant having an innate way with words would hardly ever venture into compiling his nonchalant rhymes into a book of poems simply because he might maintain that "it's a poet's job to do poetry." An arts student will often consider computers with awe and terror as if being good with computers is a lineal right of a computer scientist. An Indian researcher will keep away from ever thinking about fundamental research problems simply because he thinks that had it been possible for him to crack any such problem, it would already have been solved in some lab in Europe or USA. Richness and good deeds result from each other. Somehow, a poor chap will be exceedingly clever in never acknowledging the dependence of the former on the latter. On the other hand, he will promptly use the other way round part of the dependence between these two things as a reason for clinging on to his poverty. Within the individual instances, all such acts of ignorances could be perfectly explained. However, in the perspective, their omnipresence is quite absurd!

I have no idea how one could provide an exhaustive list of myriad manifestations of the more subtle aspects of poverty. Though, I still am at a loss of proper words which could string the above points together, in my mind, I see a distinct similarity among them all. Let me go ahead with one lame attempt.

The condition of poverty is characterised not by its presence but by its persistence. Poverty sometimes seems such a very fickle thing that it can be extinguished with one positive thought, a positive motion of limbs, one act of giving up of an unreasonable morbidity. And yet poverty has it million weapons of defence. Material deprivation can be removed in many ways -- charity, reservations, looting, hardwork. But the poverty that sits in our souls speaks with each breath we take. It infects entire nations like an epidemic, and incapacitates generations by seeping into their very character. It enslaves a poor person in such a manner that you would often find him working hard just in order to perpetuate his own sufferings. A poor farmer is chained to his poor state not just by the rising debts, but often his own methods of life. A poor country would often not be plagued by starvation, disease and unemployment, but because of widespread corruption, inefficiency and general lack of civic character.

Perhaps, it may appear that I am artificially expanding the scope of the concept of poverty into areas which should be granted separate treatment. How does corruption qualify as a manifestation of poverty, it may be argued? After all, there are cases of corruption even in the richest of the nations. Well, one small reply to that is that richness of a nation is not characterised by the absense of poor people, but by their rareness. Moreover, it would again be repeating the mistake of ignoring the two-way relation between symptoms of richness and things which cause richness if we quote presence of corruption in rich nations as an indication that corruption isn't related to poverty. Corruption, or the lack of it, isn't just caused by the presence or absence of poverty. It signifies a variety of poverty, quite independent of material deprivation. If at all there's any relation between corruption and material deprivation, I think, corruption is more a cause of material deprivation than a result of it. I maintain that material deprivation is a very late stage symptom of the disease of poverty. Poverty shows and hides itself in many other forms which occur (can be detected and handled) at various earlier stages of the life-cycle of this disease in the social organism.

For a person suffering from lack of resources, it may be reasonable not to try breaking free in nine out of ten cases in interest of security and survival issues. It would be reasonable if he did try to break free even one out of ten cases. But the state of soul-poverty would stop him from giving even that one try prompting him to use the same probabilistic argument for the reasonableness of inactivity to this tenth case.

If each man were to realise that, once in a while, it's quite logical to give a really desperate attempt to break free; if he were to understand that failing in that attempt is no less disgraceful than submitting to the reign of poverty, poverty would indeed be so fickle as it may appear to a rich man. But alas! The falseness of the premiss of this statement is what makes poverty such a difficult disease to cure!


Dheepikaa B said...

Seeing that no one has yet commented, shouldn't I be feeling proud for reading it fully? ;) And, believe me it was more than worth it.

Beautifully written. An extremely powerful thought. Every sentence has a meaning in itself. Your sensitivity to your thoughts is stunning.

I dont think I completely got d meaning bout the richness-good deeds relationship.

The flow of the article is appreciably relevant. Sometimes, it is a little bit of an effort - to get to your deep ideas. The effort depends on the richness of the soul - huh? ;)

Those lines I would love to recap - I loved the most.

"And yet poverty has it million weapons of defence."

"It enslaves a poor person in such a manner that you would often find him working hard just in order to perpetuate his own sufferings."

"Corruption is more a cause of material deprivation than a result of it."

The best of your blog and your thought I have ever read. Would you mind sending it to The Hindu, Open Page?

My follow-up thoughts:

In look for safety and security, I believe we sometimes choose to be poor as well. It is like looking forward to sufferings. The most fertile brains, look for negativities, failure and in your context poverty, to be functional. In that premise, perhaps, the idea of higher functions are forgotten. Or even ignored. Cursed with no joy. I think it has to do with genetics also.

About the epidemic nature of the soul's poverty, there is corruption in the soul as well. In the internal sense. Self-inflicted corruption attributed to poverty that is denied its responsibility of residence in the soul.

Albeit, the choice resides with the soul.

Your soul Sujith - is highly rich. ;) And, I am jealous. Hehe!

That makes it a long comment. It is an A.W.E.S.O.M.E. post. Keep writing stuff like these. Powerful.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Thanks Dheepika! :)
I am thankful you took the effort of placing the interpretation in its right place. It could always have been argued that I am being materialistic/aristocratic by connecting 'joys of life' with 'poverty'. 'Material deprivation is just a symptom of poverty.' There lies the crux of the whole article.
I wouldn't mind sending the article. I feel it needs to be less abstract to qualify as a newspaper article though. Thanks for the suggestion.

Shruti T A said...

Although I never considered connecting attitudes to material affluence, it makes sense when I read your article. It's a novel thought and I believe it should be read by everyone in a developing nation. Reading this can be motivating enough to make true the premiss in your conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Very deep and yet very straightforward. Thanks. I enjoyed that. It really is food for thought.