Poppat, a man of indeterminate age, is a mentally challenged beggar and has spent the last 40 years of his life ‘beneath the famous chhatris dedicated to valiant Rajput warriors of Kutch’. Despite his predicament of lacking fundamental faculties he never ‘forgets to pay’ for the tea he is offered at the temple. He is unable to communicate but will acknowledge your benevolence of giving him alms by letting ‘out a screeching sound upon’ seeing you.
The defining moment of Poppat’s life is going to be a ‘concrete tower with his name engraved on it, and that too as its donor’ in the temple complex. Poppat is making a donation of his entire life’s savings: 1,50,000 rupees which he has collected in alms over the last 40 years. Amounting to an annual savings of 3,750 rupees, the news item further informs that Poppat is unable “to even identify coins and notes” among his life’s worth.
On a cursory reading there is nothing ‘singular’ or ‘spectacular’ about Poppat’s life as a beggar which most of us are already not aware of, if not intimately, surely academically. And since reading about Poppat’s moment of ‘arrival’, by the way of having a tower in a temple complex where he has spent 40 years of his life begging, I was left intrigued and persistently disturbed by the narrative, without realising the cause of this anxiety. ‘Poverty’ does not titillate me, either into a self-congratulatory moment of sympathizing with the poor’s predicament or into a paralytic catharsis about my own position in the hierarchical matrices which lend to structurally and systemically sustaining it. Unable to simply archive the ‘figure’ of Poppat in the repository of the tales and experiences of the poor which I continually encounter in my line of ‘work’, I wondered what it was about him that lend to this anxiousness.
It was not his misery or his medical condition which has gone untreated for this long, but the nagging splinter under the skins was about the celebration about his absolute subservience to the system and its patrons, where he has lived and begged for the last 40 years, without access to basic rights and amenities which is the responsibility of the state to extend to citizens as Poppat. The fact that Poppat could not demand for these rights but is in fact expressing his gratitude by donating his life’s saving to the system only lends to the festivities.
Even in its significance, Poppat’s life’s value lies not in his figure with its real, dense, defeated and ‘dirty’ corporeality, but the idea and imagination of the ‘ideal’ poor the State desires. Or perhaps even of an ‘ideal’ citizen? One who does not (cannot) speak, lays no demands, surely does not protest, submits with absolute subservience and expresses gratitude when in fact acknowledged but only by letting out a ‘screeching sound’.
There is a phrase in Hindi which I often encounter, especially whilst engaging with government officials (as also NGO representatives, donor agencies) who are directly involved in working with and for the poor when asked ‘why not just provide them the poor with the facilities and amenities meant for them without them having to establish evidence of their poverty’, “That is necessary, nahin tho woh apni aukaat bul jayenge‘ – otherwise they will forget their position”.
Who better then Poppat to be the poster-boy for the ‘ideal’ poor who does not even an aukaat [position], forget the precarity of delicate negotiations of being and becoming as remembering to forget or forgetting to remember.