Last weekend, Bangaloreans of all stripes turned out in their fanciest kurtas and sarees for the first edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival. I arrived just in time to hear former Indian ambassadors to places such as Syria and Iraq speak about “ferment in West Asia,” which was followed by an esoteric discussion of memory and experience that nobody except for the panelists themselves seemed to follow. In short, it was a lovely time spent lounging on the lawn of the Jayamahal Palace Hotel, observing the latest in rich-people saree trends.
This was in stark contrast to what had happened in Frazertown, a middle-class neighborhood where I’ve been living for the past month, only half an hour earlier. I had been strolling down a quiet street when a paper collector seemed to suddenly push his cart toward me. My first instinct was to jump out of the way, until I realized that the man was falling. Before I knew what was happening, he was lying by the side of the road, foaming at the mouth and shaking. I was with an Indian friend, and asked him to call an ambulance.
“Are yaar look at him, he can’t afford an ambulance, he probably can’t even afford treatment.” My friend was right. Even as I implored him to do something, I could sense how utterly idiotic my request was.
In mere seconds, an auto driver and another person converged on the shaking man and placed metal weights in his hand (note: I don’t know why, but my friend told me that this is how seizures are sometimes dealt with). As it turns out, the people who were helping him knew the paper collector well. This man fainted from painful seizures at least four times a day, every day.
The newspaper wallah probably lives in one of the slums bordering Frazertown, from which trash collectors, maids, cooks and drivers come to do dirty, low-paying and sometimes hazardous work for the privileged few. We pass each other on the streets, but our relationships lack substance. My neighbors are construction workers who live in makeshift huts with their families, for instance, but I’ve never so much as spoken to them or even seen them. Although their huts are only two or three feet from my living room window (we certainly hear each other’s music, so thank you for the Bhojpuri hits, and I do hope you like my dubstep selection), somebody built a wall between us, and so we don’t exist to each other.
At times, however, our lives intersect in remarkably powerful ways. Later that night, I found myself in the Emergency Room of Manipal Hospital. Somewhere between the flying cart and fancy sarees, I began to experience stomach pain and would alternate between shivering and sweating uncontrollably. My condition eventually deteriorated to the point where I needed treatment.
As I lay in a fetal position, clutching my blanket and shivering in the ER, I wondered how long the paper wallah would continue to collapse from painful seizures, with metal weights and friends as his only recourse. I wondered where festival participants and panelists were getting smashed that night. I wondered when Sister Betty would finally find a vein and stop poking me with her oversized green needle, and most of all, I wondered how anyone can wonder, much less get up everyday and trudge from house to house, collecting old newspapers, when they’re in such unrelenting, excruciating pain.