Views From the Ministry of the Interior
“Nobody’s free without breaking open.” (~ Ocean Vuong, “Beautiful Short Loser”)
Living on a sidewalk in a large city in India is different from living on the sidewalk in an U.S. city or anywhere in Europe. In India, there are many thousands that live on “pavement housing”, informal barebones awnings with a few utensils, a shared gas cylinder for cooking, a cheap set of blankets for a bed. Sometimes a mirror hangs on the wall or fence that supports the awning. The pavement dwellers are first-generation migrant workers, daily-wage laborers, raising children, forming friendships, smiling at cameras of astonished foreign tourists.
In the West, living on the sidewalk means you’re homeless, at your wit’s end and you’ll be either taken to a shelter by the police or by social workers who provide services to the indigent.
I grew up in India and the people living on the sidewalk were part of my landscape. I also grew up in an independent India that was only three years old ---in 1950. With a population of about 361 million people, almost 80% poor (annual income below Rs. 250 annually). Mostly in rural India with only about 18% in the urban areas. Cities were few after the major metropolises of Calcutta (Kolkata), Delhi, Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai). Second-tier cities such as Jaipur, Bangalore (Bengalaru), Kanpur were a handful.
Two of out every ten Indians were literate. About 18% of the population. Compared to today when 75% are.
I went to schools that had a few hundred students each. My graduating class from high school had three sections for a total of 60 students. My own section had 25. My undergraduate college had 750 students total in an university that had about 5,000 students.
The true valuation of elitism might have escaped me but the experience of it didn’t. I knew that if I graduated well from college that was all that was required of me. I mean, I knew that even if I didn’t graduate well, I’d be fine. Such was the immunity of entitlement.
That was 55 years ago.
Today’s India still has thousands of “pavement dwellers”, thousands of migrant, daily-wage workers AND also 50 percent of Indians today are below the age of 25. The average age of an Indian in 2020 was 29. That’s out of 1.3 billion people. The math is simple. 650 million. Under 25. Almost, almost the total population of all of Europe .
Yes, many are still in the rural areas but their aspirations are far beyond the unpaved path that meets the main paved road of their village. Each Saturday at 5:30 a.m., my time in Boston, I meet via Zoom with some of them in a mentoring session for five weeks at a time, 90 minutes each week. Then we rotate to a new batch. They are all first-generation learners, most are from hard-scrabble backgrounds, living in crowded rooms at the edge of sprawling major cities. They know about lives like mine. They have mobile phones. They want what their parents and grandparents couldn’t dream of. Their parents want them to have what they didn’t, namely opportunity.
My parents wanted me to be happy and “successful”. They never specified what “success” meant. I cobbled together my version of it from the evidence at hand.
My great-grandfather, who, I read, had sold vegetables on the street in Serampore, about 20 miles from Kolkata, a town established by the Danes in the early 19th century. The story goes that after his father died and his mother struggled to earn as a tutor, he did this to supplement the household income. My 2023 goal is to write a memoir-biography from the available sources about him (see below). He blew the gasket off about what “success” meant. Not only did he start a school for educating the visually impaired in eastern India (one of the first in India), he was the first Indian to do so (the rest were all missionaries, therefore, foreigners). That school is still functioning with a healthy curricula and many students. He also took the basic Bengali script that had been developed into Braille ( records are almost nonexistent) and remodeled it for widespread use, paying a few blind kids to learn the system. That script was named after him and incorporated into the uniform code for Indian language Braille in the 1960s. He became blind in his forties and remains revered and well-known in a portion of his hometown of Kolkata.
Then came my grandfather who was a scholarly and quiet gentleman as far as I remember. His relationship with my father was so tangled as if by barbed wire that I never got to know him. He died in a small cottage that was next to our house where his father had lived. By that time he was paralyzed from a series of strokes from his nose down. My father sat with him each evening after work. He died when I was ten. My grandfather essentially ran the school after his father became blind and later expanded the school. During his tenure, the first visually impaired person in India not only matriculated from the school but became a full university professor. And in 1938, the first woman matriculated. I actually remember her quite well as she worked at the school when I was a young boy.
My father, who took over the administration of the school when he was 30 years old, was an extraordinary man. To me his life is breathtaking---in its public accomplishments and its private darknesses. He not only made the school a well-known institution, he lobbied governments, and represented his country in forums to make the education curricula scientific and progressive. His public accomplishments were meteorlike.
From my mother’s side, worldly and societal “success” wasn’t so readily recognizable. My mother’s father died of meningitis (decades before there was a vaccine) when she was eleven and had three siblings younger than her. My grandmother struggled as a seamstress and private tutor to keep her family together. The family lineage was the gold ticket of “success” in Bengal, which held intellectual and literary success high above all else. The Dutts of Rambagan (the latter a neighborhood in north Calcutta that had palatial joint-family houses in the 19th century) were some of the brightest stars of the Bengali Renaissance, progressive and idealistic.
In this narrow and warped refraction I glimpsed “success” as monumental and lavish. And though I was more educated than either of my parents, I never quite understood that “success” would be if people remembered me as kind, helpful, generous, loving, and considerate.
Today, I write to not win prizes or get published in world-famous journals but simply to record, in my words, as honestly as I can, what parts of my life has been and what I value. I value the living and to them I owe my gratitude. They are (in alphabetical order): Arnav, Lisa, Mo, Pam, Simon, Sonny, Steph.
My goal in 2023 is to publish a memoir-biography of my great-grandfather: In the Shadows: The Life of Lal Behari Shah and the Calcutta Blind School with a small commercial publishing house in India, Red Lantern Books.
Also available for purchase for $6.50 + $2.00 mailing
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(As an editor, I have to mention that these reviews are unedited by me!)
Instincts of Beauty by Amit Shah is a beautiful collection of memory, forgiveness, and loving. Memory, grief, and forgiveness in form of essays that speak to the universal from the author's specific experiences in India and elsewhere.
The title of the book is eye catching and matches the concept perfectly. The language of the book is simple and easy to understand. The concept of the book is brilliant and the cover is very beautiful.
The author's story telling skills are excellent, for a nonfiction read, the book is very gripping and will keep you hooked. It's a short read 70 pages that one can easily finish in one or two sittings.
I'm often fond and closer to the books that makes me relate to my existence, the books that feel so personal that do gives a hangover from the memories knocking on the doors of your mind, the words so beyond embedded that you leave yourself soaked, drowned in those irreplaceable snippets and surprisingly, you're happy in the condition.
Instincts of Beauty was one such book for me. Intertwined and complex with lights of personal aftermath. The book is a collection of stories that revolves around past memories of home, forgiveness, grief in a very intimate narration that speaks about the universe of varied differences that the author, Amit Shah, is connected to and fond of. Through this short book, the author sums up his experiences so strongly and profoundly that within 75 pages we feel, we have known the author as someone really close to us. The book was engaging and was wonderful to play off the similarities of common cities that made it quite relatable to me.
With perfection and simplicity lingering in each page of the book, I appreciate the concept of the book. Written in simple fathomable language this book has charms undefined. The author's storytelling is flawless and exquisite. His narration is excellent and made me forget I was reading non-fiction. Highly recommended for people who take interest in non-fiction, for readers who look for gripping short reads.
It is a collection of stories about memories from the past, home, loss based on facts. It talks about many things that the other encountered in his life. I'd say that it was a rather engaging and very short read. I liked each story and it was an imaginative read even if they were short but each Heald my Attention. I could even relate a few things as the author talks about his college life.
The writing style was simple yet charming. I could understand the author's sentiments towards his father and family even though they didn't seem close. I felt somewhere I could even relate to the write-ups. It was an amazing read. The language is easy to understand and it can be finished in a single sitting. I'd probably like to read more of his work in future. Worth reading.
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"And though I was more educated than either of my parents, I never quite understood that “success” would be if people remembered me as kind, helpful, generous, loving, and considerate." If only more of us understood that. Beautiful piece, Amit.