False Dichotomies


Paris and Ishika

Last week, Paris Hilton visited Mumbai to promote a new collection of handbags and accessories. On her first day in town, near a mall in the upmarket suburb of Andheri, and from the comfort of her chauffeur-driven car, she handed a $100 note to a beggar woman.  According to reports, the beggar woman, who was holding her baby, reacted in bewilderment. “Can I get change for this?” she asked the Mid-Day Metro photographer, Satyajit Desai. $100 is currently worth 4901 rupees, a miraculous windfall by any Indian beggar’s standards. But from her reaction we can assume that handling foreign currency was a new experience for her.

On the following Wednesday, Mumbaikars learnt what happened next. By now the beggar woman had a name and age, Ishika, 22. She lives with her extended family in a shanty near Goregaon railway station, to where she returned after her meeting with Miss Hilton, and without having exchanged the dollars for rupees. This is her account of what happened: “On Sunday evening, we were begging as usual outside a mall in Andheri. Suddenly I saw a foreigner, and was about to approach her for money. But she called me herself, and handed over the note. At first, I didn’t know what to do, as the note looked strange. I asked several people on the road if they could give me change in return for it. That’s when I came to know that the note was called a dollar.” And so Ishika met a foreigner who taught her that beyond the Black Water there is a dollar and it is still almighty. What did she do with this knowledge? “I gave the note to my brother-in-law and asked him to get it exchanged for the correct notes on Monday, for our use. But as soon as we returned home, all our relatives began demanding that we share the money with them, even though I told them it was a gift. Some of our relatives started beating us up, trying to grab the note. Seeing that the note was destroying the peace of the household, my brother-in-law got really angry and tore it up into pieces.”

In The Great Indian Middle Class, Pavan K. Varma writes that “for the burgeoning and upwardly mobile middle class of India…poverty has ceased to exist. It has ceased to exist because it does not create…the slightest motivation to do something about it. Its existence is taken for granted. Its symptoms, which would revolt even the most sympathetic foreign observer do not even register any more.” This helps explain why the English press, read exclusively by the Indian elites, was still cooing over Hilton’s ‘generosity’ four days after the incident. And then we hear the brother-in-law’s account: “I was holding the bill in my hand, and was full of rage when I saw that all the members of our community were assaulting us, so they could have the note. My sister-in-law did not want to share it with everyone, as the foreigner had gifted it to her of her own accord. Seeing the confusion and unhappiness caused by the money, I tore it up. I regret my action, now that I know what the value of that note was.”

It is a wretched story. Praising a millionaire heiress for passing off some loose change to a beggar is absurd, but drawing broader conclusions is more difficult. It would of course be better if India was a country where charity was unnecessary but that was not the world in which Paris Hilton and Ishika met on Sunday. Giving $100 was the least she could do, but she did do it, and in the slums of Mumbai $100 goes a long way. It is easy to condemn Ishika for not wanting to share the money with her extended family, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime windfall. And there is much to criticise regarding the media’s passivity in the face of the woman’s confusion. Why did the photographer not help her get the money exchanged? Perhaps, then, the true hero of the story is the brother-in-law, who, despite his regrets, understood that $100 thrown randomly into a slum will perversely cause greater misery and division, and that sometimes it’s better to let life continue as normal. Despite all the hype about Incredible India, hype that brought Paris Hilton to the country to market her handbags to an increasingly cloistered and insensitive middle-class, there are still huge swathes of the country where people aspire to nothing more than community and survival. People like Ishika’s brother-in-law. The injustice is that they are sometimes unable to achieve even this much.

Post-Script: According to reports, Paris Hilton heard what happened to her $100, and is in the process of ensuring that Ishika and her family will receive more money. In addition, she has said that she wants to start working with local NGOs.



3 Comments so far

  1. hazel October 5th, 2011 12:08 pm

    It’s an interesting story, I think the brother-in-law is dignified – wants sholom beit (peace in the home) – but impractical, look at what they could have bought with $100. In Tanzania I was once moaned at by a hotelier for (unknowingly) giving a maid a tip which was the equivalent of one week’s wages. My feeling was that’s your country’s problem, not mine.

  2. Stuart October 6th, 2011 1:58 pm

    Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” comes to mind. The moral: Sometimes a blessing becomes a curse….

  3. Weekend links | TRIA October 8th, 2011 4:27 pm

    [...] An American millionaire gave $100 to an impoverished Indian, and the story starts there. [...]

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