Slumdog Millionaire

Opulent wealth, oppressive poverty. There are few places in the world where opposite ends of the spectrum live in such close proximity. The promise of success and commodity drives millions of Indians to the urban centers every year. Despite a building boom, the crushing influx overwhelms all available housing and services, forcing millions of people into the streets. The lucky ones find shelter in makeshift slums. Constructed of sheet metal, discarded wood, bricks and other building materials, these can reach more than a few precarious stories. The unlucky ones live under increasingly poorly constructed lean-tos, tents, and the most unfortunate just lie prostrate on the street sometimes on a piece of cardboard, sometimes not.

The beggars are everywhere. They are all shapes and sizes, from beautiful bright-eyed children, to the leprosy-ridden disfigured, from the hobbled, to the humbled, to the just plain miserable. The occasional dead body can be seen carted away for rapid cremation. It is everywhere and it is gut-wrenchingly awful.

In Mumbai, brand-new skyscrapers are surrounded by fledgling shantytowns housing the workers and their families only to be displaced to the next locale when the building is finished. A Rolls Royce will roar past a hand drawn cart loaded down with an entire extended family. You can spend more in one night in a hotel than it costs to feed and house that family for a year. It is the dichotomy that amazes.

My husband remarked that things are not so much different in the United States. Spending an evening in the local emergency department will reveal a side of Savannah not often broadcast to the local tourists. Here everything is hushed and hidden from view; in India, everything is right in your face.

There is, however, a feeling of hope in all this hopelessness. Even the poorest and most destitute have some greater salvation. A glancing smile is returned with a head-bobble and an even wider grin. The poverty stricken hinterlands of Rajasthan are alive with an amazing Technicolor of saris. Change is coming, and coming fast and furious. Education is considered a gift not a chore, work is embraced with enthusiasm and gratefulness, nothing is expected, everything is appreciated, and slowly life continues to improve.

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