The endless cycle of debt and torture

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Article Date: 
Nov 14 2012, 2138

A farmer borrowed Rs 45,000 from a landlord in a village of Punjab. In lieu of the money, he sold off himself and his wife as labourers for the landlord’s fields, till the debt was repaid. They survived on stale food, which the landlord would provide in return for labour. The money earned, which would have been the salary, continued to stay with the lender as a pay off towards the loan. The severe beatings that the farmer would often receive, when the landlord was angry about something, were the only bonus he could walk back home with.
Four years passed. The landlord came to inform the wife that the farmer had committed suicide. Perhaps, that was the only way for him to escape torture of a never-ending debt, which had increased to Rs 80,000 by then. The mathematics of this debt, when the farmer worked as a bonded labourer to pay it off, fails me. However, a local gurudwara not only excommunicated the widow along with her nine-year-old son, but also ordered the landlord to take over her one-room shanty, if she did not pay Rs 80,000 back.
I read the news with much dismay and discomfort. It reminded me of an incident from Guru Nanak’s life. On one of his travels, he stopped at a village for a night halt. A rich landlord offered the guru his food, as did a poor farmer. Guru Nanak picked the rich man’s soft, warm roti (bread) and felt that he could smell the blood and sweat of the poor in it. He refused the rich man and dined with the poor. This is not about Sikhism or merely the Sikhs to learn from. It is a huge statement on the entire humanity and the society by a man who did not tolerate the injustice and inequalities we live with. We can learn from it, only if we want to. It is shocking that the very place where Guru Nanak spread his message of living a life in service of others, has bonded labourers languishing in many a village. In case you are not from Punjab and feel this is not about you, just look in your own backyard. You will find myriad examples and versions of the same story in different forms. It could be the story of servants in some place, of farmers in another; of lower caste people in one town, of tribal folks in another; of hapless immigrants in one country, of women in another and so on. This is a story of those faceless millions that live amid us, but we choose not to see them, much less their lives.
Munshi Prem Chand wrote of them. He wrote about the father-son duo, who begged around to buy a kafan (burial cloth) for their wife/mother’s dead body which lay in their hut. When they got some money, their hungry stomachs made them spend it on food (which they hadn’t had in a few days) and alcohol, to forget their painful existence. The story closes with both of them happily drunk and thanking the dead woman for the meal they could have because of her death, after many days. But then, how many read Prem Chand or any other similar literature, for example that of the dalit (lower caste) people? Such stuff is better kept aside for the few who already know compassion. For the rest, it may force them to open their eyes and sting their consciousness with some painful realities.
Ignorance surely is bliss! The widow still does not know what to do. Her nine-year-old son is bound to replace his father in the fields. But we can sleep in peace. It is neither our son, nor someone from our religion and even if it is our religion, the socioeconomic class is way below ours to be bothered about.

(The writer is a filmmaker, traveller and doctor)