Q: Was it a labour of love in writing this book?
Rajendar: Yes, entirely. I began my career with The Times of India in Mumbai three decades ago and barring the usual functions at the Taj, some municipal and political coverage, there was nothing really exciting to do. I was a Sports Reporter for a while but that was limiting – I covered yachting and not cricket! Then there was Bollywood and the stock market; both didn’t interest me. There was no television either and no wars to cover. I found the street fascinating and plunged headlong into it. It was adrenaline pounding. I also later got involved in the HIV/AIDS programme and that helped. It gave a new lease of life to my interest.
Q: How did you go about approaching people on the streets?
Rajendar: Hundreds of millions of Indians live in extreme poverty. It is very easy to talk to people on the street. The difficulty is in taking it to the next level. But the poor people are simple, reasonably honest, kind, generous, religious and affectionate. They are willing to share everything they have with you. Because of this, they also get easily conned by those in power who manipulate them endlessly. Education and money will take this naivete away from them. But, as of now, they don’t have both. I also see them getting conned for a very long time to come.
Q. A large chunk of the book is on sex work. Why?
Rajendar: If you walk the streets of India, sex workers come out of the woodwork. They are everywhere. There is enormous poverty and the girl child is still unwelcome in many homes. So if a woman is divorced or widowed or has no money or education, there is no earning. Prostitution is the only recourse. My best interviews have been with sex workers. They have shared their hard-earned rice and lentil curry with me and have even offered me gifts at festive occasions. Many times, after the interviews, I just broke down. Their generosity was simply overwhelming. So sex work and street life are interwoven.
Q. How did you cover the red-light area?
Rajendar: I always went as a paying customer. I bought the sex workers’ time. Once you buy their time, they don’t care if you just sit around and chat. They actually welcome it. Many customers also do this. It is difficult to find people to talk to in a buzzing metropolis, there is acute loneliness, and so this behaviour is not considered strange. I did it all the time and got to know the girls very well. After a point, we used to go shopping together! I must admit that it also helped a great deal that I was a part of the HIV/AIDS programme. There was easier access.
Q. Then what were the problem areas?
Rajendar: The Hijras are tough to cover. They have a very coarse exterior and get very aggressive. Many sex workers too can get aggressive but it is more a pretence. The main threats are from the pimps and the brothel madams. They are seasoned hands and understand everything. They have seen life in the raw! I have been assaulted and abused, but it has all been a part of the process of doing the book. As I said earlier, it has been adrenaline pounding.
Q: How long did it take to gather information for your book?
Rajendar: I researched the book for about 20 years in phases. Many friendships took a long time to cultivate. I also spent a lot of money doing this. There was some danger too as I explained earlier, particularly in the coverage of the red-light zone. I still hang out on the streets but the venom of the coverage isn’t there anymore. There is a lot of burn-out on this beat. I have moved on to more peaceful pastures.
Q: How did writing this book affect you and what have you gained?
Rajendar: I just loved doing the book. I wrote it in three months flat. I have also learnt a lot. I live in gratitude and live very simply. Just an accident of birth has provided me good education, good food, clean drinking water, shelter, several lifestyle choices, and the right moorings. This simple accident alone has saved me from a life of wretchedness. I am eternally grateful for this and thank the great power that made it happen. One thin slice of India is oozing wealth and the large mass is still groping for food. This is most disconcerting. I feel in my bones that if this injustice is not set right fast, India may just disintegrate; there could be mayhem. The people may ask for justice, and the process has already started in many parts of India. It may gather momentum and galvanise into a revolution. The only thing that prevents this from happening is the extreme diversity of India and its size.
Q: Did you make many friends with the people you met?
Rajendar: Oh yes, many great buddies along the way! Even now, years after I spent time with them, they always wish me and offer food and drink when we meet. Many have disappeared too; maybe they are no more.
Q: Did you find people had any happiness on the streets or was it all misery?
Rajendar: Most people in India are quite happy. I have no idea why. Maybe, it is the hold of religion. Or maybe they have seen nothing else. Most people have no idea of the world they live in and that their life could be better. Close to 800 million people live on a dollar a day and if they somehow manage to eat and get a drink, they feel that they have more than met their target for the day. Plus there is no political leadership to provide them any direction. Most people are very happy with little. They feel that life will be better the next time around. Hindi cinema, religion and cricket also distract the people sufficiently. Now that we have won the cricket World Cup, the common man, with hardly anything to eat, feels that we are the greatest nation on earth!
Q. A huge chunk of the book is on street life. How did you manage to do the street interviews? Is there a larger message in the book?
Rajendar: As I mentioned, the street beat is exciting. The people on the street are also very simple, honest, accommodating and have nothing to lose and so the interviews were not difficult; they were just time consuming. People loved to talk and would often ramble a lot. But each one of them had a fantastic story to tell.
While India is making progress, it is far from equitable. Hundreds of millions of people just manage to eke a living, if at all. They migrate to Mumbai and other big cities from the villages and live in horrendous conditions. Those who survive become easy prey for the ruling elite and become the vote banks. Without money and power, they hang on for dear life to every populist slice of cake thrown at them. They form the large ghettos that clog every Indian city. Incidentally, when the Commonwealth Games was recently held in New Delhi the slumdwellers were asked to move lest they turn into an ugly sore for international athletes unused to such sights and sounds.
The larger point that I am trying to make is that if immediate remedial steps are not taken, the desperation of the vast multitudes may translate into action. I have sanitised the book but I must concede here, in this interview, that on several occasions the people wished that the terrorists had killed their elected representatives. If that had happened, terrorism would have gained enormous support and sympathy. I have a sneaking feeling that Indian politicians realise this too. How ironic for a nation broadcasting the strength of its democracy at every fora!
This, I feel, is the larger message of the book: that there is no connect at all between the people and the politician; if anything, there is hatred. The people have seen through the game but there are no choices. Earlier only the voters were bought, now coalition partners are also bought. The media covers all this diligently and even the masses know what is happening thanks to television. It couldn’t get worse for a democracy. Unless, of course, we are looking for new depths!
Q: Can people escape their life on the street?
Rajendar: No. If India doesn’t do something about this urgently, the nation could implode. There is rapid population growth in the poorer sections of India, religious intolerance, great disenchantment with the political structure, rampant corruption across the board, no legal process to fix the rich and powerful who are up to their teeth in graft, zero governance, police atrocities, great poverty and great disparity. As I see it, everything points to a collapse of the system. India is shining for a very few people! Birth decides almost everything in India. It is changing but very, very slowly. Even the ruling classes hand over the baton to their progeny. Young India is in a hurry to get ahead. Hundreds of millions of kids are waiting to break all the rules. It will be very interesting to see what happens; which way it all goes. India is the country to watch!
Q. Are there more books from you?
Rajendar: Yes, most certainly. I enjoy the process and several books are on the cards. But I don’t think there will be another book on street life. I have nothing to add to Karma Sutra. Plus the anguish of the Indian street has burnt me.