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Childhood Memories: The Curse of Poverty

by shekshen

At the outset dear reader, I have tried to be true to memory.

However, I have fictionalised the story to protect the privacy of the protagonists and to make the narrative smoother.

When the British left India, they left it in poverty. Everyone was poor!

Later generations probably won't be able to imagine the scene then.

Poverty expressed itself in shortages of food grains, milk, fruit, medicines, soap, razor blades and all else. Food rationing was the order of the day.

Everything had to be imported. Almost nothing was manufactured here.

We were subsidised by Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and so on.

Better to give away milk powder to us than dump it in the sea, better to feed hungry Indians third-grade grains than to feed the swine and so on!

Did a country with a begging bowl have a choice?

Most children suffered from chronic hunger, lack of education, ignorance, unhygienic conditions, disease, lack of medical care .....sometimes even death!

Poverty cursed some families more than others - sometimes for generations.

Here's the story of one such a family.

We never had to sleep hungry. They often had to!

They lived at Wada a small town an hour's bus journey from the nearest rail station at Kalyan. Kalyan is about sixty kilometres from Mumbai.

Their father had a tea-shop which didn't run.

Their just-literate mother slogged to feed the kids. They lived a life of uncertainty, never knowing whither their next meal would come from.

The eldest, a daughter Usha, must have been about twelve or so. Somewhat ugly to look at, she always had a buck-toothed smile for everyone.

She had three younger brothers, the youngest being all of two years.

Ramesh, the next in line to Usha was ten. A frail looking skinny boy, whose looks belied his maturity. This child sometimes didn't eat so that his younger brothers could.

Usha and Ramesh were their mother's support system, helping her with the chores. Comforting her when she felt low. Mothering her when she fell ill.

They made papads at home to eke out a living. Papads are preserved crisps which are fresh roasted or fried and served as sides with meals.

They sold them at a small profit to their relatives and other community members at Bombay. Imagine the two children carrying heavy loads of these on their backs in crowded suburban trains.

Even for adults changing from the bus to the suburban train and changing trains at Dadar to the Western line was punishing. The crowds, the heat, the noise, the sweat, the odours can be unbelievably cruel.

For these children it was an incredible effort. Of course, the mother always accompanied them. She left her younger lot with a kindly neighbour who looked after them for a small fee.

Most times they were bare-feet. They couldn't afford footwear!

Their clothes though clean, were old and often patched where ever there had been a tear.

Those were the days when people were humane and helpful. The customers often offered them food and sometimes even shelter if they were stranded for the night.

Even with these handicaps, they did attend school. Kind teachers would condone their absence from class when they were busy helping their mother.

Their poverty and poor nutrition would result in frequent illnesses. Infections were constant visitors. Fevers came and went. They looked weak and thin.

Knowing their condition. their doctor often didn't charge them.

Most of the month was spent in making papads and drying them in the hot Indian sun.

The mother bought the flour on credit, mixed it into dough and rolled it into thin, flat rounds.

Sounds simple, till you try it yourself - huge quantities of dough was made in edible oil which makes the task of kneading and rolling incredibly difficult!

She would then put these papads out to dry in the sun.

The kids would take turns to guard them from the birds. The merciless sun beat down and burnt their backs. In the mid-afternoon there were hardly any shadows, making them look like human scarecrows.

Life went on till Ramesh was about fourteen. Then one day a carelessly thrown razor cut his foot as he ran an errand. As he bled, neighbours carried him to the doctor who sent them on to the Municipal Hospital.

There, the wound was attended to, the cut was stitched up, he was given medicines and sent home.

Two days later Ramesh was down with high fever and a painful pus-filled wound. He was admitted to the hospital and despite all efforts he developed tetanus. On the third day things were very bad, he slipped into delirium and semi-consciousness. On the fourth day Ramesh was dead.

On that day, something in his mother too died painfully. Although she lived to a ripe old age, she was never the same again.

The whole family slipped into shock. Usha who was now sixteen went into a deep sorrow from which she never really recovered. Their father was a broken man.

Usha has a family of her own.

Her children are grown and settled. Her forlorn eyes though still reveal her painful childhood and the loss of her beloved brother. Her family is better off than her mother's was.

That friends is the story of many in the India that was. As an institution I'm proud of my school St. Theresa's sheltering and nurturing kids from such families. Many have done well due to that kindness.

Today, most people are much better placed.

The poor know their rights and how to assert themselves. Government support and affirmative action have improved the lives of the vast majority. Health schemes provide primary medical cover to most.

The quality of life lived is a far cry from those days when starvation deaths and sometimes even famine stalked the land.

When I visit the next door HyperCity with shelves overflowing with locally produced snacks, food, grains, milks, attas, biscuits, cosmetics and so much more, I think of the 'poor India' and the hopelessness that we left behind!

The sheer variety of cars and car brands being advertised is astonishing. The young lady working in the neighbouring call-centre zipping by in her new car still surprises me.

The servant lady calling my wife from her mobile to report sick isn't a novelty any more. As I type this on my iPad I am reminded of the pen and paper which we have almost forgotten.

We could achieve this much even with the massive leakages through corruption. Imagine where we can go as technologies evolve to plug corruption at source.

We are fortunate to be living at an exciting time in our history!

~ Shekhar N. Shenoy

June 04, 2016


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383 Reviews

Points: 19607
Reviews: 383

Sun Jun 26, 2016 8:31 pm
Sujana wrote a review...

While I do like this piece a lot and the hopeful tone it had, I couldn't help but feel like it was pushing it's message a little bit too hard. I mean, yes, this story is sad and it's great that we don't see families living like this as much as we did before--but I'd like you to imagine the saddest story you've ever heard in your life. In this case, I'll just use Titanic because everybody uses Titanic. Now, think of Titanic, but instead of watching the boat sink you hear a TV presenter say "Oh, wow. That was one big iceberg. Isn't it great that we don't have icebergs like that anymore, since we have global warming? Oh, and look at that couple on the boat, drowning in cold waters. Aren't you happy that you and your wife aren't drowning in cold waters, viewer?" It's not as sad as it was before, isn't it? That's because the original showed it's sadness, it didn't need to tell the reader how sad it was.

I think the same principle applies here--while the story itself is incredibly upsetting, I can't help but feel like the fact that you sometimes interject how "you don't have to live this way" a little too much. One, if you're telling the truth, you're using the story of real life people to tell other people how 'fortunate' they are, which, at least in my opinion, isn't very respectful. It's sort of like pointing at the autistic boy in class and saying "Well, at least you're not that guy." Yeah, it's true, and I'm sure you meant it in the most respectful way, but it does feel a bit disrespectful. Two, it really decreases the dramaticism of the whole story. I no longer see these people as people, but as inspirational excerpts. I just wish you could've lessened that a bit.

But in any case, let's not ponder over that. We'll finish up with a few solving of errors, and then we'll leave okay? Okay.

Later generations probably won't be able to imagine the scene then.

Wouldn't, not won't.

Most children suffered from chronic hunger, lack of education, ignorance, unhygienic conditions, disease, lack of medical care .....sometimes even death!

Be careful with how you use your periods. I suggest just using an ellipsis (...) to put across your point, but a normal period is the best answer.

We never had to sleep hungry. They often had to!

Try not to refer to assume things of your readership. For all you know, there are poor people reading this article, or anorexic kids, or anything of the sort. In any case, it's just not a good idea to assume things about the people you're writing to.

They lived a life of uncertainty, never knowing whither their next meal would come from.

Where, not whither.

Their clothes though clean, were old and often patched where ever there had been a tear.

Wherever, not where ever.

Knowing their condition. their doctor often didn't charge them.

Change this with a comma.

Good job with this article so far. Keep up the good work.

Signing out,


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72 Reviews

Points: 2047
Reviews: 72

Mon Jun 06, 2016 3:32 pm
GrapeNerd wrote a review...


This was a very interesting piece. I'm happy to have read it, and to have gained some knowledge about India. I don't normally encounter pieces like this, and I'm happy I stumbled upon your story. The writing and vocabulary was impressive, and I appreciate the fact that you broke the sentences down. Often times, I find it hard to concentrate when the paragraphs are large and heavy looking. I think that the breaks between sentences helps to even your piece out, and to not make it look boring and intimidating. The exclamation points you put in there really helped to give your piece life and voice, and it's pretty refreshing. Normally, the stories and works I find on here have got a serious tone. In all honesty, this was the first piece I've read in a long time that has really pulled me in.

One of the things I think you can work on is the punctuation. I noticed some sentences that could really use some commas and periods here and there. When writing, it's always useful to read your piece out loud. That way it'll give you an idea of what the flow is. Often times, the way it sounds in your head is completely different from how the reader reads it. So yes, punctuation is important. Commas can serve to keep your sentence from sounding rushed; It's like a pause, a catch of breath. I suggest you look at the sentences you think can do with a short pause, it will really help with the flow of your story. Semi-colons can also be very useful. If you think that your sentence will sound different if you put a period on it, try using a semi-colon. It's like a buffer between two sentences. Oh, and avoid run on sentences.

Aside from that, your piece is pretty fantastic. This is your piece, and you obviously are free to do whatever you want with it. The writing is great, and the concept is interesting. I really liked it, and I hope to see more of your works in the future.


shekshen says...

Thank you, GrapeNerd! I've noted your suggestions regarding using commas and semi-colons and will try and implement.

Nobody wants to see the village of the happy people.
— Lew Hunter