Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Short Story: Eyes and Ears Lie

Paula was irritated with her interpreter. Given a choice, she would have fired her hours ago and found someone else – someone who had a better sense of the situation and could get her the correct answers that were eluding her. She was almost sure that the interpreter was lying to her. Yes, intentionally lying to her! She must be in the government’s pay.

All around her, the crowds swarmed past, Paula and her photographer the only icons of honesty and truth in what was obviously a false setting. Paula was prepared for a lot of squalor and poverty, for intense resentment and seething anger. However, the yellow blocks of flats, each ten storeys tall, were not particularly grimy or dirty or even filled with frustrated and unemployed people, if one went by third world standards. The whole thing was a scam, Paula was sure, and it was just a matter of tapping the right vein and uncovering it.

‘Is there anything else you want to ask this woman?’ the interpreter asked Paula. It seemed the interpreter, a woman in her late thirties, sensed Paula’s frustration with her, since she kept increasing her distance from Paula. When they had started out in the morning, Paula could smell her deo-spray. As the day wore on and Paula became more and more frustrated, the interpreter increased the distance between them, till Paula could no longer smell the cheap scent, unless she intentionally moved close to the interpreter.

‘Yes. I don’t believe you’ve translated her right. Can you please repeat what she just said?’

The interpreter took a deep breath. ‘This woman says that she is happier after she moved to Navayuga. Her eldest son has been given a job at the factory, her second son takes the shuttle bus to the Big City everyday and her youngest son and daughter go to school.’

‘Did her son and daughter go to school when they lived in the slum?’

‘No they didn’t.’

‘Please ask her the question. I don’t want you to answer me.’ Paula flared at the interpreter.

The interpreter’s eyes glared for a moment, after which she grit her teeth and spoke to the woman who now had a puzzled look on her face.

‘She says they didn’t go to school when they lived in the slum.’

‘And what does her husband do?’

The question was translated. ‘He used to operate a lathe and make leather soles. He has set up his lathe on the terrace of the building they live in. Every resident is allotted a space on the terrace of their flat and electricity is supplied there.’

John took another picture of the woman in her faded red saree, her lips and teeth stained with betel juice, as she stood on the footpath in the bright sunshine.

Paula wanted to tell John to stop taking pictures of the woman. Why couldn’t John show some more sense?

‘How long did her family live in the slum?’

The question was put to the woman. Oh! She was born there. So was her husband. Ever since she could remember, she had lived in that slum. And now she has a spanking new five hundred square feet flat to live in. Paula was convinced the woman was lying. Most probably her family was well-to-do and they managed to have that flat allotted to them with a hefty bribe. Everyone knew how governments dispensed favours in this country.

‘Let’s move on,’ Paula announced and trudged forward slowly without bothering to find out if John and the interpreter were keeping pace with her. In the distance, she espied a smartly dressed girl crossing the road. Paula increased her pace, pausing only to turn around and look at John and the interpreter for a second. John had worked with her for many years and he immediately start to walk faster. It took the interpreter a few seconds to get the cue and then she too started to walk fast. Paula managed to waylay the smart girl who had a very expensive handbag with her. This was obviously not a person who had relocated from that slum!

‘Do you have a few minutes? Can I ask you a question? I am a journalist from the Globe Trotter.’ With luck the girl would respond in English and give the game away. The girl didn’t seem to understand and Paula repeated her question.

‘Yes of course,’ she responded. Paula’s heart beat faster. By that time the useless interpreter caught up with her.

‘Whereabouts do you live? Close by?’

The girl gave her a blank look and Paula had to repeat her question. She didn’t really mind. Many Indians found her Australian accent difficult to understand.

‘No, I don’t live here. I live within the Big City.’

Paula was disappointed.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I work for the company which built these buildings. I’m doing a survey here.’ Paula perked up. This could turn out to be useful.

‘Are the people happy after the government moved them here?’ Paula asked. Dumped them here was more like it. Paula had reported on poverty and various poverty alleviation schemes all over the world. She had seen poverty in all its multi-coloured hues and dimensions, from starving children in Ethiopia to illegal immigrants living off the streets in Los Angeles. Paula knew what was likely to work and what wouldn’t. She had declared the state government’s scheme to be harebrained immediately after it was announced. To improve one of Asia’s biggest slums, you don’t demolish it and hand over the land to property developers, even if it is prime real estate. Which was what the state government had done.

If you want to improve the slum, give power and water to its residents! Give the slum dwellers ownership of the land they occupy! Paula had demanded in her column. What will the people do once they are put in their new hygienic surroundings? Starve? The slum provides the people with their livelihood. It houses thousands of small workshops and factories and other commercial enterprises. Take away the people from their slum and they will starve in their clean new surroundings!

‘Yes, they are. Very happy. Everyone said the government would never implement its plans. But for once, the state government managed to do it.’

‘I see. Thank you very much.’ Paula moved on. The girl was obviously someone with a vested interest. If only she could find a slum dweller who was cheated of his flat and forced to live on the pavements! However, the idiotic interpreter seemed to be incapable of understanding what Paula wanted.

Paula wondered if she should explain her dilemma to John. No, she decided against it. John was a wonderful photographer and very good at his job. But nobody had accused John of having a reporter’s instincts. This was Paula’s first visit to the Big City and Navayuga after the people had been moved here. Should she go to the cement factory? The state government had persuaded a private business group to build a cement factory near Navayuga. Five thousand jobs had been created.

The government claimed that ninety five percent of the factory jobs had been given to the residents of Navayuga. If she went to the factory she might find that the workers there were not necessarily people who had been moved from the slum, or even lived in Navayuga. Paula looked at her watch. It was three in the afternoon. There was so little time left. This was supposed to be a very brief trip, a stopover actually as she travelled back to Geneva from Colombo. She had to be at the airport by ten in the night for her flight back to Geneva.

There were so many things she could do to expose the government’s charade. A fleet of thirty new buses were supposed to provide a round-the-clock shuttle bus service between Navayuga and Big City so that those who wanted to, could travel to the Big City and work there. She could go to the Navayuga bus station and find out how efficient the service was. No, there was no need to do that. It was unlikely to be any better than the public transport in any Indian city. The government had claimed that Navayuga would be a spanking new township on the outskirts of Big City with schools, parks, libraries and playgrounds. Paula smiled to herself. She had seen the unfinished library and the mound of dirt which was to become a park.

A lot of money must have been invested in getting favourable media reviews. This time the government has done a good job, the relocation of the slum dwellers from the slum in the heart of Big City to Navayuga has been a big success, the reports claimed with alarming regularity. They ought to know better! It was so funny. The people were bound to see through such stories!

They found a man hurrying somewhere and asked him the same questions. ‘Can’t you see for yourself?’ the man told their interpreter. ‘This time the government managed to get it right.’ It seemed to be an Orwellian nightmare, with everyone seeming to have bought the government’s story.

‘I know what we should do,’ Paula told John and the interpreter. Actually she was speaking to herself. ‘We should go back to Big City and talk to people living on the pavements. I’m sure many of those evicted from the slum can be found on those pavements.’

‘But this time the government did it right,’ the interpreter objected. ‘Every one who lived in the slum has been moved here. And nobody else could get a flat at Navayuga, even if they were willing to pay a bribe. Everyone is surprised at how well things have been done.’

Paula lost her temper. ‘Why don’t you go back to the agency and tell them I do not require your services anymore? They can send an invoice to the Globe Trotter for the whole day, but I don’t need you to be with me any more. Please go.’

The interpreter hesitated for a second and then walked away.

‘But Paula, how on earth will you manage to talk to the people living on the pavements?’ John asked Paula.

‘Oh don’t worry. There are so many people in Big City who speak good English. I’ll find someone who can help. In any event, I know exactly what those people will have to say.

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