It's that time of the year again. As Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary approaches, I find myself thinking about him and the India he fought so tirelessly to change. During his lifetime, the nation was plagued by crippling famines, which led him to famously say: "There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."
I wonder how he'd react if he knew that even today, in spite of our so-called development and middle class prosperity, people continue to starve in India. Just the other day, I met a young man who spoke to me at length about what food (mostly the lack of it) meant to him, growing up alone and penniless on the mean streets of Kolkata and Delhi.
Ramzan was born into a very poor family in Kolkata. He ran away from home when he was barely five, hoping to escape the penury and starvation of his life there. But life on the streets of Delhi was equally unpredictable and scary. The little boy ended up scrounging off the streets, doing whatever he could to keep starvation at bay. "All I remember of those days is going to sleep hungry," he recounted.
A couple of hellish months later, Ramzan's luck finally turned. A good Samaritan took him under her wing. "She first gave me some money and told me to go and eat my fill. My body was so used to starvation rations that I didn't even know what it felt like to eat that much!" he recounted. She let him sleep in her office and for the first time, Ramzan found himself in a safe and clean environment. Eventually, she took him to Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), an organisation that provided shelter, food and education to kids like him.
"For the first time, I was in a place where I could try and regain my life and childhood," said Ramzan. But his years of starvation and not knowing when or how he was going to get his next meal, had taken their toll. "The first meal I had in SBT, I was shocked to see how much food was ladled on to my plate. Not only were we given chapattis and rice, we could eat as much as we wanted to," he recounted. "I think just the sight of all the food filled my stomach!" For a long time after coming to SBT, Ramzan couldn't finish the food on his plate. Instead, he would squirrel all the leftovers in plastic bag to eat later. "Till date, I've a niggling insecurity about food," he said. "Food is sacred to me. I can't bear to see it go waste."
Today, 20-year-old Ramzan works in the housekeeping department of a five-star hotel by night. During the day, he struggles to complete school and dreams of a career in hotel management. "If I'm able to work in such hotels for the rest of my life, I may be able to finally forget the deprivation I've experienced as a child…" he said. Ramzan's dream will require hard work, but he knows that. "Nothing shapes a man like starvation," he said. "It is the most basic thing life can deprive you of. The memory of that hunger in my belly now motivates me to do whatever it takes to make sure that I never starve again."
Ramzan's story has a happy ending so far, but not all such stories do. For many faceless people on the street not as lucky as Ramzan, the hunger in their bellies grows and grows until all the food in the world can't quench it. And yet we think we're walking abreast with the rest of the world.