What It Means to be Really Poor in India

A parade float car which could be at home in Nevada’s Burning Man Festival
One of a hundred or more such high rises under construction in Mumbai

It’s often said that India is a land of contrasts, which I am happy to confirm and illustrate. India has some of the world’s richest people and many of the poorest. It has luxurious high-rise apartment buildings, surrounded by the huts and hovels in which the servants, maids, drivers, cooks, and workmen live who take care of their richer neighbors.

But I find the plight of the poor in India to be not at all as bad as that of the poorest of Latin America or other countries with large poor lower classes. I say that because in India, even the poor people are still rich in culture and tradition. It is an accepted fate in life to be poor, with the hope of rebirth into a better station in life next time around. Even the poorest people would be willing to share whatever they have with a rich foreign guest, just because it’s their tradition to share. On certain feast days, free food is provided to the poor by temples and mosques. Rich notorious gangsters regularly provide free food for the poor in their neighborhoods in order to assure protection and loyalty of the locals against outsiders, the authorities, or rival gangsters.

One of many ornate grand Christian cathedrals
One of many grand Islamic mosques

India is a land of diverse religions and ethnic groups. While India is known as Hindustan (land of the Hindus), there are ten percent of the population who are Moslem, five percent who are Sikh, as well as Parsis (Zoroastians), Buddhists, Christians, Jews, etc. There is a long tradition of tolerance among the different religions based on the history of (mostly) peaceful coexistence. The Moslems, apart from very few individuals, are not trending toward the fanaticism present in neighboring Pakistan and in the Middle East in general.

As I reread the paragraphs above, I know that some readers might want to cite exceptions and contradictions to my generalizations. My comparison, admittedly my personal judgment, was formulated during my travels decades ago to Mexico and Guatemala. When the Europeans conquered and colonized the Americas, they annihilated the cultures of the indigenous American peoples, such that relatively little remains of their ancient traditions. To whatever extent those poor native Americans seek to preserve the remnants of their traditional cultures, they are totally defensive and understandably protective in regards to opening themselves to outsiders. This is in total contrast to the way the poor classes of India are nonetheless proud to express their religion and culture.

Somebody lives here!
Somebody lives here!

So when friends ask me, how do you deal with so many poor people in India? I answer, they may be poor materially, but they are rich in spirit and culture. This is in contrast to too many Americans who are rich materially but poor in spirit. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

A street basket maker takes a nap
A street basket maker takes a nap

When I first traveled to India in 1971 together with my German friend Gert, we traveled overland from Turkey, through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. We were the original back-packing hippies, taking public transport and hanging out the with locals all along the way. Unfortunately, this would not be possible in today’s highly charged nationalistic militaristic world. I’m so glad I did that when I was young and naive and willing to “rough it.”

Living on the street…this is home


These days, I’m traveling at a much higher economic level than during those many years ago. When Mynta plays at large music festivals, we are often housed in very luxurious expensive hotels, in rooms costing several hundred dollars a night (though I never personally have to pay that). I sometimes am struck by the contrast of staying at a Marriott or Taj hotel, then walking through the guarded entrance onto the busy street where many poor people barely see the equivalent of a hundred dollars a month, as they struggle to survive by working as porters, selling fruits and vegetables, or simply trying to find money however they can.

The beggar with the kindly face
Beggar at work

Yes, I’ve been pick-pocketed in India.   Luckily, I didn’t lose my passport. That was years ago when I was traveling public transport in second or third class crowded compartments. My comparison is that in India, you don’t know you’ve been robbed until afterwards. The thieves were very professional and worked in groups in which a distraction is created while someone else snatches and runs. In America, they might shoot you first before they rob you. I prefer the Indian way.

Technology has trickled down even into the poorer classes. Cell phones are plentiful, though not necessarily the latest smart phones. Cell phones have allowed farmers to sell their goods directly to buyers in the city without have to go through middlemen. Even lower class house cleaners have cell phones. Mumbai/Bombay supposedly has the largest slums in the world. It’s a city of approximately twenty million people. Nobody knows exactly how many. Poor villagers flock to the city in search of work and cash payments that are non-existent in their villages. There are many shacks and huts that have been lived in for generations. As far as I know the electricity is stolen, and there is no running water or toilets. But many of these huts sprout satellite dishes.

Shanties with satellite dishes
More shanties with satellite dishes

India was not directly hit by the recession of 2008-9, because it was not enmeshed in the banking systems of the US and Europe. Thus, India has experienced consistent growth, though not as extensive as it’s chief rival, China. India seeks to find the way to utilize its most plentiful resource, cheap labor. Cheap labor is the reason that Bangla Desh, Cambodia, and Laos are home to huge export textile industries. These countries are poorer than India.

India has the great advantage of English being an official language. Also, there are excellent educational institutions, particularly in IT (information technologies, i.e. computers) and medicine. It is no accident that, as a group, Indian immigrants have the highest earning level of any ethic group in the US. The US benefits from the “brain drain” that attracts the best and brightest of the educated professionals to seek their fortunes in America.

Modern women on a motor scooter
Moslem motor cyclist and fruit seller

Everything written in this blog up to this point has been generic and impersonal. My narrative would be incomplete if I did not acknowledge that it’s the good friends that I’ve made and retained over the years that makes me return to India year after year. Of course I love the music and the food. But if I didn’t have such good friends, I could just as well explore new lands instead of revisiting the old ones.

Instead, I come back again and again to this fascinating, rich, complicated, and contrast-full land, to deepen the relationships and achieve new levels of musical creativity with some of the greatest musicians in the world. As I tell my musician friends at home in Reno, the level of musicianship that I experience in India is impressive and amazing. I’m honored to be able to participate in this musical world as much as possible. Thank you to all my musician friends in India for the great times together!

Friendly Moslem fruit seller


I don’t know–Hindu + Moslem or Modern Moslem + Conservative Muslem?




Hi, I'm Dallas Smith

My blogs offer the vicarious pleasure for my readers to learn of my travels and musical adventures.

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