Something that every person should be made aware of, is that slavery still very much exists.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have a government who cares (a bit), a wallet with savings and opportunities around every corner. My education has opened too many doors, my family is very supportive and I have too many options to keep myself alive, happy and safe! But like I said, I am lucky.
The night I left Bijapur for Hyderabad I waited with my then travel-partner N at the S.R.S bus stand for about an hour. We pulled up at the stand about 3 hours early, paid our driver, and as we stepped out onto the stinking black of an 8 o’clock city sidewalk, our eyes scanned the squalid waiting area behind the road for an empty spot. Somewhere to wait.
There was a definite demographic mix in this place. In this one 5m by 5m square of littered cement there were as many silk saris as faded linen bell-pants.
Clean cut businessmen perched on camping chairs in neat rows as gaggles of fiercely tattered boys yelled and scuffled in the dust at their feet and soft wives stood in little circles, tactfully ignoring the sharp, bony palms thrust at them by their poor female contemporaries.
It was a pudding of people from all different backgrounds and situations, a cosmos of variety all squeezed into one bus-stand on one night.
Behind the square was a tall brick building with the bus company name sprawled across it in a shining yellow neon ‘S.R.S’. A body of stairs descended beneath it, down to some mysterious interior, and another flight rose up beside them to the locked doors and empty windows of abandoned offices, and lost jobs.
I am one of the lucky ones.
We wove our way to the back and dumped our bags on the upper steps, exhausted. It had been a long day of sightseeing and eating and organising, and we were ready for bed!
Or a night bus. N sighed and pulled out her lighter. Chewing her lip, she lit up and took a deep drag, puffing the gorgeous smoke into my face and offering me the pack. It was so cold that night. I remember being at such a level of discomfort that I wondered how I’d make it to the next day…
Would we wake up in Hyderabad? Would we wake up on this callous concrete? Would we wake up at all!
I leant back into the cement behind me and wrapped myself deeper into the big, wide shawl I had bought that day for more than the shop-keeper would spend in a month, and breathed in the night. Time to tough it out; I knew we’d be waiting for a while.
As we sat, shivering in our rugs and our cloud of calm, nibbling pitifully at chips and steaming street Chai, a very bent, very old man emerged from the shadows by the road and hobbled towards us.
There were as many silk saris as faded linen bell-pants.
I don’t remember too much about this man, because almost everything about his appearance is now completely overshadowed in my mind by one drastic physical aspect: the violent angle of his posture. His legs bowed in a curve that should not have been possible.
They were stick thin and the epitome of ‘knobbly’, their ‘knobs’ jutting into the material of his crusty brown flairs and sticking up into his shell of a torso. His arse was horizontal to the ground, his back arched painfully and his shoulders hunched.
On his back was an unfeasible load. A hessian sack of such size and obvious weight that the grotesque human beneath it had to balance it on his lower back to keep it off the ground.
His eyes were dull and unreadable, and he moved with a foot-dragging stumble that threatened to collapse at any moment.
He had to be at least 80. Or a 70-something with very poor nutrition and a pan-chewing habit. Our eyes followed him as he approached. All our eyes did; the clean-cut businessmen, the soft wives, everyone…. We were fascinated, held by him, but it was uncomfortable. I think we were threatened somewhat.
His legs bowed in a curve that should not have been possible.
Suddenly my feet didn’t feel so chilled and the cracking pain of my tailbone against the concrete step receded to a guilty knowledge that I could in fact sit down. The businessmen shifted uneasily in their clean cuts.
The soft women moved closer to their husbands, their lips pursed. The only people who did not seem to notice him were those with their own burdens; those bony palms and hungry eyes, those little swollen stomachs and dusty feet.
The man made his way to the stairs behind us. His eyes never fell on anyone at the bus stand, and his bare feet trod a straight trajectory with no deviation for anything. His breathing was heavy and his lips open. His hair was tattered and his toes blackened by Bijapuri filth.
Shifting his load slightly as he reached the smiling yellow ‘S.R.S’ sign, he lifted his heel, lent forward, and stumbled down the stairs into the bowels of a neon company.
I have no idea what this man’s story was or where he was headed – so many people work devastating jobs in India because that is the only honest option for them and their families, and this man may have been very proud of working so damn hard to provide for himself and whoever he had at home.
But either way what he had to do, as a very elderly and very broken human being, was disgusting. And there are many many more like him, and worse, all over the world.
Slavery is not just something we read about in emotive novels; it is a multi-billion business which continues to boom in the worlds of the less-advantaged.
Child slavery, people trafficking, sexual exploitation; huge networks of organised beggars, escorts, sweat-shop workers; long lists of names and ages which will never be known or cared about by anyone, reduced to another pair of shackled hands.
As I’ve said my S.R.S man was not necessarily one of this number, but to me he illustrated the devastation so many people have to live with every day.
Too many people.
He may not have been a slave to a human master, but he was a slave to the system. A very poor slave to a multifaceted system.
To me this raised two questions, firstly what kind of merciless global system do we live in that such a thing could be expected of someone so obviously in need of rest? And secondly if this man is a slave to that system, what are you and I…