Comedians and Street Sleepers

It is amazing to me the two societies that exist here. There are the middle and upper classes who go to work in their business suits and dress up for weekends at the nightclubs. And there is the population that lives just beneath their knees on the ground and in the dirt, the people that seem miniaturized by poverty. The two groups occupy the same space at the same time, but might as well be on different planets. And neither group seems relevant to the other aside from the occasional coins that drop into someone’s tin cup.

The other night I saw both sides. I watched the Canadian comedian Russell Peters perform at the Science City auditorium in eastern Calcutta. With ticket prices starting at $25, this was an event for the upper classes only. It was a great show. Peters’ parents are originally from Calcutta and this was the first time he performed a show here. The crowd – dressed in shiny saris, high heels and sports jackets – welcomed him like a favourite son. They even laughed when he ridiculed Indian film stars and mused about what Bollywood-inspired porn films might be like.

After the show, I decided to walk back to the centre of town rather than try for a taxi. It was around ten o’clock and the shops in this part of Calcutta had been closed for some time. Along the sidewalks were the street people. (One Indian journalist I read calls them ‘starvelings.’). There was one about every hundred metres, sleeping on the pavement. Some dozed beneath trucks or rickshaws. Some had a scrap of cardboard to sleep on. Others a sheet of cloth or plastic. One man on the Circus Street flyover even had a small pillow. But the most ragged slept directly on the ground.

I wonder if these people choose where they sleep. Why this stretch of pavement or this traffic median and not the next? Are they in the same place every night? Or do they wander until they are tired, then simply lay down?

I passed a one couple that was still awake. A man and a woman, camped out on a flattened carton and leaning against the side of a building. They had their arms around each other and sat there smiling and laughing as if at a picnic in a park.