Beyond the refuge of numbers

THE HUMAN MIND, when faced with the need to calculate figures higher than, say, the fingers of two hands, abstracted numbers from the immediate and sensual to the colder, more distant realm of statistics. When people become statistics, our fellow feeling is replaced by the merely cerebral, and responsibility for their wellbeing is shifted on to the state. Statistics protect us from having to bestir ourselves.

I could quote all kinds of figures about internal migration in India. I could rattle out statistics about rural poverty in and exodus from the Kumaon region of the Himalayas, where I live for three months each year. I could say that grazing is five times higher than the carrying capacity of the land, that the depletion of forest is about four million cubic metres per year, that only a quarter of the Central Himalaya is now forested, that sixty-two million Indians live in city slums, that Nepali workers migrating into India send back five hundred million dollars a year ... and so on.

You, the reader, might well feel concern, might even have opinions about what effects such migration is having – will have – on the political, moral and ecological shape of the world. But you won't feel empathy. Those millions and millions of ecological refugees living in tiny plastic and cardboard huts crammed along canals full of steaming shit and garbage and dead dogs and pestilence in Bombay might as well be a different species. That is until you know one or two of them and hear how they got there, why they went there and how – foul though the place is – it offers more opportunity than where they came from.

Sixty-two million of them.

I'M NOT A social scientist.  I'm a writer. There's not much I can do for the sixty-two million. But it might be useful to describe the lives of a few representative peasants in the Kumaon, for whom the spectre of migration to the burgeoning city is ever present. As chance would have it, I am positioned between them and that spectre: I provide them with employment – the only local employment there is. I employ as many as I can. The wages are small, though acceptable by Indian standards. Chandrawallab the gardener. Bippin the housekeeper. Keshav's wife. The Nepalese labourers. Bippin's wife. Bahadur, whose job it is to look after my dogs.

First I must introduce the landscape. It is sublime, and not only to outsiders like me. The snow peaks along the horizon, hiding Tibet, are where the gods and goddesses live. Here in the ‘foothills', at seven thousand feet – high enough to feel some physical effects of altitude – we are close to those great ones. Sublime.  But it is a woefully difficult environment for subsistence agriculture which is the only other income-generator around.

The farms are small, hand-made terraces radiating down precipitous cleared slopes. The weather is harsh – freezing winters, hail in spring, dry summers, a late summer monsoon which washes soil down into the river far below. Deer, monkeys, bears and wild pigs compete for the crops.  A lot of the original oak from this area was taken by the British during the world wars. They replaced it with pine, which dries out the soil and inhibits native species. Domestic animals graze in the forests and eat any young oak, which is highly nutritious but slow growing. Seedlings don't stand a chance against desiccation and over-grazing.

Women range all day through the remaining forest, cutting wood or gathering huge bundles of grass and leaves for their animals, which they carry home on their heads. Their work is backbreaking; they age quickly. They are in poor health anyway due to poor nutrition. Nevertheless, they choose to have several children, despite the government's advertising campaign promoting the benefits of only two. Some of the women have been educated at the little local school for a couple of years. Most have not. They have to begin their foraging quite young; they are out most of the day, scaling the slopes, lopping or chopping trees. The work is dangerous. There are accidents. They fall, or are bitten by snakes or attacked by bears.

The peasants are aware that they are responsible for their forest disappearing, but they have no choice. If they do not chop wood, how will they cook and stay warm? If they do not carve out new fields from the forest, what will their sons do? If they do not have plenty of children, who will take care of them when they are old, or provide the labour needed when the crops are ready? Plenty of children die, after all. If they do not snare the leopards, or poison them, the leopards will prey on their goats. With the loss of forest goes the loss of game, and that makes for hungry leopards. There is no safety net for the peasants here. One stroke of bad luck and total ruin is their fate. Here, poverty is the cause of ecological catastrophe – not ignorance or greed.

So soil erosion, deforestation, overgrazing, landslides, floods, siltation, decreasing soil fertility, drying springs, low literacy, high infant and child mortality, malnutrition, rapidly increasing population, expansion of agriculture into forest and marginal lands, changing climate, loss of wildlife, loss of plant diversity, lack of infrastructure like roads and hospitals, useless and corrupt governance, ruthless and corrupt logging companies, poaching, primitive farming technology, inability to compete with big commercialised landowners, inability to participate in the market economy, unemployment, closing of trade border with Tibet. Kumaon has it all.

On a typical farm, a family can hope to get two square meals a day for only four months in the year. For the rest of the year, men go to the towns and cities to look for work. And sometimes women do too.


THE FOUR HUNDRED acres on which I live is regrowth native oak – one of the few patches of it remaining in the region. The friend who owns the property and I, have managed to keep the forest intact. No woodcutting is allowed here; no farm animals are permitted to graze. The women are invited to cut grass once a year, but they cannot lop and destroy the trees. At first they considered us an impediment to be got around. But when water began to flow back into their springs, the policy was accepted.

The house I live in is like the peasants' cottages only in that it is constructed of local stone. There the similarity ends. My house boasts a solar heated pool. Vast glass windows and oil heaters to warm the rooms. A limitless supply of diesel for the generator. Water is pumped up from a spring.

To reach the house from the nearest road, one must climb through a kilometre of forest along a rough path. One must hire ponies and men to carry luggage and provisions up to the house. Along the way, one might pass Nepali porters toiling up the track, little men with huge calf muscles, balancing six metre steel girders on their heads for renovations to the house.

It took me a long time to get used to this sort of thing. Indian servant culture goes against the Australian grain, steeped in ideals of egalitarianism. At first I treated all the staff as if they were my social equals, which embarrassed and confused them. Now I have learnt proper reserve.

Nevertheless, I love some of them, and flatter myself that they care for me. I love them like family. A feudal family, held together by bonds of fealty, mutual dependency and respect, and stable as a pyramid. Sahib (the owner) sits at the top.  Memsahib (me) sits with him, but slightly lower.  After that comes the staff: Rajput(retainers) then local men, all the way down to the Nepali boy.

How could one not love Chandrawallab? He's an eccentric, highly intelligent man who cries easily, drinks too much and is a figure of fun to his neighbours. He's close to the top of the pyramid because he has worked for me for almost twenty years, first as a stonemason, then as a gardener.

Ten years ago he left without explanation. I sent messages to his home, asking him to return, telling him that if the work was too heavy for him he could employ a helper. Several helpers. But he didn't come back. A year or two passed and I more or less forgot about him. Then one day I was heading down the track, on my way back to London. A group of men surrounding another man on a horse were coming up the track towards me. At first I didn't recognise the yellowy grey skeleton, wrapped in blankets, sweating and shivering in the saddle.

‘Chandrawallab,' I said. ‘What on earth has happened to you?'

He burst into tears and touched my folded hands – an intimacy he would never have permitted himself had he not been close to death. He'd been seeing a doctor in a town two hours' drive away, for many months, but was steadily deteriorating. I turned him straight around, and took him back with me to Delhi on the train. There he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

He survived. He slowly improved. He came back to work in the garden. And then, as often happens in these hills, there was a financial catastrophe. Chandrawallab had borrowed money during his illness, from a money-lender, using his land as surety. But some cousin/brothers had grabbed some of that land while Chandrawallab was incapacitated and, as he'd had no income for two years, there was no money to pay legal fees or bribes, and now he couldn't pay back the interest, let alone the principal. He stood to lose what was left of his farm – which would leave Chandrawallab and his family entirely destitute.

So my friend and I gave him the money, with the understanding that it would be taken out of his wages, a process of repayment that would extend well beyond his lifetime and ours. Consequently Chandrawallab now feels that he cannot do enough, ever, to repay that kindness. Sometimes he weeps when he thinks of it.

He doesn't speak English, but he has taken the trouble to learn the botanical names of flowers. Each week he garlands the house with floral tributes from the garden. He rings me sometimes from the house phone to tell me how the clematis is doing, and what colour the poppies are.

Tuberculosis is quite common up here, as is HIV/AIDS. Children are infested with worms. Women have iron deficiencies and gynaecological problems. There is a government hospital in the village, but when doctors take the trouble to turn up, they often give their patients short shrift. There is no medicine in the pharmacy. The medicines have been sold on the black market. Government doctors tend not to like it here. They consider it a punishment posting. They can't make much money up here in the sublime.

It's the same at the government school. Teachers often don't attend. Anyone with the resources will send their children to private schools.


BIPPIN. HOW CAN I do justice to Bippin? He's a tall, gawky streak of misery, with a gammy leg and a crooked smile, which is always a little bit tentative and strained, as if it might be too presumptuous an expression in front of his Memsahib. In some ways I am closer to Bippin than to the others, because he is the one who brings my tea in the morning, who makes my bed, cleans my house, does my laundry, dusts my desk and registers my moods. He is exquisitely tuned to them. He, too, is close to the top of the pyramid because he has been utterly trustworthy, utterly blameless in every respect, for a decade. He has access to all the locked cupboards, to the household accounts, and when I am there on my own, it is Bippin who takes care of me, as if I were a real princess. He won't let me sleep on the veranda because of leopards and bears.

He is a quiet, unassuming man. But he stands up for himself when necessary. He refused to go to Delhi to work in his Sahib's other house, because he didn't want to leave his family. ‘I will do anything you require of me,' he said, ‘but I will not leave the mountains.'

I found out that he had a wife and two young children, but no-one else – which was very unusual. Extended families may be a pain in the neck sometimes, but they provide safety nets. Bippin had very little land, very few resources. This job was his lifeline. He sent his children to the government school. He managed.

I was in Australia when I heard the news. Bippin's wife had died in childbirth. In his house. With the local midwife in attendance. He had taken her to the town doctor a couple of weeks before – an expense a lot of husbands can't or won't afford. Everything seemed to be fine. But she bled to death anyway. He had no one to look after his two older children, and no one to feed the newborn. He continued to come to work at the house, only taking a couple of days off for the cremation. His wife was burnt along the little creek running through the property, beside the track. Neighbouring women gave him help with the children and provided milk for the baby. But Bippin was secretly coming unhinged. Worry? Grief? Guilt? Depression?

All mountain peasants like their drink – cheap rot-gut brew that they swig on their way home in the dark. It is tacitly understood that our staff never drink on the property. But Bippin took to drinking surreptitiously while on duty. I knew this but said nothing. I didn't want to get him into trouble with ‘Sahib'.

The drinking got worse. He went on a bender. He stole all the liquor from Sahib's cabinet (a couple of dozen bottles of whisky, vodka and rum) and downed the whole lot in a matter of days. His personality changed. When Sahib rang the house from Delhi, Bippin answered the phone with the Hindi equivalent of ‘Who the hell are you? Bugger off.' Then he hung up.

Sahib gave him another chance. He was sent to dry out in Jaipur. He came back and went on another bender. Meanwhile, a second wife had been found for him, to look after his children, but she harangued him night and day. Nevertheless, he fathered another child by her. The other servants took a dim view of this, and began to avoid him.

Sahib took him to task. Bippin dried out again and promised to reform. He didn't. He stole money for grog. He has now lost his job with us. I don't know how he'll survive. He will probably become one of those gutted refugees in the city, struggling to find work, struggling to stay alive, and struggling to send something back to his children. Or perhaps he'll avoid the whole catastrophe by killing himself. Quite a few peasants have been found dangling from trees in the forest. Or perhaps he'll pull himself together, stay off the grog, in which case Sahib will consider taking him back.

BAHADUR CAME TO work for me when he was a boy. About fourteen probably, though he lied about it. So yes, I am guilty of hiring child labour. But then, his household needed the money. His father, a tough old patriarch, said I should ‘train' his son, and that his son had better work hard or there'd be trouble.

I watched Bahadur grow up, from a worm-infested pubescent (I dose all the staff with worming tablets, so the telltale patches of white on their faces disappear and they put on weight) to a gloriously handsome young man, married at eighteen and a father at twenty. He has been able to buy a buffalo with his wages, so that his firstborn will grow up strong on its rich milk.

Bahadur's job is to look after my two dogs. He's a bright boy. It is a scandalous squandering of human ability, an insult to human dignity that his best – possibly only – prospect in life revolves around the wellbeing of two spoilt dogs.

But he is grateful for the job, because if he didn't have it he would have to go to a town to find work. There wouldn't be enough money to bring his family with him, because towns are expensive places. He'd come home once a year, to assist with the harvest. The rest of the time he'd be lonely, even Bollywood movies and bright lights don't make up for that. He might get lucky of course, and make enough money to keep his children with him, to give them a better education and opportunities than they could have had back home. But he would still need to send money back to the old people left on the farm. They would depend upon him for clothing, medicine, equipment.

In any case, as dog-keeper he's better off than the little Nepali boy who is part of the gang Sahib employed to quarry stone, and act as porters. There are about forty of them.

Most rural households in Nepal depend on at least one member remitting their earnings from outside the country. Then there's the Maoist insurgency and the viciousness of the state police. It's difficult to distinguish those trying to avoid the conflict from the bulk of economic migrants because the countryside is so criminally impoverished.

The wages we pay these men are not high, but they prevent families back home from sliding further into poverty. Some say that migration not only reduces poverty, it reduces inequality. That it contributes to economic growth and development. Remittances are thought to stimulate the local land market, to increase local wages and the demand for local goods and services. But the evidence is ambiguous. Migrant labour may well contribute to economic growth, but in doing so the migrants are socially and economically excluded from the wider benefits of that growth, such as access to health and education, housing, sanitation and freedom from exploitation.

Migrant workers are, on the whole, paid less than indigenous workers. They provide a cheap, flexible and non-unionised labour force which, we are told, is important for growth. But no one has calculated the far-reaching social costs or the implications for longer term development. Poor workers are unlikely to be able to educate their children, and are therefore unlikely to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

I would like to adopt the Nepali boy. I would like to send him to school. I would like most of all, to send him home. But I cannot do any of these things. So he is employed as part of the gang, to carry tea out to the men at the quarry, to run errands, to dig in the fields like a man. He can't be more than twelve.

Finally Keshav's wife. When Keshav died several years ago, it was very difficult for her. She had to work in the fields on her own, look after parents, look after children, and work and work and work for less and less and less. She wasn't well. Something not right in her stomach, she indicated. Whenever I met her, in the fields or going down the track, she would fall at my feet and weep. Bickering relatives picked on her. They squabbled about her land.

I began to avoid her because I couldn't see any way of helping her in the long term. And her demoralisation demoralised me. I'd tried to set up various little industries – mushroom growing (a total failure), flower production for the Delhi trade (ruined by hail and transport costs), a market for local handicrafts (no one wants cheap knitted beanies from the Himalayas). In any case, to make anything work in such communities you have to be there all day, every day for years and years and years. And that I am unwilling to do.

Keshav's wife was found hanging from an oak tree.

Statistics can be a relief.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review