What is poverty: man who came down to India as a Christian missionary, fell under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru

An excellent biography of the late Dr Verrier Elwin (29 August 1902 – 22 February 1964), who introduced the tribes of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Assam to the world through a series of books, has been published. He came out to India as a Christian missionary, fell under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. He was the first Englishman to take Indian nationality. His biographer, Ramachandra Guha, quotes a speech Elwin delivered to the Rotary Club of Bombay in which he tried to define poverty. He said: “We are so used to poverty in India that we forget what it is. I remember one day a family coming to us in tears, for their hut and all they possessed had been destroyed by fire. When I asked how much they wanted to put them on their feet again, they said, ‘Four rupees’.

“That is poverty.

“In Bastar state, once a Maria was condemned to death. On the eve of execution, they asked him if there was any luxury he would like. He asked for some chapatti and fish curry, made in the city style. They gave it to him and he ate half of it with great enjoyment, then wrapped up the remainder in the leafplate and gave it to the jailor, telling him that his little son was waiting outside the prison door. The boy had never tasted such a delicacy, but he should have it now.

“That is poverty.

“Poverty is to see little children taken from you at the height of their beauty. It is to see your wife age quickly and your mother’s back bend with the load of life. It is to be defenceless against the arrogant official, to stand unarmed before the exploiters and the cheats.

“Poverty is to stand for hours before the gate of the court of justice and to be refused admission. It is to find officialdom deaf and the great and wealthy blind.

“I have seen children fighting over a scanty meal of roasted rat. I have seen old women pounding wearily at the pith of the sago palm to make a kind of flour. I have watched men climb trees to get red ants to serve instead of chillies.

“Poverty is hunger, frustration, bereavement, futility. There is nothing beautiful about it.”

(From Savaging The Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India by Ramachandra Guha)