The New York Times called her a “lionhearted girl” who “inspires a nation”, while US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka called her act a “beautiful feat of endurance and love that has captured the imagination of the Indian people”.
When 15-year-old school dropout Jyoti Kumari sat her ailing father behind her on a bicycle and rode 1,200 km, from Gurugram to Darbhanga, Bihar over seven days, to get him home during the Covid-19 lockdown, she probably had no idea that she would become a global celebrity.
It sounds like a warm, fuzzy, feel-good story that should make us all proud. But it isn’t. It is a grotesque romanticisation of a major humanitarian crisis that should make us ashamed.
We’ve seen it before, this kind of poverty porn. People love a good weepy story about a poor person overcoming the odds, because then they can feel less guilty about their own privilege and avoid taking any action against the systemic failure that causes poverty.
Jyoti Kumari’s incredible grit and courage do make for a great tearjerker. But to spin the crisis of labourers in lockdown, India’s largest movement of people since Partition, into a positive story about love and courage is the worst kind of poverty porn.
We get so invested in one story, we forget the root cause
Some would argue that I’m nitpicking, and that it is a good thing that Jyoti’s story has gone viral since she is not only being given school admission, but also an invitation from the Cycling Federation of India to try out for the national team.
Of course, it would be wonderful if her life turned around. But it would also be extremely naïve to think it will happen overnight. It takes years of training to reach even trial level in sports. To call in someone who has never trained, to “see if she satisfies the seven or eight parameters to get selected”, is yet another way for the authorities to say they gave her a chance, plus an air-conditioned train ride, till they eventually wash their hands of it all if she doesn’t pass.
The problem is that we get so obsessed with one individual story that catches our fancy, so caught up in its potential to put a happy spin to a dire situation, that we forget the circumstances that led to the story.
The quick fix that fixes nothing
Indians clamouring for the death penalty for the perpetrators of the December 2012 Delhi bus gang rape and murder revealed a similar psychology. We claim the death penalty gave closure to the family of the victim, but forget that laws don’t exist to provide closure to one family. Laws exists to serve a wider notion of civilised society, and the death penalty will never strike the root of the problem. Neither will, for example, banning TikTok.
In similar vein are those annual paeans to the ‘spirit of Mumbai’ and the city’s ‘resilience’ because while the city crumbles every monsoon, the local kirana store guy will still wade through knee-deep rainwater to deliver your supplies. #SpiritofMumbai is just code for people who have no choice but to carry on in the face of rotten institutional apathy.
On the other side of this poverty porn coin is the PR machinery for the establishment. It was certainly nice that the CRPF helped Mohammed Arif, a Mumbai-based watchman who was cycling from Mumbai to Jammu to meet his ailing father. But isn’t that part of the job of being a public servant — to help and serve the public? Our problem is that we have such embarrassingly low standards that our authorities become heroes for doing their jobs. We make martyrs and legends out of people like Jyoti Singh Pandey and Jyoti Kumari, who didn’t choose their difficult circumstances or the crimes committed against them.
Of course, we are all rooting for Jyoti Kumari. It’s great that her story caught our attention and she’s getting a chance to turn her life around. But the fact that it took a pandemic and a humanitarian crisis to do even that is shameful. And she is just one person. There are many millions who are trying to cycle or walk home. Where are their stories, their national sport team trials and school admissions?
The issue is not that this story is making waves, it is the tone (or tone deafness) with which it is being reported. It is not a joyful tale of love, or as The New York Times crudely put it, “a story that gets even better”. It is a horrifically sad story that should raise questions about institutional accountability. It should make those reporting the story and those reading it deeply uncomfortable and angry. It should make the government vow (and make good on that vow) that no other Jyoti Kumari should have to go through such a debilitating struggle again.