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India's flotsam floats on a sea of curry and chapatis

It is 12:45 a.m. and this city of 8 million people in tropical shirts and saris will not put itself to bed. It is alive, almost electric with activity. Car horns are going off like firecrackers. Vendors are still polishing up their gleaming brass lamps or slicing up papayas and pineapples for tomorrow's custom.

A few are washing down the sidewalk with buckets of water. Pots for food are bubbling over little fires all down the street.

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Outside the central telegraph office young men chat and cluster around a man with a basket of eggs and pan of wheat. He is making chapatism , a popular Indian bread. Curry and chapatis are to the northern Indian what curry and rice are to the southern Indian.

Barefoot urchins call out with pleading intensity, "Five paise. Five paise. Five paise." (Less than 1 cent.)

The questions keep throbbing: Why are they not asleep? Why are they not at home?

They have no home. They have no parents. They are just a few of the multitudinous pieces of small social driftwood afloat in India today.

One boy who looked about 10 years old was jealously guarding his cart of shelled peanuts when someone accidentally bumped it. From a high pile just a couple of dozen spilled to the ground, but the cargo was so precious to the boy he painstakingly picked them up one by one.

People are playing games. People are washing in the fountain. People are walking around the stepping over scores of supine bodies asleep on the hard sidewalk; they don't even twitch a muscle.

These homeless, bedless people of India are inured to what is going on around them, and those around them are just as oblivious to them. It is as if neither is aware of each other's existence.

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In the Western world, homeowners put out the milk bottles, call in the cat, close the shutters, and lock the doors. The homeless of India turn over on the sidewalk and pull a dirty sack over their heads. At 8 o'clock they will still be asleep and so completely covered up they could be mistaken for a sack of oranges or potatoes that had fallen off a passing truck. Neither moon nor sun affects the sleeping pattern.

Hena Singh of the United Nations Children's Fund says of these homeless individuals, "I sometimes wonder why people put up with it. Why they don't take steps to break through it. But if they did there would be a revolution.

"We are very passive people. That is our strength and our weakness. The passivity gives them the strength and the endurance to bear these hardships all these thousands of years."

Indians are naturally touchy about their homeless. To some extent it may be because Western visitors portray India only in these stark human terms. But there is another side to the coin.

Despite the homeless of the cities, indian is not an urban society. Take all the major cities of India -- Calcutta with more than 9 million, Bombay with about 8 million, New Delhi's close to 5 1/2 million, Madras with over 4 million. Together their combined population comes to less than 30 million in a nation of more than 650 million.

India, in fact, is unique in the world, according to a World Bank official, because it has had no net urbanization, considering the size of its population in the last 20 years.

This has helped insulate India from some of the urban political tensions that effect most countries. Although many times larger than, say, Mexico or Colombia , India does not have so large an urban labor force as these two Latin American countries.

About 80 percent of India still has rural roots. And those roots run deep. In the countryside there are no homeless people and no beggars. The close village life takes everyone in and is India's own informal social-welfare system. This is not to say village life is easy. It isn't. But the social supports are there to make it tolerable.

Dr. Vasudeva Kathura, a professor of community medicine who specializes in preventative medicine in the rural villages of Haryana state, says: "Trust and faith have carried the people through the centuries. Otherwise, they would be so frustrated."

More important still, keen observers of the Indian scene are beginning to detect a shift in collective Indian mentality. As India develops its economic muscle -- now it is the world's 10th most industrialized nation -- it is losing its attitude of fatalism, the belief that the adversities of life have to be accepted.

Asked for his comment as to how much India was shrugging off the mental baggage of the past and moving ahead, senior World Bank economist George Beier replied: "They have come a long way in the last 15 to 20 years, as I keep on telling my pessimistic friends."


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