Breeding instructions, revisited

Samastipur is a small city and railway junction in the north Indian state of Bihar. Forty-two years have passed since I switched trains at that station. I had been rolling for seventeen hours northwest from Howrah (across the Hoogly River from Calcutta). Certainly in those days, probably in these, you don’t travel third class on the Indian railways unless you lack common sense, or a few spare rupees; but I was young and looking for thrills. The ride had been nearly intolerable: not fewer than three hundred people (many with bedding and all their possessions) in and on top of a car that had bench-pews and racks for perhaps one hundred. There was no glass in the windows, and yet the air temperature remained above that of the human body. The smell was as if those bodies were decomposing, as we shunted through the evening, and the long night, and the morning of the next day — never faster, I think, than thirty miles per hour, and often so slow I was tempted to jump off and run alongside. I have never enjoyed tea so much as I did on the platform at Samastipur; the name of which, on my ticket, became deeply incised in my memory. But within a few minutes, and a single cup, I had to board another train.

This one lacked even third-class carriages. It instead consisted chiefly of open cattle-cars, with raised planks for seating. The passengers would be under the baking sun, but at least now there would be breezes, and it did not rain. I was in one corner of the car, fully surrounded by an extended family, in the act of migrating from one part of India to another. The mothers (I soon realized they were sisters) had about a dozen children between them, and the older of the two (perhaps thirty, looking forty), was quite pregnant. There were also a grandmother and two timid-looking husbands.

For the next eight hours we rolled towards Raxaul, on the Nepalese frontier. I did not share a language with these people, who tried to address me in their musical Bengali, then included me in their glances after giving up on speech. While clearly allowing that I came from another planet, they adopted me for the duration of their trip. When they produced chapatis and fishpaste out of a battered tin container, I was casually offered my share; and one of the little boys fell asleep on my lap. They were ragged people, there were lice in the boy’s hair; they were ludicrously poor, and I the pampered child of Canadian parents (who could wire home for money if I ever really needed it). For only these few hours, we lived, this extended family and I, in a state of equality.

It may be a principle of education that there is nothing to be learned in any other state — not merely of equality, but of being reduced to it. Read your Aristotle on the social relations between teacher and pupil, the “eros” of the thing as it were, and this all makes sense. The teacher should belong to a lower class than his charges. And though it may be my addition, I think perhaps his task is to bring them down to his level. Rising, by chance, to a higher station, one learns nothing: as we may see all around us in the evidence of an economy’s “rising boats,” or for that matter, in the graduates of our highly unionized public schools.

This by way of explaining what I learnt on that cattle-car. It was something which contradicted everything I, as a product of the post-industrial West, had expected about human nature. Without ever having been told in so many words, I had come to believe that people who live in poverty and squalor must be miserable and in some sense, oppressed. And surely the pressure and uncertainty of migration would make this all the more oppressive. Let me concede this may well be the case, for the migrant or refugee who is alone. Yet these people were profoundly contented and — I shall never deny this — profoundly free. They were — all of them, but especially that serene, pregnant woman, at the centre of them all — quite possibly the happiest people I had ever met, to my tender age of eighteen. They seemed to exist perfectly for each other.

When last telling this (now, too, some years ago), I was in the course of reviewing the annual report of the United Nations’ population control programme. I have forgotten what euphemism they were using then, for eliminating the unwanted babies, and won’t bother to look up what it is now. The point I’d wished to make was that the woman — the pregnant one who sat, quite distinctly in the place of honour, in the middle of this extended family on the cattle-car, being transported across the fields of Bihar — was the very person the “international experts” were trying to reach with their gospel of liberation through contraception and abortion. And throughout the West, progressive-minded people could believe, without even thinking, that it would have been better for her had her children never been born. As alike, all the middle-class, “third-world” functionaries of international agencies, whose own minds are entirely westernized, and whose feelings towards the poor of their own countries shift back and forth between shame and condescension.

I have the old press release here (from 1990): “Unless women have control over their own lives and fertility, family planning goals will not be reached, and environmental damage will hit danger level. … But there are major obstacles that stand between women and their human rights.”

It would be impossible, in the course of mere argument, to show how much freight was carried by that glib statement, how many assumptions it made, and how poisonous they were. Nor was it, like some inscription from ancient Carthage, an artefact of some lost age. The same views are still pressed by the same agencies — if anything with more glibness, presumption, and poison in them today. Nevertheless I will mention the first half-dozen outrageously false assertions that come to mind:

They assumed that this pregnant Bengali woman had no control over her life, which was a lie.

They assumed that she did not want her children, which was a damnable lie.

They assumed that these children prevented her from fulfilling her destiny, when they were her destiny.

They alleged that she, and her family, were a threat to the environment, when they were as near to harmless as humans can be.

They implied that she was inferior to the emancipated women of the modern, eugenic West, when she was not inferior; that her children were inferior, and thus not worth the pain.

They concluded that obstacles stood in the way of her liberation, when those obstacles were part of her very identity as a living human being.

Looking back, from my present vantage, I still see with vividness that beautiful woman’s face; still remember the light and joy in it. And while I did not then, today I think of Mary Mother of God, and her Yes to God’s creation. But then as now: let God decide which of us is not worth having.