Views from the Ministry of Interior

Amit Shah

  Amit Shah, a retired publishing executive, studied at St. Stephen’s College in India and at Columbia University in the U.S. He has a collection of essays Instincts of Beauty, and maintains a blog site:

                                         View from the Ministry of Interior 

Living on a sidewalk in a large city in India is different from living on the sidewalk in a U.S. city or anywhere in Europe. In India, there are many thousands that live on “pavement housing”, informal barebones awnings with a few utensils, a shared gas cylinder for cooking, a cheap set of blankets for a bed. Sometimes a mirror hangs on the wall or fence that supports the awning. The pavement dwellers are first-generation migrant workers, daily-wage laborers, raising children, forming, friendships, and smiling at cameras of astonished foreign tourists.

In the West, living on the sidewalk means you’re homeless, at your wit’s end and you’ll be either taken to a shelter by the police or by social workers who provide services to the indigent.

I grew up in India and the people living on the sidewalk were part of my landscape. I also grew up in an independent India that was only three years old in 1950. With a population of about 361 million people, almost 80% are poor (annual income below Rs. 250 annually). Mostly in rural India with only about 18% in urban areas. Cities were few after the major metropolises of Calcutta (Kolkata), Delhi, Bombay (Mumbai), and Madras (Chennai). Second-tier cities such as Jaipur, Bangalore (Bengaluru), and Kanpur were a handful.

Two of out every ten Indians were literate. About 18% of the population. Compared to today when 75% are.

I went to schools that had a few hundred students each. My graduating class from high school had three sections for a total of 60 students. My own section had 25. My undergraduate college had 750 students total in a University that had about 5,000 students.

The true valuation of elitism might have escaped me but the experience of it didn’t. I knew that if I graduated well from college that was all that was required of me. I mean, I knew that even if I didn’t graduate well, I’d be fine. Such was the immunity of entitlement.

That was 55 years ago.

Today’s India still has thousands of “pavement dwellers”, thousands of migrant, daily-wage workers and also 50 percent of Indians today are below the age of 25. The average age of an Indian in 2020 was 29. That’s out of 1.3 billion people. The math is simple. 650 million. Under 25. Almost, almost the total population of all of Europe.

Yes, many are still in the rural areas but their aspirations are far beyond the unpaved path that meets the main paved road of their village. Each Saturday at 5:30 a.m., my time in Boston, I meet via Zoom with some of them in a mentoring session for five weeks at a time, 90 minutes each week. Then we rotate to a new batch. They are all first-generation learners, and most are from hard-scrabble backgrounds, living in crowded rooms at the edge of sprawling major cities. They know about lives like mine. They have mobile phones. They want what their parents and grandparents couldn’t dream of. Their parents want them to have what they didn’t, namely opportunity.

My parents wanted me to be happy and “successful”. They never specified what “success” meant. I cobbled together my version of it from the evidence at hand.

My great-grandfather, who, I read, had sold vegetables on the street in Serampore, about 20 miles from Kolkata, a town established by the Danes in the early 19th century.  The story goes that after his father died and his mother struggled to earn as a tutor, he did this to supplement the household income.

My 2023 goal is to write a memoir-biography from the available sources about him (see below). He blew the gasket off about what “success” meant. Not only did he start a school for educating the visually impaired in eastern India (one of the first in India), he was the first Indian to do so (the rest were all missionaries, therefore, foreigners). That school is still functioning with healthy curricula and many students. He also took the basic Bengali script that had been developed into Braille ( records are almost nonexistent) and remodeled it for widespread use, paying a few blind kids to learn the system. That script was named after him and incorporated into the uniform code for Indian language Braille in the 1960s. He became blind in his forties and remains revered and well-known in a portion of his hometown of Kolkata.

Then came my grandfather who was a scholarly and quiet gentleman as far as I remember. His relationship with my father was so tangled as if by barbed wire that I never got to know him. He died in a small cottage that was next to our house where his father had lived. By that time he was paralyzed from a series of strokes from his nose down. My father sat with him each evening after work. He died when I was ten. My grandfather essentially ran the school after his father became blind and later expanded the school. During his tenure, the first visually impaired person in India not only matriculated from the school but became a full university professor. And in 1938, the first woman matriculated. I actually remember her quite well as she worked at the school when I was a young boy.

My father, who took over the administration of the school when he was 30 years old, was an extraordinary man. His life to me is breathtaking ---in its public accomplishments and its private darknesses. He not only made the school a well-known institution, he lobbied governments, and represented his country in forums to make the education curricula scientific and progressive. His public accomplishments were meteor-like.

From my mother’s side, worldly and societal “success” wasn’t so readily recognizable. My mother’s father died of meningitis (decades before there was a vaccine) when she was eleven and had three siblings younger than her. My grandmother struggled as a seamstress and private tutor to keep her family together. The family lineage was the golden ticket to “success” in Bengal, which held intellectual and literary success high above all else. The Dutts of Rambagan (the latter a neighborhood in north Calcutta that had palatial joint-family houses in the 19th century) were some of the brightest stars of the Bengali Renaissance, progressive and idealistic.

In this narrow and warped refraction, I glimpsed “success” as monumental and lavish. And though I was more educated than either of my parents, I never quite understood that “success” would be if people remembered me as kind, helpful, generous, loving, and considerate.


Today, I write to not win prizes or get published in world-famous journals but simply to record, in my words, as honestly as I can, what parts of my life has been and what I value. I value living and to them, I owe my gratitude. They are (in alphabetical order): Arnav, Lisa, Mo, Pam, Simon, Sonny, and Steph.


My goal in 2023 is to publish a memoir-biography of my great-grandfather: In the Shadows: The Life of Lal Behari Shah and the Calcutta Blind School with a small commercial publishing house in India, Red Lantern Books.

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