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Slum it out, first

No one likes the idea of a father selling off his daughter but it was nevertheless a cheap, vulgar, contemptible stunt by the tabloid to entrap Qureshi, writes Amrit Dhillon.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2009 22:52 IST

Slumdog Millionaire star Rubina Ali’s father may well be a moral reprobate, a callous father, and a greedy opportunist with his eye to the main chance.

Rafiq Qureshi might well have been deeply misguided in thinking, if the News of the World story is true, that if he put Rubina up for adoption for 200,000 pounds, he could use the money to whisk his family out of the torture of Indian slum life while giving her a new start with a loving and wealthy couple.

No one likes the idea of a father selling off his daughter but it was nevertheless a cheap, vulgar, contemptible stunt by the tabloid to entrap Qureshi.

A privileged reporter from a wealthy country flies into a Mumbai slum to trick or persuade an impoverished and illiterate man to trade in his daughter for a better life for her and his whole family. It is the abyss between the two that is troubling. If the paper had picked on someone who could defend himself, the sting operation would have been less repugnant.

When the News of World exposes the moral frailties of celebrities or powerful personalities in the West, no unpleasant taste lingers in the mouth. These are people who can look after themselves.

But for a foreigner who has probably never experienced the inconvenience of a 30-minute power cut to swan in and pass moral judgement on an impoverished, vulnerable, slum-dweller is sickening.

Obviously, it never occurred to him that poverty can disfigure morality. When all you have known is squalor, hunger, no running water, no shred of comfort at home after a day’s work, panic at the thought of your children falling ill and not having enough money for medicines, and feeling degraded to the core by living conditions that would be deemed unfit for animals in the West, it can affect your moral sensibility. This is not to say that the poor are less moral than the rich. But verily it is generally easier for the rich to enjoy a higher level of moral hygiene than the poor.

Some areas of morality are contingent upon a level of material comfort and consequently are luxuries enjoyed by the well-to-do. Material security usually eliminates the need to make extreme choices or resolve horrible dilemmas.

The News of the World reporter will never (fortunately) have to make painful choices such as, out of four children, which one do you educate and which one do you put out to work?

Or, with no dowry to offer, do you marry your daughter off to a man twice her age or not? Or, with limited money, should you get medical treatment for your terminally ill mother or your sick young child?

The poor often do not have the money for an auto-rickshaw to take a sick relative to a hospital. Who are we to condemn them as morally reprehensible?

It is too easy to castigate Qureshi without allowing for how poverty de-sensitises people. That does not make his choice acceptable. Millions of poor Indians raise their children with love without ever making his choices.

But for an affluent western journalist to exude smug righteousness to a poor Indian man was shabby, particularly when his paper happily sells ‘kiss-and-tell’ stories by women that violate every moral code of love and loyalty without passing similar moral judgement on them.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist.