Recently I joined one of the book clubs that the public library in Amsterdam has started. A friend, who knew I’m looking for ways to get deeper into Dutch, suggested it and I’m deeply grateful to him. And so…I read a whole book in Dutch! To be honest, when I began, I thought this is going to be an uphill climb. It came as a pleasant surprise to me that the book pulled me towards it. Despite the limitations of my vocabulary that made sure I had a dictionary within reach, I could hardly put it down. I was fascinated by what I read, and recommend this book highly. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s an English translation yet, but hope there will be one soon.
We’re not dumb, just poor. (…)
That always gets mixed up.
(Orhan Pamuk in Snow)
The book is called ‘Het Pauperparadijs’ (The Pauper Paradise) by Suzanna Jansen and begins with this quote. I didn’t choose it. The name of our club is ‘Ij Amsterdam’ and the concerned library staff member made a pre-selection of books related to Amsterdam. A common consensus of the six people in our club selected it as the first for us to read over a two-month period.
At the end of May on a warm evening, we met to discuss the book. It wasn’t a very structured discussion. We took it in turns to speak about it. At one point someone asked, ‘does anyone have a favourite paragraph’? I wasn’t ready for the question, so let is pass me by. But later, a section of the book came back to me and I translate here:
The government officials couldn’t decide what to do: on what conditions should they give my grandfather social security? They wrote each other notes with texts like ‘ a strange history’! And ‘Will you please discuss this with the GAK’? In the mean time, my grandfather had to go again and again and beg for emergency social security money.
This situation that my grandparents had landed up in makes me think shamefully of my own time as a temporary employee of the Social Services Office in the mid-eighties. As a twenty year old, I worked as someone who’s job is to ‘estimate’ in a department full of unemployed teachers and people with a Master’s qualification in history, a fired bar keeper, an accounted fired due to cutbacks, a pregnant physiotherapist – that was the unemployment relief work for those days. Day in and day out, in piles of files we spit out the comments by social workers by converting these into numbers for the sake of the punch operators. The purpose was that the right holes in the right cards would lead to the right amount of money in the bank accounts of the people who, somewhere behind the files, we would never see. All that time, there was a big file of one family Khan on my desk, about which I could not decide. Again and again, I put it aside, and somewhere at the back of my head, buzzed the vague idea that it was just because of me that the family Khan faced renewed uncertainty every month.
Somehow the name of the family Khan, who needed money to survive in the Netherlands felt too close to home in a book full of poor Dutch people with very different names. Even more importantly, the book (which is actually a family history) asks a big question: What to do with the poor? It strikes a very deep chord in me because I’ve spent most of my life in India. In this book I see reflections of so many of our attitudes to the poor and the causes of their poverty – blame them, change them, improve them, ship them out, criminalize them, categorize them, convert them, share with them, bring them up, teach them, pity them,encourage them to join the nunnery, curse them, institutionalize them, love them, check them, bury them, make them work, give them money …… the whole range is present depending on who is in power and which way the wind is blowing, or on where the economy is. Chilling, also, is to read how the vicious circle is so hard to break. It does in the case of the author, whose grandmother, Rosa, took the first steps. To Suzanna Janssen, I have admiration and gratitude, for speaking with such eloquence and clarity about a subject without the shame often associated with it, and for linking our tendency in the present times in the Netherlands, to blame sections of our society for not being able to rise out of their lot.
Our newspaper, the NRC Handesblad carried an article recently, the headlines of which read something to the effect of, the unemployed needn’t expect any understanding from those who are employed.
So, what should the family Khan look forward to, if understanding is something they shouldn’t expect?
‘Het Pauperparadijs’ is translated into Spanish.