Thursday, July 06, 2006

India Shining: I

First? Third? [No, not base!]

"Too many Indians have bought into the idea that we're a First World country." Part of a phone conversation earlier.

The one thing that pops up, inevitably, in almost all the conversations I've had so far on this trip, is India. Or rather. How India Is Doing. What I call the "India Shining" dialogue.

"The economy is roaring." "But infrastructure sucks." "So many still left behind." "But the 21st century will be India's" "Chup yaar. Three days of rain and Bombay is knocked out. India Shining my a**" And so on.

This time, I've noticed, thanks to 24/7 TV coverage (on at least 6 channels, in Enlgish and Hindi), a certain kind of First World attitude has crept in. A "hey, life sucks, and we ought to be able to change it" attitude. This is a good thing. (Its flip side, its dark side, is "Life ought to be always perfect and if it isn't someone made a mistake." Welcome to lawsuit-ville). Much better than, "The gods are angry." or "I must have sucked in my previous life." The collective indignation that was aired on TV after the latest spate of rains in Bombay (rains that, while heavy, were quite normal) had something new about it. A sense that, hey, there's literally millions of us who feel this way. A sense of collective bonding (born largely out of group venting, for sure), of community even. A slightly larger-scale vision of just how bad the problem is. It's not just my chawl here, or that society there that sucks. The city sinks. Every year. And we're not going to stand for it.

Whether this translates into anything concrete is highly debatable. Bombay's municipality, like any other branch of the Indian state, doesn't exist to serve its people. Whether public opinion alone can shake that bastion of callous indifference remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, in this amusing column in today's Indian Express, Farah Baria reminds us that, well, it's the monsoons.
I watched, amused, as news channel after news channel aired hysterical reportage, shrill headlines and dire predictions, delivered by appropriately soaked and dishevelled journalists. Was Mumbai Sinking? Could we Battle The Deluge? And how on earth were we going to cope with this aasmani aafat?
[snip]
Yeh din? Get a grip guys, it’s been this way ever since I was a little girl floating paper boats on streets that resembled the Brahmaputra in spate—and probably for centuries before that.

Ask the Met Department: while 184 mm of rain is not exactly a drizzle, it’s absolutely normal and within the standard range for this time of year.

“Don’t forget, it’s the South West Monsoon,” pointed out regional Met director Sathi Devi dryly. “Heavy rainfall is to be expected”.
Well. Some First World attitudes aren't all bad. Maybe the attitude will bring about some serious changes. In the lives of Mumbaikars -- rich and poor alike -- who, every year, face the reality of their city turning into a filthy lake, their living rooms into swimming pools.

India's problems are vast. Its poverty seemingly unassailable, a bottomless pit of human misery, borne patiently for millenia. (Why revolution started in France and not here is one of those Gordian mysteries too tangled to unravel. Though, revolution is quite prevalent in that vast rural hinterland. Leftist rebellions now exist in about a third of India's districts, I've read. Far from here. Of course.) One cannot walk down a street here and not be confronted with the starkest of contrasts. The poor aren't hidden away on the other side of the tracks, in the ghetto, invisible. Nope. Au contraire. Slum and gleaming skyscraper live cheek by jowl. I can go out to Crosswords and drop a thousand rupees on some books and DVDs. That is three-quarters of the chauffer's monthly salary.

All men are unabashedly, unequivocally, unapologetically, not equal. And women even less so.

I have often remarked (and I suspect this will come as a surprise to many) that I find the United States to be the closest thing to an egalitarian society that I think is possible. It's a vast middle class. "A peasant culture" an old high school friend once snobbishly remarked. The kinds of social stratification that one simply breathes in automatically here would be unthinkable in the US. Despite all its drawbacks and shadows, there's something gutsy and noble in "Hey, life sucks, we ought to be able to change it."

So, how do things change? How does one get from here to ... there? (Wherever there might be? Anything is better than here!) .... Read on to the next post. This one is getting a bit long!

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