Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Lament for my motherland

Everyday, I see in the Indian newspapers stories of India’s incredible surge. Not a single day passes without my reading about how we are fighting for a permanent seat in the UNSC. I hear my friends back home talk of salaries with enough zeroes in them to be beyond the comprehension of an impecunious graduate student like self. I hear of Tata acquiring Corus, and of the rising Indian middle class.

In the midst of all this hype, we hardly have any time for the Pandians of the world anymore. Pandian is the antithesis of what we want to think of India and Indians at the present moment – he is hardly educated, he speaks broken English, and is part of the urban poor. No thanks, we’d rather read of Ratan Tata flying an F-16 or of Lakshmi Nivas Mittal being richer than the Queen. Or rather, no poverty, please, we’re the educated, anglicised Indian middle class.

Pandian was a vegetable vendor, the owner of a corner shop in our middle-class locality. Wheelchair-bound, he did a pretty good job of it – he even handled the haggling maamis* with finesse. He was not a rich man, but earned enough to send not just his own children, but even his nephew, to school.

It was in 2001 that disaster struck, as far as Pandian was concerned at least.

Because it was in 2001 that a supermarket opened up about half a mile from where Pandian had set up shop. The supermarket had fresher vegetables that were shrink-wrapped, courteous sales staff, air conditioning, and managed to sell it cheaper than Pandian could ever hope to.

Pandian had probably never heard of words like ‘Brand Loyalty’, but I have no doubts whatsoever that he probably hoped that his customers would continue to support him, after his service to the community for years. But then, we’ve all watched You’ve Got Mail, and know exactly what happened next.

No, Pandian did not have shut shop like Meg Ryan. A few people continued to buy their vegetables from him, even if it meant having to bear the ignominy of carrying vegetables that weren’t shrink-wrapped in a bag that didn’t carry the supermarket’s oh-so-upmarket label. He survived; and still managed to send the kids to school. However, they also had to deliver vegetables to customer’s homes after school.

So, I still remember collecting vegetables from Azhagarsaami, a strapping young lad in his early teens almost every other night. I also remember that Azhagarsaami tried his best to practice his English. I never got particularly friendly with him, partly because I studied at this snobbish college full of rich kids who looked down on the proletariat and people who couldn’t speak English well.

But this story is not a tear-jerker about how my views on the dignity of the labour were changed by speaking to some poor kid**. This story is about Pandian.

The years rolled by, and I left the shores of my motherland. I actually perceived poverty for the first time in my life; it’s hard to miss when everything else around looks so prosperous. And then, a short while back, I was speaking to my mother.

‘Do you remember Pandian?’, she asked me.

I grunted in assent, for I could not understand why his name had cropped up in the middle of an infernally expensive international call.

‘Well, he’s lost his shop!’

I was shocked. ‘What? Why??’, I asked.

The corporation was running a city beautification drive, and as many residents of the snooty colony I call home would probably agree in private, Pandian’s corner store was an eyesore.

Your IT consultant wouldn’t like to have Pandian outside his condo. Neither would the manager.

For the Pandians are a wretched reminder of the other India. Memories that have to be cleansed. Roads that have to be beautified.

Pandian had been served a legal notice, of course. We are a democracy – and a socialist democracy at that – and his shop was on the property of the Government of India.

We wouldn’t do something as wretched as dispossessing a poor man of his only means of livelihood. We would do something as wretched as that only after serving a legal notice. Vox Populi, vox dei, and all that kind of thing.

My mother found him during her evening walk – forlorn and weeping, perched on his wheelchair next to the ruins of what used to be his shop. My mother did not say a word – there was nothing to say…

I know not of what has happened of Pandian today. But he is not alone. There are many Gafurs, Kamals and Thomases who have fallen by the wayside in India’s mad rush to becoming a superpower in the 21st century.

They are the unseen poor whom we, the English speaking middle class, detest. We tell our kids, ‘These people never studied well enough when in school. That’s why they and their children are begging for money on the street’. We look at them and sneer at their lack of culture.

But I wonder how many of us can look at a poor, crippled man crying on the footpath, and blame him for it…

This post is dedicated to Vanaja’s husband – whose small scale business was wiped out in 1996; to Kamal – who, at 22, has spent the last 14 years of his life collecting clothes to press; to Ramakrishnan –who dropped out of my school at the age of 10 to help his father whitewash walls; to Pappamma – who lost her all to the government in the name of the progress; and to all the rest for whom liberalisation, S&P credit ratings, and permanent seats in the UN Security Council mean nothing.

*maami: literal translation: aunt, actually (in this case): just an old harridan with outdated views on the caste system and the dignity of labour, who would rather die than pay a penny more for that tomato)

** I am, after all, a typically insensitive chap from the Indian middle classes – I don’t see India’s poor even when they wave their begrimed hands right in front of my face.


Siddhu said...

And I just switched to Blogger comments, cuz I'm bored of Haloscan. So, tschuess haloscan!!

Isha said...

u know wat in the long run it will mean that there wont b anyone below the poverty line... consider them martyrs to the cause

Asif said...

It was a brilliant piece. A feeling which i've always wanted to express but couldn't find words to expres them. Its time we take a closer look at the India we've for so long ignored in the name of progress.

@ isha.
Why don't you be the martyr for a change ? Why is it always them ?

Revealed said...

So watcha gonna do about it?

Siddhu said...

Well, Isha, like Asif said, why do they have to become martyrs? And what cause?

The cause of us middle-class Indians? Or the cause of the industrialists?

Try telling that to Pandian or the villagers in Singur.

Siddhu said...

Thanks, Asif!

I completely agree with you. Though its educated people like us who have the most to gain from 1 lakh rupee cars and supermarkets with cheaper produce sourced from Tanzania, I think we should, at least for selfish reasons, think of the consequences of what we are doing.

I mean, how long will the poor of India remain stoic? Not much longer, I'd say, looking at the Maoist problem (and before somebody brings that up, don't blame Pakistan or China for that as well - even if they were involved, it is because there is widespread disgruntlement in India that there are people who are willing to take up arms against their own country.

Siddhu said...

Well, Revealed. Do not know if that was a sarcastic question; but I will try to answer it best as I can assuming its not. :)

There's nothing I can do but write. Writing has a catarrhic effect on me, and I think its still a damned sight better than merely wondering what can be done about it.

As for me, I promise myself that I shall treat the poor with the respect they deserve -- and I think the rest of us should start doing it as well.

Starting with people from certain higher castes in Tamilnadu who don't let their maids into the kitchen - now that's a wretched bit of racism which make Jade Goody and Nick Griffith look like Cinderella and Snow White.

Siddhu said...

Oh, and Isha, give me 2 minutes, and I shall lift another 200 million Indians from below the poverty line.

And even going by the government's official statistics, we don't seem to be doing a particularly good job.

In 1988, prior to liberalisation, 30.7 crore people were below the poverty line. In 1993/94, AFTER LIBERALISATION, 32.04 people were below the poverty line.

Today, there are 30 crore people below the poverty line - almost exactly the same number as in 1988. Don't tell me the population grew; the idea is 300 MILLION people, that's about 30% of our country is below the poverty line, and 16 years of the Indian economic miracle hasn't done any good for it.

Mosilager said...

It's sad that we are leaving the other India behind. It's also sad that farmers are being kicked off their land without adequate compensation for narmada dam / SEZ etc.

I am coming in with the point of view that it will take lots of money to bring the 300 million out of poverty. I do believe that without liberalisation the number of people below the poverty line would be far greater. We are creating more wealth than we were before, we are working harder, the system is getting a little more transparent due to RTI. Eventually that will trickle into more revenue for the government who may put it to good use helping those who have been left behind. Can a higher percentage of what is supposed to be spent for social programmes reach the people it's meant to benefit ? Maybe, with greater transparency in government, and if we create a culture of pride in one's duties.

Can we take some of the money from defence / science / technology and fund social upliftment programmes? Nehru tried cutting defence - China and Pakistan attacked because they thought we were weak. Didn't work. If we stop spending on science and technology, we lose the potential to cheaply improve the living conditions of people, and we'll have to buy the very same technology from china / russia / usa / uk / france because they got to it first.

It's a very difficult question, Sid, but I'm glad that you are asking it. Lovely post, btw.

freespirit said...

Fabulous post. Amazingly well written. I am now a hardcore fan.

Ram said...

yo good one.

Sandeep Pai said...

Hi there - an IT guy who had some time on hand ... have been reading your blog ...and laugh my head/stomach/whatsoever out :) But this one was different .... and yes it is very much true. In our race to go ahead I too feel that we leave quite a big part of ourself behind ... On the other hand sometimes I feel that due to this revolution, Pandian's son or daughter will never need to be a Pandian again - what do you say ?

The Inquisitive Akka said...

Hey is this the Pandian on 2nd main Gandhinagar?I totally agree with what you say.Poor Adyar super lost out to food world. There are so many such stories.

Kirthi said...

For a moment I thought I landed on the wrong site: not only because of the changed template but also because of the theme and the style of writing.
Check this guy's blog and you'll know what I mean.
But yeah it does seem rather scary and unfair the way things are going.

Sido said...

Brilliant .. high time we start thinkin wat the word 'inclusive' means..

Siddhu said...

Well, Ranjit, this is a question to which I don't even try to answer it.

The future will tell, I guess...

Siddhu said...

Thanks, Ramya. I'm flattered!! :)

Siddhu said...

Sandip, glad my blog could help relieve the tedium of an IT company.

Yeah, was feeling rather pensive as I penned this.

Siddhu said...

Cheers, Revealed.

Siddhu said...

Yes, Akka, the very same Pandian on 2nd Main Road. :(

Siddhu said...

Haha, kirthi. I guess I should soon be returning to my insane, insensitive nature pretty soon. :P

Sido, absolutely. Inclusive development is one of those buzzwords which mean jack - like racial equality, reservations, and multiculturalism.

Revealed said...

What the heck!!!!! I must be more sleep deprived than I realised! I could have sworn I saw a new post hanging around here when I visited the last time!

Siddhu said...

Yes, Revealed, there was. I took it down - have friends who may be offended by it, if you know what I mean.

Like I'd said, there are lots of nice people, and I dont want to piss the nice people off.

Revealed said...

Oh! Thanks for the clarification. I thought I was finally losing it. Was just going to run out of lab shrieking "Help! I need a brain doctor". Heheh.

I hope it helped just getting all of that out, though :D.

Sandhya Tenneti said...

very thoughtprovoking piece... we need stories like these to be told...extrememly well written.

Divya Das said...

that was some thought provoking blog.. very well written...

Kroopa Shah (Kr00pz) said...

Once in a while, you put up something as touching as this. I had read your post a while ago but just didn't feel like commenting on it then.
Very well written, Siddhu :-)

anonymouse said...

Of course, there isn't any consideration for those of us who end up bearing the costs of the shitty infrastructure, which can't be fixed because someone went to court to get a stay on the demolition of the illegal structure.

(If the structure was not illegal, I am all for giving fair compensation, if it was, I say why did it take them so long to break it down?).

Anonymous said...

Very good one! Well written Siddhu!

Saugan said...

Very thought provoking!