Monday, April 30, 2012

Part of the problem is that the author gravitates towards spaces of leisure—house parties, nightlife, music, TV, concerts, restaurants, shopping malls. He also says that leisure has been democratised. “Boys and girls drink together in well-lit, happy spaces.” I’d like to know how many young Indians can afford to be in these democratic spaces.

Nearly 28 percent of India lives in its cities and the figure is likely to go up to 40 percent by 2030. Urban areas contribute two-thirds of the national Gross Domestic Product. Reports from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy indicate that the average quarterly (urban) household income stands at 45,000, which translates into 15,000 per month to cover house rent, food, clothes, medicine, tuition, electricity, transport. At that income level, based on the cost of living in Mumbai and Delhi, the only entertainment one can hope for is TV, and perhaps an Internet connection. Even buying a bottle of wine and hopping into a taxi to visit a friend is a strain.

Surveys suggest that households earning more than 1 million per annum comprise only around five percent of urban households but that they contribute to one-third of the total urban consumer expenditure. From such households come youngsters who can pay monthly house rents of 25,000 or more, and who can buy Carlsberg beer, or Tuborg if they prefer. True, we now have that choice. But Mehrotra tells us very little about the majority that cannot afford, and perhaps doesn’t want, a can of Carlsberg. He tells us that people who work at restaurants like McDonalds like their jobs. But he doesn’t tell us where they might go when they want a drink or how they commute, nor does he seem bothered by these questions.

If Mehrotra were to dissect this notion of democratic leisure, he’d find that it’s a cruel joke. In most cities, green spaces that young people might have enjoyed at no cost are shrinking. Several public parks are locked up after sunset, to keep out ‘undesirable elements’. There are very few clean public toilets. Mumbai has the Carter Road promenade, with benches, but food and drink is forbidden. Except the beach, there’s nowhere to go. Try drinking alcohol on the beach and you’re liable to get arrested. Dance bars have been banned in Mumbai, although dance shows are permitted in five star hotels. There are discotheques but cover charges are high and the drinks expensive. So, whose leisure has been democratised?

One interesting development over the past decade has been the spurt in the number of coffee houses (in a primarily tea-drinking nation!). Chains like Café Coffee Day have at least 1,200 outlets; Barista has more than 200; international brands like Costa Coffee have arrived; Starbucks is making a late entry. There are a few dozen independent cafes. Most of these serve a cuppa priced between 60 and 120. Business is booming because middle-class Indians are hungry for spaces where they can meet safely.

Students, lovers on dates, young professionals—they have nowhere else to go. The cooperatives running Indian Coffee House are struggling, fading out. Those who cannot afford the 60 cappuccino have to drink tea at roadside stalls, where they cannot sit down to talk. Where do the cooks and drivers and autorickshaw wallahs take their leisure?

In ‘Servants of India’, Mehrotra’s writing is empathetic. He describes a mall visit during which he spots a family accompanied by servants out shopping. The employers disappear into a Mexican restaurant and leave the two servants outside, holding the bags and the baby. He mentions Delhi’s high crime rates, the several instances of the help robbing and killing employers, but also of the latter torturing the workers. He writes, “The servant is not someone who provides a service at a cost. He is someone who is less than human… when I put myself in Ramu’s shoes, I can see myself reaching for the iron rod, the hammer, the kitchen knife.”

But then, I’m annoyed at this throwaway line: “In Delhi, most can afford round-the-clock help.” It only reiterates my impression that Mehrotra is essentially writing about the upper class.

And much of what Mehrotra tells us about servants, we already know. By ‘we’ I mean the English-speaking, book-buying middle class in India. We read the papers. We observe what the author observes because we hire domestic help ourselves, or intimately know others who do. He spells out the connections between extreme disparities of lifestyle, physical isolation, and a servant’s attempt to strike back using a moral code borrowed from employers. But he doesn’t give us details. Not a single worker is interviewed at any length, so we don’t have a clear sense of the extent of their bondage, desperation or greed.

At best, the essay serves as a primer for non-resident Indians or international readers who are not familiar with the way live-in servants are treated in upper-class urban households.

Social commentary in The Butterfly Generation is a tossed salad of stock phrases: ‘socialist era’, ‘global capitalism’, ‘liberal’, ‘feudal’... I’m soon longing for a metaphorical flyswatter each time the word ‘socialism’ appears.

We were always a mixed economy—and in a limited way still are—and that knowledge is critical to an understanding of the '90s kids. A mixed economy meant that we thought of the government not only as an administrative and legal force, but also as a provider of secure jobs across a wide swathe of sectors. You didn’t have to be a bureaucrat or a politician or a soldier to get pensions and cheap medical care. You could be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a mechanic, a furnace-stoker, a baggage handler, a banker. People took pride in working for state-owned enterprises like Bharat Heavy Electricals or Air India. Even now, despite our ranting against the ‘system’, few young people would dismiss a government job in an institution that’s likely to stay solvent.

You were told that if you were a ‘private’ party, you needed to find ways of ‘getting work done’. This meant a sinuous chain of ‘contacts’ with senior officials, or bribery. At least some of our mistrust of profit and private capital has come from there, not from socialist ideals.

In fact, although our Constitution tells us we aspire towards socialism, we were never taught to respect socialist ideals. I don’t remember being taught that natural resources belong equally to everybody, or that private property was a bad thing. I wasn’t even taught that every citizen had a right to food, sanitation, housing and education. It wasn’t in our books. It wasn’t in the air around us.

Perhaps that would explain why so many in our generation—particularly urban citizens—are up in arms against government schemes that offer food, health and education—especially those directed at rural citizens, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the midday meal scheme. It would also explain our early disconnect from the battle for resources. We wanted non-stop electricity and water, but we expected the government to help us get it, even if it meant the destruction of fellow citizens’ homes and livelihoods.

Because we are used to the government being able to step in and control things in every sector, we continue to expect that it will, although much infrastructure is now created and controlled by non-state corporations. For instance, when Jet Airways let go of some of its workers, they wanted the state to help save their jobs. When taxi and auto drivers demand higher fares, the middle-class commuter expects the state to rein them in.

Mehrotra seems not to have taken cognisance of the psychology of the mixed economy as distinct from socialist, or capitalist, or feudal.

Meanwhile, I have a speechless, blank Post-It on page 98 against this statement: “Class barriers, too, have been broken down in these showrooms of global capitalism. The bank manager’s son works side by side with a new migrant to the city, and they both start with a clean slate… centuries of prejudice are instantly wiped out.”

On caste prejudice, the author is disarmingly naïve. He seems not to know that traditionally, cooks belonged to upper castes, so working in a restaurant is not a come-down. He should have interviewed people who clean the toilets.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Flesh, bone and the body of caste

The story about Dalits in Karnataka pouring cow-dung over their bodies to protest against the encroachment of their land by upper castes. Or the story about Dalit panchayat presidents not being able to sit on a chair in the panchayat office, and not having access to records even though they know of ongoing financial irregularities. Or, indeed, about the four members of a Dalit family, including two children, who were hacked to pieces in Rajasthan.
Or you might have to take an interest in Bihar, and the wars between Dalits, certain backward castes, and the Bhumihars, who were fighting tooth and nail to retain their social and economic hegemony. Take an interest in 1996, Bathani Tola, when 21 Dalits were massacred, including babies, but all 23 accused who had been convicted by a lower court, were acquitted by the Patna High Court recently. Think of how the Dalits of Bihar feel after waiting 16 years for justice.
These are all items I’ve read about in the mainstream press. But what newspaper or television headlines don’t always say is where that negative incident — violent or not — comes from. It comes from a society where random acts of oppression and discrimination go unpunished. It comes from the flesh and bone of the body of caste.
That, sadly, is the body in which most Indians remain trapped. Go look at some videos made by community members at the Video Volunteers website. In one, you see school-kids being segregated at meal-time. In another, you see a young Gujarati talking of having to go to the next town for a haircut because he isn’t allowed to enter local barber-shops. A tap is washed by a little girl because a Dalit woman has just used it. A Sikh father talks of how his son and pregnant daughter-in-law were killed because it was an inter-caste wedding. A farm worker is left handicapped after being attacked with a sickle for drinking water from a pot.
This series of video clips, less than a minute each, is part of a campaign called Article 17. You can view them here.
Perhaps you’ve had your fill of bad news. But if you don’t look, you deny yourself a full portrait of India. And you fail to understand that the consequences of Dalit assertion are usually the same in every context. A stabbing could be about beef. It could also be about a pot of water.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trauma and payback

Once, a good citizen fell down the stairs of his home. His back was hurt and he was rushed to a hospital. Then the medical insurance company rejected his claim on the grounds that the said hospital was not covered by the policy.
If I was that citizen, I’d probably have accepted that decision quietly. Private corporations, corporate insurance, private hospitals — each one with its own rules and financial arrangements. How could I argue when I’ve bought a policy, after having read the fine print?
Still, I worry that when it comes to the crunch, I won’t remember which hospital I must rush to. Or others might take me to the wrong hospital. And what would be the grand idea of buying insurance, then? In an emergency, the last thing on your mind is which hospital has a tie-up with which insurance company.
That worthy citizen who fell down the stairs in Chandigarh, however, decided to press the point. And a consumer forum ruled in his favour, saying that insurance companies cannot reject claims based on which hospital you’re treated at. The forum apparently quoted the Puranas: “It is the duty of human life to protect the body by all efforts and a person will do so by the quickest means available.”
Which is a natural truth, and also just basic common sense. It would be marvelous if our systems allowed us the use of common sense once in a while. For instance, it is common sense that a father would know his daughter’s face better than the cops who are supposed to locate her. And if the poor man has taken the trouble to go to the courts, it stands to reason that he wouldn’t reject her after she was found.
Yet, this bizarre claim was made. The daughter of a daily wage worker, Sonu Parshad, had gone missing in April 2008. Two years later, the Amritsar police tried to foist another teenaged girl upon the father. They told the court that the ‘body structure’ of the girl had changed. The court had to run DNA tests before the father could establish that it wasn’t his daughter.
Read full piece here

I was trying not to choke on my coffee. As if bad roads, corrupt officials, indecent hospitals and unaffordable housing weren’t enough, one more cross for the “common man” to bear — no more shopping for gold! And what are weddings in this country but a celebration of gold?

Of course, it must be the common man who is suffering. Who else will suffer, if not us? Bhabhi-ji wasn’t the only one with fears of running out of gold. A shopkeeper expressed similar views: “Even the general public is suffering, as they have to buy gold for marriages ahead in the families.” A teacher felt that it was terrible that jewellers might pass on the burden of taxes to customers. She said, “The government should think on the lines of Indian households where gold is the biggest necessity and the taxing it further can put them on the backfoot.” (sic)

Suddenly, it didn’t seem funny, after all. I’ve done my share of ‘vox pop’ (voice of the people) stories as a cub reporter, so I know how it works. You accost a few unsuspecting souls on the streets; you ask for an opinion on the newest problem on the news block; you take a photograph. Most people will oblige. Perhaps, because they rarely get to express an opinion about anything, not in the mainstream press anyway. Perhaps, because it is nice to see your photo in the morning papers, saying something about something that matters.

Yet, I am a little bit thrown by these opinions. Do people really think that gold jewellery matters all that much? And are we really so blinkered that we believe that people who buy gold for every wedding in the family constitute the ‘common man’ for whom the government must frame policies? That making gold jewellery cheaper should actually be a state priority?

If the government’s taxation policy could force people to stop buying that much gold, and stop expecting so much of jewellery at weddings, then perhaps the state is doing something right for a change.

Read full piece here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

No simpering over samosas

There have been far too many novels that simper over samosas—the desire to find, or fight, one’s roots. This novel seems to sneeze into the fine cinnamon dust of nostalgia. Its protagonist is the opposite of anything rooted. Karam is a man who not only wants to hack away at his roots, he dismisses the very possibility.

I’d  been complaining recently that it’s been a long time since I read just a phat yarn—a well-written story that has both truth and fiction on its side, with half a pinch of glamour. Well, I asked and I received.
Roopa Farooki’s The Flying Man brings us a strong narrative voice with a rich emotional timbre. It tracks the story of Maqil Karam, a good-looking charmer born in Pakistan but resident nowhere and everywhere.
As soon as he clears his school exams, he goes west for a higher education. Most things come easy—languages, politics, card games, women. He is talented and vain, but even his vanity cannot persuade him to do anything that doesn’t come easy. Commitment to something, or somebody, doesn’t come to him at all. He’s constantly evading tax and the traps of familial responsibility. He is, like he tells the mirror, a shallow man. “I don’t like causes. I like cocktails and cash and casinos and cars. I like pretty French girls in pretty French clothes.”
But France has no hold on him any more than a girl does. He moves countries as easily as he changes names. He marries one woman in Cairo, abandons her, drifts about, then goes back home after his father’s death. He sets up a literary club, meets the beautiful Indian expat Samira Rai, marries her, meets with great family disapproval, and moves again. The next few years are a whirlwind of casinos, grifting and love. But, there are children. Children he wants, and doesn’t love. Children that Samira doesn’t want, and then loves.
To say more would give away too much, but suffice it to say that the adventures and ironic self-awareness of Maqil Karam make the novel a joyful experience.
Besides, for once, it is a relief not having to deal with conventional diasporic angst. There have been far too many novels that simper oversamosas—the desire to find, or fight, one’s roots. This novel seems to sneeze into the fine cinnamon dust of nostalgia. Its protagonist is the opposite of anything rooted. Karam is a man who not only wants to hack away at his roots, he dismisses the very possibility. He is elegantly selfish, shiftless and rootless.
This offers us a refreshing immigrant experience. I have often wondered why diasporic stories never dwelt with this simple truth that some people want to get the hell out and stay out. After all, compelling economic reasons make people leave their countries, but there’s not much that compels them to stay away. This novel is the portrait of a man who doesn’t send his children soaking in culture from back ‘home’, nor tries to rebuild a home abroad. Instead, ‘he carries everything he needs in his jacket pocket… His small suitcase is always packed’.
Such a protagonist is hard to like, but Farooki’s writing endows him with as much charm as he needs to get by. The narrative itself is reasonably fast-paced, but it doesn’t skip on languorous descriptions of people, place or emotion. Farooki is liberal with her similes, which sometimes come clubbed in threes: Maqil thinks of Samira like ‘a recovering alcoholic inhaling the dregs of wine left in a stranger’s glass at a bar, a sensation as grubby as nostalgia, as delightful as eavesdropping’; and at the casino, the crowd will be stunned by ‘his insouciance, his audacity, his disease’. But by and large, the descriptions enhance reading pleasure rather than take away from it.
The novel also offer funny asides, such as the time when Maqil contemplates names: ‘There should be a club for people saddled with thoughtless names such as these, for the Richie Richards, Bob Roberts, Gerry Geralds to console one another… His mind starts ticking over with examples of funnier names that he might weave into conversation… Who’s that man with the shovel digging her grave? That’s Doug Nicely. Who’s the gravedigger who forgot his shovel? Douglas Nicely.’
If I have a quibble, it is a minor one. Farooki switches between a first person and a third person voice for no apparent reason. But in general, the narrative pushes towards an inexorable, and sometimes unpalatable, tug-of-war between freedom and responsibility. One can revel in Karam’s escapades, mourn his failures, empathise with his wives and kids, and still be left wondering whether or not he got away with it, after all.
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