In “Nonsense By Any Other Name”, below, I spoke of a small family who live near a railway crossing. In fact, they gave me their address so that I can post them the photographs I took of them. The address includes the line “Near Railway Gate.”
That gate is an important part of their lives. Not just because it is part of their address, but because the family has lived here, in their thatched shack, for 60 years. Yes indeed, since before their country became independent. And even if it’s been that long, think of this: they don’t have electricity. Muthukumaran took me through the shack to the room at the back, his and his wife Rani’s “bedroom” that’s so dark in the middle of a sunny Cuddalore district afternoon that I need a few moments for my eyes and brain to adjust. To see.
Now I can step outside Muthukumaran’s home and fire off that 21st Century marvel, a SMS. But this family doesn’t have as much as an electric light.
Oh yes, Muthukumaran lost a boat and his nets to the tsunami, and is therefore wondering what to do to bring in some money to feed his family. But me, I can’t decide what is the tragedy here: that loss? Or that in 2005, I can find, without any particular difficulty, an Indian family living in the same darkness their forefathers knew, going back to Ashoka and Nero and homo erectus?
Back in Chennai, I have a conversation with Manjeet Kripalani, the award-winning journalist who writes for Business Week. Manjeet also travelled through the affected areas of Tamil Nadu, and we met for dinner one night in Pondicherry. She tells me that her feeling is, this disaster was horrific, but is nevertheless a “seminal moment” for India. Why? Because, she says, it marks the first time middle-class Indians have responded so readily and generously to a calamity that’s really so far removed from their lives. This is, says Manjeet, the beginning of the end of the “us” and “them” feeling in India, the distinction between rich and poor that we’ve always had, and have never paid much attention to.
I truly, whole-heartedly, desperately, want to believe Manjeet. Because if she’s right, the next time I pass through that railway crossing Muthukumaran’s hut will likely have a bulb or several burning. Hell, it may not even be here at all, that hut. Quite possible that Muthukumaran will move into a pucca house somewhere. Which would be a fine silver lining indeed, to this gargantuan death wave.
But if Manjeet’s wrong, I can return here another 60 years from now and I’m positive I will find the same darkness Muthukumaran and ancestors have known always.
And I don’t know how to tell you how much I wish she’s right.