Aside: The travelling has been crazy, and promises to continue that way for some weeks more, but I will once again try to resume a semi-normal schedule of posting here.
The best in 2007 to you reading this.
Eighty-something man I know, retired a quarter-century ago after an enthralling and distinguished career with the Government. Told me recently that he wants to write a book titled "Why I Am Ashamed to be Indian."
When I asked in astonishment, he rattled off a litany of downers about India, circa 2006. Riots and the lack of justice for them, caste violence, poor health care for so many people, religious hatreds, government opacity (as opposed to transparency), miserable education for so many people ...
When this man joined the Government, India had just won freedom. His first significant posting was in Punjab, helping with Partition arrangements, escorting some of the streams of humanity who paid the terrible price of politicians' manipulations for power. Yet he remembers clearly the pervasive euphoria, a belief that a country had awakened to new promise.
He also remembers clearly that it wasn't long before the euphoria faded. How long, I once asked. Gone by the mid-1950s, he said. He still found his jobs greatly satisfying, but the optimism dissipated. If possible, that feeling only deepened after he retired.
Why would a man like this feel so despondent and pessimistic -- indeed, ashamed -- about India?
Ah, but that's the point.
Now there's plenty of feel-good stuff making the rounds, plenty of talk about India finally arriving on the world stage, the booming economy (think how often you've heard the word "booming" in recent years), on and on. Certainly there's truth in it all too. I'm no gung-ho cheerleader for a superpower India, but it's a fool who doesn't recognize that there are some profound changes happening around us today, and India's in the thick of them.
Yet with all that, we have a temple in rural Orissa which the High Court had to order opened to visits by lower-caste villagers. And after the first such visits happened, the upper castes closed the temple so that they could "purify" it. Yes, in 21st Century India, a "purification" because fellow humans visit.
We have increasing numbers of small farmers -- in many ways the heart and soul of this country -- swallowing rat poison to kill themselves. In Vidarbha last April, I met the family of one such, took his life over a debt of -- are you ready? -- Rs 2000. Two thousand rupees, and he couldn't pay. Think of that. What does two thousand rupees mean to you? To this man, it was life. Death.
We have a 12-year-long trial that has finally delivered judgements on most of the perpetrators of the blasts of March 1993. But contrast that with no trial at all, let alone judgements, for any of the perpetrators of the riots that preceded those blasts. Not even any signs of a trial. Not even a public consensus that there should be such a trial.
We have a President who, while addressing a huge gathering of IIT alumni, says that IITs "take the best and deliver the best to the world but direct benefits for the nation are minimal." In that spirit, he urges IIT graduates to "design low-cost dwellings with proper sanitation for the needy. India may need 100 million such units in the next five years." If our President is right, he means that these "needy" amount to something like 500 million people, or half the entire country. Half the country, in need of something as basic as housing with sanitation.
India at 60: what must a man who felt that euphoria in 1947, who served his country with distinction, feel now? Is "ashamed" a legitimate answer?
Certainly there's no country without problems, even massive ones. Certainly we should not ignore our successes, nor the plethora of Indians working quietly in their own ways to make this a better place. Sixty years is a substantial age, an achievement by itself. Many other countries that are about that old have succumbed to civil war, or coups. India has not, and that by itself says something about us.
Yet I often feel India is unique in one respect: the desire in so many of us to look away from our problems, to pretend that there are none. Thus the "booming" headlines, the lascivious attention offered to a rising Sensex, the complacency over the power and promise of "free markets". Thus the senior editor who, while instructing me recently on how I should write for him, said: "Just positive stories, DD! You can send the negative ones somewhere else, but for us, only positive stories!"
I mean, the rising Sensex is fine and dandy, and please let's free markets and regulations so the smallest of entrepreneurs has a fair chance to succeed -- but what do we do about that Orissa temple and its assorted purifiers? What do we do to bring justice to too many victims of homegrown terrorism: Delhi 1984, Bombay 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and more?
When they touch 60, most people have come to understand that life is not solely about the happy news. They understand that life comes with lows just as surely as it brings highs. This is just the way of the world. The way things are.
Why should we not feel similarly about a country -- this country?
So here's something to chew on through the year we touch 60. Speaking to him, I know that the eighty-something year-old is ashamed most of all by the indifference I alluded to. Because when a nation chooses to ignore its problems, they come back redoubled and re-tripled in strength. Lack of justice? Get ready for more terrorism. Huge shortfall in affordable housing? Prepare for ever-more slums. Caste discrimination? Wait for the next Kherlanji, or Laxmanpur-Bathe, choose your own obscure village name.
This year and forward, let's put into practice what we already know: a successful country is one that recognizes and addresses its problems, just as surely as it celebrates its triumphs. Let's find space in our hearts for the negative stories. Because they define who we are and what we can be, as much as any others.
Because they are us too.