What reminded me of it today was my new shaving brush (yes, I use one of those). Fifteen years using my old one had reduced it to a state where its base had broken off, and the handle recently split so I had to wrap a rubber band around it to hold it together. Time, I told myself, to buy a new one. Which I did about a month ago.
Yesterday, while using this one-month-old brush, the bristles starting falling out in great clumps. It is now unusable.
Which reminded me of our washing machine. Bought ten years ago, it recently developed a problem with the buttons that operate it. (i.e., they would not work). A company technician arrived to inspect it and told us the "motherboard" had to be replaced. As he did the job, we asked idly if should we think of getting a new one. "Why?" he asked us in considerable surprise. "I work for the company, and let me tell you, our new machines give problems within six months! Use this one as long as you can."
Which reminded me of several electrical switches in our flat. About a year ago, some of the original switches, installed when the building was built in the 1970s, began to fail. So we bought several stylish and widely advertised new ones, brand-named for an ancient Italian city. Less than six months later, several of the new ones failed and we've had to replace them. In at least two cases, we've had to replace again. Our electrician friend smiles knowingly as he does the replacements. "The new ones," he says, "are very delicate. The more expensive, the more delicate."
Which reminded me ... but never mind. Aforementioned essay below.
India's batting against Pakistan in the Kolkata Test, writes Soumya Bhattacharya on the front page of the Hindustan Times (December 2), was a case of "Old India versus New India". His "New India" is represented by Dhoni and Jaffer, both of whom scored well. His "Old India" refers to India's "Fab Four" -- Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman" -- who also scored well. They did that, those Four, even though -- or because -- they were:
- all born when India was still imbued with the values of Nehruvian socialism, played a lot of their cricket in the country that resembled the dump that visiting players remember with horror.
But what particularly intrigues me is when Bhattacharya says this country used to be a "dump." That's something worth challenging. Not in some sepia-toned nostalgic sense of the "good old days", but because there's a value to assessing where we are in relation to where we were and how we travelled. Even as an informal thought experiment.
Bhattacharya is not the only one who seems to think India has finally emerged from some hellish era where everything Indian was horrible and everyone Indian lived in misery. Others have said similar things. For example, I treasure the take on India's 60 years someone I know came up with (I paraphrase because, sadly, I can't locate his missive): "Most of India's 60 years was a dark side, it's only now that it's bright."
So let's take a look at a random grab-bag of things about us, back in those "dark" days when we were a "dump".
About the time the "Fab Four" were born, petrol was Rs 3 a litre. There were no vast traffic jams in our cities. The air we breathed was generally clean; our beaches and rivers were not festooned with plastic. We had, first, no TV channels peddling junk, and then one TV channel peddling junk. It took 5 hours by bus to travel from Delhi to my Rajasthan college. The cheap seats at the cinema hall in that Rajasthan town were 25 paise, expensive ones were a rupee. I remember going there once to catch "Ponga Pandit" right after a haircut at the friendly barber's. Haircut and movie together set me back two rupees. (No cheap seats for me). Even popular hill stations were quiet and clean. We avidly followed Ranji cricket matches. As kids, we played outside every evening: football, cricket, fights, hide-and-seek, scouts, or simply ran around and sometimes up and down the leafy hill nearby. I had at least seven penfriends, and regular correspondence with them and a slew of other friends meant that there was mail for me -- that old kind of mail, where we used pen and ink and paper -- nearly every day.
I could go on. But I know there are heads shaking by now. This guy has his rose-tinted glasses on, you're saying, and he sees only the positives in his past. Enough already, with this nostalgia stuff.
Yet it isn't quite that simple. Much has changed for the better, since then. Today, we have a vast selection of sleek modern cars, up from the choice of two -- count 'em, two -- ancient models then. The Right to Information Act gives us citizens power to question our government like we have never had before. Some of our highways have improved beyond all recognition, even if it still takes 5 hours to reach my Rajasthan college. Glassy malls and plush movie halls sprout nearly every day in our cities. Competition among airlines has driven ticket prices low enough that they might even drive train fares down. Every conceivable consumer item -- from fine chocolate to high-end audio -- is available in our stores. And as for TV, it's no longer just one channel: we can now freely choose between hundreds of channels peddling junk.
I could go on, again. What's my point? That as much as things have improved in various ways, it's hardly as if we old-timers grew up in an India approximating a putrid black hole. It's hardly as if we lived miserable lives and turned out as apologetic misfits, unsure about ourselves and our place in the world.
And more than that, it's not as if we are living through some uniformly bright side today either. Consider another grab-bag.
According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the Consumer Price Index rises about five-fold in 25 years, or about ten-fold in 35. So the 17-fold increase in the price of petrol in 35 years -- Rs 3 then to about Rs 50 now -- has comfortably outstripped inflation. Enormous traffic jams are now part of daily life in our cities. You can pay Rs 100 for movie tickets, you can pay Rs 200; either way, those prices likely outstrip inflation as well. Kids now have at their fingertips the Web, cellphones and SMS-speak, Facebook, TV, Xbox, iPods and plenty more; I wager we had at least as much fun with just our handwritten letters and raucous hide-and-seek. Nobody watches Ranji matches. Nehruvian socialism or not, justice remains just as elusive as it was a generation ago: Gujarat and Nandigram could be Meerut and Ahmedabad and Bhiwandi. Say something similar about political apathy and corruption.
And Bhattacharya's front-page mention of the "dump" sits in probably unintended irony, right next to Chitrangada Choudhury's report about migrant labour from Orissa. She writes about "subsistence farmers", "ragged migrants" who are "being trafficked by politicians and middlemen", yet who are "building New India for poverty-line wages."
The same New India, presumably, that Bhattacharya thinks Dhoni and Jaffer stand for.
Of course, such irony is no kind of news in the land of contrasts that India still remains. But suppose we ask those "ragged migrants" from Orissa about Bhattacharya's "dump". What would they say?
In the end, here's the thing: talk of "good old days" has always left me cold. For things and times change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Yet for that same reason, talk of the "bad old days" -- make that "dark" days in the "dump" -- leaves me cold too.
So may the New India shine, sure. But think of this: It was the Old India that brought us here.
Postscript Dec 19th: I just located the missive I said I couldn't, above. The exact words were: "The dark side has existed for most of India's existence; it's the bright side [that] is new."