December 15, 2007

What brought us here

I wrote this essay in response to a front page story in the Hindustan Times on Sunday December 2, about the Indian batting performance in the 2nd cricket Test against Pakistan.

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.


What brought us here

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.
Now I'm not sure I get the point here, not least because Jaffer was born in 1978 and Dhoni in 1981. Which was not long after the early '70s -- when those "Old" guys were born -- and certainly in an India "still imbued with the values of Nehruvian socialism". Whatever those values were.

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."


Anonymous said...

1. Not much on the main piece but really connected with the intro:

replacing our old faithful fridge with a shiny new one that gave us more problems in 8 months than the other had in 12 yrs, rocker switches that threw us off our rockers etc.

2. On the main piece, maybe its a capacity issue, Dilip, and a 'good problem to have' thingy.

When your were running up & down that leafy hill, maybe there were 8 other kids your age that couldnt school.

Today maybe at least 4 of them are trying to get educated and there just isnt enough leafy hill or school.


Mayuresh Gaikwad said...

I will have to disagree with you here. The positive points which you mention of the era gone by (before 1991) are not due to the system of government at that time, but due to lack of access to amenities like cars / TVs / cableTVs which brought problems of pollution, over-crowding / junk peddling TV channels etc. in their wake. If the government had planned for an infrastructure ramp-up at the right time, this would never have happened.
When the "fab-four" were born (~1973), you mention that the price of petrol was Rs.3 per litre. Do we know how much percentage of the population could afford to pay Rs.3 for petrol? How many of them had vehicles they could fill up their petrol in and drive around?
In 1973, my dad was 23 years old. He mentions that he belonged to a middle class family and not someone who lived in poverty. However, when he narrates his experiences as a 20 year old, the poor of today would live such an existence. He used 1 pair of bathroom slippers as footwear, whether to go to college / market /play / wherever. He studied under the street lamp because there was no space in the 8'x 10' room where the family of 8 members lived. Don't ask how they even lived there, I cannot picture it. The only time they were allowed new clothes was on Diwali, that too strictly rationed, because my grand-dad could not afford any better. Also, since my dad was the first child, he got new stuff many a time, but my two uncles (younger than my dad) had to be satisfied with "hand-me-down" clothes most of the time, so did my 2nd and 3rd aunt.
And remember, I am not talking of the poor at that time, dad belonged to a reasonably middle class family.
One of his favorite quotes to me while I was a child:- "The children of your generation will never understand the meaning of shortage" This was in the 90s when I was in my teens.
I am not saying that the people were not happy in those times, but the levels of poverty were definitely much higher.
We may or may not have become happier than we were in the 70s and 80s, but we certainly have become richer, millions have escaped wretched poverty and have managed to fulfil the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and education for kids.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Mayuresh, in some ways your comment only reinforces my point.

In the early '50s, when my middle-class grandfather put his four kids through school and college, he told them about how, 30 years earlier, he studied under street lamps in his tiny TN village. He told them of the humiliation of having to ask a prominent village family for a loan so he could go to college. He told them more or less the same words that form your favourite quote: "you will never know the meaning of hardship and shortages." And it was true -- they never faced hardships like they did.

Yet in my memory I could have said similar things. For one tiny example: When I was at college, we were given strictly rationed (and small) amounts of butter in the mess at breakfast. Now there's no such ration, no shortage. I could tell my son, with some justification, your favourite quote. And I have no doubt that he will tell his kids something else along these lines.

The point: speaking about the hardships of the past is as hoary a tradition as speaking about the glories about the past. While I don't mean to deny either completely, by now I've learned to take both with pinches of salt.

I didn't grow up in some dark age, but nor was it some golden age. In the same way, today is not a dark age, but nor is it some golden age.

Anonymous said...


I would want to make one distinction, between poverty, quality of life and unhappiness. When my father used his fav. quote (it's his quote, not mine) when I was growing up, he referred to the shortages which he faced as a child, but I did not. As you correctly pointed out, I can tell my sons and daughters the same thing, only here, the shortage would probably be a car. I am more likely to say - "when I was in college, I did not have a car, not even a scooter on which we could travel, we had to rely on the public transport or a bicycle all the while. While each of you (my sons and daughters) has your own car which you use to drive to college". And similarly, they would say something similar to their children, this point is well taken.

However, the distinction needs to be made that the family has been steadily pulling itself out of poverty. When my grand-dad grew up, there was a shortage of the basic needs of food. When my dad grew up, there was a shortage of milk etc. (not basic foods, but aspirational foods) and a shortage of shelter. When I grew up, I had food, shelter etc, but no fancy clothes. When my children grow up, they will have food, shelter, fancy clothes, own transport, etc, but there would be some other need which would not be fulfilled, which would keep them unhappy/ unsatisfied. But as regards, absolute poverty, they would be way above it. And post 1990, we have witnessed an accelerated speed with which the general populace has pulled itself put of absolute poverty. That which took 2 generations (from my grand-dad as a child with food shortage to me as a child with fancy stuff shortage) can now probably be achieved only in one generation or maybe even lower.

Note that I do not, in any way, imply that we are now a happier bunch of people, or we enjoy a better quality of life than our parents / grandparents. However, we are fortunate to escape the absolute poverty which they faced.

Your article seems to concern more with the quality of life / happiness we enjoyed in the past in juxtaposition to what we enjoy today, and it may well be the case that the happiness levels or the quality of life levels have actually decreased, what with the time to travel from Mulund to Chakala (my regular commute) now being 2 hrs in peak time using a car as against 45 mins in 1989 using BEST and the same route.

Destination Infinity said...

Thought provoking article. I wish to add my say too: Imagine if Charles Babbage had lived today. This is the age where most of the middle class families have a computer or laptop at home. When he lived, he took great efforts to conceptualize the analytical engine, input device and output device connected with a large number of cables and tubes to carry the electrical signals(This is roughly the block diagram of the PC). He was able to do this despite the non availability of technology, despite the technical education back then being relatively backward. He was truly innovative and out-of-the box thinker back then. If he were to be born today, imagine the joy and the jubiliation, he would have felt on seeing a laptop or PC. Something which is so normal and boring to us, would have been facinating to him because with the current technology, he would be thinking of all the possibilities that has opened up for him. My point is, when a person from past would be capable of so much of joy about something that we posses, why are we taking it for granted?. Is it because we have been given with everything? Like how a rich dad spoils his kids by giving everything they want, inturn making them into arrogant, irresponsible citizens of tomorrow. "Necessity is the mother of all inventions".When there no longer exists "need", where is the spirit to innovate? what would drive the younger generation to become a genius? The only option is to create new and more needs, to which the older generation has come up with an excellent answer - Capitalism and Consumerism. The car or PC/TV(for example) which was considered a luxury yesterday is almost equivalent to roti kappda aur makkan. That which was a luxury yesterday has been made into a need today.

Life was the same yesterday. It is the same today. It will be the same tomorrow. The projection and our comprehension of Life, however will be very very different. Reminds me of "The more the things change, the more they stay the same".

Destination Infinity.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Mayuresh: I do not, in any way, imply that we are now a happier bunch of people, or we enjoy a better quality of life than our parents / grandparents ... it may well be the case that the happiness levels or the quality of life levels have actually decreased.

If you feel this way (may I say that I don't), doesn't it call into question, for you, the very business of how we have progressed or developed?