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Friday, September 28, 2007

New 'superbike' in town...

I was horrified to read the bottom article about Durgapur on the front page of The Statesman of Sunday, September 23, 2007. I would urge all visitors here to read that 'news' item and then look up the essay by G.K. Chesterton called The Worship of the wealthy which I posted on this blog in March this year. The following is with reference to the contents of that article. I have so much to say on this subject that I can only make a few points here, and that too, as categorically as possible, so let me number them:

1. ‘This world has enough for man’s needs, but not enough for man’s greed’. Someone far greater and wiser than most of us said that three generations ago, admonishing the wantonly wasteful lifestyles of the west. Why should anybody ‘need’ a 1300 cc motorcycle?
2. Given the condition of the roads here and the traffic control facilities, where in or around Durgapur can I ride such a vehicle without endangering the lives of a lot of people including my own all the time? And if I am too stupid or callous to understand that, why shouldn’t society (in the shape of the laws, the police and the courts) be alert, wise and stern enough to restrain the likes of me? Is that what democracy has come to mean – let people do whatever they like, because all humans and all their acts are equally worthless, so the more they kill and maim each other the better?
3. It is interesting in a most black-humorous way that there are now supposedly so many moneyed men in Durgapur that all kinds of big business houses – from jewellers to automakers – are flocking to open up showrooms around this town. Interesting, because I cannot shut my eyes to the facts that a) so many people on whom we depend for all our little comforts, from milkmen to maidservants to rickshawpullers and dhobis still live in shanties, feed on scraps and clothe themselves in rejects (they are all faltu people not worth bothering about, right?); b) there is not a single full-fledged firstclass hospital in this town, nor a single library or art gallery worth the name; c) The sale of non-textual books (everywhere a vital sign of the cultural level of the people!) is abysmal, while mobiles and bikes and sarees and all kinds of foodstuff sell at scorching pace; d) the best jobs that most ‘educated’ young people growing up here can aspire to these days are those of airhostesses, store-attendants, receptionists, maintenance mechanics, sales agents and clerks of various hues, including the 'cybercoolie' types (proof - lakhs of young people with master’s degrees and even PhDs are desperate to find an assured primary-level teacher’s job in a government school, as you can check with the School Service Commission examination figures!): what will these people do all their lives except burn with frustration and envy, or let the credit-card seller tie the noose around their necks, so as to hang them a few years down the line? e) lots of people my age or a little older are somehow scraping along on pensions, rents and various kinds of petty commission-agencies: people who have (usually worthless) teenage sons to support and daughters to marry off, people to whom Rs. 20,000 a month is a ‘lot of’ money: don’t we need to spare a thought for such folks too? f) most of the new businesses that have come up in and around this town – from which all that easy money is flowing in, I suppose, besides lucrative government contracts – are the low-technology, high-polluting, ill-paying, short-term variety: the mushrooming sponge iron plants being one case in point. Nothing to be terribly proud about, especially in a town which started off with a state-of-the-art integrated steel plant nearly 50 years ago!
4. I am no communist, but if indeed so many people are making so much money so easily (I know at a very personal level that many of these people can hardly read, so no one can convince me that they are using a lot of brains to make their piles, as long as we agree that it is only men of the Satyen Bose and Satyajit Ray types who can be credited with brains!), why should they be allowed to flaunt that money on dangerous baubles (remember, almost everything we can do is ultimately based on social permission: not even very rich men are allowed to keep slaves or burn their wives any more!)? Even more, why should their wives and children be allowed to do so: what contribution have they made to society, and by what right can they claim that they deserve such disgusting luxury – what is it except their luck that they have found rich husbands or fathers? Why should such people (again, I know from personal experience that they are often ignorant, dull and uncouth human beings) be allowed to throw their weight about (behaving rudely with all and sundry) because their cars and bikes have bought them some ‘status’? What have we become as a society that most of us have tacitly accepted that luxury and bad manners are the true indicators of status, rather than knowledge, good taste, courage, imagination or charity? – and if this goes on, how long before countervailing phenomena start proliferating too: armed criminal gangs prowling around freely (as has indeed happened in many parts of this country already) killing, looting and kidnapping for ransom those wives and children of rich folks as an accepted way of equalizing intolerable differences in lifestyles? The super-rich might still be able to afford fortunes on personal security: but how many greedy middle-class people (those to whom, as I said earlier, even Rs. 20,000 is a lot of money), who are now slavering over how fast this town is ‘developing’, will then be able to avoid sleepless nights?
5. Is this what the meaning of ‘development’ has degenerated into? Once upon a time I was taught as a student of economics that it referred to things like per capita income, the fair distribution of that income, high life expectancies and literacy rates and balanced sex-ratios, absence of crime and beauty and cleanliness of the environment, clean drinking water for everybody and good sanitation and housing and good social security for everyman, especially women, children, the old, the ill, the handicapped and the unemployed… are we now all together determined to turn a blind eye to how miserable the state of things is all around us, and cheer gleefully that Rs. 14-lakh bikes are now available in town (but not anti-snakebite emergency care)? Is that all the ‘development’ we need: a few people buying up expensive and useless toys as and when they are advertised as the latest fads, and a vast number allowed to salivate over the ‘achievements’ of those few?
6. If indeed this town has become so chock-full of plutocrats, wouldn’t it pay us as a society to take a good hard look at how they make their money and how fully they pay their taxes? Again, I know as a student of economics, an avid reader and a teacher that such an investigation will invariably open up a ghastly can of worms! The great American economist John Kenneth Galbraith lamented over shocking private wealth amidst public squalor – which was the situation in the USA in the 1960s (and to some extent it still is, though they have managed to plaster over the ugliest aspects of their reality by cleverly using the enormous wealth that is available to them as a nation: India, alas, is not likely to have that kind of per capita income in a hundred years!), and is rapidly becoming the situation in India today. When shall we wake up to the urgent need to ensure, firstly, that people are allowed to get rich only by reasonably honest and socially useful means, and secondly, that they ‘justify their existence’ by taking on a large share of the burden of creating a just and good society? Why should it be that an enormous number of rich people in this country have tiny bank balances (because they prefer to deal only in cash), and their luxurious lifestyles are entirely out of keeping with the incomes they declare? Why are all our laws so designed and geared that they actually help the super-rich to get away with paying tiny fractions of what they should pay in taxes (which is why the government has to keep on complaining that it never has ‘enough’ money for vital social projects – like ensuring proper drainage in Kolkata! – even while the official list of Indian dollar-millionaires keeps getting longer every year)?
7. As one commentator on my last blogpost wrote, it is shocking that even a newspaper like The Statesman is now stooping to such trivial sensation-mongering in the name of journalism. Comparing with what newspapers did during our freedom struggle, at great risk to their very existence, things have come to a pretty pass indeed! And for those who might pipe up to point out that even journalists must eat, so they must give the public what it wants, I have two things to say: that argument is exactly like saying that since my public, namely pupils and their parents, by and large want to get through examinations the easy way, I should change my style and make a business out of finding and leaking question papers with failsafe answers thrown in! and secondly, that journalists, like teachers, were once upon a time expected to ‘teach the public what it should want’! All those who simultaneously exult about how much ‘progress’ we have been making lately should reflect upon whether any country can progress when all of us, especially the best educated and best-fed among us, have become intellectually dull, spiritually sterile and morally bankrupt. In what way are we educated, when all we believe is that everything goes as long as the advertisers say so?

To any would-be commentator: please don’t be in a hurry to write something in reply. It is my experience that most people are like that (especially in this distracted age when college graduates can't or don't bother to spell correctly), so they haven’t read and understood an entire blogpost before they dash off a comment: as a result they either say irrelevant things, or things I have already said, or things that are just plain wrong because they didn't take the trouble to check out the facts first, or things from which I can clearly make out that they haven’t made an effort to comprehend what I was saying.


Sayan said...

No thinking and reasonable man will agree that we, as a nation, have ever made any progress since the time we acheived independence. I am no social scientist, nor do I have even a working knowledge of economics,however I feel that the issues you have raised can be attributed to the bad side of capitalism. The fact that the 'millionaires' of India aren't eager to take up social issues and responsibilities is evident. Also,there is a widespread beleif in our soceity that money can buy everything. Hence the blind worship of money and the 'super rich'.It is also true that while such people keep on making more and more money, millions go homeless and struggle to find a single meal a day. It is my experience that most people prefer to shut their eyes and to stay away from thinking about such issues, like the man who never leaves his home for fear that his word might not be law. You can't solve problems by turning away from them, can you?
If one were to take the opinion of the masses it would certainly seem that we have 'developed' a lot lately.The fact that so many business houses are eager to set up shops, even though millions die of malnutrition, diseases and impoverishment, certainly means we have 'developed', doesn't it?
Even the newspapers nowadays are more eager to reflect public opinion rather than influening them. Sadly the very definition of journalism has degenerated into that - to reflect public opinion.
But why just blame the 'super rich'? What are our politicians and beurocrats doing? Where is the law? Where are we going?
Sir, is another naxal movement the need of the hour?
Sayan Datta.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Rajdeep, who has been living for several years in Japan as a doctoral student, has sent me the following comment by email:

"You can out this up on your blog if you wish to. In reply to your post on your blog. I do not think it is an intelligent reply. But anyway, I always feel good when you read whatever little I write. Wish I could could make you read some of the poetry I have written.

I agree two hundred percent with your first quoted statement. There is enough for man's needs. It is only because a few people have overwhelmingly more than they could exhaust even in ten generations to come, that the majority are left with little to chew upon. This need not come from me a novice in this area of studies. Amartya Sen, Muhammad Yunus, Kofi Annan, Al Gore and a host of other emminent personalities have harped now and again on the same theme.

Such bikes are meant for race tracks and that is where they should be! Not on the roads of a small town like Durgapur even if you boast of the four track expressway!

No one, not even the greatest of men can claim to have done enough for society so as to have the license to kill or the permisssion to allow themselves of their familes to use vehicles of terror like the Hayabusa that could kill or maim quite a many on the roads we have. Even in Japan, the land of bullet trains, bikes are not allowed on highways and the speed limit is forty kilometres per hour as per rules, and sixty on bigger roads! Human safety should be of primary concern. One example are the Japanese bullet trains that are run on far lower speeds than they can actually run at. Though France may boast of the fastest, Japan has the technology and it is always safety first here, much better than France or other countries!

About cheating ones way through. Well I was a student of JNU one of the best universities in India (so called!). Cheating in exams is rampant. That is where we learn the trade. We cheat in exams and then on taxes and then on everyone and may be including oneself and live through life without realizing what we actually did!"

Sayan said...

As an afterthought - Sensationalism is not endemic to India alone. Recently a portugese news channel cut short an interview with a former Prime Minister to flash the arrival of a football coach at a portugese airport. The former Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes retorted by saying - "Do you think this is justified(the interruption). This country is going crazy. With all due respect I am not going ahead with the interview. I am sorry, but people have to learn."
So, the inability to discern the important from the unimportant is not peculiar to India alone.
Sayan Datta.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, absolutely, Sayan - the rising tide of philistinism is indeed a global phenomenon (I remember how the Caesars kept the common Romans happy with 'bread and circuses' - read bikes and cricket! - and I have often said that we are approaching a new Dark Age!). This is what comes of giving democracy (which Plato condemned as a pig's philosophy) too free rein: all men become as good or as bad as one another, and the taste of the crudest man becomes the norm for everybody!

However, I still think that all countries have not yet sunk into the pit equally deeply. To take just one example - in some countries writers can look forward to making a grand living (look at Dan Brown, Stephen King or J.K. Rowling), whereas writers in India - even the greatest of them, as witness Bibhuti Banerjee - are fated to die poor, because nobody reads. You cannot imagine how many parents here in Durgapur, who have cars and fancy sarees and fancier mobiles, believe that newspapers and magazines like Reader's Digest and National Geographic are a waste of money! The same parents, mind you, who are supposedly doing everything to give their children a 'good education'! What do you think they understand about the meaning and purposes of education? Alas, in such a democratic country, all such morons have a 'right' to take offence and vilify you if they are told that they are morons.

Sayan said...

If people think that Bibhuti Banerjee was a long time ago, and things have changed greatly for the better since, I would like to remind them of Dr. Subhas Mukhopadhyay, the genius and the creator of the first Indian test tube baby, Durga. Durga was conceived just 67 days after the world's first test tube baby, Marie Louise Brown was born.
But the doctor’s claims of a successful in-vitro fertilisation was greeted with disbelief and disdain. Our great politicians, convinced that Dr. Mukhopadhyay was a fraud, stopped him from attending scientific conferences abroad and from publishing research papers. Shocked and depressed, Dr Mukhpadhyay committed suicide on June 19, 1981. His tragic story was the theme of Tapan Sinha’s film Ek Doctor Ki Maut.
So, nobody in our country, from the common public to the politicians to the industrialists cares about any form of intellectual development.
Sayan Datta.

Joydeep. said...


I am neither a Naxalite, nor am I acquainted with the ideology of Maoism. But whenever I come across these articles, which portray the blatant display of wealth in the most uncouth and disturbing way possible, I can't help taking sides with the communist revolutionaries of the 60's. You are absolutely correct in saying that democracy in India has been reduced to a pitiful joke, and the word 'freedom' in itself has been mutilated to mean a state of absolute anarchy where everyone is free to act according to his/her own whims, no matter how brutish and dangerous they might seem to the society as a whole.
Nothing vexes me more than to see a supposedly educated person gloating in joy over how 'developed' Durgapur has become only because 'Suzuki' is showcasing 'Hayabusa' bikes in the city, and there shall be a couple of "nouveau riches" lining up to buy it. All this, inspite of the fact that the road conditions in Durgapur are terribly bad, there is no proper medical center in the town, transportation means are few and clumsy, streetlights are becoming increasingly rare, and there are so few ATMs and cybercafes. Juxtapose this with the moronic intellectual level of the residents of this town( Isn't is a shame for us that barely a hundred people attend Ustad Amjad Ali Khan's concert, whereas thousands flock to hear Himesh Reshmaiya singing? This incident really took place in Durgapur a couple of years back, in an Industrial fair organized by DSP, if my memory doesn't fail me) and you shall get a picture of a shabby, disheveled town, which in no terms even comes close to the word 'developed'. Whom are the ministers and the politicians trying to fool, anyway?
However, the worship of the wealthy is not an ailment to which only Durgapur has succumbed to. As far as I have seen it, it happens everywhere; I have seen it in Delhi, Bangalore, kolkata, Hyderabad and other cities. I have seen speeding cars mow down innocent passers-by in Bangalore and people fighting like savages to get inside a ticket queue in a mutiplex in Hyderabad( these are I.T folk, mind you, the same people who claim to lead India on the technological front). And having seen all this, I have grown awfully cynical of our present-day India. Is there any chance of recovery, still?


Arani Banerjee said...

Well, I am not as sure as Sayan is that we have not progressed at all, but it is the idea of progress that has suffered the most. We have no longer any need to beg for food from other nations, our women have more rights than they had fifty years ago, talking to each other across the length and breadth of the country is now a much simpler business.
Nevertheless, three decades ago when the present crop of politicians engaged in politics for the first time, people worried more about hunger, health care, good roads and civil liberty than they do today. The word 'people' refers to the educated middle class of India. The rest of the population, lower down the economic ladder, still does worry about these things but they are scarcely heard except in stray protest or through their mandate in elections.
The reason why the Indian middle class is so fascinated by a super bike is best explained by the fact that 'The Statesman', once the paragon of civil liberty, the whistle blower on many public issues including the one about Bofors guns, chose to make the mo-bike's arrival in small town Durgapur front page material. People who would be interested in the super bike news are the young, and not necessarily the moneyed. I live in a neighbourhood of illiterate North Indians, who in shanties posses plasma televisions. They are more bothered about Nokia cell phones and less about the sub divisional hospital where less than ten percent of the doctors who sign attendance turn up. The message is simple: if you want to dream big and make it big dream about cell phones, cars and bikes. These are for individual consumption and pleasure and are easier to acquire than good roads and clean drains. The fight for the latter has no tangible immediate benefit, and is not for individual consumption. A mindless material culture is one where three things are given importance: a)The benefits must be immediate and tangible b) Nothing other than money should be needed to life in pleasure c) The paying individual should not share the benefit he/she purchases.
The fight is not between Rizwanur and Todi; it is a fight between antagonistic ideological spaces: civil liberty and slavery to glitz. Interestingly, the newsprint is as much a battle zone as the polling booth is!

Sayan said...

I wish to clarify a few views of mine here-
1. Material gains do not necessarily mean progress especially if such gains do not reach the lowest sections of the society. I have heard about how westerners are surprised to see highrises just beside slums. A huge economic barrier still exists between the poor and the high income groups. Equitable distribution of wealth is still a dream.
2. An overwhelming majority still don't have access to primary healthcare and education. I may be wrong, but I feel that people of the low income strata bother more about plasma T.V than proper healthcare because there is no one to educate them.
3. To a large extent I subscribe to the views of Utpal Dutta's character in the movie 'Aguntuk.' Technological advancement has brought us nowhere near social welfare, indeed it has taken us farther away from the goal. Technology has in fact made people forget about the real issues. It's like giving a toy to a crying child so that he forgets his immediate anxieties.
4. Lastly, I am bothered by the fact that very few people care to think about these issues. As Henri Frederic Amiel said - "The test of every religious, political or educational system is the man it forms; if a system injures the intelligence, it is bad; if it injures the charactar, it is vicious, if it injures the conscience, it is criminal."
What kind of Man are we forming?
Sayan Datta.

Anonymous said...

Good afternoon sir. I read your article about the Hayabusa. I think you are absolutely right.In 1980s Honda Motors launched a mini bike called the Honda Cub.Till today it is the world's most sold bike and morever bike specialists regard it as the best two wheeler till today.Then why should people regard the Hayabusa as the best bike?It is the most unpractical bike I have ever seen.You will notice that only young people like college-goers are fascinated by these bikes.I am not saying that I don't like the bike but they match in the hands of proffessionals like Valentino Rossi.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the comment, Shubham, but if you had read my blogpost in its entirety (and the comments before yours) you'd have realised that the subject matter was something far more serious than one particular brand of motorbike! In any case, this obervation of yours deserves reflection, too: why is it that so many present-day youngsters (especially those who boast of being 'educated') are fascinated by something as trivial as bikes, instead of the work of, say, great writers, scientists, politicians, explorers, or even business entrepreneurs?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Bijit said on Dec. 9, 2007:
"In continuation of my earlier comment, do you really think Suvroda that what we are seeing in the Hayabusa Bike Syndrome is the same as what Mr. Chesterton had written in his article?

There the vice was flattery. Here, it seems, it is firstly, a hunger for publicity and next, an attempt at self-gratification (which may sadly come undone once the rains subside and the potholes return).

Besides, do you remember seeing any of the other two sports bikes (refered to in the article) anywhere on the roads in Durgapur? I doubt you have. Some bikes are meant to be ridden, others, to be displayed."