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Thursday, July 16, 2009

They live beyond the lights

My father told me very few stories, but the ones he did left permanent imprints on my mind. This one, for example, I heard when I was a mere child, and so I don’t recall the details, but the impression is indelible. I realized after I grew up that he was probably speaking from his own experience, trained as a geologist as he had been, and familiar with the atmosphere of mines and miners. I remember him telling me about how someone like us (an engineer, probably, and young, middle-class, and smug) was going home at night after a tour of the mines, when the car stopped along the dark road beside the forest, and he saw shadows of hollow-eyed, ghostly men and women and children lurking silently among the trees just beyond the reach of the headlamps – and one of his companions, his driver or colleague probably, told him that this is how the labourers in the mines (many of them tribals, and other very poor folk) lived, scrounging for the merest subsistence, treated like pack animals, no one taking moral or legal responsibility for them, not reckoned as human beings at all, living and dying in pain and misery as though they never mattered – though this country boasted of itself as a democratic nation wedded to ‘socialistic ideals’. They live permanently beyond the lights.

Well, my father was talking about conditions forty years or more ago. Nothing much seems to have changed, except for a vast increase in our numbers. I was reading (here) about how the workers at the construction sites of the grandiose Delhi Metro are treated in this day and age, and how villagers living close to Pune have to live and die amidst the mountains of filth that that city dumps upon them day in, day out, without a care (here).

And then I wonder that people like us boast so shrilly about how rapidly India is ‘advancing’, and react indignantly when some such wretched folks here and there cannot take it any more and break out in violent rebellion … sporadic of the street-riot kind, or organized and sustained, as with the many forms of guerilla insurgency currently rampaging all around this country.

P.S.: Interested readers might like to read this about what I wrote regarding my dreams for India on August 15, 2007.


Tanmoy said...

Thank you Suvroda for sharing the story. You have raised a very important point too. I think this is the sad story of the so-called ‘emerging economies’ including India. Problem is we always take recourse by saying that in India, we have a huge population and that is why it will take lot of time for our economic prosperity to get reflected across every corner of the country. However, to my mind in India unless and until there is a radical change in our mindsets that govern social change, we would be nowhere – ever. If that does not happen, I fear we may end up becoming prosperous but we may end up polluting minds at a greater level. Imagine a scenario, while we all hope for Indians dominating the world economic order, but would we like it if Indian work culture and quality standards are adopted all over the world?

To start with to me our legal enforcement system needs a complete overhaul which should be supported by a dedicated and friendlier police force. In our Civics classes (which were taught by you), we learnt a great deal about our rights and duties etc, but over the years I have realised that the enforcement of those are so poor in our country. Take the case of the bridge accident in Delhi for example, how can those contractors get deputed to undertake their work after they already had a bad track record (the flyover at Hyderabad which collapsed few years back were apparently constructed by them). There are many such examples to quote from our newspapers.

While social change is necessitated by people but the civic forces ensure that the changes are monitored and adhered to. In our country, that has hardly ever happened and I am not sure whether that would happen in our lifetime.

All countries have their share of problems but they take strong steps to address them. Sometimes those steps don’t please people but they need to be taken for a greater cause isn’t it? I am sure Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar or Gandhi were not the most popular people when they tried changing society, but they tried didn’t they? We as a country tend to be lot slower in that respect because we end up taking care of lot of apparently unnecessary issues. Whilst in families people don’t stand up for truth for the fear of annoying some relatives (who may matter less at the end of the day), in nation building we don’t do anything because we have to appease pressure groups. At the end of the day, we remain far behind.

Trust me, even if these sound harsh, Indians are not respected much universally and that is not because entire world is racist and are conspiring against us.

Best regards

Sumitha Kurien said...

So what do we do, Sir?

This is yet another problem that this country faces, and none of us seem to be able to do anything about it! We see, we sympathise, and then we cannot do anything beyond getting active in some social welfare programmes which reach out to a few people from this stratum of the society.

What could we do to enforce the governments of this nation to revise the quota policy to something along the lines of economic status quo rather than the caste stamp?

There must be something... some nice, decent way of making ourselves heard and acknowledged too, and thereby making a positive and lasting difference. Just like innovation in technology, the need of the hour is to innovate and bring about a socio-cultural reform in this land, to ensure that no one has to live in such conditions and suffer such indignities.

Sadly, I have no clue as to how to bring this into effect... and therein lies the tragedy (because many of us do not have a clue, and those that have aren't empowered to act upon the clues).
Often I feel I have failed everyone in not being instrumental, or atleast a small but significant part of an agenda to save our nation from the various ills that affect it.


devdas said...

Hello Suvro-da,

"charity begins at home".....
How many of our social seniors these days inspire the young generation to give? We boast of Mother Teresa, but she was also an outsider. I have seen my father engaging himself in several social activities and still today nearing 70 he has not stopped. Surely thats an inspiration to me. We cannot in one day change the labor condition and child issues in our country. But surely we can make a gesture to "love thy neighbor as thyself". Then maybe we can dream of a bigger and better India.

I still cannot forget Fr. Wautier, Fr.Gilson and Fr.Wavreil. After I enrolled in Tagore's santiniketan, I had a long discussion with Fr. Wautier and sometimes I recall those emotive moments when his eyes sparkled with the question:

"Tumi Mohor-di ke cheno?"

---Do you know Mohor-di?

I did not know that Late. Kanika-di's pet name was Mohor (at that time, it was 1995). He passed away after that.
Its a big personal loss to me.

I reason I am saying this is simple. These dedicated men from far of countries came and helped us in so many ways. Did we as Indians go and help lesser developed nations? Maybe Gandhi did, but definitely not many after that.

Following Fr. Wautier, I contacted Sanitiketan's religion department Prof. George Pattery,a tall man,from kerala. He's now Provincial General of WB is what I have known recently from my friends.
Also you and Roy-Sir visited that house in santiniketan with the students for picnic, if I recall correctly.

Maybe my thoughts are not at all to the point, but surely I feel that "love thy neighbor" is where a start can be possible.

best wishes,
Dr. Debasish Das.
California, USA.

Amit parag said...

Things haven't changed anywhere.The "values" are as deeply ingrained in most of us as pissing on the road,bitching about neighbors,spitting , yawning in public among a horde of others bad habits.Here in Kota, in the lane where I live people brush teeth standing on road,(not that they cannot afford basins and water closets) throw all their daily household garbage on the road even un-eaten food.God forsake them

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Why is it that so few people comment on posts like this one? Is it because they find it boring, or because it makes them feel guilty, or angry, or helpless, or what?

Shilpi said...

Helpless. Helpless. Horribly guilty too. Angry as well. For what the world is, and for what we've made it. What was it, that poem which ran, "I stand alone and afraid, in a world which I never made..." To which Rand's booming response was, "AND why didn't you make it, you fool!"
What use is one's education if one cannot even write against such atrocities or do something about it.
Or else one wishes one had a bulldozer. Or maybe stand on the side of a road with a placard saying, "Doomsday is here."
No, don't put up this cracked comment. This was just meant for you.
I'll write a more level headed response soon. I keep going back to these posts if that's any consolation - for whom, one may ask!
Take care. Love.
Who else.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Shilpi, it has been three years, but I trust that the issue is as live as ever, and so also your interest in it. In this context, you might have noticed that Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, briefly espoused what he understands by Rand's conservatism (do look up this news article: http://nyti.ms/PW23w4)

By the way, Rand, so far as I know, had only abuse and contempt for the welfare state, and basically insisted that the poor must be squarely blamed for being poor. I hope you know my views on this matter, I having been taught much more by Tagore, Vivekananda, Gandhi and Galbraith than by Rand, and still convinced that they were not exactly idiots when compared with Rand.

Amit parag said...

I think when Rand implied that the poor have themselves to blame, she had not thought of the work poor people do for their nation. In a country like India, many will agree with her statements, especially those of my generation who have the illusion that educating the poor will alleviate the economic burden of the nation. I have no idea how education can help, since I lost my faith in any school or college study programs a long time back. I only know that if we educate these poor people, shove them into schools and colleges then we are going to have another army of utterly useless and expendable cyber coolies in Pune and Bangalore, and if anyone among these poor people want to become seriously rich they never go for education, they go down the same road that that illiterate Gujrati boy walked upon and whose sons now own practically all of Mumbai, or they climb the ladder of politics. But those who remain poor according to the will of Fates and work for sixteen hours of the day in some rural village forgotten by the advance-of-civilization, have much to be thanked for since they produce the grain which feeds the higher classes, they work in mines which allows the higher classes to enjoy cold air in scorching summer, and I think that if a room full of engineers was bombed the nation will not be economically bothered much but if the same thing happens to these farmers….
But the apathy that the higher classes have for them and the wrong doses of economic medicine administered periodically on these simple souls paint a very horrible picture. I have heard, from highly reliable sources, that villagers in Kanpur get themselves bitten by ants to reduce the severity of winter, people of Medinipore eat ant eggs to alleviate their hunger, and here a feeling of utter helplessness drowns me. Money has been apotheosized universally and we have forgotten those who really matter.
For all his worth, the richest man should bow before these humble people and gratefully thank them for being poor and useful unlike himself, proud and useless.
At this point it will be worthwhile to remember the depth of the words when Sir wrote that ‘I reflected that if the new government which has just assumed power can do something for this man, it will have achieved something praiseworthy indeed. And by something I don’t mean turning him into a drudge at a sponge-iron plant: he’s much better off as he is…’.

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
I smiled upon reading the sharp comment of yours, and you know why. And I have to thank you with a courteous bow for getting me out of my ‘adolescent’ feverish obsession with Rand. I would have been a very sick and dim person if I’d carried on with my sad obsession with her, her characters, and her ideas. Many thanks for that article link. I stopped reading the political news from last year sometime once I realized with a sinking feeling that there was no way Obama was going to succeed in getting re-elected (and I don’t even know whether he cares too much seeing he got the healthcare bill passed – which was the one thing he was absolutely insistent upon from the beginning). I was reading a bit last year round about the time you were writing on the Wall Street protests and on the US and Warren Buffet and taxation and poverty. I had visibly cringed with the Tea Party antics and their embarrassing noises on how fantastic it would be if Rand’s ideas are put into practice: to think that these adults are just as smitten as I had been about two decades ago and even when I was 22.

And yes, she had absolute contempt for the welfare state, believed that poor people were poor because they didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps (some of her famous heroes were somewhat like Amitabh Bachchan in his movies…), didn’t think that handicapped people or old people deserved any assistance from the government at all, didn’t believe in any public services (!) and believed that the government had no regulatory functions whatsoever over the market or in social life, and the scary thought is that she was so utterly convinced that the market should be the ‘absolute’ arbiter in all matters of ascribing value, and the scarier bit still is that her dream in one part has come true. And yes, Rand was the juvenile idiot – not Schumacher whom she pooh-poohed without understanding (and whom I read a decade ago upon your recommendation, enjoyed greatly and learnt much), and not Tagore, Vivekananda, Galbraith or you.

I think the place where the Americans made and make a horrible mistake is chucking out the only bits where she makes some cardinal sense while keeping all the nonsense she'd written. The places where she made sense to my much besotted 15 year old and even 22 year old self is where she said that individual greatness matters, that horribly oppressive states can destroy the strong and mindful individual but never defeat them and sometimes not even destroy them (the first in ‘We the Living’ and the second in ‘Anthem’), that an individual must know at some level what s/he is and what s/he desires and must think for him/herself and must not let the herd mentality influence and control him/her (which is one of the bits that lingers from ‘The Fountainhead’). Indeed if she had stuck to writing her “M&B intellectualized romances”, she would have done better but she was simply too fixated and too narrow in her worldview and couldn’t break out of her own past and look carefully….but as I say, only the truly great can see the ‘many sided fluid nature of reality’. All this reminds me that I probably should go and edit and put up a post that I’d written last year sometime – because there are bits where she makes sense in a tangible, philosophical, and spiritual sense although she herself would have thrown all her fat books at my head for saying this.

Apologies for not sending my comment much sooner but thank you very much for your comment. The quote in my above comment was self-directed. I meant that if I was feeling guilty then I needed to change what I could to make a positive difference. This comment has become terribly long.

P.S: Amit, having read everything written by Rand that was ever published, I am a little confused why you think that Indians who believe in educating the poor through public school education would support Rand. Rand didn’t even believe in a public school education system and she knew very well the kind of work the poor engaged in but she was dead against any welfare system.

Amit parag said...

‘Indians….would support Rand’ when the author said that the poor have themselves to blame.

1: I have been in touch with people who study in Bangalore and probably take part in those debates and creative writing contests that have Poverty and Unity in diversity as their perennially favorite topics. According to those teenagers, any person who is above 35 is to blame himself for his poorness and should toil till kingdom come, anyone under 10 should be made to enroll in a school so that he may not remain poor anymore and everyone above 50 should live in old-age homes.
2: According to a girl, who has been a former editor of some children’ magazine and is now known for her sharp wit, people should sing the national anthem daily to show that they are truly patriotic, though the words she used were ‘real Indians’.
My acquaintances have won gold medals for using the above arguments. Intellectualism is now defined according to a man’ pecuniary condition and Genius is someone who can spin the saddest tale about some poor worker’ condition in which the raconteur played no part other than that of a sympathizer.

Shilpi said...

Amit, I think we are talking at cross purposes here. There may well be those silly types among your educational circles. My point is: anybody who supports public school education (and the poor can only look forward to public school education) will not support Rand in the same breath.

To repeat a bit: Rand was against public school (government sponsored) education, and in fact she was deeply suspicious of education in schools and colleges in general. I won’t go into an exposition of Rand here, and won’t go into her non-fiction (a lot of which I’ve forgotten), but she deliberately chose heroes who were all self-made, and were independent from a very early age: Wynand teaches himself to read and write, John Galt works as an (unknown) worker in a factory before quitting (a scene which floats to the mind when one reads Bach’s ‘Illusions’ for one), Hank Rearden supports himself and his obnoxious family from an early age long before he becomes an industrialist creating ‘Rearden metal’, and Roark as far as I remember was either expelled from his university or he quit and worked as a quarry worker for long shifts of time before getting work as an architect; Francisco and Ragnar were a couple of her characters who actually had family wealth and /or were formally educated apart from Dagny Taggart. Rand herself did not believe that education would solve the problem of poverty but she was obsessed with individualism to the point where she lost sight of everything else – so anybody who believes at some level that education can make a difference to the life of poor children en masse will not support Rand. This was my point. For her, it was the free market system all the way, which could and should be the sole benefactor within society (both morally and socially ridiculous), and although she was utterly confused in countless ways (in spite of the few strings of sense, which I can see better in retrospect), she never wanted to admit to the same (neither did I when I was busy supporting Rand vociferously, and on everything she wrote).

As for your last point regarding ‘the genius’: I’m not concerned with hacks who feign sympathy to score brownie points in debating competitions without knowing what they are talking about but the imposters shouldn’t make you cynical about genuine sympathy (including understanding and knowledge and imagination) - which lets one “spin tales”, the saddest ones or otherwise, and stir feelings in a reader, makes a reader a little more conscious, a little kinder and at least dissuades him/her from engaging in harm or makes a reader more thoughtful and mindful or even provokes the reader into feeling terribly discomfited (which then leads to self-improvement) or makes a reader feel relieved and less lonely on an increasingly zombie-like planet knowing that somebody real and able is giving shape to the aspects of life that cannot be forgotten, and through words and language - is an exceptionally rare and fine quality, and anybody who can do the same does deserve the title of a genius indeed. How else do you imagine that I and some like me are emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically and/or spiritually moved by stories and essays, and thus receive a jolt to our existences if even to contemplate upon the sufferings of the world or to remember what must not be forgotten or to remember to make certain choices of our own? You could revisit ‘Cynicism and skepticism’ and ‘Types of intelligence’ essays on this blog. Too many of us around are too quick to give up or are too quick to lose our spirits in order to make ourselves better or our own lives a little more meaningful or contribute something of significance leave alone possessing any capacity to inspire others around us or to bring some colour into others’ lives. The least we can do, I often think is to be genuinely appreciative of those who indeed do make us think and feel constantly, don’t let us vegetate, and make us reach for the stars so as to make a couple of dreams real in our own lives.

Shilpi said...

Suvro da, And I don’t know why I said 22 in that comment above. I was besotted until 27 actually and with Rand’s useless prattling on socio-economic and political matters as well (makes me embarrassed now among other things). I swept the trash out after those very long and interesting essays you wrote to me on matters of capitalism, socialism, individualism, collectivism, and socio-political and economic systems and more…, and of course you sent me one of my most treasured essays on the importance of the Buddha’s golden mean…It was strange too to see collectivism and individualism being pitted against each other in that article link you posted in your comment above, and yes, it was the ghostly images from this post and some others that crept up in my mind even while I was reading and typing out my comment for your child labour post.