Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Reflections on Landing in India

As the airplane touched down on Dubai’s airport runway and the setting Arabian sun pierced through the windows with hues of red, I sat back and thought of the people I had left behind for a month. Of Al, our short shouting match, for which I felt guilty, that my recent irritability at everything should cause such a ruffle in our otherwise calm moments before my leaving. All because she found my glasses dirty, had to clean them, and complained about the increasing dirt. Of David, his smiling face, so eager to please, his face expectantly looking up to see if there was happiness or any sign of displeasure, and if the latter, his face quizzical in expression, young life flickering like a candle, which we must be cautious to kindle and not starve of life-giving oxygen. Of Emma, her confusions, challenges and questions as we grows up- as she makes mistakes and learns, sometimes the hard way, sometimes through behavior-modification induced by cajoling from her parents. My loves. How I miss them already.

I touched down, texted my wife my belated sorrow at having caused her sorrow, boarded the connecting flight to Mumbai, and after touching down again, reconnected with Philip, my friend who took me to church as this was a Sunday. A loud, mostly young collection of people, with eagerness to share the reason for their joy and new ideas to express themselves through art, music, movies, food, et al. All concepts which have never been my strengths. Through the day, I kept thinking how Indian youth, and even people of my generation have become so tuned in to the emerging zeitgeist in India which is decidedly young (most of India is very young), and global in nature with a stubbornly Indian accent and mannerism.

I think of my poor parents, long in touch with technology- all the way upto the mid 2000s, now somewhat left behind by the new world of social media and smartphones, my mom disabled by her declining eyesight and sickness-forced reclusiveness, my dad who, though in better shape, has had his share of challenges posed by aging and a body whose immunity has become less effective over the years. Both of them gave their all to their work, and now receive a paltry pension from the government, while their juniors who retired after them receive far more. Today’s India does not care much for its seniors, or for that matter, people who hold no promise to produce goods or services.

In my childhood I remember talking to my dad about economic systems, and wondering if the socialist model had merit, while my dad, infused by the liberalization taking place in the then Soviet Union, East Germany and other places, denounced state-planned economy as if from a pulpit. Frm then I have always seen such systems as problems. As life went on and I worked my way through India and the US, climbing the ladder and experiencing the vagaries of capitalism, and all the while seeing India pass me by, becoming unfamiliar, both in appearance and in interactions, as if I were talking to a stranger who I knew a long time ago, perhaps in my childhood, who is now different in every way, except I know that our shared childhoods carry memories.

Today’s India doesn’t care much about providing universal healthcare or a living wage. But am I truly seeing things as they were back in the day? We were middle class, and with my dad’s rising career, moving upward and onward towards being ‘upper middle class’, which we were at the time of his retirement. For a few years after his retirement, his company paid for his healthcare, which they stopped doing after his angioplasties and two open heart bypass surgeries. Thank God for his grace, that after then, dad has not had a major medical challenge which required a procedure. Now he is stuck with declining strength, illnesses which take forever to subside, and a noticeable shiver in his voice and limbs, mirroring the tremors in his once-unshakeable confidence. Today’s India cares about celebrity, with newspapers showing on their front pages pictures of actors inaugurating a new school or hospital, while thousand die of Ebola, famine, war, terrorism, abductions and other causes that make Americans skip a beat each morning as they pore over Google News or watch TV news in the evenings. Today’s India teems with marching workers who stream through gates of gleaming edifices of newly minted technology companies or through converted factory campuses, green and leafy, with an old world charm belying the work that happens within, fitted now to house service workers taking calls, processing insurance claims or fare-filing for airlines. All the while there is human drama outside those walls, little children, the promise of our future, defecating on sidewalks outside their shanties, unashamed and surrounded by people.

Back in the day they must have been the invisible people, or were they simply people we chose not to see? Going about their lives in the slums, some of them trafficked from different states to work as maids or house-boys at a tender age when others in different economic strata would spend their time playing or reluctantly going to school, an exercise imposed on them for which they had no relish, but for which those others who lived in the shadows would have dearly given everything. Singing in trains and asking for food with indefatigable optimism expressed through toothy smiles and cocky rasping voices, not yet broken, but perpetually hoarse with tuneless singing.

Did our welfare state back then hold them any promise? For sure it promised them a lot during public rallies on the eve of elections. They were and are actors in an immense economic machine, without whom India today would collapse like a ton of bricks and fold up in a hurry like a cheap suit. Washing cars, scrubbing floors, cooking food, dressing babies, and doing a thousand other things for which they are ill-paid, although the new middle class would strongly disagree that they are poorly compensated. They would count the free food, accommodation (if they are live-in staff), safety, lack of commute and other such perks to make their case. A small increase of a thousand rupees to their salary, the amount some of them would pay for a dinner at a restaurant, would get their goat.

So which is better? The welfare state or the laissez faire? After all these years I don’t care. I’m an opportunist, so I will grab any opportunity to support those who need help. The aging, the uneducated, the slum-dwellers, the children, the women and myriad others whose lives are now simply factors of production.

India offers a lot of scope for reflection. The taxi driver who drove me to my meeting, who came to Mumbai 21 years ago from Jharkand, as a youngster, having come from a background he describes as ‘weak’, meaning mud huts (‘mitthi ka ghar’) and no support from anyone or anywhere, no job and no prospects in his state. He has now built homes for his family in Jharkand (bada ghar hain abhi), but his life is in Mumbai now. He lives with his family in a small house with hardly any space, paying a rent that takes away most of his income, but as he says, ‘That’s life-everything works for good, and we must see it that way.’ Which taxi driver talks this way in Chicago? That’s India for you. Heart on its sleeve, and none of the grit hidden, though our modern rising stars of the middle class would like to hide it all away behind glass and steel towers, shimmering as if in a desert, and a lifestyle at the opposite end of a pole from these invisible people.

The theme of invisibility is strongly upon my mind today. Perhaps because I’ve been listening the Sara Groves album, ‘Invisible Empires’. In it she sings:

And I don't know where we are
Are we passing through these wires
Are we walking through the streets
Of invisible empires

I hope we are passing through the streets of the one Invisible Kingdom that will be revealed when the dirt of this world's decay shall be peeled away and the rays of the rising Son would touch upon the invisible people.

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