December 25, 2011

A New Year Wish

By now I have read enough about the gloominess of the year that is about to end. Economic crisis, American wars, violent protests and the Indian corruption is not new to 2011. What is new is the increase in number of sob stories. I have the undesirable need of following news for three distinct regions of the world – Indian Sub-Continent, US and Asia-Pacific. I belong to the first, I work for the second, and I live in the third. It has always been gloomy to read about current affairs, but many times this year, the negativity actually unnerved me.

Besides the fact that I still have my job, I am not educated enough to comment on the economic crisis. My views are too polarized on the wars, the terrorism and India’s Maoism to be put out for a wide audience. Of the three regions I track, India is what I am most opinionated and passionate about. My prolixity below is in a response to the thickening pal of gloom that has supposedly engulfed my beloved country this year.

While I am not the ever optimistic kid who’d go digging through a pile of horseshit thinking there’s a pony inside, I sure do not think everything in the year that is about to end was gloomy. There was at least one thing I experienced myself that made me happy and triggered a smile of satisfaction. However before I mention this delightful experience, I would like to comment on a rather well known Indian trait.

Idol worship is not just a thing of religious rituals, it epitomizes our entire outlook towards life and way of living. Of all cultures in the world, it is most engrained in the Indian. We are a prayer frenzied society with a fetish for superstition. Besides worshipping inanimate objects of various kinds, we also carry an almost genetic desire to have someone to look up to. It is one thing to admire somebody for a quality and it is totally another to worship. Almost every day there is some instance of a protest (many a times violent) over someone saying something about someone who is revered in some community. Such examples are dime a dozen in Indian news. Indians revere not just the gazillion gods and their pets, but also cricketers, movie stars, singers, leaders and what have you. Every community, village, city, state, institution etc. has its own protagonists that they completely submit to. It is as if we must have a messiah to save us from ourselves. In fact it is only thanks to the British (and to the congress party of the past) that we were left with too big of a single country to not end up as several different dictatorial/authoritarian regimes. Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, North Korea, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iran etc. belong to the endless list of states whose existence hinge (or hinged) on the reverence for an individual.

In India more than anywhere else we have a tendency to want a messiah to appear as a solution for all our troubles. Ram, Krishna, Gandhi and whoever you have in between, came and saved us from our miseries – We prayed and they came. I read a lot about people complaining that India is not progressing because there isn’t a credible leader to look up to. More often than not such writing comes from supposedly outward thinking, educated, liberated, or whatever-have-you thinkers and writers. It makes me realize the extent to which idol worship is engrained in the Indian psyche.

I have a hard time understanding why we need this messiah? Why is it that we needed a Gandhi then and why is it that we need it now? Why can’t we all, as individuals, go about our daily affairs to the best of our ability and satisfaction? Why can’t we not strive to meet our own expectations? Why do we elect crooks to run our country? The problem with our culture is we want solutions elsewhere and do not want to take the responsibility ourselves. We want some out-of-the-world personality to come and tell us what is the right thing to do, when we already know what it is. It is like getting convinced by listening to hypnotic chants in a temple that tells us love is good and hate is bad, when everyone already knows that to begin with. Why do we need to behave in a specific way because some ancient text or some revered individual says so? Why can’t we derive from our own thinking the right thing to do?

As I mentioned in the beginning, all the gloomy stuff that glooms us today did not get gloomy this year. It is just that we have come to realize the existence of this gloom only now – thanks to the increasingly competitive media sphere. Now that makes two things to feel good about. First is our newfound knowledge of the existence of these grave problems. Second is that our media industry is doing really well. To top it all, none of these are what I wanted to point out as the thing that made me smile to begin with. So then that, instead of the cake that I intended to, now becomes the icing on it!

I have lived in Delhi most of my adult life and I love this city. Delhi like everywhere else in the world, is at its best in the morning. My best time of the day was an early morning run in the Talkatora Garden or the Bangla Sahib area. When I grew up enough to be given the privilege of owning a scooter, I did not leave a single colony in the city unexplored. I know the streets of Delhi like I know the lines on my palm. This time the one thing that made me smile was the Delhi Metro. While it has been in operation for quite some time, it is only this year that people have started using it as part of the regular mundane commute and is no longer the “special thing”. Delhi like all big cities gets its workers from neighboring states. These folks do petty jobs for measly wages as office peons, delivery boys, helpers etc. Commuting in a big city with bad infrastructure hurts these people the most. This time I witnessed these minions rubbing shoulders with the white collars of Gurgaon and the hip crowd of Delhi University in the comfort of the AC cars of Delhi Metro. It was not very hard to imagine how the life of this “real majority” has changed. I used to travel from Rajender Nagar to Gurgaon in my own car and it was horrible. Dhaula Kuan was the worst place to get stuck in. Travelling in Metro, it was so much of a breeze that I had to invent chores to do in Gurgaon so that I can get another reason for a ride. In one of my rides, I saw a meager looking guy, wearing a chappal and holding a shabby bag of something sitting in the Metro. He personified the typical image of the “Bihari” as we have come to know in Delhi. Sitting next to him was this girl who looked as chic as chic could ever be. Trendy janpath jewelry, jazzy top, tight jeans, earphones, iPad and what not. She personified the image of the typical JMC girl which I happened to get acquainted with during my leering days of Delhi University. She was absorbed in her book, the Bihari was staring in space and I was staring at the Bihari. Now that I think about it, probably he was staring at me wondering why in the world am I not staring at the pretty lady next to him. Seeing these two contrasts sitting next to each other, going about their daily routine, unaffected by their radically different lifestyles, first amused me and then eventually brought a smile – I think of pride. It was progress I was staring at. I witnessed this mingling of contrasts numerous times in various different rides; and boy I rode the metro this time like I used to ride my scooter back then!

I do not live in India anymore nor do I live in a developed country of the west (or the few in east). Yet I live in a city that is considerably ahead of mine in infrastructure and public habits. Reasons for this are many but importantly incomparable, and hence I need not go into these. However, the fact is that I do get to see what “better” is. The city that I live in is statistically speaking more densely populated and the city administration is less richer than Delhi’s. Yet quality of infrastructure, value for money and comfort of living is much better. To add to the paradox, The Corruptions Perception Index reports that my current country of residence ranks 129th whereas India ranks 95th in the list of most corrupt countries in the world.

I also travel a bit to other countries. I have seen how infrastructure is created and what progress looks like elsewhere. So mind you, I have no illusions about the India Shinning story since the time of the BJP government. Based on what I have observed in other countries, the India Shinning story can be very crudely summarized as India walking one step ahead while the rest of the world does two (leave aside the war-trodden African states please if you will). This effectively makes us walking one step back in this inter-dependent world.

I visit Delhi once every year for a couple of weeks. This makes me notice change better than those living in it. There is absolutely no doubt that traffic has reduced during non-peak hours, pollution has drastically reduced over the years due to anti-pollution initiatives, and commuting has become better. However, at the same time there is and has never been any doubt in my mind that our comparable progress is one-step-backward. The only reason there is any infrastructure development in Delhi is because life will come to a standstill without it. Our infrastructure is developed not in anticipation of a need but as a reaction to an existing situation. That is gloomy no doubt.

So now you might wonder I am contradicting what I set out to prove. But no, I am not. All I am saying is that we were miserable since the beginning and it hasn’t got much worse in 2011. What has happened is that this year large number of people in my country seem to have visibly realized the existence of its problems; and that my friend is not gloomy at all. Now all we need to do is get rid of this we-want-a-capable-leader mentality and instead take Responsibility.

Prayer makes us ask whereas a wish makes us want. I believe anything can be achieved if it is wanted bad enough not if it is prayed hard enough. My wish for the next year is a step forward for my beloved India.

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