Monday, December 29, 2008

It's about class

Today a Kolkata based writer called Soumitro Das (why does it seem like they are all called that?) wrote an op-ed piece in the Hindustan Times ("The man in the middle") in which he frontally attacked the Indian middle class and its attitudes vis a vis the terrorist situation. He said a lot of things that are not normally said because social class, like its cousin caste, is the "elephant in the living room" for Indians. We're not allowed to talk about it because officially it doesn't exist.

Mr Das points out that "the middle class has an abiding fantasy of a benevolent dictator who will rule with an iron hand, restore order and commit everything to making material progress". In light of this he analyses the middle class outrage against Indian politicians and Pakistan post 26/11. One thought this article inspired in me is that some day we might go the Thai way, with the middle class clamouring to scotch the voting rights of the rural poor because the latter are (allegedly) responsible for electing low-grade politicians.

Even if I possibly don't share all of Mr Das's views, his article helped me focus my thoughts a bit. But something else I read in HT yesterday focused my thoughts in a different way, into an irrationally extreme rage. It was an interview of a lady who had been dining at the Oberoi/Trident on 26/11 and managed to escape alive. Here is what she had to say: "The fact that I chose to dine at the India Jones restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel that fateful night of 26/11, and the manner in which I escaped death by a whisker, reinforces my belief that there is a driving force that governs the entire universe. While the staff at Oberoi's ushered us into safety through the service entrance, I kept praying to Santoshi ma. It is her grace that I could make it out alive that night".

These words provide distressing (to me) insight into the thought process of a certain type of Indian. The driving force, or Santoshi ma, that saved her from death - why, pray, did it condemn many dozen others to die in the Oberoi? It seems she's really trying to say, without putting it in those words, that she personally possesses the virtue that made Santoshi ma take notice of her. By implication, presumably those that died were some kind of impious losers that S. ma could barely find time to think about! Notice also that the "driving force" (she's not referring to her own chauffeur I presume) made her choose to dine at the Oberoi that night. So why did this driving force choose her, and not for example the urchins hanging around outside the hotel, to savour a dinner at such a luxurious establishment? (I'll spare you the rest of the interview, in which the lady alleges that "...astrology is one of the most evolved sciences in India".)

Either Santoshi ma is the most biased deity around, or this is how some section of the Indian middle class constructs its world-view. It is divine grace that gives them the comforts they enjoy, never mind that equally deserving others are denied the same comforts. It is divine grace that saves their lives, never mind that other innocent people perish tragically.

In short I'm appalled by this lady's incredibly self-centred and self-serving comments (even ignoring her idiotic views on astrology). But perhaps I judge her too harshly as she's clearly conditioned by her family background? Not quite. Her late grandfather held a rather different world-view that accommodated the complex and varied aspirations of a truly enormous variety of Indians. Without that quality, he could hardly have launched the Quit India movement.


Rahul Dash said...

When people survive an event from which, survival seemed a distant reality( like the Taj/Oberoi incident), they wonder at their fortune. In our country, fortune is not an ever-existing notion. It is infact, conceived to be a cumulative result of all our actions. So people look at all their actions and try to find out the ones that were responsible for their good fortune. In the case of the lady you mentioned, she maybe had no better action than lighting candles in front of her Deity. Hence, she attributed her survival to her fortune which in turn she attributed to her action of devotion towards the Deity.

It is not as much elitist as it is belief. And people have strange beliefs anyway :)

Wonderful blog. Please do keep the posts coming !

Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of two anecdotes:

The first deals with George Orwell. In 1937, while fighting for the Republicans against Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was shot in the neck and nearly died. The episode is described vividly in "Wounded by a Fascist Sniper" and also in Homage to Catalonia. Later friends would often tell him how "lucky" he was to have stayed alive. Orwell wrote that he found this a a rather curious definition of good luck. Rightly so, it would have been far nicer to not have been shot in the first place !!

The whole Santoshi ma (SM))rubbish is just the same! Either Ms. Gokani hasn't been paying ALL her dues to SM, or SM has just been a bit sloppy at work lately. Either way, its clear that the expectations for goodluck are pathetically low! (alas! only to the benefit of SM)

It also seems from the whole episode that in this case the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree. In 1934, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that the Bihar earthquake of that year was providential retribution for India's failure to eradicate untouchability. This ridiculous remark led to a spirited rebuttal from Rabindranath Tagore (well chronicled in the book, "Mahatma and the Poet"), who argued that an earthquake was caused only by physical forces. Gandhi, however, remained unconvinced. As great as the Mahatma truly was, in this matter he was certainly out of his mind ! (Surely, by his own logic, Britain deserved a few earthquakes of her own!)

To attribute a divine provenance to an overwhelming tragedy (or good fortune) remains an enduring symbol of our credulity and stupidity, and even the greatest seemed to have erred on this count

Shamashis said...

I haven't read Mr. Das's article so I'm not going to comment on it. Two weeks back, I had written a post in my blog regarding the attitude of the Indian middle class towards different problems facing the country ('Our country, our concerns', December 12, My feelings on this topic are oultined in that article.

Mind Without Fear said...

Now that I am not longer young and energetic enough to engage people on debates on whether ( and also where) God exists, and if she does, what good is having her around, .....

nevertheless, it seems relevant to point out that:

what the lady said about Santoshi Ma ( Santoshi Ma and Sunil Mukhi have the same Latin initials - what a divine coincidence!) is but a specific example of the general Rule ( capital R since we are discussing matters of cosmic importance )

The Rule being

"God is responsible for all good things happening in the world,


men and women are responsible for all the bad things".

Sorry for taking so much space to state this simple rule but then again it is a matter related to God - she does take up a lot of time over meaningless events.