Monday, October 19, 2009

You must look at our hotels

Something I've always found interesting since my teenage years is the way the Indian upper/middle classes react to the poverty in their midst. I realise this is a serious topic that influences our economic system and there are people more qualified than me to discuss it. But here I only want to address a relatively superficial aspect, namely the discomfort of the middle-class person when the existence of poverty is forcefully brought to their attention. After all most of us, whatever we know intellectually, exist in a state of blissful denial at the emotional level otherwise it would be hard to live with our consciences at all.

The person who brings inconvenient facts to our attention is frequently a foreigner. Being extraneous to the system, foreigners can expose our hypocrisies quite easily. Moreover, people from continental Europe have been schooled on "liberty equality fraternity" and naturally find our social contrasts shocking. (This is not to deny they have their own underclass and their own hypocrisy, not to mention their murderous histories... the key point is that it's always easier to spot injustice when you're an outsider to the system). I remember an Italian friend and collaborator who visited me here in the 1980's remarking on the way labourers were made to pull handcarts, like beasts of burden. Till that moment I had never quite seen it that way, and afterwards I was unable to see it any other way.

Another recollection, this time from the 1970's, highlights the reaction of upper-class Indians. My mother was then working for an NGO that had sponsored the visits to India of a few teenagers from London. So she called them home for tea. This was an era when far less information had diffused globally than today, so these teenagers were naturally a little baffled by their experience of India. I don't remember anything specific they said, but their reaction evidently annoyed a lady friend of my mother's who happened to be over. This gentlewoman then gave them a lecture which in summary reduced to the following: "We have very fine hotels in India. You must look at our hotels. Go see the Taj. It's a very fine hotel. Appreciate the decor, the furniture. We have fine hotels." I realised then that she felt ashamed and repulsed by the squalor of her own city and was seeking solace in the make-believe world of the hotel which was everything (for her) that the street outside was not.

Which brings me to my point, not that there's a very precise one. Yesterday I watched an episode of "Paul Merton in India" on TV. I imagine it's the kind of show that this lady would have hated (except that she's now passed on to the great Taj Hotel in the sky). By now a few zillion travel programmes about India have already been made, so clearly Merton, a British comedian, was looking for something different. He must have figured out that if you come to India and hang out with "people like us" you will only get an extremely slanted and limited take on the country. So he looked for things that working-class and rural people do that urban upper-middle-class people would never do. This took him to the rat-worshipping Karni Mata temple in Bikaner and the Shivratri celebrations in Girnar, complete with naked sadhus and ganja.

But the strangest segment of this show is when Merton visits a private home in Delhi with a genuine (but non-functional) wide-body Airbus parked in the backyard. Here people who could never afford to fly pay a small fee to board a disused airplane, be strapped in their seats and enjoy an imaginary flight (supposedly those too poor to pay are taken on board for free). After it "takes off" the passengers are served snacks in packed boxes (Merton points out that the "airline food" is unfortunately all too realistic!). Soon thereafter, with poorly feigned panic in her voice, the "stewardess" announces that the plane is about to ditch in the sea whereupon the passengers, laughing and joking, cheerfully jump out the emergency exits and slide down chutes back to the reality of a Delhi backyard. Merton's cameraman beautifully captures the joy and elation of the crowd.

More fun than looking at furniture in the Taj Hotel, for sure.


Rahul Basu said...

I find Merton irritatingly funny - he seems to be bent on seeing a different India which is fine but he doth try too hard. However there are indeed episodes which would never occur to an Indian to experience. In one of these he goes to a home of eunuchs (hijras as they are called here) and then accompanies them around their city while they collect their cuts from businesses - I guess a kind of extortion money really. But you wouldn't catch an Indian, even a progressive kind seen with a bunch of hijras wandering the streets in full public view. (The same fascination with the eunuch you can find in Dalrymple's book, City of Djinns).

Occasionally we have foreign visitors who hire a car to do some sightseeing. Stopping to get a bite to eat they are always surprised when the driver, when invited to join them, invariably sits at a different table. (In the past he would feel too uncomfortable even to come it). Their Indian host is usually quite complacent with this, and I suspect the driver himself would feel uncomfortable sitting with the barre log. However things have changed, albeit slowly. We are no longer horrified if the maid or a workman or an electrician come to work in our house sits in a chair rather than on the floor.

Ramanan said...

Very well written.

Indians are hypocrites when it comes to the topic of racism too - I was really annoyed when the 'racist attacks' controversy broke out. It didn't seem racist to me - just attacks by unemployed people in Australia (one of the worst affected by the economic crisis) and as the Australian PM Kevin Rudd put it - Indians happened to be soft targets. Back home in India, we are the worst when it comes to racism. Right from school, we crack racists jokes every now and then. Only after having interacted with foreigners have I realized what racism means etc etc etc.

Anonymous once said "Travel broadens the mind" and rightly so. Our businesses are so poor at customer service and only companies from the West have helped us improve the quality of service - though we are still have a long way to go. Generally I have seen that people who have worked in the West earlier in their lives and have come back are better managers/bosses than people who haven't.

The post reminds me - I used to work for Morgan Stanley a few years back and I guess people tell foreigners to have a look at the Mumbai-Pune expressway and how "world-class" it is. The Chief Economist Stephen Roach happened to travel once by that route and sent a mail right from the middle of his travel (I guess through his Blackberry) saying a. It is not all that great. b. The roads that lead to the expressway are pathetic!

My thought processes take me to phrases such as "India Shining" - when (at least till recently when exports declined) we would produce for the West and declare a GDP growth of 7.7% and take pride in that whereas people in rural India would starve.

Anant said...

One may argue that poverty and suffering are a human problem. Why should a middle class Indian feel any more guilty about the poverty which is a result of centuries of deprivation than an upper class English(wo)man? Is it so that there is no poverty in UK and the USA? Are there not men and women sleeping on steam grates in New York city? How come there are no sanctimonious remarks about the lack of guilt among middle class Americans? Or the wanton pain and destruction inflicted on 25 million Iraqis? Should not middle class Americans and Brits feel guilty about that? Just as foreigners catalyze guilt in middle class Indians about ubiquitous poverty, I think we as foreigners when we go to the US and UK can just as well catalyze their guilt about the gross inequalities in their societies, which they too choose to ignore. They may ignore them because the poor are often black, Latinos, or whatever.

Having said all that, it is only fair to mention that there are any number of
middle class Indians who are utterly selfless, work in their spare time and professionally for the `upliftment' of the poor. These, we are unlikely to meet in the hallowed portals of research Insitutes, because the calling of those working in these latter is different. However, here are many who support such selfless activities in their own way. Why not give them their due?

sukratu said...

For a long time I have been following and enjoying "Paul Merton's India". I find it direct and appealing. Straight from the grassroots. I guess the programme must be pretty popular. Somehow I expected it to figure up in tantujaal topics as has happened.