The Indian paradox


The Indian paradox

Today in Chennai, I witnessed a dead-end journey. A deafening firecracker was set off by a gathering of men at the head of a funeral procession. Stray dogs flinched and onlookers cowered. Shutters were hastily pulled down.

The raucous entourage made its way along the street in Triplicane. Cows scattered, dust swirled and the afternoon humidity made for uncomfortable viewing.

Cheap alcohol that swilled from small glass bottles could not disguise the poverty on show. It was etched in the men’s faces, played out in their mannerisms as they danced, and given away by their ragged clothes. This large, noisy crowd accompanied the cart carrying the flower-adorned body to commemorate a life lived, a passing over. A celebration of living and dying in a country drenched in religion, obsessed with ritual and defined by rigid social stratification.

The booze-fuelled dancing of the men was imbued with certain desperation. The poor always celebrate with a harder edge. They acted as if they controlled the street, as if they ruled the world for the day. They don’t. And they never will.

They no doubt inhabited a similar neighbourhood to the one they danced through, with its filthy, sweatbox dhabas, grimy hardware stores, world-weary faces and vegetable stalls. Young children clung to their mothers’ shoulders, perched side saddle on saree-covered hips. The choking stench of animal waste and urine permeated the humid atmosphere. Cows munched on the stinking garbage overflowing from the large plastic bins. It’s sometimes easier to look away than cast your eyes and see humanity living like this.

This is modern India. It’s here and now. But it’s not the ‘modern India’ so often celebrated by the media. That’s an India of steel and glass cyber parks, Mumbai skyscrapers and the affluent who also act as if they control the world. But they actually do. And their type possibly always will.

It’s a modern India inhabited by a minority. A privileged minority, whose reservation quota is never questioned, is barely acknowledged. By accident of birth, whether through class or caste, or a combination of both, its members were always in prime position to take advantage of the privileges afforded by background in the brave new world of economic

After the procession had made its way through the area, the dogs and cows once again meandered freely and women began were they had left off by shopping for vegetables. And you can bet your bottom rupee that it was spiralling food inflation that was dominating their thinking. Making ends meet is the be all and end all around here.

Other concerns which dominate the thinking include the latest shopping mall to have suddenly sprung up, about a ten-minute walk away, where the price of designer jeans or sportswear is the burning priority. Less than a kilometre from the tradition-bound, vegetation-strewn locality, the international brands have arrived, adorning the large glass frontages of the latest temple of consumerism. This is not a world of lungis, steaming chai and steaming filth or of undernourished parents with their hungry kids. This is the world of Lacoste, Nike and Barista.

Poor, thin women worked each day till they dropped in order to help build this mall and hundreds like it. Their babies played in the dirt nearby. They built it for privileged, well-nourished women whose servants will mind their kids as they adhere to the ‘shop till you drop’ dogma of modern advertising.

While one part of India remains trapped by poverty and disadvantage, another part has bought into the filthy veneration of money and narcissism — a power play that is concerned with redefining who people are and what India should be about — a consumerism that is divisive and ultimately unsustainable.

Today, I witnessed a dead-end journey — in more ways than one.

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