Crowded, dirty, public spaces, the constant negotiations with people during the day, the heavy duty of family expectations; these things have come to characterize life in India for me. The visiting friends who now live in the USA point out the un-hygienic restaurants and the polluted air of the cities. It is easy to see life here as a survival battle in a poor country.
What with the local newspapers talking about molested women and bull-fighting as the cultural bulwark, it is not difficult for the foreign-travelled Indian to judge that much of the country is a century behind in social progress and modernity.
The mainstream nationalist voice talks with pride about the Hindu dharma as well as the penance of demonetization. It talks with equal fervour about capitalist growth and escalating militarization. This clash of values around desire is not noticed in the collective national need to finally matter in the world. India has been colonized for too long and been poor for too long. It is time to clean our streets and be seen as rich.
I question the idea of being rich. Is being rich having money in the bank? Is it being able to have extra cash to spend on leisure and pleasure. Is being rich a feeling of abundance that I can share food and space with other people and animals and still have enough for my needs?
Leaving philosophy aside and looking at richness from a purely economic perspective, the poor is the smallest segment of the population in India, just around 27.5% according to a Planning Commission estimate a decade ago. That is about 300 million people. That pegs the middle and upper classes at a one billion people. India is by no means a poor country. It is a country where there lives a large number of people who are economically poor . There is a big difference between these two perspectives. The successive Governments since Independence have thankfully largely targeted improving the lives of the poor. This has given the other classes some unexpected advantages. For example the Indian railways is much subsidised in comparison to the redoubtable USA.
Another economic advantage at having all sorts of economic classes living together here are the price points. I can buy coffee for 200Rs or for 8Rs. I can buy clothes for 300Rs, for 5000Rs or I am lead to believe from magazines , one lakh rupees. If by some drastic change of fortune my circumstances are reduced to a meager income, I can still live with some basic dignity and afford food and stay. We feel ashamed of poverty but do we realise that the poor have gifted us so much choice and empowerment.
Not just economically but also socially and psychologically. Living with a politically active poor has made us a more tolerant society. In the ability to give food to a street dog or a few rupees to a begger I feel like I have much. Even though a bank loan may be grinding us down, by looking at people with more disadvantages than us we learn to be more content with our lives.
To understand social tolerance let us take the example of the crowded roads. Foreigners remark on the chaos of the roads and make fun of the cows on it. However another way of looking at the roads is to wonder at how the different social classes mix equally there. The rich have not demanded private roads for cars only. Not just is there space on the roads for the variously speeding vehicles, none of them harm the slow meandering cow. With a good pair of ear- plugs or some nice music on the Radio, one can enjoy this miracle of the Indian roads while negotiating traffic to get to work.
The idea that we need mono-traffic and large roads with fast vehicles is an alien concept to our country. We don’t need to look like the USA. We can learn to enjoy India and make our life better in ways that makes sense to those of us living here.
I agree that living in India is not for the mild hearted. I often feel like my karma wheel is spinning in full force here. Circumstances demand of me a certain maturity with stiff punishments for bad choices. However I am sure that the modern Indian’s place in the world is to first acknowledge gold pile that we are already living on. Then to take the ethics of tolerance to the larger world struggling with fear of each other.