To really feel Independence Day, you have to be in school. Or have school-going kids or be with people who have such. Nobody else seems to pay much attention to it. My mother was chief guest at a school today for their Independence Day celebration. Her description made me as sharply nostalgic for my days of marching in my house in the parade, as I suspect it made her for her days of organising these events. This is the only chief guest I know of whose speech was actually addressed to the students assembled before her rather than into the middle distance. In a nutshell, she told them what it meant to be born into an independent country and that what they got out of it depended on themselves, not anyone else.
I went to register myself at the local election office a few days ago and found:
- Government officials have turned polite, efficient and punctual.
- Government information is no longer guarded by malevolent spirits and three-headed beasts – it's freely available on detailed websites.
- Government procedures are still shrouded in mystery, myth and legend, but less bad-naturedly so.
- Someone I studied with earns 4% of my salary. She has the same degree I have, the same general socio-economic background. But she was handicapped briefly by a traumatic marriage, which would explain some of it.
- The economic surge seems to have sharpened and widened the gap between the haves and have-nots rather than otherwise.
If it's just me noticing it more now, it's not because I'm freshly repatriated but because I have a car. It's the first time that I'm not dependent on public transport in India but I know the deadness of waiting for the bus, the tiredness that comes from constantly adjusting to circumstance, accepting the certainty of uncertainty, the large swathes of time swallowed by the mere mechanisms of life.
This train of thought was taken up again during the run up to the elections and the recent budget session in the parliament. There were so many candidates or spokespeople this time who held the right kind of education, spoke English in familiar accents, and felt as they ought, but the more reassuringly familiar they got, the uneasier they made me. We complain on our blogs and editorials but we are the urban elite, we already have the tools to function. We don’t need representation as much as the crowds in the suburban bus stops at the mercy of public transport, the small farmers at the mercy of the monsoon.
India is still largely a country of people who cannot read the expiry dates on bottles of medicine and bleed to death in the corridors of badly run government hospitals. Of millions of lives as unaffected by the recession as the boom. Of travesties, divisions and farces of all the more dangerous kinds. Our banks have one mode of customer service for my father and another for the labourer building the house next door, as does every other institution. Government warehouses overflow with subsidized rations that do not reach the poor they are meant for. Government schools have single-digit pass rates since political parties prefer to invest in wasteful religious and parochial sentiments rather than education. Kids sleep on the verges of highways and old people huddle in doorways in the rain. And, ominously, very little of the technology flowing into the country reaches the real core of India’s economy – agriculture.
There are a lot of wonderful things about this country that I appreciate even more now that I’m freshly repatriated. It angers me when people demand western standards of this, that and the other, and consider that the only yardstick. It makes me furious when someone's capabilities are judged by the quality of their English. Making India better is not about being like anybody else but about being the best we can be. Unfortunately, we warrant a lot of the criticism, court it, even.
We've come a long way in 61 years, there’s no doubt. And once India’s lower middle class and poor have uncorrupt representation and real attention, we can start to call it progress. Giving IT employees a new flyover to decongest the roads is important, but on its own, it’s just icing on a barely baked cake sitting in a faulty oven in a place without electricity.
My driver is surprised when I apologize for keeping him later than usual, and I feel like apologizing again for a much bigger thing that I cannot even define, but guilt without action becomes merely another luxury.
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