‘Everything’s fine till something happens to you’

SWAROOP C.H. writes from Bangalore: I’ve been provoked and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Incident 1. It all started on Day 2 of my Singapore trip (Sunday, December 23) when a hotel owner was too friendly. Maybe he didn’t have much work, but anyway, he got pretty chatty with us and was asking about how we liked Singapore. All we wanted to do was eat noodles.

He started talking about his visit to India, and like most Singaporeans, he had been on a Buddhist pilgrimage to India. I can still remember the angst in his voice.

He said that the central government in India was good but the state governments were bad. Strike 1. I had to agree.

He said that it was not a safe place for businessmen to invest money. He said one of his close friends made huge investment, but when the government changed, the policies changed and the friend made a huge loss. Strike 2. I don’t know much about such things, but I can imagine that it is possible.

He said that India hadn’t advanced enough, there’s still too much poverty, there’s still so much chaos. He said ‘take a look at China’. For example, if the parents invest some amount with the government, they’ll give back 10 times the amount in 10 years, or something like that, and this is guaranteed by the government to safeguard the child’s future. I don’t remember the numbers he used but I was impressed with what he said. Strike 3.

I was beaten and didn’t know how to fight back.

I’m not a patriotic guy. I don’t go around burning boards written in non-state languages, nor do I go around speaking only in Hindi and refusing to speak in English. But I believe in the concept of India as a nation and I instinctively feel that I should defend my country when someone says something negative about my country.

But I was stumped. I was completely caught off-guard. I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded. I desperately looked for things to tell him. But I got nothing. Throughout the trip, I kept thinking of things to go back and tell that hotel guy that India is a great country, but what do we really have?

Specifically, the question is:

Post-independence, does India, as a nation, have achievements to be proud of?

I’m not talking about our ancient history or ‘culture’. I’m not talking about what some Indian did when he went to a foreign country, or even someone who went out of his way to achieve something within India (like the paeans being written about Tata Motors and their Nano car).

I’m talking specifically about: 1. the post-independence era, and 2. as a nation.

    A week after that incident, I was still trying to forget about it. But the same thing happened again on Day 9 (Sunday, December 30) with the store owner of a bookstore that Abishek and myself randomly walked into.

    We had a long conversation about Buddhism and our beliefs of God and how we pray. It’s surreal that we randomly started talking our intimate spiritual beliefs with a complete stranger. But such is life. And then she mentioned the same exact things that the hotel owner did. She specifically mentioned that she was appalled at the poverty when she went to Bodh Gaya.

    Yes, we are talking about poverty, not just about the beggars on the busy roads of Bangalore, but he fighting-for-food kind, the kind that we saw in Swades.

    Incident 2. After visiting the Kaala Chakra exhibition, I realized how influential India has really been, especially to most of South East Asia, from language to politics to trade, Indian-related stuff is everywhere in South East Asia. I used to wonder about why Tamil is such a common language here in Singapore, and only after I visited this exhibition, I realized that this goes back to the ages before christ!

    Notice the irony that I got to know more about Indian history and influence when I’m outside India. Probably because there is such importance given to history and culture in Singapore. But people in India have no time for such things, we are still fighting and struggling for our basic needs.

    This immediately reminded me of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”:

    Maslow's hierarchy of needs

    We are still struggling in Levels 1-3, that’s why we are just touching Level 4, and we’re a long way from reaching Level 5 of Self Actualization. At least, my point of view.

    Incident 3. I know there will be lots of people that say that I’m wrong, and that everything’s fine in India. (It reminds me of Rahul Bose in Everybody Says I’m Fine.)

    The problem is that everything’s fine as long as nothing bad happens to you or you witness it, only then you realize how bad the situation is. God forbid, you end up in an accident, only then you realize the problems with the police, the hospital, the insurance, and so on. The situation is the same everywhere, irrespective of the aspect of life.

    I don’t know how better or worse we are compared to other countries, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be in a better situation. There is simply no reason to! We have the money, the people, the resources…

    Incident 4. I came to know recently that at a premier medical institution in Bangalore, teachers are openly telling students that if they don’t help the teachers (i.e. pay them money), they will make sure that 30% of the students will fail! I am not kidding you, this is for real. Where’s the sanctity of education? Where’s the concern for the students’ future? Where’s the concern for encouraging future doctors (especially because the number of doctors is already dwindling)? Where’s the concern about setting precedents for future of medical profession? Even if they don’t think long term, how will students afford this? I know many medical student friends who have struggled to pay the hefty fees, what about these students who simply cannot afford to pay bribes to teachers?

    Similarly, lecturers in PUC colleges have stopped teaching in college and they tell students that they are anyway going to tuitions. If not, they should join their own tuitions! What happens to all those students who can’t afford it?

    Incident 5. Abishek’s close friend and special effects friend Osmand is a third-generation Indian. When he was about to fly from India to China to visit his relatives, he was abused that he was a Chinese person, and this for a person who’s born and brought up in India his entire life!

    The difference in attitudes was telling when the Indian immigration officer made him wait for 3 hours to prove that he’s an Indian compared to when he explained, that he’s a third-generation Indian originally hailing from China, to the Chinese immigration officer, he said Welcome home.” Now, Osmand is as Indian as it gets, irrespective of how it looks. Tell me, who’s the racist here? Osmand is so fed up of this attitude that he wants to go back to China.

    Incident 6. Abishek and myself were sitting by the river in Clarke Quay in Singapore on new year’s eve waiting for the clock to strike midnight. The atmosphere was full of revelry with all the Singaporean youth spraying foam on each other or boozing away or chatting. What’s amazing is that women freely walk around without any fear. I’ve seen women in Singapore walk at 2 am freely with clothes that redefine what ‘mini skirt’ stands for.

    On the other hand, Abishek pointed out that in India, at new year’s eve, there were incidents of molestation in Bombay, eveteasing by Railway Minister Lalu Prasad’s sons, Patna boys barge into a girls hostel, Cochin revelers molest a 15-year old Swedish girl and so on.

    Oh, and this is not just inside India. As churumuri put it recently, you can take the Indian out of India, but can you take India out of the Indian?

    Incident 7. When I was in PUC, I had many a time seriously considered politics as a career (all that “desh ke liye kuch karna hain” funda) but goondaism isn’t my cup of tea, so I dropped the whole idea. Seriously. If you want to survive in politics in India today, you have to know some rowdys or goondas to back you up, or you’re gonna end up in pieces in a ditch somewhere. We all know the familiar story of Manjunath Shanmugam who ratted out on how the Mittal petrol pump in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh are doing adulteration and he got shot by the owner’s son Monu Mittal and his goons.

    Politics in India is simply terrible.

    On the other hand, Singaporeans may have less press freedom and such, but I am okay with that compared to the circus that we have here.

    We are only harming the planet, it seems.

    Incident 8. Another incident I have to come know of is that there was some random old person who was suffering from a high BP attack and was going in an auto to his hospital where he was undergoing treatment. First, the auto guy literally dumps him on the pavement, takes the old man’s money and runs away. All this in broad daylight. IIRC, that too in Koramangala, one of the posh areas in Bangalore.

    Second, there are 10-20 people who surround and watch him and do nothing. Third, nothing happened until Vikram (Abishek’s friend) was passing by, shocked at all this, talked to the old man, who somehow was able to convey which hospital he was going to. Vikram took him to the hospital on bike. Fourth, the hospital said they can’t admit without some identification! Vikram said “He’s your patient, please look up your records and please treat him urgently.” They repeated the same statement. Fifth, Vikram who was fed up, says “Maybe Times of India would like to do a story on this.”

    Suddenly, the hospital staff spring into action and look up his records and take the old man in to the doctor. Sixth, Vikram comes out shaken and calls up Abishek and asks “What if this is my father tomorrow? What would happen to him? What kind of city do we live in?”

    Pop quiz : How many things are wrong/sad in this picture?

    These are real incidents, real stories. Seriously.

    Incident 9. What can we do in a place where people have to bribe to get death certificates? Aren’t the families mourning enough already?

    Again, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We are just struggling for the basics of life, maybe that’s why we can’t seem to go beyond that.

    Sportspersons are fighting for basic equipments, for basic facilities. No wonder they can’t move beyond to think of fighting against the competition. Cricket is an exception for exactly this reason – because the cricketers are so well-paid, they move to the next level in Maslow’s hierarchy and actually concentrate on the game. This becomes a virtuous cycle and hence the game is flourishing.

    Apply the same concepts to the other aspects such as political or economical, and you’ll notice that we’re still fighting the same everywhere.

    Let me repeat, post-independence, is there anything to be proud of India, the nation?

    I can’t think of anything. And what’s worse, I put this across to a few close friends, and they didn’t offer anything too. In a way, I was glad that it’s not just me, but many others feel the same way too. The sad part is that many others feel the same way too.

    Incident 10. The Press likes to make it a point to hail people of Indian origin like Lakshmi Mittal (Mittal Arcelor) or Indra Nooyi (Pepsi) or Vikram Pandit (Citigroup) and how they have risen to those powerful positions. But why is it that they were able to do it only when they’re out of India, not when they are here in India?

    Isn’t this a common refrain? I again trace it back to Maslow’s hierarchy. Most talented people I know all want to get out of India so that they can do serious work. Sad, but true. Including Abishek who’s now in Singapore making ads for China, Middle East, India, Pakistan, all in Singapore. He would’ve probably never got an opportunity like this in India. And yes, he’s the brains and technical person behind many ads in India you would see from Limca to Airtel to Pepsi.

    Again, I see people here in Singapore indulging in running, cycling, shopping and they’re seriously into arts, and so on. They are building a culture. Even partying till late into the night at Clarke Quay or shopping 24×7 at Mustafa and so on. And it’s completely safe for women as well. How do they do that!?

    Imagine that a 42×28 km country like Singapore (one of the 20 smallest countries in the world and at the same time the 2nd most densely populated country in the world) is hosting a Formula 1 race in 2008, is bidding for the 2010 Olympic Youth Games, etc.

    A country that is more than 4500 times bigger and has 250 times more population is still struggling for basic needs (numbers derived from Wikipedia’s estimates of population and size).

    Yes, our problems are bigger and more varied, but the politicians and the press talk about Bangalore becoming something like Singapore in 20 years or so! We are already comparing us vs them.

    We can’t even get basic water supply or road transit facilities to an upcoming world-class Bangalore International Airport? (And the only reason it’s world-class is because we outsourced it). Why are things so bad? It’s not the money, we have enough of it. Is it the people? But the capability is there. So what’s really wrong? Is it the leadership? I guess we do really need visionaries who execute like Lee Kuan Yew in India. Is it the attitude of the general population? Is it both? Or something else?

    I don’t know, I am disillusioned.

    I bought into the kool-aid and that whole India 8% growth story. I want my money back.

    Well, people can say that Singapore has no real freedoms, you’re just a puppet and so on. I have an analogy for that. We need a class teacher to maintain discipline (law and order) so that the classes can proceed and progress can be made, otherwise there will be just noise and only people who somehow learn to not get affected by the noise and study on their own (businessmen who succeed). It’s not like there is no freedom, you can always raise your hands and talk to the class teacher (citizens representation to the government) or at least approach the teacher after class hours (write to them)….

    Irrespective of the type of government (democracy or autocracy or whatever), maintaining discipline should be the primary responsibility of the government, which is what is lacking in India today. For example, why is it that the same Indians who go to places like Singapore suddenly start following the rules? Because they know they’ll be fined otherwise. And once people start respecting each other, keep the premises clean, and maintain civic behavior, things automatically start looking better.

    On the other hand, on Bangalore roads, I face road rage everyday. That’s why I prefer to listen to songs on my iPod, so that I can tune out all these unruly people.


    I really want to go back to that hotel and argue with the owner. But I have nothing. Nothing.

    India is No. 115 out of 157 in the 2008 Index of Economic Freedom. I have no idea what that means, but I’m sure it’s not a good thing.

    Even in a “forward” state like Karnataka, nearly three-fourths of rural eighth standard students cannot do basic subtraction, fewer than half of the schools have all teachers present, and only 7.4 per cent of students in standards 3 through 5 can read a sentence in English. The report is simply depressing.

    Even our IT boom is debatable.

    I hope someday I can go back to the hotel owner and defend India.