Sunday, June 15, 2008

Two Worlds Within One Country

The Affluent, previleged ones are queueing up outside this stall to have a free shave, and a free razor.

They materialised out of nowhere, and squatted on the platform, the underprivileged ones.

They materialised out of nowhere, by stealth, like guerrilla fighters in the jungle, except that this was the urban jungle. There were unwashed and their shiny, dark faces had a beauty of their own, something gypsies and troubadours have.

They sat on the platform in Andheri station as I was waiting for a train to CBD Belapur, and I, too, quite stealthily took out my mobile phone and captured them and here’s the result. None of them seemed to have an iota of education, and none of them would qualify for a job, except that of scrounging for plastic in garbage bins and selling them to businesses that recycled plastic, which is what they seemed to do as they had metal hooks they used as implements. They were well built and able-bodied with well-shaped arms and legs and seemed dangerous. I guess even the black-coated ticket checker daren’t ask them for tickets as they knew the consequences.

In this relentless monsoon where will they stay? Who knows? May be in plastic hovels held up with sticks in some dumping ground. This is one aspect of India that remains hidden from the television cameras, the movie cameras, the one that the privileged do not even acknowledge. This is the truth of India.

If I ask them there would be a story that would shock and awe me. Truly, these are the sort of people who are at the receiving end of globalisation which the diametrically opposite faction is tom-toming as the future of India, the India of “India Shining”, “Twenty-first century India”, and “Yuppie India.” And they aren’t going away anywhere. They multiply like the opposite camp does and democracy has taught them that they too have rights. They may have been displaced for dams and expressways, but they survive all right, even if it means eking a precarious existence by selling plastic scrounged from garbage bins.

Two days later I was in Centre One in Vashi, New Bombay. I saw another face of India, the consumerist face. People are buying, buying, buying! Trolleys are full of snacks, fruit juices, anything and everything is available. I can’t even believe it is India because I see tinned baked beans in tomato sauce, sauerkraut (cabbage something or the other), and a whole lot of stuff; I don’t even remember what they are.

On the other hand, exercising my grey cells, as I am rarely wont to do, I do remember: scented candles with candle stands, wine and champagne glasses, rows of shampoos, and vitamin enriched shaving foam (this one’s a marvel at Rs 100 for a can, the last one I bought from Reliance Fresh was Rs 250 a can), at prices so cheap. Which makes me want to kick Bush for saying India is consuming all the world’s food, when his country is dumping baked beans and sauerkraut on us.

I digress, and when I digress, I digress bad. Damn! Coming back to the mall, this is the affluent India of call centres, mercenary marketers and brand managers, and FMCG executives who offer you a sachet of shampoo and comb with every pack of the fairness cream, etc. etc. The men all have harassed looks, and the women a glow from all the freebies on offer. Such as the following:

Free razors if you have a shave (several unshaven guys queuing up here); a free pack of cappuccino if you taste one for free; two packs of potato chips for the price of one. And a sign says blithely in bold 250 sanserif Arial print: “The Only Way to Save Money is to Buy More.”

Buy… buy… buy….

A salesgirl sidles up to me as I am admiring a John Miller shirt and we start talking. I like the design, the colour, the stitching, the works, except that the price is Rs 1125, for which I can buy two decent shirts of a lower brand.

“But sir, it’s the brand. You will stand out in a John Miller shirt.”

“Oh, will I?” I ask and she isn’t bad looking too.

“Yes, sir, this shirt will look very good on you.”

Then I have my doubts and I look her in the eye, smile and thank her and walk away. Suddenly, as if on cue, her face droops and she loses all interest in me. Gosh, I thought she liked me.

Now this guy John Miller (with whom I share a first name) must have been some very inventive guy to sell shirts at double the price. “Wot men,” my friend Anthonybhai would have said, “aaj kal, aisaich hai, no value for money, men. Those richie-rich buggers who throw money have it so good, no men?”

He should know because he is neither the privileged one, nor the forsaken one. Neither am I.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
You have beautifully captured, what I have been thinking for the last year or so. Every time we visit Chennai, we see crowds thronging shops..sari shops, jewellery shops, movie theatres, malls, etc. Some of my ex-colleagues used to ask me, "Are people in India very poor?". I am totally at a loss for words.
I have never been able to explain how there is a vulgar display of disposable income on one hand, while hungry faces stare at us on the other side of the street ! You've done a fantastic job of putting this into words.