Bitter but better



My mother was a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party and, yet, before she passed away last year, she benefited from everything that is being opposed today by the saffron party and its pusillanimous allies.I call them pusillanimous because these parties are just not brave enough to step into the 21st century and embrace growth and change with both arms. And they represent just one class of people – the middlemen whose main job so far has been to fleece the poor and diddle the wealthy out of their riches.

The BJP did not even have the courage of its conviction to build the much-promised temple in Ayodhya during its six years in power – that was one of the chief reasons why my mother switched loyalties from other parties to the BJP in the 90s. And she always dismissed my cynicism as – you said it — `psuedo-secularism’, never losing hope even through my exhortations that it was the BJP which was a pseudo-Hindutvist party and would never build the temple while in power, though it was not beyond raising the rhetoric while out of it.

She watched the Ayodhya verdict last year with great interest, glued all day to television – and, if only for her sake, I was glad that it seemed to go in favour of the temple because I knew, even if she did not, that in her lifetime that’s all the assurance my mother was likely to get that a temple would indeed come up at the site.

Yet, my mother was no bigot. Unlike my aunt who sprayed her house with gangajal every time her husband invited his Muslim business associates home for dinner, my mother cooked happily for my father’s own Muslim colleagues and never thought she had to separate the dishes for them or for people from the underprivileged classes. Secularism may not have been her most favourite word and yet equality for all was practiced rigorously by all in our home – my mother setting the tone for it, almost unconsciously, as it were.

When it came to the vote, though, I believed it was only the temple issue that made the BJP stand out in her esteem. In all other matters, her question was the most basic bread-and-butter one that is common with the urban as well as the rural voters: how are they going to change my life for the better?

And, yet, it did change for the better. I remember a friend telling me he was glad his parents had lived long enough to see the changes happening in India today. “I remember a time when my mother used to wake me up at four am every morning to queue up outside the milk booth. We would get just one bottle each on our ration cards. And if I was too sleepy to hold on tightly to that bottle, there would be no milk for the children at home that day and only black tea for the adults. Now my mother delights in the supermarkets – she can pick up as many cartons of milk as she likes and we can all sleep late, for there is no fear of running out.’’

His story found resonance with me because my mother had the painful task each morning of measuring how thick (or thin) the milk delivered by her milkman was. He would protest when she accused him of thinning it with water. She was particularly delighted when she caught him out one day by asking, “I hope at least you use clean, drinking water?’’

“Fikar na karein, Maaji,’’ the milkman replied, caught off guard . “Main bahut saaf paani istemal karta hoon (Worry not. I use the cleanest water possible).’’

So while, to begin with, she was suspicious of the tetra-packs I brought home, those milk cartons became a symbol of the changing India – as did packaged branded grains and cereals that began to propound in the hypermarkets across India. All her life my mother and her housemaids had painfully sat down with the month’s supplies, bought `loose’, picking stones and grains from the chaff – to discover, dishearteningly, that after the cleaning process, the groceries seemed to have rather shrunk in weight.

But now not only did she have the luxury of buying pre-cleaned grains from the stores, her local grocer, who would once upon a time sell her wheat and rice full of `kankad’ , as she put it, now offered to relieve her of the need to stand in long queues at his store by delivering the groceries to our doorstep. “I have already had them picked free of stones and other `kachraa’. But if you want to have it cleaned again under your supervision, I can send across my boys any afternoon you like.’’

Double luxury that was for my Mom and though she delighted in strolling the supermarkets and handling/picking all her groceries herself, she still stayed loyal to the grocer who had served us for years. Her custom to him did not decline and his services improved so much, there was no way the supermarkets could beat the convenience of home delivery or placing orders on the phone any hour of the day or night for anything she might have run out of at the last minute.

Exactly two years ago, after a visit to Jaipur, I had written on this very blog about my own nostalgia for things old and familiar and how disappointed I was to see that almost all cities in India were going glass-and-concrete and flaunting similar stores (Please see: Looking for the old amid the new… December 4, 2009). I was greatly educated by the reactions of the small town dwellers who bitterly asked me if I proposed to keep the fruits of development all to myself in Bombay or Delhi and proposed not to allow it to filter down to the people in smaller towns, too.

I believe there are still enough people like them and those like my late mother and me who would want to keep the old order going while yet making place for the new and I do not think any one including our esteemed parliamentarians have the right to stop the people from enjoying the benefit of both. For, just a glancing look at the Crawford Market in Bombay will enlighten them about how the old world has adapted to the new and still managed to hold its head above water – the Crawford Market was the only place people of my grandparents’ generation used to shop at for everything from soaps to suitcases, with fruits and vegetables and rice and daal thrown in for better measure. None of the traders have shut shop there, though they may have reinvented themselves in various ways and it is still the preferred shopping destination for most middle-class households. The only thing the traders there complain about is the lack of parking facilities for consumers, like those at malls, which the Bombay Municipal Corporation is unable to provide for lack of space. But the traders still found a way round the incovenience—by employing more `boys’ to carry the goods to their customers’ cars.

So, I believe, the opposition should let the FDI in retail happen. For, given the conditions imposed, it stands to benefit not just the consumers but also small and middle income farmers, too, and will create huge employment in terms of the infrastructure they will have to build to keep their supply chains and storage networks going. Any one who thinks otherwise, has either a motive for not allowing growth and progress or is an uninventive trader himself.

I recall Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Tata group, saying a few months ago that he wished he were 20 years younger, in a nation of mostly young people, to be able to enjoy the new India he was sure was lurking just round the corner. Well, I am more than 20 years younger than Tata and I want that India to be let in the door NOW!

And, I believe, those who resist the change have neither the confidence in themselves nor in the rest of the people of India to overcome the circumstances and turn every disadvantage into an opportunity. They may delay the change but they will not be able to stop it from happening, forever. The sooner they realise this bitter truth, the better it would be for us all — the young and not-so-young (like me), the old-and-not-so old (like me, again). Amen!

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