Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chalta Hai...

I recently finished reading Khushwant Singh's "Train to Pakistan". I had heard about it, read the reviews, read the sunday supplement commentaries about it and seen the trailer of the movie - but never read the book itself. The thing that struck me most about the story is the fact that it is poignant even today, 60 years after the brutal partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Khushwant Singh's prose is easy to read and almost like a screenplay unfolds to the reader and comes alive. The book was also accompanied by photographs of Margaret Bourke White, the renowned Life photojournalist who covered the horrors of the great partition. The horrifying photographs of vultures feeding on the carrion of human flesh and other such, helped bring the context of the prose in morbid detail.

The characters of the book are not all perfect and there are no true protagonists or antagonists. As the prose makes very clear, "The fact is both sides (Hindus & Muslims) killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both raped", almost every character in the book has some or other shade of grey. As I read through the book and was introduced to feelings of the various characters, another thing struck me as being very true. The character of Hukum Chand, the local magistrate and most influential person in the story is according to me, representative of our collective nature - of the people of the Indian Subcontinent - the fact that we do not have high standards for ourselves.

Hukum Chand's character is one of a lackadaisical, unkempt person who does not have very high standards for himself. He is corrupt and given the circumstance and the power that he wields, guilty of not doing anything constructive. He is also stuck in a moral conflict with himself - he recognizes his ineptitude and the bad that it is leading to, but is unable to compel himself to do anything better. He ends up rationalizing that "life is like that" and one has to go on with it. This is probably the most damaging kind of rationalizing a person can do and the mojority of the populace of the subcontinent is guilty of doing this throughout our lives. We have the "Chalta Hai" attitude - which is the anchor tied against our legs.

Back in college a professor asked us - a batch of soon to graduate MBA students, a question - "What is holding India back?". After some debate about population and restrictive government policy and other such like, the professor answered his own question. He showed us students the need to be fiercely demanding in improving the quality of one's life, a spirit which he had found in people struggling to survive in post-war Cambodia - and in juxtaposition, the lack of the same spirit in the Indian psyche. Most of us were moved by this and spent sometime debating and discussing this topic. But soon the hullabaloo of the topic waned and we were all consumed in the pursuit of academic requirements. Most of us now have comfortable jobs and are settled in the pursuit of monetary rewards and the topic is all but lost as one good presentation during the MBA course.

As I read the book, I have realized that it is the nature of Hukum Chand and truly that of the majority of our populace is the main cause of our being backward and toothless. And toothless we are. Consider the issue of our national security. A few colleagues and friends of mine were recently having a conversation about the spate of bomb blasts which has hit our metro's in the last couple of months - Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Delhi. Soon we realized that there is probably no other part of the World today, apart from Iraq where there is a full scale war, that there are bomb blasts every other day and the response or the action to curb it is not even registering a blip. We as a nation have come to accept this sorry state of affairs as just another incident and "Chalta Hai" attitude is manifest.

I live in Mumbai and commute everyday to office on the local suburban trains. The passanger carrying capacity these trains according to estimates is around 1700 people. A recent survey estimated that more 5100 people occupy the space meant for 1700 people during rush hour. The conditions of the trains are bad - one is barely able to find a foothold into the train at most times and many people hang on precariously at the edge and on the roofs, but very few people are committed to do anything about it. One soon realizes that there is no other viable alternative for getting from one place to another, without burning a hole in one's pocket or loosing a lot of time. The traffic is so bad that one ends up rationalizing that travelling for a short time with one's face directly in the next person's armpit on the local suburban train is better. According to statistics around three people die everyday in cases related to the Mumbai suburban train system and the effort to solve this horrendous situation is hardly visible. The number of people falling off trains and getting seriously hurt are innumerable - I happened to witness one such incident earlier today morning - but we hardly are bothered to improve the situation. In fact, the reaction one is more likely to hear about the Mumbai suburban railway is, that it is amazing that despite all these problems, it still manages to run and ferry millions of people to their destinations everyday1 The "Chalta Hai" attitude is manifest here in the fact that we dont have demanding standards and the alternatives are so bad that we are okay even with the despicable conditions.

And this attitude has a the same nature as a contagious disease. We are 'okay' with people defecating all over the railway tracks and footpaths - afterall these poor people do not even have a place to stay - and we are also 'okay' with our kitchen refuse to be thrown just outside our own front doors. We have only recently started getting water in our taps, so we need to adjust if the government cannot organize garbage disposal yet. And this attitude also makes us accept multiple bomb blasts as something borne as a result of India's muti-ethnic populace. We always seems to be under the misconception that we need to adjust with what we have or what is thrown at us - but fail to realize that once we have accepted this, we will always get only what is thrown at us.

Another thing which is common to our response to all the bad things that happen to us is a display of rage - usually misdirected. I can recollect an incident of arguement with my friends over an alleged case of racism against us Indians in foreign countries. The reaction to such a situation was rage and anger directed at the foreigner. The arguement which I had to this reaction was that, rage against a racist remark is futile and it was as if "I can't do much about the fact that I am being racially abused, but as long as I can react to it by being angry its okay". This for me is another manifestation of the "Chalta Hai" attitude as being angry and retorting to someone will not help solve the situation.

The crux of the problem with the pschye of a majority of Indians is that we do not set high standards for ourselves. We are in moral conflict with ourselves because of this and to make up for the lack of standards we have developed a pseudo sense of bravado which demands us to react to situations and expect some counter reaction. All the time we are hoping that something or someone will step up and make the case for us and show us the path to betterment while always accepting what is thrown at us. This according to me is the main cause of India's backwardness.

1 comment:

Inder said...

Amazing thoughts,Anand i believe the history is also responsible to some extent when we talk abt maintaining high standards.Since independence,we kinda of begged for it,till now whole nation has been down under loads of things.Also being a world's biggest secular nation,where people fight on the name GOD,maintaining high standards will always be the issue.so....Chalta hai

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