Even in the land of cliches, some are more worn-out than others, well past their “sell-by” date.
One such cliché is the phrase “the pessimist looks at a glass of water and sees it half empty, whereas the optimist looks at the same glass and sees it half full”. I have often thought, “Why can’t we just call it as it actually is: both half full as well as half empty?”
At a conference to discuss the future of India, I felt the same urge to stop the rhetoric of contrasting assessments—either “India is unstoppable!” or “We are going to hell in a hand-basket!” I am fairly sure that the reasonable view is, as with the cliché, that both views are true. In fact, many of us have experienced both extreme emotions in differing situations. Let me share two of my own.
A few days ago, I walked into one of Bangalore’s steaming shopping malls. The sheer energy of the place was like a physical force—I haven’t ever felt anything like this in any other shopping mall across the world.
I am not talking of the shops or the products, but rather the unadulterated exuberance of India’s youth. There must have been no more than five people in that mall over the age of 60, and each of them looked completely lost. Older Indians must feel in some foreign land: the language, the decibel levels, the clothes being worn, the feverish pace, the food courts. The sense of pulsating energy was like being in the disco of the scene from Kaminey during the song Dhan te nan, tana nana, with the camera zooming in and out of Shahid Kapoor’s face. The impact is visceral, a powerful illustration of how much and how quickly India’s aspirations are changing. Despite being unsettling, it’s hard not to be exhilarated by it.
Barely a few miles away from the same mall, some years ago, I had walked into a slum with a local community activist. Housing close to 20,000 families, this is one of Bangalore’s largest slum clusters, sandwiched between two key arterial roads in the city, one leading to Koramangala, the city’s upper crust residential area, and the other going to Hosur Road where Electronic City is located.
It was monsoon season. At the entrance was a government EWS (economically weaker section) housing quarters that had been built less than 10 years earlier. Already, the edifice was crumbling, with chunks of plaster coming off the walls, and portions of ceilings giving way. Between two of the buildings was a pool of sewage from a pipe that had burst God knows when. A full-grown buffalo had drowned in this pit the previous week.
The rain poured steadily as we walked into the slum, the main tarred road giving way to a slushy mud track. Along the way, off to one corner of the path, I saw a cement pit dug into the ground.
“What is this?” I asked. He pointed to the tap that hung over the pit.
“That’s the community connection for the neighbourhood,” he said, “the supply comes a few hours a day, sometimes from two in the morning to four, so the children line up by midnight to collect the water.” I looked at it, aghast. The muddy slush from the rain was gushing into the pit.
“In this?” I asked with incredulity.
“Come back at midnight, and you will see buckets being swished in the pit to take what they can lay their hands on,” he replied grimly.
I’m not one prone to dramatic portraits of poverty and destitution. Like millions of other proud Indians, I cringed when I watched the first few scenes of Slumdog Millionaire. But inasmuch as the mall is a genuine slice of life in today’s India, so is the second portrait.
We need to have the capacity to hold both these images simultaneously in our head as we think of India and its trajectory of development in the coming decades. The pace at which changes are happening is frankly beyond comprehension. It’s like a set of forces have been unleashed, on a scale that no country has ever seen—all coming together in a bizarre cocktail of aspiration and innovation, greed and hubris. The whole country is a giant laboratory for this experiment, and I dare say no one really knows where things are going to explode, and in which corner sublime alchemy is taking place.
I hold in my head the images from both these experiences—the throbbing mall with its hyperkinetic energy of hope, and children standing by a muddy water pit in the dark rain, waiting for hours. I struggle to reconcile these images in my mind, to see the glass both half full and half empty at the same time, and am sorely tempted to simplify the analysis and hold on to just one of these narratives.
This is my last piece of Mobius Strip, having had the privilege of writing it from Mint’s inception. My deep gratitude to Mint’s editors who rashly gave a part-time writer a free rein. My thanks also to the surprisingly large number of readers who chose to write in—often positive, but not infrequently critical. I will miss this greatly.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org