Vidya Narayan Swamy, 22, New Delhi
New Delhi: It’s morning peak hour one March day on the Delhi Metro, and the coachis crammed with students headed for Delhi University. N. Vidya , 22, is on her way to the Faculty of Law. Clutching a mobile phone in one hand and a library book in the other, the first-year law student is composed, oblivious to the noisy chatter of students around her.
The train speeds past billboards that advertise products of the era of economic openness Vidya grew up in. A mobile phone company invites her to send more text messages while a private sector bank beckons her to try its free Internet banking service. And a health ministry billboard pitches yoga as a cure for “depression” in the “age of recession”—a reference to the hard times the economy is experiencing after years of rapid growth.
Vidya Narayan Swamy. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Vidya is happy at the way India’s economy expanded in the era she was raised. But she is sorry that the focus on frenzied economic growth in more recent years has masked social and economic divides that have only widened while social ills such as dowry still flourish.
Vidya applied for a three-year degree course in law last year because of a belief that the legal profession can bring about social transformation.
It was in the early years of liberalization, when Vidya was in primary school, that the legal profession underwent change.
New market-friendly government policies aimed at boosting economic growth created demand for corporate lawyers to advise on foreign investments and complex commercial transactions. And a spirit of public interest entered the profession as lawyers took on both corporate giants and the government over issues such as human rights and environmental damage.
Vidya wants to be an independent, activist lawyer. Her ambition is to fight for those who have suffered injustice and those who don’t have access to legal aid. She says she will do pro bono work and take on the poor as clients rather than pursue an attractive career in corporate law that she feels will be “helping rich companies evade taxes”.
Vidya will be a first-time voter in the April-May general election. She has a voter identity card and intends to cast her ballot. She supports the Congress “because it is the only true secular party”.
Politics is something she enjoys “as a subject”, Vidya says, although she has never felt the need to volunteer or work with a political party. Before signing up for the law course, she completed an undergraduate programme in arts, specializing in political science.
“Discussing politics is important in my household,” she says.
Her father M.R. Narayan Swamy, chief news editor at the wire service Indo-Asian News Service, covered Indian politics and Sri Lankan affairs as a reporter for around two decades. Her mother Ranjini teaches English literature at St Paul’s School in Hauz Khas, New Delhi.
“Vidya has on her own taken a certain stand on liberal secularism and is concerned about human rights issues. Sometimes, at the dining table, her knowledge of current affairs...(surprises) me. When I ask her, she says she learns by reading,” says Swamy.
Swamy grew up in a Delhi—and an economy—far different from the one his daughter was born into. His family lived in Kidwai Nagar, a middle-class south Delhi neighbourhood, before moving further south to a house bought by his father in Saket.
“When my grandfather bought the house, Saket was a remote village with dusty roads. My dad was really upset,” says Vidya.
Swamy’s father was a member of Indira Gandhi’s personal staff in the 1960s, when she was the minister of information and broadcasting in the Congress government.
Swamy says his father was among the first few south Indians, or “Madrasis” as they were called, who moved to New Delhi with skills such as typing and shorthand, looking for government jobs.
Today, Saket is a posh south Delhi neighbourhood. The city’s elite throng the stores in its malls to shop for luxuries.
Vidya enjoys going to the air-conditioned malls and likes eating out once in a while at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.
Swamy remembers how his own family survived on groceries from the government’s public distribution system, supplied through outlets known as ration shops. He says his father would often be broke by the end of the month because of financial commitments back in his village.
“That middle class which was not poor survived then thanks to the government of India and previous British government’s decision to ration food through the public distribution system by providing rice, oil and wheat at subsidized prices,” Swamy says.
He says that none of this seems “real” to Vidya. “They are just tales she heard while she was growing up.”
Not that the tales have gone unheeded. By listening to them, Vidya says she has learnt her lessons, including the need to value money, since she was a child.
When she gets out of the Delhi Metro station around 1km from her college campus, she begins to walk briskly, ignoring the cycle rickshaws that ferry students to class for Rs10. “It takes about 15 minutes, but I walk. I only take the rickshaw when I am late,” says Vidya.
She says she budgets her expenditure on transport and phone bills so she does not spend in excess of the monthly allowance of Rs6,000 given by her parents.
She has recently taken up a freelance writing job, which pays her Rs2,500 a month, with an Internet portal designed to inform non-resident Indians about investing in India. Her earnings go straight into her Bank of India savings account.
The ability to earn their own money is another gift of liberalization to those who were born in the era of economic reform—or the years immediately preceding it. Reforms revolutionized sectors such as information technology, telecommunications, aviation and media, and created numerous job opportunities.
The Internet, which supported Web browsing and email, also provided a platform for the young to reach out to the world’s best universities to pursue academic goals and opened up part-time and full-time jobs to help them gain financial independence.
“Like me, most of my friends have part-time jobs even as they are pursuing their studies,” says Vidya.
TRADITIONAL AND MODERN
She prefers using public transport because it allows her to interact with people of all kinds and helps her understand her country better. “The government does a lot,” she says. “You (the youth) are the first ones to complain even though you don’t use it (amenities provided by the government) or know how to maintain it.”
She detests spoilt kids, such as the “17-year-olds driving cars in full speed without licences and endangering their own lives and those of others around them”.
This March day, after college, Vidya is browsing in the political books section at Oxford Bookstore.
The titles she sifts through include Poverty and Human Rights, Secularism and its Critics, Women and Social Reform in Modern India and Promoting Democracy in Post-Conflict Societies.
She says she enjoys reading biographies. Nehru: The Invention of India by Shashi Tharoor is her favourite.
At the magazines section, she ignores the one with a glamorous cover shot of actor Freida Pinto staring down at her. “Such magazines are a waste of paper,” she remarks.
Vidya hasn’t been touched by the exposure to a Western way of living that television brought to Indian homes after liberalization.
“I wear Indian clothes most of the time,” she says, but she is open to concepts such as dating and love marriage that her parents might frown upon.
Like her, she says, her generation strives to be “traditional but with a modern outlook”. She leaves the bookstore and heads out to meet her mother at a neighbourhood temple she visits every day.
Her prayers include one for India’s progress.