Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 24

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Growing up in India I knew how hierarchical and status-oriented Indian society was, but the city of New Delhi took it to a bureaucratic extreme. I was told that in those days, if you gave out your Government quarters address, people would immediately know your approximate salary scale. The city’s residential pattern, inherited from the colonial rulers, was highly structured. If you are a top Secretary in a Ministry, your assigned quarters will be a large bungalow with acres of gardens in prize real estate in the city center, often a short distance from your office which you traverse in a chauffeur-driven official car. But if you are a lowly clerk or an orderly/peon in the same office building, you’ll come in a crowded bus from many miles away often outside the city.

Since I used to go to office by bus (until a colleague started giving me a ride in his car), I also noticed a peculiar pattern in the plying of Delhi state buses, compared to the buses I was familiar in Kolkata. You are waiting at a bus stop along with dozens of other people of different age groups and different amounts of baggage with them, and you’ll see bus after bus skipping your stop, particularly if they don’t have to unload any passengers at that stop. (Economists, of course, will point out that the bus driver and conductor on fixed pay have no incentive to take more passengers). And if the bus does have someone getting off at that stop, it will stop some distance away, and by the time all the waiting passengers with their baggages run to reach there, the bus is likely to have sped off.

What particularly amazed me was the attitude of both the passengers who were already in the bus and those who were haplessly left behind—the former highly amused at the pitiful failure of so many in the catch-me-if-you-can game, and the latter disappointed, but not particularly agitated. (If this continued for some time in the streets of Kolkata I was familiar with, large numbers of people would have barricaded and stopped the next bus, and probably vandalized it). Standing at the Delhi bus stop I had often pondered about the lack of empathy among one set of people and the lack of anger among the other, particularly when the next day the people in these two sets could be interchanged. The social-scientist in me speculated if the long history of invasions in this north-western part of the sub-continent and the attendant brutalities had a social legacy that made many common people in the area both deficient in empathy and prone to resignation to their fate.

Another bureaucratic aspect of life in Delhi those days was that even for many daily necessities you needed “connections” with some official to smooth your way. The year after we settled in Delhi our son, Titash, was born. Kalpana asked me to look into the possibility of getting a Delhi Milk Scheme ‘token’, which you needed for getting good-quality milk at a reasonable price. When I asked around about how to get such a ‘token’ I was told that I had to go and get the approval of the local MP (member of parliament), which meant jostling with a large crowd of supplicants at the MP’s office or house, or get someone who was friendly with the MP to give the latter a call to ease my way; I was quite reluctant do either. (For similar reasons I remained on the perpetual waiting list for a telephone connection at home).

I realized that the previous years of picking up a milk carton from the supermarket-shelf abroad had spoilt me. Before that in Kolkata, my father who was a stickler for the purity of our milk supply, had arranged with a local milkman to bring his cow and milk it right in front of us, so that there was no chance for him to adulterate the milk. I remember as a child talking to that Bihari milkman, who told me an amazing story about his two cows. They were let loose after all the milking was done every morning to go and graze in grassy fields outside the city, many miles away from his house. Every evening the cows would by themselves negotiate unerringly the various streets and labyrinthine lanes and bye-lanes of north Kolkata and come back to the milkman.

So one day at my ISI office while I was still preoccupied with the thought of procuring milk, there was a knock at my door, and in came a life-insurance agent eager to sell me a government-provided life-insurance policy. As usually happens with young people, life insurance was not uppermost in my mind, and I thought of dismissing this man as soon as he was finished with his sales pitch. But before he finished he added that as my loyal insurance agent he could also help me out in other matters relating to public services. I asked him if he could procure Milk Scheme ‘tokens’, he said, “how many do you want?” So I asked him to get a ‘token’ by the next day and then I’d be prepared to talk to him about life insurance. Next day he delivered and became my life-insurance agent. (By the way, as a child I remember when I first heard the expression ‘life insurance’ I wondered how someone could miraculously insure a life against death.)

One quite positive aspect of my Delhi experience was that for the first time I felt I was in an all-India city. In office or in after-hour gatherings I had never met before so many people from different parts of the country, speaking different languages, dressed in different attire, eating different foods, and yet sharing a difficult-to-define all-India identity. In the middle and upper classes, of course, the commonalities were often defined by English as a bridge language, their interest in Bombay films (I detest the word ‘Bollywood’) and cricket, and, of course, by a politically-manipulated enmity toward Pakistan.

I have often wondered for the vast masses of the poor in India with so many different languages, cultures, religions, castes and foods, which common things they all shared (particularly in those days prior to internet and social media, even TV had not yet come in a big way in their lives)—surely the epics (but even those were different in different regions, the Ramayana, for example, in the South can be quite different from that in the North particularly at the folk level), and perhaps the pilgrimages. I read an article by the cultural-anthropologist Nirmal Bose (teacher of my sociologist friend André Beteille), where he says that contrary to the idea of the British unifying India, for many centuries the people going on pilgrimages from different parts of India met, interacted and shared in a common multi-faceted cultural identity.

I remember my sister told me that when she used to live in Kerala, my mother visiting her, had long sessions with a neighbor, a woman her age, neither understanding a word of the other’s language, and yet continuing in their own languages for hours to communicate with each other their joys and sorrows! I suppose the pilgrims interacted similarly.