Monday, April 30, 2012

Part of the problem is that the author gravitates towards spaces of leisure—house parties, nightlife, music, TV, concerts, restaurants, shopping malls. He also says that leisure has been democratised. “Boys and girls drink together in well-lit, happy spaces.” I’d like to know how many young Indians can afford to be in these democratic spaces.

Nearly 28 percent of India lives in its cities and the figure is likely to go up to 40 percent by 2030. Urban areas contribute two-thirds of the national Gross Domestic Product. Reports from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy indicate that the average quarterly (urban) household income stands at 45,000, which translates into 15,000 per month to cover house rent, food, clothes, medicine, tuition, electricity, transport. At that income level, based on the cost of living in Mumbai and Delhi, the only entertainment one can hope for is TV, and perhaps an Internet connection. Even buying a bottle of wine and hopping into a taxi to visit a friend is a strain.

Surveys suggest that households earning more than 1 million per annum comprise only around five percent of urban households but that they contribute to one-third of the total urban consumer expenditure. From such households come youngsters who can pay monthly house rents of 25,000 or more, and who can buy Carlsberg beer, or Tuborg if they prefer. True, we now have that choice. But Mehrotra tells us very little about the majority that cannot afford, and perhaps doesn’t want, a can of Carlsberg. He tells us that people who work at restaurants like McDonalds like their jobs. But he doesn’t tell us where they might go when they want a drink or how they commute, nor does he seem bothered by these questions.

If Mehrotra were to dissect this notion of democratic leisure, he’d find that it’s a cruel joke. In most cities, green spaces that young people might have enjoyed at no cost are shrinking. Several public parks are locked up after sunset, to keep out ‘undesirable elements’. There are very few clean public toilets. Mumbai has the Carter Road promenade, with benches, but food and drink is forbidden. Except the beach, there’s nowhere to go. Try drinking alcohol on the beach and you’re liable to get arrested. Dance bars have been banned in Mumbai, although dance shows are permitted in five star hotels. There are discotheques but cover charges are high and the drinks expensive. So, whose leisure has been democratised?

One interesting development over the past decade has been the spurt in the number of coffee houses (in a primarily tea-drinking nation!). Chains like Café Coffee Day have at least 1,200 outlets; Barista has more than 200; international brands like Costa Coffee have arrived; Starbucks is making a late entry. There are a few dozen independent cafes. Most of these serve a cuppa priced between 60 and 120. Business is booming because middle-class Indians are hungry for spaces where they can meet safely.

Students, lovers on dates, young professionals—they have nowhere else to go. The cooperatives running Indian Coffee House are struggling, fading out. Those who cannot afford the 60 cappuccino have to drink tea at roadside stalls, where they cannot sit down to talk. Where do the cooks and drivers and autorickshaw wallahs take their leisure?

In ‘Servants of India’, Mehrotra’s writing is empathetic. He describes a mall visit during which he spots a family accompanied by servants out shopping. The employers disappear into a Mexican restaurant and leave the two servants outside, holding the bags and the baby. He mentions Delhi’s high crime rates, the several instances of the help robbing and killing employers, but also of the latter torturing the workers. He writes, “The servant is not someone who provides a service at a cost. He is someone who is less than human… when I put myself in Ramu’s shoes, I can see myself reaching for the iron rod, the hammer, the kitchen knife.”

But then, I’m annoyed at this throwaway line: “In Delhi, most can afford round-the-clock help.” It only reiterates my impression that Mehrotra is essentially writing about the upper class.

And much of what Mehrotra tells us about servants, we already know. By ‘we’ I mean the English-speaking, book-buying middle class in India. We read the papers. We observe what the author observes because we hire domestic help ourselves, or intimately know others who do. He spells out the connections between extreme disparities of lifestyle, physical isolation, and a servant’s attempt to strike back using a moral code borrowed from employers. But he doesn’t give us details. Not a single worker is interviewed at any length, so we don’t have a clear sense of the extent of their bondage, desperation or greed.

At best, the essay serves as a primer for non-resident Indians or international readers who are not familiar with the way live-in servants are treated in upper-class urban households.

Social commentary in The Butterfly Generation is a tossed salad of stock phrases: ‘socialist era’, ‘global capitalism’, ‘liberal’, ‘feudal’... I’m soon longing for a metaphorical flyswatter each time the word ‘socialism’ appears.

We were always a mixed economy—and in a limited way still are—and that knowledge is critical to an understanding of the '90s kids. A mixed economy meant that we thought of the government not only as an administrative and legal force, but also as a provider of secure jobs across a wide swathe of sectors. You didn’t have to be a bureaucrat or a politician or a soldier to get pensions and cheap medical care. You could be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a mechanic, a furnace-stoker, a baggage handler, a banker. People took pride in working for state-owned enterprises like Bharat Heavy Electricals or Air India. Even now, despite our ranting against the ‘system’, few young people would dismiss a government job in an institution that’s likely to stay solvent.

You were told that if you were a ‘private’ party, you needed to find ways of ‘getting work done’. This meant a sinuous chain of ‘contacts’ with senior officials, or bribery. At least some of our mistrust of profit and private capital has come from there, not from socialist ideals.

In fact, although our Constitution tells us we aspire towards socialism, we were never taught to respect socialist ideals. I don’t remember being taught that natural resources belong equally to everybody, or that private property was a bad thing. I wasn’t even taught that every citizen had a right to food, sanitation, housing and education. It wasn’t in our books. It wasn’t in the air around us.

Perhaps that would explain why so many in our generation—particularly urban citizens—are up in arms against government schemes that offer food, health and education—especially those directed at rural citizens, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the midday meal scheme. It would also explain our early disconnect from the battle for resources. We wanted non-stop electricity and water, but we expected the government to help us get it, even if it meant the destruction of fellow citizens’ homes and livelihoods.

Because we are used to the government being able to step in and control things in every sector, we continue to expect that it will, although much infrastructure is now created and controlled by non-state corporations. For instance, when Jet Airways let go of some of its workers, they wanted the state to help save their jobs. When taxi and auto drivers demand higher fares, the middle-class commuter expects the state to rein them in.

Mehrotra seems not to have taken cognisance of the psychology of the mixed economy as distinct from socialist, or capitalist, or feudal.

Meanwhile, I have a speechless, blank Post-It on page 98 against this statement: “Class barriers, too, have been broken down in these showrooms of global capitalism. The bank manager’s son works side by side with a new migrant to the city, and they both start with a clean slate… centuries of prejudice are instantly wiped out.”

On caste prejudice, the author is disarmingly naïve. He seems not to know that traditionally, cooks belonged to upper castes, so working in a restaurant is not a come-down. He should have interviewed people who clean the toilets.

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