Old India, New Indian
Finally, during a longish halt, he climbed down. He smiled at me and asked: ‘‘Where you going?’’ ‘‘Trivandrum,’’ I replied. ‘‘I also going to Trivandrum. My friends booking a resort in Kovalam. We will have some enjoyment.’’
In India, a train journey is rarely complete without fellow passengers exchanging bio-datas. Within minutes, I had his: His name was Velu, he was 29, and he worked as a leather technician in Guangzhou, China. He had a wife and a four-year-old daughter who lived back home in Chennai. He was on vacation, and he was on his way Kovalam beach for ‘‘enjoyment.’’
‘‘You coming to China? You must go to Shanghai. Very big city. I take my wife there last year.’’ He offered me a cigarette. I reminded him that smoking was not permitted in the train. He withdrew the packet and went on: ‘‘In China, even females are taking smokes, just like men!’’
The urge for a smoke had made him restless and he asked for the copy of Time magazine lying on my lap. He absentmindedly flipped through the pages until his eyes fell on an article titled ‘‘Sex, Please — We’re Young and Chinese.’’ His eyes kept widening as he progressed through the article and muttered from time to time: ‘‘Correct! Absolutely correct!’’ His eyes finally popped out of the sockets when he spotted the word Guangzhou. ‘‘See! See! Here I am working.’’
By now the train had pulled out of the station. We were passing railways buildings, their walls painted with slogans like ‘‘Railway men on strike!’’ and ‘‘SRMU Zindabad!’’ (SRMU is a union of railway workers). Barely 20 years ago, such graffiti could be seen on walls anywhere in the country. Those were the days of the capitalist versus the worker, when strikes, or threats to strike, were commonplace.
But in Corporate India, unions have by and large become redundant. They are now concentrated mainly in the communist bastions of West Bengal and Kerala, and it was Kerala our train was snaking through. Outside, it was the Old India, which still believed in the might of the workers. But inside, sitting with me, was the New Indian, earning good money in the New China. Old India, New Indian — these two contrasting concepts divide the average Indian today.
This division cannot be more obvious than on Kolkata’s Elgin Road. Last week, I stood on that road, asking for directions, when something struck me. On my left was the house of Subhas Chandra Bose (now called Netaji Research Bureau), an icon of Bengal — Communist or otherwise. Technically, the party founded by him, Forward Bloc, is now a part of the Left coalition ruling the state. Shattering the calm of his house is the loud music blaring from the compound of Forum, an upscale shopping mall. The music was meant to attract the attention of people to a car-buying scheme. A few years ago, such a blatant pratice of consumerism, that too on the road where Netaji once lived, would have been considered blasphemous. Not anymore. Most Calcuttans no longer think like Satya Kaku. One rarely comes across a committed man as Satya Ray, or Satya Kaku — Kaku meaning ‘‘uncle’’ in Bengali. He is a bachelor at 74, but he has been married to Communism. I met him at a friend’s place.
Satya Kaku retired about 15 years ago from the State Bank of India. He told me with pride: ‘‘I joined in 1955, when it was called the Imperial Bank. Then it became the State Bank of India. I worked there for 40 years minus 17 days.’’ He added with the same sense of pride: ‘‘I did a lot of ‘union’. That is why I never got promoted. But those days you treated the officer like an enemy, like dirt. But these days union leaders are sold out. They treat the officer with a lot of respect. It is really sad.’’
In fact, the new-generation Calcuttans have said an emphatic ‘‘No’’ to the graffiti with which the ruling Left Front wants to paint the city’s walls to highlight its 30 years in power. ‘‘Left or Right, you have no right to write,’’ a woman listener told a radio programme when asked about her reaction to the State Government’s move. Newly-formed unions of residents have crossed swords with the traditional unions over the proposed graffiti-writing. Considering that political graffiti is something that every Calcuttan has grown up with, the resistance indicates a drastic change in attitude.
That’s India for you today. On the one hand, you see the fruits of economic liberalisation and globalisation — processes started in the early 1990s by the then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, who is today the Prime Minister. Shopping malls are becoming so common that newspapers and magazines have stopped screaming: ‘‘Mall Mania!’’ Tommy Hilfiger underwear and Guess jeans have moved out from the glossy pages of GQ and Vanity Fair into the racks in these malls. Peopling these malls are young men and women who no longer seek government employment just for the sake of job security. One works in a confectionary company that has just been taken over by a Korean major, another works in a software firm headquartered in California, and so on. At parties, they curse Indian airports and debate which airport is better, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
On the other hand are the watchdogs of Old India — people who are highly allergic to the terms ‘‘economic liberalisation’’ and ‘‘globalisation’’. They oppose proposals to privatise airports or any government institution that is in a pathetic state: the idea is not to endanger the job security of employees. They fight all takeover bids. They go on strike. And yes, they hate America. These people are getting stronger as well. Earlier this month, Communists returned to power in West Bengal as well as Kerala. And in the 2004 general elections, the Left parties bagged 64 seats — their best performance ever.
But strangely, the New Indian and the watchdogs of the Old India are allies in the Central Government. And they seem to be faring well together, considering that Manmohan Singh has just finished two years in office without any hurdles coming his way. So while their friendship keeps the Government going, their differences keep editors and journalists in business. Good news, after all, is hardly any news.