I called up my parents this morning. The first thing they said to me on picking up the phone was ‘Happy Independence Day’. That’s when it struck me. The husband and I had discussed the Independence Day special programs on TV last night and this morning we reminisced celebrating this day as children. We even met half a dozen Indian colleagues in office today, but none of us thought these words needed to be said or that this day should be celebrated. That’s how alienated most of our generation feels from concepts like freedom and independence which we take completely for granted.
The husband and I regularly watch CNN-IBN since it is broadcasted live on the internet. Yesterday they were interviewing young people, asking them their views on freedom. Most said it is the right to do whatever you want, whenever you want and however you want, or some such similar interpretation. A young lady offered the gem – I am about to walk into a shopping mall and freedom for me is to be able to buy whatever catches my fancy. Yes, economic freedom is important to all of us. So is freedom of speech and action. I would be very happy if I could do all I wanted, whenever I wanted to. But whatever happened to responsible freedom? Or for that matter, equality, justice, dignity, education, opportunities, food, sanitation and other such sundry concepts? Did no one find them important or were these sound bites edited out since they were not sensational enough?
Perhaps nobody talked of these things since many of us don’t enjoy or know others who don’t enjoy these essential privileges of free citizens in a free country. When we have seen our bai’s ten year old daughter wash the dishes instead of going to school, observed firsthand how slum and footpath dwellers live in a metropolis or heard of the caste-based politics still played out in our villages, have had to bribe our way past peons in a government office or seen the kind of politicans that get elected year after year, it is difficult to associate these privileges with our lives as citizens of an independent India.
In this day and age, privileges are all about the self. What I can achieve, or at the most what I can give to my family. But why do we forget that the view from our sixty lakh flat is going to be abominable if our posh society is surrounded by filthy slums on all sides? Or that it will get increasingly dangerous to enjoy the fruits of one’s hard earned success if the rest of our countrymen cannot keep pace with that success? (All you folks who scoff at idealism, here is an argument targeted at one’s basic self-interest.) Such thoughts are especially relevant to those of us who are reaping the benfits of the IT boom since this boom is to a large extent responsible for the increasing divide between our rich and poor.
Not all of us can be like Sudha Murthy, but couldn’t we make a beginning in our own small way? My mother, who took tuitions when I was small, more as a pastime than anything else, taught many poor children from the slum behind our house free of cost. Some of them weren’t interested and she couldn’t do much with them, but one girl got an engineering diploma and educated her three younger sisters from her earnings. Another boy who used to drop newspapers in our colony for many years was exceptionally bright and sincere. Apart from tutoring him I suspect my parents helped him financially in his studies. Today this boy is a Chartered Accountant working with a reputed PSU in Delhi and has shifted his family out of the slums to a smart new flat nearby. He recently came home to invite us for his wedding and the pride in my mother’s eyes was as evident as the gratitude in his.
I’d like to do something like that someday. When I was working in Pune until last year, my daily walk from the bus stop to my home passed by a local basti. Invariably as I walked by in the evening, the tap of the common water tank in the basti would stay open while the basti women washed clothes nearby. Each day I resolved to talk to them and explain the concept of water-conservation and each day my courage failed me. The thought of the running tap water still troubles me today. If only I had spoken out some day.
Lest someone get the idea of a cranky complaining woman with a holier-than-thou attitude, let me acknowledge that there are many more positives that I see around me and I’d like to write about them sometime. This is not a rant either. I cannot and will not rant since I am not above many of these failings myself. What I’d like to do is introspect. On where I might be going wrong and if I could do something better. And I’ll be glad if I can get some more people to introspect along with me. In the meanwhile, let me say this loud and clear, without any embarrassment. Happy Independence Day!