The reader will remember Durga and her little brother Apu in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.
Turning into Max Mueller Road in Delhi the other day, I saw a little boy sitting on the pavement seriously pondering over at a pale gnarled guava. He was joined by a slightly older girl, most likely his sister. They were both in rags, needless to say, their hair dry and browned by neglect, dust and malnutrition. My taxi had slowed down behind traffic and I was able to continue watching the two Satyajit Ray like figures. Let me call them Durga and Apu. This Durga asked Apu for a bite of the fruit. He refused at first, hiding it behind his back. When she cajoled him, he reluctantly agreed. I wondered whether she would run away with it and whether they will squabble. But no, Durga took a bite and by her expression seemed to say ‘it is sweet enough’. And then both of them become thoughtful. How is the guava to be eaten by both? Not just eaten but eaten fairly?
Apu produced from nowhere a small piece of plywood board and Durga held it directly over the fruit and began to cut the gnarled guava into a neat half. Not quite ripe, the fruit allowed itself to be split very, very unwillingly. After the makeshift cutter reached midway, it stopped. Like a stuck lift, it would go down no further. Apu then looked around and producing a stone , gave the plywood a knock splicing the fruit into two neat halves. Durga took the half she had earlier bitten into (the smaller half) and gave the other half-globe to Apu. My taxi moved forward just as the two began eating with delectation and, one may add, some hope of nutrition, their shared find — a tree-fallen or vendor-rejected guava.
I do not want to convert the chance gift of a taxi window’s cameo shot into a tedious rumination on ‘sharing and caring’. But the metaphorical magnetisms of the scene need reflection .
The first of these reflections is general: ‘My’ Durga and Apu were practising a very Indian trait, a typically Indian skill — ingenious opportunity optimisation. Japan has been celebrated for its gift of artful emulation. If the US or Germany can make the sleekest and fastest cars or music systems, Japan can do so too, and better. China has come to be known for its skill in duplicating just about any object of consumer manufacture. It can confront and stun the original with its identical twin. India, on the other hand, is known for the ingenious arts of improvisation and contrivance. In other words, for its knack of extracting from next-to-nothings and just-about-anything something of value, howsoever flimsy and transient. This perhaps explains what Dr Raj Krishna termed as the Hindu rate of growth; it certainly represents the quintessentially Indian way of retrieval, re-cycling and regeneration.
We are what we have always been — a use-and-throw society. The remorseless piling up of garbage, like burst pustules, everywhere around us shows this. Wiser countries bin their refuse discriminatingly with forethought about degradability. We persist in treating plastic discards just like banana peels — to be simply flung out when done with.
The result is mostly chaotic and in terms of public health implications, dangerous. But a certain part of the waste does get re-used. It gets sorted and sold and re-sold in a self-degrading garbage-chain.
Is this very Indian skill of making-do and putting-together, both a blessing and a curse? Does it condemn India to an eternity in what EM Forster once described as “a low but indestructible form of life”?
The second reflection is specific: The lower one descends the valley of India’s survival practices, the higher one climbs the gradient of human behaviour.
The making-do of Delhi’s Durga and Apu, with one guava to put together a geometrically-shared equal meal is in sharp contrast to a recent experience on an Air Lanka flight from Chennai to Colombo. Very prosperous and grossly overweight men haggled with a stoically polite stewardness for more of this and more of that, alcohol in particular, and superfluous conversation in general, during that one-hour flight. These men were also squeezing, extracting, the maximum out of an opportunity. But they were doing so out of sheer greed and boredom. They were also making a spectacle of themselves and drawing a caricature of their country. The recently reported behaviour of so-called Indian sportsmen with female attendants and even female fellow-passengers on a flight to Beijing belongs to the same category, though their ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ were of another category.
Are we seeing, therefore, two competing cultures — one in which the very poor, the unsheltered, and the destitute, balance, in some measure of equity and fairness, their hungers with their resources and, the other, rich and newly rich, grabs what it can, beyond its needs or entitlements, in obscene greed?
Land is scarce, power-lines irregular, water-lines susceptible to vagaries. Labour, despite our laws to make its remuneration fair and its terms honourable, remains vulnerable to exploitation.
Industries hoisted up by the largesse of acquired land, subsidies and tax-reliefs, can be seen in such a context to be ‘grabbing’. And the ‘guava’ there as having been seized and pocketed whole.
The experience of the GM at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar is as portentous as it is tragic.
A tension is mounting in our country, though the city-dwelling elite may not wish to see it. This tension, primarily over land, is perceived as an aid to private profit, not national progress. The handling of protests against mega projects set up by private venture capital with State backing places the State and the investor on the same page. Conversely, it places protests on the pages of thana case-books and FIRs.
The dichotomy is dangerous.
The guava should not be bitten through like this, and its stem flung at those who sustain the tree.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal