I don’t agree with St Augustine of Hippo on at least one point. The great theologian of classical antiquity had said, “The world is a book and those who have not travelled have only read a page.”
This may have been true in the Fourth century and later through much of the medieval years, but is certainly wide off the mark for any one living in an Indian Metro in the 21st century.
Take Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or even some of the smaller cities. The first page itself is so variegated, complex and layered that it takes a long time to go through it. It is another matter that most of us flick through the book looking for colour illustrations of Europe or America. As our eyes settle on a line, images from the earlier ones temper our understanding of it. Sentences don’t always finish and sometimes there are too many metaphors to decode. This page is one tough read.
Look at our vegetable sellers, our fruit vendors, and our common service providers like the cobbler, washer-man or sweeper. Their provenances are vastly different from ours, and yet they too are part of the Metro and without them a normal middle class family would find it difficult to, literally, make a life. Our dependence on them is so complete and habitual that their presence has become somewhat invisible. We need them but do not see them, and if we did perhaps we might lose our equanimity. So we rush through that part of the page quickly looking for relief in the next one.
In fact, when I take a closer look around me at people who are supposedly “like us,” I get a fright. Studies show that conservatism is strong among those who ostensibly lead a modern life style. Many women from these families still think it proper to be dependent on their husbands, female foeticide is alarmingly high in these urban pockets, and some of the grittiest aspects of tradition cloy to the lives of even the young in these well-to-do, highly literate homes. The hopes and ambitions of the humbler middle classes are vastly different from those of the professionals, in fact there is probably little social intercourse between the two.
The young people who work in BPOs are scornfully breaking free of the limitations of their father’s life style, while the rich across the street adore their Dad for the money he brings in.
All of us go to work in the morning and yet how many notice the clutches of haggard, unshaven men standing at important street corners waiting to be hired for the day as anything? They are willing to be day labourers; moving earth, construction material, or furniture. A few even have rudimentary masonry skills and can double up at a pinch as part time carpenters or as welders. By 11 o’ clock in the morning they know their fate for the day — they are either hired or they better be optimistic about tomorrow.
But no one from this grimy bunch, nor even the domestic who works for you, or the factory labourer, rickshaw puller, none of them, arrive in the Metro just like that. They all have networks that spread out from railway stations to metalled roads to dirt tracks hundreds of miles away. A family member or some village friend had come to the city earlier and established a sort of base for others to migrate. The Metros have been a draw for a century, perhaps more. Gen X, please note, even your grandparents were not born then!
Understanding a part of this can take a lifetime even if we are pracitised fast readers. St. Augustine of Hippo clearly does not belong to our age. Today, in a big city, the first page can take the longest time to read through.
(Dipankar Gupta is professor of sociology, JNU)