If a boy from Pachmarhi can do it, so can you. That’s the advice Arun Sarin, once of the Madhya Pradesh hill town, had for the audience watching the CNN-IBN annual awards’ function at the Taj Palace hotel in Delhi last week. Push the envelope, said the Vodafone chief. It was a short, crisp message. Businesslike, to the point.
I know very little about Sarin, but one thing’s got to be true — he must have worked hard to get to where he has. And on that Tuesday evening, it wasn’t just Sarin who was being toasted. There were also Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan, creator of the iconic Common Man RK Laxman, State Bank of India chief OP Bhatt, chess maestro Viswanathan Anand and Finance Minister P Chidambaram.
Pardon my ignorance, but I hadn’t heard of Bhatt before. The SBI chief was sitting in the table in front of me and walked purposefully to the rostrum when his name was announced. And the humility and steely determination in his “thank you” address simply floored me. Joining hands together to applaud doesn’t come easily to me. When I became a reporter in 1988, it was made clear to me that the press doesn’t applaud; it takes notes to write later. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years.
Last week, however, I found myself clapping like a natural. A bit too loudly, perhaps. And like all the others, I clapped for all those who didn’t get awarded, but whose work is no less significant. For Kaushalya P from Andhra Pradesh, who works among HIV-positive; for Abhay Anand and Anand Kumar from Bihar working hard to get poor rural students into IITs; and for Dr Sharan Patil from Bangalore, who separated two-year-old Lakshmi from her parasitic twin last year.
Yes, it felt good. India was shining, but there were references to the India that was not shining. The context, the perspective wasn’t missing. And thank God for that. I hope Young India was watching.
Yes, India has come a long way. It’s getting a lot of attention in the world these days as a rising economic star on the horizon. Indian business has shown that it can compete with the best in the world. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rubs shoulders with world leaders with his head held high. The days of PL-480 are over. In Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, our solemn-looking PM was every bit the equal of his host, Premier Wen Jiabao.
If I was on a high on Tuesday night, it was a low on Wednesday morning. After whizzing down the Gurgaon-Delhi expressway, I came to a screeching halt at the traffic signal just before the Dhaula Kuan interchange, close to the Taj Palace Hotel. As I waited impatiently for the signal to change and the guy ahead to move, little fingers began knocking at my window.
Insistently. They wouldn’t stop. I tried to look straight, trying to ignore the reality outside. But it was not for the first time that the fingers had been knocking on my car window. Even as I looked straight, I knew that the fingers were joined to a hand on which there was no warm sweater, to a body whose feet had no shoes. They belonged to a family which had no job.
Upwardly mobile India, of which I am a part, whizzes past these people daily. We look, but we don’t see. In percentage terms, the middle-class comprises a fat number of the country of a billion-plus. Those on the traffic signal are not going to affect the purchasing power in the malls that dot Delhi and Gurgaon. The fingers can’t get in here; we can all shop till we drop. Only the uniformed security guards are looking at the bulging purchases that we make.
Then it was Sunday, and my nine-year-old daughter Antara and I were walking to the Café Coffee Day outlet at the sprawling DLF Cyber Greens high-rise. En route, we passed a Mercedes showroom. Antara said she wanted two Mercedes, “one black and one white”, with two drivers. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. At her age, living in my father’s D-II flat on Pandara Road, if we saw a Mercedes on the road it was a topic for conversation. The thought that I could own one never entered my mind. But Antara clearly has a fertile imagination. (She also likes stretch limousines.)
The kids who will be owning and sitting in the Mercs will continue to grow in number. But I also hope there will be those who show compassion for the ones still left standing at the traffic light — if they haven’t been removed by the city authorities as a public nuisance by then, that is. Just as there is no one India today, there will be many Indias in the future. Indias at different stages of development, the Indias where the crores and lakhs are interchangeable and the Indias where the ones and tens still matter. The crystal ball tells me that the reality will be similar in the years ahead.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to belittle India and its achievements. There is much to applaud just as there is much to rue. Ours is a mixed record and the celebration, too, must be one that is tinged with reality. As a nation, as a people, as elites, we need to keep this big picture in mind as the Republic advances in age. We haven’t done well as a country in helping the poorest of the poor; we haven’t done well in educating our children.
India can never ever lose sight of the fact that we are a poor country, where the job of economic advancement has just begun. We have the tools to grow available to us; we need to put those tools to work for all Indians, not just for some Indians. Efficiently.
We need the Sarins, the Sreedharans, the Bhatts, the Laxmans, the Anands, the Chidambarams to grow and prosper. And we need the awards to keep flowing to recognise and point out those who have succeeded, to make them examples of what is possible.
Yes, Mr Sarin, let’s all push the envelope — Indians of all shapes, sizes, colours, religions and capabilities. But let’s not forget the sound made by those little fingers at traffic signals across this great nation. It’s an everyday reality check.