October 28, 2000


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Dilip D'Souza

The Night Before Diwali

'Twas the night before Diwali, and we are coming home from a walk. From some distance away, our building looks enveloped in haze. A little puzzling. But soon enough we realise it comes from the fireworks the building kids are setting off in our compound. Lovely, photogenic sight, even through the haze. Small candle in the corner. Kids wave sparklers about. A phooljhadi erupts in a waterfall of soft sparks and paints a joyous glow on excited childrens' faces. You can see it on those faces: the spirit of Diwali. Hope and joy and good times.

And here, tucked away in this other corner of this freeze-frame, is just the perfect exclamation point to this gorgeous Diwali scene. Some more kids, standing outside our gate, their faces pressed against its bars, their slim bodies silhouetted by the glow from the phooljhadi. Kids of the workers from the next-door construction site, most in dusty rags, peering in on the celebrations in our building. No fireworks for them, except the ones they can see through that gate.

'Twas the night before Diwali, and there could hardly have been a better start to my New Year.

A few minutes earlier, I had run into Putti Singh. This genial, portly soul had been the watchman in our building until a few months ago. He and two others had been with us some years, sharing the duty shifts. I was sorry to see them go. Our little son had become particularly fond of them, and in fact they were more like reliable old family friends than anything else. But evidently not to some of the building residents.

In an acrimonious meeting we had held to discuss their performance, most wanted Putti and his colleagues out. Only two of us spoke for them. We tried hard to overcome the major complaint against them: apparently they did not always stand up when the residents walked in or out of the building. We tried hard, but we failed. "Kachra ko nikaal diya hai," the 5th floor neighbour snarled -- he really did snarl -- "aur vaise hi rahega." (We've removed the trash and that's the way it will be).

So off went Putti Singh and colleagues. He got another job at a building down the road. So to my son's great delight, we see him now and then. This evening, we met as he was leaving the building after his 8-hour duty. I asked him: "Going off to sleep, Putti?" He laughed and said: "No, sahib, I've got a night job at another building."

"Night job? So when do you sleep?"

"What can I do, sahib? I get Rs 800 a month here. What can I do with 800 rupees?"

So when we come home to our building, when I see one lot of happy kids framed in the sparks of a phooljhadi, when I see another lot staring in on them through thick iron bars, when I cannot help the incongruous thought that there's a good photograph in this whole hazy scene, I also get an idea about things you can do with 800 rupees. For it occurs to me that there's probably 800 rupees worth of Diwali smoke enveloping our building at this very moment.

Happy Diwali, Putti Singh. Happy Diwali, kids in my building. Happy Diwali, kids looking in through bars that keep you out.

Back upstairs, my mind ticks back to the subject that I've been chewing over for a week now, a Supreme Court decision regarding a dam on the Narmada River. That decision, of course, was hailed by the government in Gujarat as an early Diwali present. (Happy Diwali, Government of Gujarat). And responding to my column here last week that expressed dismay about that judgment, lots of readers told me things like: "it is not a big deal that people have to be moved around in the name of development"; I should not hinder those who were "building a prosperous India"; "progress" is "very seldom painless." One explained with superb logic that people to be displaced by the dam "also need Internet" and so I should "start supporting [the] Narmada project."

Progress. Of course. Despite all of India's hectic dam-building since Independence, today we actually have more land in India that is considered susceptible to droughts and floods than we had at Independence. Despite all the years of rhetoric about how those dams would make water available to Indians who crave it, we have some 200 million Indians -- nearly two-thirds the total of Indians we had at Independence -- today who cannot count on clean drinking water. We also have some 700 million Indians -- 70% of us today -- for whom basic sanitation is nonexistent; for whom, therefore, access to water is a major daily worry. And I am sure you don't need a figure from me to comprehend how many of us Indians are hungry most of our time on earth: walk out on any street, in any city in India, at any time of day, to get an idea.

All this, "in the name of development." I'm sure.

And who are those 200 million, or those 700 million? People much like Putti Singh (and in truth there are many ways in which he is one of the more fortunate among them). People who build homes for those of us who, in turn, are convinced we are "building a prosperous India." People who then are hired to guard those very homes from others among those 200 million, or 700 million. People who stare in through thick iron bars at how "a prosperous India" lives.

Yes: despite the innumerable dams we have built in the name of "progress" and "development", we have more poor Indians today than there were Indians in 1947. The gap between our poor and the rest of us widens visibly every day. Because it does, some of us learn to stand outside gates. The rest of us learn how -- even though they stand there, only a few feet away -- to ignore them. That has been our particular taste of "development."

In an article for Outlook's 5th anniversary issue, Tony Clifton of Newsweek comments on precisely this phenomenon. The gates we erect, he writes, are "reminders of what I think is going to be modern India's greatest problem: ... how to bridge the gap between rich and poor enough to [avoid] any sort of serious confrontation between the haves and have-nots." And those gates are no solution to the problem, because they "show that, for now at least, the rich of India have decided simply to lock out the poor."

In quite another context, William Langewiesche writes in the August issue of The Atlantic Monthly of "the disengagement I had witnessed in New Delhi and Bombay, where the upper levels of society were floating free of the ground, aided by the airlines and the Internet, as if the poverty in India were a geographic inconvenience."

And this is just the kind of Indian "progress" that makes that Supreme Court decision so thoroughly devastating. For it puts us back on that mythical road to "prosperity" that really leads only to ever-greater misery. To a place where our kids have such vastly different ways to observe Diwali.

'Twas the night before Diwali, true. And I sat in my upstairs flat, feeling strangely foolish at the words I had murmured to Putti Singh only minutes earlier, only minutes before I saw 800 possible rupees wafting through the air around my building.

"Happy Diwali," I had said. Happy Diwali, Putti Singh. Happy Diwali, my India.

Dilip D'Souza

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