When I was a kid in elementary school, all students had to sing a song written by Atulprasad Sen on Independence day and other patriotic occasions: “Bolo bolo bolo sabe, shata beena benu robe, bharat abar jagat shabhay shreshtha asan lobe” (Let us all say with the music of hundreds of veena and flute that India will once again take the best seat on the stage of the world). It was an uplifting song for sure, but no one really believed it. As soon as we stepped outside school we were hit by pollution in the air, sights of extreme poverty, huge numbers of people crowding mass transits, smell from trash and open drains, old rundown buildings, inadequate protection from severe weather and lack of sanitary facilities. The list went on. Our country did not look like being on its way to the best seat. My pessimism for my country was so intense that I emigrated to a prosperous country, the USA, after my graduation from college and for many years I was certain that I made the right decision.
Things started to change in recent decades for the better. Two most significant positive events have been the opening of the Indian market to international trade (the socalled “Economic Liberalisation”) and the global dominance of Indian engineers in Information technology. Both these developments resulted in significant improvements in living standards of the middle class and reduction of poverty. Modernisation of infrastructure followed. High rise buildings with residential “flats”, air-conditioned shopping malls, flyovers at major intersections, new international airports, and fast bypass highways through the outskirts of big cities were built, not to mention metro trainlines. The skyline of my hometown, Kolkata, started to look more like that of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. I went back to visit India several times while my parents were alive, but the umbilical cord was cut after they passed away.
There was a thirtyyear gap between the time I attended the last rituals following my father’s death and a more recent trip. I returned with great anticipation to see all the improvements I had been hearing about for years; perhaps we were getting closer to that seat on the world stage, I thought. Yes, I was impressed to see the new Kolkata; things that I could not have even imagined while I lived there. I got glimpses of good life in Kolkata by visiting the “Vedic Village” complex, the South City Mall, the Calcutta Club, and some luxury modern flats belonging to friends. However, as I stayed longer, I realized that despite all these improvements, the attitudes and mindset of people had not changed much, especially as far as tolerance towards imperfection is concerned. Among all the signs of prosperity, three imperfections stood out. First was pollution/dirt.
As soon as I walked out of the airport terminal building upon my arrival in Kolkata that familiar smell from thirty years ago greeted me; a mixture of exhaust fumes from cars and buses, dust, and smoke from open flames. If I were taken blindfolded to all the cities in the world, I would be able to tell when I am in Kolkata just by that smell. When daylight broke the next morning, I could barely see distant buildings through a suffocating layer of smog. It did not bother anyone, but I felt that I would not be able to breathe for too long. Adding to pollution in the air was trash on the ground. Trash was everywhere in small piles, big piles, and scattered on the pavements; papers, left-over food, thrown away rags, miscellaneous small objects, plastic sheets, debris from unfinished construction projects and so on. Some had a strong stench. Then there was dust. Dust was on the streets, on the pavements, in the air. Dust enters homes through open windows and coats everything.
Rain during monsoon seasons does not wash away the dust from the roads into the river because of lack of proper drainage. The second imperfection was blatant corruption. I was told that it was an accepted part of living. Nothing gets done unless officials are bribed. We had corruption when I was living in India, but it has become more open and widespread. Typically, a financial transaction is involved, but it could be non-financial favour as well or some form of nepotism. If you need a good job, a house in a decent area, admission into a good school or treatment at a good hospital, you must know someone with influence there. “Corruption is everywhere” was the comment from one of my friends. The current WBSSC recruitment scandal is the latest example of such mega corruption. My third observation was that although lives of poor and lowerincome families had improved through a “trickle-down” economic principle, the improvements were not in the same proportion as those of rich and middle-class people.
The percentage of poor people compared to the total population seemed to have increased. Part of it is related to corruption; poor people cannot even pay bribes nor have the right connections to advance in life. I asked my cousin’s driver one day. “Did you finish high school? What motivated you to become a driver?”. He said with an embarrassed smile, “I went up to the ninth grade. I wanted to join the military which needed drivers. I learned how to drive, completed all the requirements and the training, but then I was asked to pay Rs. 40,000 in bribe before I could enroll. I did not have that kind of money. At least, I can now earn some money by driving for private people.” He was making about $12 per day even if he worked all day. He was married and his wife was expecting a baby. This was the snapshot of “have-nots” in Kolkata. India became a free country in 1947 and we are about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Independence Day. My sincere birthday wish for mother India is that people who take care of her – the current and future governments – make it the highest priority to fix pollution and corruption and make her clean, literally and figuratively.
I further wish that India indeed does take that best seat on the world stage before she turns 100. It certainly sounds plausible, unlike the time when I was a kid. India is already projected to be the third largest economy in the world within the next two decades. There will soon be more Indians than any other nationality on this earth. India is the largest democracy with nuclear capabilities. Indians are highly successful in almost all aspects of society in many foreign countries. India has some of the wealthiest people in the world and many beauty queens. Indian food, movies, sitar music and yoga practices are well accepted all over the world.
Indians are thought to be smart, philosophical, peace-loving people with friendly personality and humility. India, with the dominating presence of three of the four largest religions in the world, is considered the place for any spiritual journey. When I was leaving India on my way back to the USA, many of my relatives and friends asked if I would ever consider returning for good. My answer to them was a sincere yes. “But if I come back, it would be to go to the Himalayas for my ultimate quest. I would be wandering the foothills with just a cane in search for that supreme power.” I indeed wish that I will reunite with my mother and complete my own spiritual journey. I can hear that song in my ears: “A ab laut chalen…tujhko pukare desh tera”.