Saraswati is my maid. She is an immigrant from Karnataka, speaks broken Hindi and is reed thin. Like many people who belong to the invisible working class, she existed on the fringes of my consciousness. Until the other day when she asked for 2 days chutti. She was trying to get her daughter admitted to a grad college and wanted the days off to do the rounds of Mumbai colleges. Her criteria was simple- affordability. The frills and fancies of elitism did not fit the modest family income of around 4000 per month. I shut down the laptop and started talking to Saraswati. Saraswatis daughter Ramya has been a bright student. She did reasonably well in her boards despite all the odds. Saraswati does not want to talk much about the odds- she has accepted the leaking roof with as much equanimity as she has accepted a missing husband. The same kind of practised nonchalance with which she says that her daughter may have to now stop studying because the college fees could be out of her reach. Yes the 20000 admission fee which was the lowers she had been able to find among city colleges is too high for a family whose annual income borders around 40000. Saraswati’s dilemma is understandable. She will have to go through great pains and even more sacrifices to ensure her daughter graduates. And she is not sure of the returns. Well, are there returns? Ramya will study in a low cost, less reputed college and not a top shot grad college which automatically becomes a passport to brighter careers. Yes her journey is uphill. The same city where the mother and daughter are scared to dream of a better future, saw the daughter of an auto rickshaw wallah bagging the top honours in the prestigious CA exam. And while such examples may still be considered rare, everyday you see scores of girls from low income households take the trains from the derelict suburbs to the swanky business districts of Mumbai. Their clothes may be less expensive, their bags cheap imitations of the designer purses but the look of dogged determination on their faces is worth a million dollar. They bank on little else other than the education achieved at great cost and the burning ambition of a young, hungry India.
That day I had a long conversation with Saraswati. Told her how her daughter’s education can be a passport to a better life. That Ramya may never have to feel helpless thinking that her husband could desert her, she would have the wherewithal to survive on her own. I did not give her a rosy picture. Further education may not suffice to get a job but atleast it would set her on the path. And with the kind of talent that she has, she could be one of those faces which takes the train to economic freedom everyday. Or goes up on the podium to receive the top honours. For the greater Indian underbelly who fights a grim battle of survival, education is the only way of breaking into the Eloitist world. Saraswatis daughter is but a symbol of that difficult at times seemingly impossible journey, a journey where we can all help. If only by listening and giving a small push in the direction of the upper world with its carefully erected barriers.
Have you felt the curse of comfort? The feeling of numb inertia which makes sure you repeat the daily cycles. Get up. Switch off alarm. Drink Tea. Go to work. Come back. Sleep. Oh ofcourse you are protesting. You have a far more interesting life. You have a good looking spouse who you can proudly display on Facebook covers. You survey with obvious pride the flat you bought last year. You drop your kids to school in your brand new sedan. In office you have challenges- the boss likes you and will surely recommend your name for the next promotion. You have an exciting evening planned. Movies and dinner. And ofcourse you are also going with the family to that expensive vacation next month. You have a good life. But why then at the end of the day you feel that gnawing sadness, watching the digital calendar change dates. Why do you desperately search for yourself in that maze of spouse, parent, employee. Why do you curse yourself at not taking the sedan off the highway on the dirt road leading to the village housing the artisans who practise the form of art you always wanted to learn, make the documentary you always wanted to make. At the end of the day with the lights turned off and the incessant sound of your breathing you feel the burden of someone else’s life. The flat; because everyone else has one. The expensive car; because you had to compete with friends. The promotion; because that is the natural thing to aspire for. Things that dig themselves deep into the ground- growing roots from where your only option is to keep watering them. Because if you don’t they will take you down. And you are so entrenched in the comfortable numbness of your life, that you cannot risk going down. You cannot risk destruction. You cannot risk rebuilding life. You cannot risk seeking glory on the off-beaten track. You cannot risk going on the dirt road. Chances are you are happy in your state of numbness. But if you are not, it is time you start axing the roots. For a while you will shock people around you. After a point you will see the ones who matter will join you- gathering the courage to fight their own ghosts. You may end up all bloody but you would have the liberty to fly. And the roots would lie limp on the ground.
There have been numerous Bollywood songs with the humble umbrella at the centre . One song tied the umbrella to the spirit of the nation, claiming we as a country put aside its plethora of problems to happily share or even give up umbrellas. But ofcourse cinema has not often done justice to India. If you believe Bollywood, you would be led to think that our colleges are full of gorgeous kids in designer clothes who dance in sync to any random song. If you believe Hollywood we are still a nation infested with cholera and copulating snakes. But there was an element of truth in the umbrella song. Or so I grew up believing. A small town upbringing in the nineties gave you a tinted view of the world. Because there people did share umbrellas. Or ate tiffin sitting together. Or played silly games. And sharing umbrellas is no mean feat. It is a ready test of one’s character. Because there standing in the heavy downpour, your new shoes sloshed in mud and your precious school bag getting drenched, being a good Samaritan is difficult. But then the sight of that poor friend trembling in the rain or even that strange kid getting helplessly drenched melted your heart. And you extended the umbrella. Till sharing became a habit. Or even the occasional giving up of things. So I grew up believing in the umbrella test for character. How does one behave when one has the umbrella in hand? Because in the heavy monsoons the humble umbrella metamorphoses into an object of power. Ask the question on a larger scale and you can test the character of a city or a nation. And sadly Bollywood has again got it wrong. For nobody offers an umbrella these days. And the strangers you offer to share it with leave without saying a thank you. As I waited umbrella-less for a rickshaw in the first Mumbai rains, men and women with umbrellas wielded the umbrellas like a sword to cut through the crowd and get to the autos first. I shook my head. Umbrella courtesy has obviously reached its lowest point. Maybe it is more fashionable to offer a coke these days – you can see your face go up on the cola’s walls with much less discomfort. And meanwhile I am getting a raincoat- I can then be selfish without the pangs of umbrella guilt that only afflict romantics a little out of sync with time.