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.
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.
Any global crisis doubles up as a rather unforgiving mirror. Forcing societies to look at themselves. Reexamine values and fundamentals. The recession wherein the well oiled machinery of the progressive world has been showing the naked clinks have done just that. The party is over. The balloons are bust. The good timers have left and have taken the fence down as they go. There’s an awful lot of mess to be cleared. And then you start realising who your friends are. That is if you have friends left at all. Because in an uni-directional world we were not really cultivating ‘friendships’. Friends or networks were by the way dots which automatically attached themselves to us in parties, boardrooms or golf courses. In a self-sufficient world you did not really require friends. Or supporting communities. You only required to know enough interesting people who could fill up your party. Made sense. It requires a tremendous amount of effort to nurture communities of friends. A whole lot of commitment. The rule is you usually give more than you receive. And then one day when you are desperately looking for someone to mend your fence the community will descend on your place. Someone will mend the fence while a second one will bake comforting cookies for you. While a third will repaint the fence and the fourth will replant the bougainvilleas. A mutually symbiotic relationship. Not transactional mind you unlike the marketplace. Instead returns get evened out if at all over a longer timeline.
No wonder an embattled world is suddenly talking in terms of communities. Creating networks of trust. Safety nets of people who can warm the soup on a rainy day. Huge implications for the society. As lines are redrawn. Ofcourse in the post economic recession world, the deeper ramifications of a community centric alignment is for business houses. Where markets are being shaped or have the possibility of being shaped around community lines. The ties between random buyers is becoming stronger aided not only by social realignment but by a shrinking of distance courtesy Facebook and the digital community clan. Creating both opportunities and threats. Businesses can now more effectively cluster their markets along community lines, engage with influencers and leverage community ties to virally sell products or ideas. Ofcourse communities as I have said have sprung as a defence mechanism in fractured markets are not likely to be conducive to businesses by default. These units are mostly formed to protect the members or the buyers explaining the tremendous initial success of sites such as Group-ons. So business houses would not have a red carpet welcome in these circles. This is where executives have to come down from their high chairs and start engaging at a grass-root level. Where a lip service to community welfare is not sufficient anymore. A growing scepticism of touch and go global corporates and a realignment of the world’s market place require businesses to look out for all opportunities to build a fence. Or break the fence with the 99% who have very strong reasons to congregate. Build organic business with the communities at the epicentre. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the future of the planet hinges on such symbiosis.
I was reading a blog post on collaborative consumption with considerable amusement. Couched in typical management terms, the post talked about an economic model based on sharing, bartering, pooling and finally optimizing resources. The post said the collaborative consumption revolution could become as big as the industrial revolution. Help conserve the scarce resources on Earth. At this point I decided to give Pinky Aunty a call. If they were stealing her ideas she should atleast know. Pinky Aunty in her inimitable style asked me – So will they be sharing table salt too? You know that’s the kind of stuff that typically runs out. I was not sure if the systematic collaboration revolution comes down to such granularity , but salt is an apt symbol of the collaboration that has defined our mohollas for a long time. Where you opened the door to a worried Pinky aunty asking if she can borrow some salt. Or sugar. Or your axe. Or bicycle. In return she offered spicy achar, her imported sewing needles or a formidable pair of scissors. No wonder when collaborative consumption is being voted by Time in the top ten ideas that will change the world, we are a mildly irritated by the hullabaloo. We have always been doing this. We have been taught to do this. Share. Give. Receive. And grow together.
The Indian padosh or mohollas are the best examples of cooperative communities and local networks. Think of the row houses sharing a common courtyard. Or the apartments arranged so close to each other you can actually jump on to your neighbour’s balcony. Our indigenously Indian upbringing have meant we have coped quite well in these communities. Resisted the nosy aunt or the bossy uncle. Or the upstart boy who insisted on playing music at top volume. And made the most of the collective good. We have pooled together resources and skills. Spontaneously. Or driven by rudimentary forms of co-operative societies. I grew up in a small steel township. While the fathers were busy at work, the mothers led by a staunch Pinky Aunty formed a WVS – Women Voluntary Service. They baked cakes, made delectable Achar, procured magnificent fabric or handicrafts from their native places and then went on to trade these stuff at optimum prices. Looking back, they never really made much profit because the stuff mostly got exchanged between the ladies running the community. Or given away to the local orphanage. However the community thrived by leveraging the combined strengths of these extraordinary women. As kids we emulated our mothers. We pooled our books together and created a local library. We rented our bicycles in exchange of a Michael Jackson record. A little bit of humanity. Some amount of economic sense. And we together seemed to have everything we needed to be happy.
Ofcourse as I have grown I have contrasted the eastern style of community living with western individualism. As an individualistic person myself, I have often argued in favour of individualism. Sow your own seeds. Reap your own fruits. The obvious fallacy of this approach is man is not self-sufficient. As a disjointed individual, I do not have all the survival tools in my kit. That is where I have to buy services. Or goods. And this is where wastage starts. Driving to office in a big car that can seat 5. Throwing away food available in those big saver packs because my family of two cannot finish it. Reducing my bargaining power because I buy in small portions enough to sustain me. Tilting the market in favour of sellers. When with 7 billion people it should have been tilting towards the buyer. And then Pinky Aunty starts making a lot of sense. Pool your car and reduce your carbon footprint. Form buyers’ co-operatives and shop in bulk. Rent out rooms. Barter goods. Trade skills. Create a local network which can support and canvass for the common cause. Strength lies in numbers.
Having said all this, collaborative consumption atleast in the human society will largely remain unstructured and driven by good will than by business sense. Human societies are complex, organic communities and putting rules or business models around shared consumption may not seamlessly work. What will work though is a deeper appreciation for inclusive thinking which has always defined our societies. Which the rest of the world is now learning. And rebranding as a disruptive technique. Meanwhile I have run out of coffee. Wonder which of my neighbour’doors can I knock on?