09 Mar

The Great Indian Middle Class


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Having read a couple of books by Pavan Kumar Varma, an Indian Foreign Service Officer, I have come round to the view that he is certainly one of the better writers of English we have in these parts. I think it was 1997, the year of our Golden Jubilee, that Varma wrote The Great Indian Middle Class, a thorough indictment of the soul of the second largest Middle Class in the world (someone please explain why China’s is not the largest? I think it is). I thought I had the book with me lying somewhere – I would hate to go without some of the charming quotes I could have given from the book. Calling this class the ‘muddle class’, Varma probes how this whole class moves in concert, inspired by insipid selfishness, dictated by the profit motive, infatuated by the Great American Dream and sodomized by the prospect of lucre. Muddle is word that has great symbolism in A Passage to India, by E.M.Forster:
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In Part Two of A Passage to India, E.M. Forster frequently refers to India as a “muddle.” This is not necessarily because he is racist, but because his logical Western mind cannot accept the extreme diversity of Indian religion, society, wildlife, and even architecture. Westerners, Forster explains, are always trying to categorize and label things, but India defies labelling. But the Indians quietly accept this diversity, not as a muddle but as a “mystery,” like the Catholic Trinity or Sacraments, things ordained by God that must be accepted but cannot be explained in terms of reason. Additionally, Indians rely more on emotion and intuition in their judgments of people and events, whereas the British are always trying to make their opinions scientific and logical, like McBryde with his pseudo-scientific theory about the lusting after of dark men for white women. These differences in outlook and psychology, Forster implies, are the ultimate differences between the British and the Indians. For British minds, shackled by reason and race, cannot understand the Indian psyche. [Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Passage_To_India]

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Now, I don’t particularly recall if Varma referred to Forster, but I do find a commonality between the indictment of both the authors. The Middle Class assumes something, probably from the Middle Path of Buddhism – a desire for personal salvation, a dereliction of responsibility towards the world. But whereas Buddha renounced the riches for nirvana, the Middle Class hogs the opposite way.

Do keep these views in mind when we see this:
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New Delhi: Manjunath Kalmani occasionally gives a confused smile. But his eyes never smile. Framed by the iron headrest of his hospital bed, a striped sheet draped over him, Manju remains immobile. Actually, he can’t move even if he wanted to — he was paralysed neck down following a car accident in the US on May 1, 2002.
The date is etched in his brain that’s ticking away — and registering every bizarre twist in his life story that took a dramatic turn on that early May morning. Not only was his promising life as a software engineer rudely interrupted at the age of 27, but he was reduced to a vegetable, living under the care of nurses in an alien land. And today he’s back home, but with no one to take care of him.
That’s the latest twist in his short but eventful life. On Wednesday an air ambulance ferried him from Northside Hospital, Atlanta, Georgia, to the Palam airport. And from there, he was taken and dumped at Safdarjung Hospital which put him on a ventilator. The crippling paralysis has made his respiratory system useless.
Manju was on his way home from Nashville that May Day when his car spun out of control and hit a tree, leaving him with a badly injured spine. Following a brain stroke, and an emergency operation, he was paralysed neck down.
So all he can do now is speak in a rasping whisper that’s not easy to comprehend. ‘‘I want to meet my mother. I haven’t met her for the past eight years. Please tell her I’m missing her if you get to speak to her,’’ he told TOI. Manju’s family is in Koppal, Karnataka. But hesitant to come to Delhi.
‘‘Come, and do what?’’ asked his brother Sudhakar when contacted over phone. The family can’t afford his treatment, and fears it might be forced to take him back home. ‘‘We can’t take care of Manju. He is on ventilator and we don’t have the facility to take care of him,’’ said Sudhakar, who works in a cooperative society that lends money to farmers and petty businessmen. Manju’s father is a farmer and mother Vidyawati a housewife.
There was a time when the same family thought Manju would change everything for them. He had got a job with an American new economy company, weather.com, for which he was developing software. But the economy turned choppy and weather.com laid off many. Manju, too, got the pink slip. As it turned out, life had greater trials in store. [Source: Times of India, 8th March 2008, New Delhi Edition]

The moment I dragged my eyes to this piece of news I recalled Varma. Here was a dismal picture of a failed Great American Dream. An object of pity with a past that was promising. Perfect recipe for some emotional juxtaposition – here, see…my son could have been at his place. Such a pity. Why is god so cruel! Et tu bhagvan! And who but the champion of the Middle Class, The Times of India, would splash this tragedy for the consumption of the Middle Class. I knew at that instant that that single article would bring a world of change – to Manjunath. His mother would be reunited with her. Hundreds of cheques would keep coming. A thousand emails would jam the inbox of TOI. Call me a Nostradamus – check today’s paper. Well, here it is:
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New Delhi: Manju is no longer abandoned. Vidyavathi, the 54-year-old mother of the software techie who lies paralyzed neck down at Safdarjung Hospital after being sent back from the US, is coming here to meet her boy, braving her frail health to travel from Koppal in Karnataka. The impending reunion after eight years will be a result of TOI’s front page report on Manjunath Kalmani on Saturday.
In fact, a lot more has happened. There has been a groundswell of worldwide support for Manju who went to the US on a H-1B visa, worked as a software engineer with weather.com, got laid off, and was involved in a crippling accident in May 2002. For five years, US doctors and support groups helped keep the quadriplegic in hospital.
But after his visa expired, he was transported back on March 5 and put in Safdarjung Hospital. Abandoned until Friday — even by his family, which appears to not have the means to look after the cripple who needs a respirator to breathe and 24-hour nursing for his every other need. ‘‘Where will the money come from?’’ his brother Sudhakar had despaired.
Well, money will hopefully not be such a big problem, given the volume of responses that have poured in. Reader after reader, dozens and scores of them, have written in to TOI offering help. And not just financial help — some of them volunteered to be at his bedside and alleviate his loneliness, while others sent in inspiring stories of other quadriplegics who despite their similar and crushing disabilities have not only managed to stay alive, but be productive too.
Like Rajinder Johar who has been paralyzed neck down and bedridden for the last 20 years. Writing about him, Kumud Mohan has said that Johar, along with his supportive family, founded the Family of Disabled which has so far helped get employment for 275 people with disabilities. She has said that with his mental skills intact, and his abilities with the computer — Manju has been communicating with the world on his blog by using the sip-n-puff mouth control device — the paralyzed techie had a brighter future.
Then there are letters of heartfelt empathy. Biplab, an Indian based in Houston, has written to give his own story. ‘‘I can relate to him. I am also a techie and I had a bad car accident three months ago.’’ He, too, had spinal injury — ‘‘but nothing compared to Manju’s’’ — and after being hospitalised for two months is now in rehab. ‘‘It’s time for positive action,’’ said Biplab.
Yes, it will require a lot of positive action for Manju’s rehabilitation. Doctors that TOI spoke to say that his best bet is a sophisticated wheelchair, which will have to be imported, and on which he can be strapped. A portable ventilator would help him with mobility. They spoke of many other sophisticated gadgets with which Manju can operate a computer — like sip-n-puff — and possibly carry out small things of life like ringing a bell or switching off the light.
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All of this will require money. Manju will also require a lot of compassion and understanding. Who will provide it? A number of readers have written in to express their appreciation for the US and its people who, despite having no legal requirement to help him, kept him for five long years. ‘‘Which other country would support an immigrant for five years?’’ asked Atul. ‘‘Now it is the turn of the Indian government and its people to help Manju,’’ said Naveen.
With this outpouring of concern, Manju’s life could be set for yet another dramatic turn. One in which the despairing techie is touched with some hope. Perhaps the touch he would be seeking the most would be that of his mother’s on his forehead.
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Want to aid Manjunath?
Numerous readers have written in to offer help for Manjunath while urging The Times of India to set up a fund for the helpless techie where they can send in money. In response to their request, the TOI has set up a fund for Manju. Readers who wish to send in contributions may write out a cheque in favour of ‘Times Foundation’. They should also send in a covering letter with ‘Manjunath’ written in the subject line. We will ensure that every rupee is used in Manju’s best interest.

Now, this is a thought experiment. How many cheques would have swarmed in had the victim been a Bihari unemployed who had come Delhi in search of a job and got hit by Blueline? In fact, the question does not arise as TOI would not have posted such a gloomy story on its frontpage. Migrant labour death is seventh page news on the sidelines. As story after story come in the papers and the television, I am more and more disturbed by this trend where only the Middle Class matters. The NDTV has started a Save the Tiger campaign. It has collected lacs of signatures. It is the very same people who would want a piece of the choicest real estate when NDTV and TOI gives a advert of a new housing colony. Housing colony that rise up in tiger territory.

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