Why Narain Pargain's camera piece in Dehradun is a low point in journalism
From a surreal video of television journalist quite literally riding a slum resident like a pack animal to report on floods, there are some bitter lessons to be learned about our culture and ourselves.
He speaks with passion of the plight of Dehradun slum residents whose homes have been inundated for three days, having to wade through the flood to get food to their families; of livelihoods ruined and homes destroyed. He tells of the callous government, that has failed its people. Behold him, Rama of the age of television, warrior of truth, lord-protector of Dharma, as he travels on the shoulders of his own Hanuman—a slum resident who bears his master through the water, his anaemic jaws at terrifying risk of being crushed by the reporter’s thunderous thighs.
Rs 50 do you think the vahana of the Lord of Truth was paid? Rs 10? Or just a stern, upper-class order? I’ve tried, without success, to contact the reporter through friends in Dehradun, so can’t say.
It’s just too easy, though, to mock Narain Pargain—the Dehradun-based television reporter involved. It takes exceptional talent to bring down the pillars of cant and hypocrisy on which our entire society are built in less than 40 seconds. There are few ironic texts so layered in meaning: the reporter finding fortune and fame riding on the back, quite literally, of the poor; the middle-class liberal, outraged by government apathy, yet unwilling to stick his feet in slime; the sahib who takes his privilege so utterly for granted that he’s oblivious to these ironies.
Jonathan Swift observed that "satire is a sort of glass [mirror] wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own".
Let’s see our own faces in Pargain’s video. India’s middle class élite—myself included—are carried through our lives on the shoulders of some underfed peasant or the other: driven to work from our homes (it’s too hot to walk from the parking lot); our groceries carried to our doorsteps by underfed flunkeys (the bags are much too heavy); our kids clucked over by underage maids while we stick our faces into troughs of food at chi-chi restaurants (yep, you bought her an ice-cream too, so nice); our floors swept; our shelves dusted; our puppies’ poo cleaned up.
It’s a miracle, in my opinion, that we even wash our own bottoms (we’re too stingy to pay the $3,500-plus a Japanese Super-Toilet costs, and could probably hire someone for a hundredth that)
Ok, you might respond, so this is the lifestyle of the super-rich everywhere in the world. It’s just that there’s plenty of super-poor to provide these services to the even not-so-rich in India.
The truth is India’s élite treat the underprivileged with a casual brutality that is quite exceptional. The journalist Debarshi Dasgupta’s wrenching account of domestic workers in Delhi called the capital "slave city". This is a phrase worth contemplating. The essence of a free market transaction is that it takes place between a willing buyer and a willing seller, at a price both agree on. It’s a stretch to suggest the transaction is voluntary: though the working poor can, and do, fight for what they can, absolute poverty lies too close for a genuine assertion of rights.
How much would you think is fair wage for heaving shit out of primitive latrines?
Few cultures would tolerate children insulting domestic staff, abusing servers in restaurants, or kicking child-workers at roadside restaurants—yet all these things are fairly commonplace in India.
The sad truth is our culture has no respect for physical work, nor the people who engage in it. Indeed, sloth is our aspirational ideal. Been on the Air India flight from Delhi to New York recently? There’s be a long queue of wheelchair-bound elderly Indians—and perhaps just one or two Israelis, who come in on El Al at about the same time. I’m willing to bet the price of a dinner for two—and yes, I now you won’t use the Delhi Metro, so the taxi as well—that élite Indians make up a larger share of wheelchair bound passengers than any other nationality.
It’s interesting to consider that India’s upper-caste Indian élite’s efforts has long aspired to reclaim its physical agency—and that this has been done by pursuing a certain kind of masculinity, not through respect for work. In the nineteenth century, imperial administrators made no secret of their contempt for their Bengali subjects: "a low-lying people in a low-lying land", one adage, "with the intellect of a Greek and the grit of a rabbit". The East India Company historian Robert Orme, indeed, charged all Indians with "effeminacy of character".
These tropes became deeply internalised among élite Bengalis. Sarala Debi, a passionate nationalist and Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, contrasted the north India railway coolies she encountered with their Bengali counterparts, who "could have been knocked down with a blow from a straw hat".
Sarala Debi concluded, darkly: "weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed".
From 1866, Bengal’s "pseudo-feudal" élite—as the scholar John Rosseli describes them, set out into the bushes in search of their manhood. Nabagopal Mitra’s Hindu Mela tried to bring about a wrestling renaissance; the Amrita Bazar Patrika, its aims would only be met when a few young men had been crippled. Rajnarayan Basu’s Nationality Promotion Society advocated "national gymnastic exercises" and publication of tracts on "the military prowess of the ancient Bengalis". Lathi-wielding armies maintained by landlords were seen as emulation-worthy.
There was also what Rosseli describes as a "somewhat pathetic" search for modern Bengali military heroes. The nineteenth century revivalists could come up with just two: a "Fighting Munsiff" of 1857, who had to be dropped since he played, as it were, for the wrong team, and Suresh Biswas, a circus performer who ended up, improbably, becoming a soldier of fortune in Brazil.
Yet, the Bengal radicals went to gyms to man up—not to till the fields, or hew wood or hammer steel. That would have been just too déclassé.
Now, there’s all sorts of explanations you could hazard for why things are the way they are. There are, for example, arguments that the élite Indian’s contempt for other Indians is rooted in caste. Hindu texts are filled with apologetics for the brutal treatment of antyajas and shvapakas; human misery, for the most part, was seen as the inexorable consequence of his past-life actions.
Wendy Doniger has noted that Manu’s ten virtues—truth, not stealing, purification, suppression of the senses, wisdom, learning, patience, forgiveness, self-control and lack of anger—excluded generosity, the primary valued character of the Vedic texts.
I’m sceptical, though, of essentialist explanations of the awful ways in which Indians treat other Indians. There’s solid evidence of large-scale slavery, for example, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. In Pakistan, too, large-scale slavery flourishes. Edwardian and Victorian domestic servants lived in conditions that would be familiar to their modern day counterparts in India or Saudi Arabia.
The bottom line is probably this: these societies haven’t made the transition to a mass culture based on citizenship, rather than status vested by wealth or status. This is the bedrock of a republic—and though we might aspire to be one, we’re not there yet.
Long ago, I asked the great educationist Myron Weiner—no bleeding-heart progressive, I note parenthetically—why India had failed to bring about universal primary education. He gave me a bunch of reasons to do with policy, and then paused. The real reason, he then said, was that in decades of working on India, he’d never heard anyone use the phrase “our children”. He’d heard talk about poor children, homeless children, dalit children—but not once “our children”
Narain Pargain’s video tells just how right he was.
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