Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Sharp Edged Differences

I have been wanting to write this post for some time now, but was hesitant for several reasons. For one, I didn't want to sound like some pretentious NRI. I also didn't want to pass shallow judgment and opinions on something profound and beyond my understanding. But then, this is what I feel deeply and if I don't write about what I feel, who will?

I moved back to India after living in Singapore for 13 years. This is not a very long period of time by any standards, and so I didn't expect to have any adjustment problems. I thought I knew what to expect and how to deal with it. I certainly didn't expect to be shocked by poverty of any sort. But strangely I was.

The first time it hit me was in March, when I paid my maid's first salary and then went to buy Anakin's dog food the very next day. Instead of converting the cost of dog food into dollars and thinking it was not that bad (as was my habit with every expense in the early days), I was struck by its comparison with Asha's salary. The price of a bag of Anakin's food, which would last him less than 20 days, was more than Asha's entire month's salary! I was so taken aback that, no kidding, I didn't buy dog food that day or ever since. Anakin has been eating rotis and rice and stuff since then. And the bhukkad loves his new diet.

The next time it hit me was when someone mentioned a mortgage payment they had to make to the bank urgently to avoid losing their land. That very day, disgusted with my iPhone camera's behavior, I had checked the price of the latest smart phones in the market. The price of the phone I was considering was more than the mortgage payment that was going to cost this poor family their only asset and push them into a spiral of poverty. Needless to say, I am back at forgiving and loving my old iPhone.

Now, this difference between the haves and have-nots should be familiar to an Indian who has lived most of her life in India, you would say. Yes, I would think so too, but it does bother me a lot and all the time. I often wonder why I wasn't bothered by these differences in Singapore. After all, some of our favorite meals in fancy Singaporean restaurants would cost a lot, often more than Mallika's salary.

I don't have a concrete clear answer, but have some inkling. In Singapore, even the poorest had a decent house to live in- IMO that's the first barrier taken down. But more importantly, they had aspirations to do better and had a fair chance to do so if they worked really hard. And people like Mallika, who didn't earn a lot by Singapore standards, were still able to save enough to make a difference in their families' lives back home. There were differences between the rich and the regular folks there too, but there was a constant fight against these differences. There were dreams and hopes for change someday.

Here, there is a certain docile acceptance of this difference. It is a fact that the two people I mentioned above would not at all be shocked by the differences in our standards of living/spending. They accept it as given. It is OK here for someone to spend on a phone as much as you would earn in a year. It is OK for someone to spend on weekly grocery shopping what you would spend on yours in six months. It is OK because rich are rich and poor are poor and that's acceptable to them.

Maybe it's this OK business that I am not OK with. Maybe it is this soft acceptance that feels like a sharp edged knife. 

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