I grew up in a poorer India, clean smelling, emotionally abundant, and one in which we were supremely confident about our un-Googled futures. So how did we slide down the World Happiness Index to 118 (among 156 countries)? What happened?
First, consider a few mind pictures from the past. Long ago, that year Army Day fell on January 15, as it does now. Since the Western Command parade would be a valuable “learning experience”, a few of us — children in the extended family — were woken up at 5 am, and dressed in sensible woollens to brace a Delhi Cantonment temperature of four degree Celsius. I felt resplendent in a plaid skirt and jacket, refashioned from an aunt’s old coat.
Like most children then, I only had one pair of cloth shoes. But nobody wore cloth shoes to army parades. So I slipped on thin-soled V-chappals. Since the family car didn’t start in the cold, we took an auto but made sure it stopped well before the parade ground so that we wouldn’t be seen alighting from a three-wheeler.
Thanks to my father’s exceptional flood-control work as district collector of Rohtak, we were seated on sofas with the generals and served cup cakes. I felt elite and elated. Relieved that neither the auto ride nor my footwear dented our family’s respectability, I look back to that morning as an affirmation that although hierarchies were entrenched in our society, for the middle class, what mattered most was who you truly were.
And then there was that long-ago summer when the warm breeze was lush with the fragrance of thousands of early Harsingar flowers. Although the heat squatted in the garden like an occupying force, the freshly watered grass was festooned with silvery drops. A cousin tested the wet grass delicately with her toe, and withdrew it quickly, just before the first neighbour ambled along unannounced, to settle in one of the cane chairs set out in a circle for family and friends to share the triumphs and crises of the day over orange squash or, for some, a weak rum. It was not as if the conversation was scintillating or quick-paced — in fact, it was often desultory and unhurried — but it fortified us, forged us tighter into a forgiving lot, and always ended on a hopeful note.
Then came that heartbreaking winter when my aunt, the prettiest girl in the family, had to be married to an unsuitable boy, she 17 and he 31. Partition had wrecked the wealthy family, the patriarch had died, and the family never recovered. So now, 12 years after Independence, with other daughters to marry off, the family tried to scrape enough money for a dignified wedding. Nobody had a huge pile of cash or FDs, and the young men in the family had just started out as officers with only a few hundred rupees in the provident fund. Sepia photographs of that wedding show my dazed teenaged aunt standing next to her brooding groom, with her modest dowry visible in the background. Yet, she looks so ethereal, with her sisters laughing happily alongside, that I started to cry.
Gradually, the family accepted that the marriage had been imposed on the childlike shoulders of my aunt because of genteel impoverishment. Her four sisters and two brothers constructed a firewall around her. The arc of family bent towards unconditional love one could count on.
And then one evening in 1962, at Delhi’s National Stadium (now Dhyan Chand National Stadium), after the Chinese had slaughtered our jawans, Lata Mangeshkar stood singing, “Ae mere vatan ke logon…” You could walk up to Prime Minister Nehru who sat on a sofa in the front row, wiping tears. I sat crying a few rows behind him, cheeks streaked with a child’s nationalism. A lone army jawan guarded Nehru, and I recall a sense of belonging even in the storeyed social construct of Delhi. The country’s broken heart was breaking mine.
Yet, society was becoming prickly, and minds were being seeded with railroading ambition. People aspired to a maharaja’s gilded life, but the reality was different. Very few had air conditioners, even fewer had a second car, and so we hopped on to DTC buses to go to a Bengali Tangail shop in Gole Market to bargain for a double-border Rs 15 cotton sari to wear to the Miss Miranda competition. Or, with mother and aunts, we would arrive at the south Indian silk sari store on Ajmal Khan Road, as much for the Kanjeevaram saris as for the decoction coffee served in steel tumblers.
All our happiness was within reach, our own. It was as if you stretched your hand and plucked your own happiness.
Today, in the summer of 2016, I am standing unsteadily on high heels at a Page 3 party in a swirl of selfies, and with dynastic posh-ness and entitlement on display all around me. I see everybody and hear nobody, and neither does anybody else. Occasionally, a voice rises above the racket of the “rocking” party to ask, “Will Modi come back in 2019?” In an impromptu knock-off of rude TV encounters, the well-groomed guests lunge at each other, making as much sense as the nightly hockey fights on TV. What happened to discourse, affinity, and the contradictory viewpoint?
Meanwhile in New Delhi, jobless young men and teenagers casually club a dentist to death for the sin of his grazing their bike; a son gores his widowed mother for the family property; cowards gangrape and mutilate innocent girls in stolen cars; sane citizens smash puppies on stone to teach the puppy’s mother a lesson; white-knuckle poverty stalks a growing number of Indians despite the MGNREGA and a food security law; angry students bristle if they are reminded that their primary occupation is to study; and foxy polarising politicians use and throw old friends like hankies. So a handkerchief civilisation rises in this ancient land of ours.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not yearning for the “old days”. Of course, we’ve made dramatic progress, and we are spoilt for choice, particularly in urban India — in IT, telecom, pharma, roads, auto, aviation, school enrolment, fashion, etc — and yet, after cricket, why is our favourite sport schadenfreude? Why does everybody look down on somebody else? What’s missing from our lives in 2016?
A swish farmhouse in outer Delhi provided the answer. After a tour of the mammoth drawing room, the lady of the house took me to the dining room where a sumptuous table for 14 had been laid since last night, for a family that hadn’t turned up, and for friends who had decamped to another “amazing friend’s 50th”. When everything is “amazing”, nothing is.
We all long for intimacy, “and there is no human being who is not threatened by its loss”. But in India today, our intimacies and relationships are getting swallowed.
And sociologists fret that our metros are being held together by the weak glue of Facebook ties, in which we feel fake and safe. There’s something inevitable about this when we begin to aspire to Life as Reality TV in which we are chasing fame and money 24×7. Alone.