In the days prior to the “lockdown”, driving past the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, giving at best a hasty glance, one scanned the promenade, the haze blocking a clear view. There, forlorn, against the backdrop of the grey sea, stands the statue of R K Laxman’s “common man”, symbolising the silent multitude of our country. Are those whom he represents still as silent? Or is another narrative emerging?
Joining the advertising industry in the post-liberalisation 1990s, one witnessed the markets expanding and new segments rising. One also realised — something which I was hesitant to vocalise even humbly at that point — that the profession truly required people like me who were frugally brought up in the heart of India and carried the smell of the earth — “those” from different milieus. For, a large segment of the industry whose primary reason for existence should’ve been their grasp of, and the ability to communicate with, the target audience was not in sync with the ground reality. Words like “they”, “them”, “those people” peppered the discussions. It was even strangely cool to be not associated with the larger masses, with the undertones of the latter being “downmarket”. It struck a discordant note with some of us because there is a difference between a healthy distance that helps objectivity and a worrying disconnect.
Whilst things changed, thankfully, to a very large extent in our industry, in a broader context perhaps, they ambled on. In fact, over the years, I have felt the distance, between the one who is defined as “common man” and those who use this definition, only increase when it comes to relatability.
Let’s take a look at the portrait of the so-called common man from some vantage points. For those who live in the metros and larger cities, the common man is, willy-nilly, the one who provides the services: The milkman, the watchman, the grocery-store delivery boy, “the bhaiyas”. He lives in some makeshift tenement or a “jhuggi” or “god knows where”, arrives miraculously every morning to provide the services and disappears into oblivion until the next day. Of course, sometimes the names of the bais and maids who work part-time are known, sometimes a photocopy of the Aadhaar card kept folded in some drawer as identity proof, a vague reference nestled in the mind about him /her living near “that bridge” or behind “that mandi”. Other personal details are scanty, not so much because they are unavailable but because the desire to know simply does not exist.
In the smaller cities and towns, where our parents or older relatives reside, the common man is often deemed as the villager who has come to their comparatively large city to work. His wife and children rarely have distinct names and are heard of either in the context of falling ill or getting married. It’s a given that his only dream is to come to the city and find employment. This is the archetype surviving from the Premchand classics or remnants of our feudal past.
Another popular reference of a common man is created by cinema and the media. For them, there is a sense of amusement regarding this common man. We often see him in the so-called real cinema in a caricatured form — hell-bent on using only his dialect or regional tongue, spouting juicy abuses or risqué witticisms, possibly paan-chewing, and hypothetically protected from all references to the contemporary in terms of dress or behaviour.
He’s a suspended island and should stay “authentically regional” — a misfit who entertains and amuses. After all, he is “them” and the more one spices up this character with clichés, the more the satisfaction of getting to “figure who these people are”.
Voluntarily cut off from ground reality, a large section of the society’s interaction is with the reel-life version of the common man. And rarely are there any qualms in admitting that there is not the slightest of desire in them to know or engage with the real. Altered reality is a wonderful cocoon.
Apart from those who have constantly engaged meaningfully, this wonderful but artificial cocoon has been cracked in the times of COVID.
Apart from the heroes of healthcare, we started hearing words like “frontline warriors”, essential services staff, the selfless “efficient sanitary workers of the municipality” and so on. Memes and videos are pouring out on social media about the desperate wait and value of the missing maids and bais. Yes, the plight of migrant workers and their heart-wrenching, desperate quest to reach home shook even those who till then had managed to remain somewhat removed.
The state of the real common man, sans urban India’s privileged indulgent lifestyle noise, is clearer than today’s sky.
Thankfully, many have stepped forward in this crisis with money, time, resources and services. The key is pledging that we will go beyond the serving of meals for migrants and providing for some months of ration to a cluster or locality or contribution to relief methods. More than ever, we need to make a long-term, sustainable impact. A more humane impact.
Perhaps we can start at home. With our household help. All those people without whose help urban India can’t move an inch. Something significant needs to happen here.
While we were talking about a lockdown in the country and the affluent were busy organising the safety and travel of their loved ones return home, we almost forgot the existence of a section of people who also have families and who also feel equally for the safety of their own.
There is way too much of a difference in the lives of these people and the average urban household. Urban India’s lifestyle has grown in leaps and bounds and this success has not equally been shared.
The harsh truth of life is that there have always been class differences. But the difference has become staggering. While the West has gradually moved towards a professional approach, we are stuck somewhere in the middle. Neither do we share the deep emotional and generational bond with the household help that was there in the joint families nor have we professionalised these services fully.
The pretence around the proverbial “Deenu Kaka”, who was at least given an impression of being a family member, is over. You don’t see “Deenu Kakas” anymore. What we have in return is a lopsided, insensitive and transactional relationship, which is surviving in strange ways.
Sure, generosity is shown at times during an illness, accident, marriage or paying for education for children or a loan given with the scant expectation of being paid back. But at best, these are sporadic and done more as a “retention” strategy, later bandied as “look how much I have done for you”.
But in my humble opinion, this shall not last and should not.
Many, perhaps more palpably in Mumbai where the reality and the bubble — the high-rise and the slum — rest cheek to jowl, have been getting increasingly uneasy. Oscillating between concern about inequality and the guilt of overconsumption.
The gross inequality across India means that going ahead, the needy will still be the ones with servile and underpaid jobs. However, let’s recognise that today more than ever, we live in a much more connected world where hiding truths and rampant unfairness in terms of expectations and returns does not seem feasible.
We need to work out a system that is fair and respectable. Starting with a monthly salary that is more than the household’s dining out expenses, helping out and paying premiums for accident insurance, a medical check-up, a loan extended with understanding, the annual holiday extended with gratitude with grace. It would be nice to know the names of their children and spouse along the way. Also, perhaps next time the municipal workers cordon off the lane near your home instead of honking impatiently, send down some tea. Not just for the sake of the dignity of labour but also dignity in our own eyes.
This article was published in the Indian Express Print by the title “The real common man”. Joshi is a writer, poet and chairman, CBFC.