They are us too

Updated: Dec 30 2006, 05:30am hrs
An 80-something man I know, who retired a quarter-century ago after a distinguished career with the government, told me recently that he wants to write a book titled Why I Am Ashamed to be Indian.

When I asked in astonishment, he rattled off a litany of downers about India, circa 2006. Riots and the lack of justice for them, caste violence, poor healthcare for so many people, religious hatred, government opacity, miserable education for so many people.

When this man joined the government, India had just won freedom. He remembers the euphoria, a belief that a country had awakened to new promise.

He also remembers clearly that it wasn't long before the euphoria faded. How long, I once asked. Gone by the mid-50s, he said. He still found his job satisfying, but the optimism dissipated. That feeling only deepened after he retired. Why would a man like this feel so despondent and pessimistic, indeed ashamed about India

Now there's plenty of feel-good stuff making the rounds, plenty of talk about India finally arriving on the world stage, the booming economy, on and on. Certainly there's truth in it all too. Im no gung-ho cheerleader for a superpower India, but its a fool who doesnt recognise that there are some profound changes happening in India.

Yet, we have a temple in rural Orissa which the High Court had to order opened to visits by lower-caste villagers. And after the first such visits happened, the upper castes closed the temple so that they could purify it. Yes, in 21st century India, a purification because fellow humans visit.

We have increasing numbers of small farmers swallowing rat poison to kill themselves. In Vidarbha last April, I met the family of one such, who took his life over a debt of are you readyRs 2,000. Think of that. What does Rs 2,000 mean to you To this man, it was life. Death.

We have a 12-year-long trial that has finally delivered judgments on most of the perpetrators of the blasts of March 1993. But contrast that with no trial at all, let alone judgments, for any of the perpetrators of the riots that preceded those blasts.

We have a President who, while addressing a huge gathering of IIT alumni, says that IITs take the best and deliver the best to the world but direct benefits for the nation are minimal.

In that spirit, he urges IIT graduates to design low-cost dwellings with proper sanitation for the needy. India may need 100 million such units in the next five years. If our President is right, he means that these needy" amount to something like 500 million people, or half the entire country.

India at 60: what must a man who felt that euphoria in 1947, feel now Is ashamed a legitimate answer

Certainly theres no country without problems. Certainly we should not ignore our successes, nor the plethora of Indians working quietly in their own ways to make this a better place. Sixty years is a substantial age, an achievement by itself. Many other countries that are about that old have succumbed to civil war, or coups. India has not, and that by itself says something about us.

Yet I often feel India is unique in one respect: the desire in so many of us to look away from our problems. Therefore, the booming headlines, the lascivious attention offered to a rising Sensex, the complacency over the power and promise of free markets. Thus the senior editor who, while instructing me recently on how I should write for him, said: You can send the negative stories somewhere else, but for us, only positive ones!

I mean, the rising Sensex is fine and dandy, but what do we do about that Orissa temple and its assorted purifiers What do we do to bring justice to too many victims of homegrown terrorism: Delhi 1984, Bombay 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and more

When they touch 60, most people have come to understand that life is not solely about the happy news. They understand that life comes with lows just as surely as it brings highs. This is just the way of the world. Why should we not feel similarly about a countrythis country

So heres something to chew on through the year we touch 60. Speaking to him, I know that the 80-something is ashamed most of all by the indifference I alluded to. Because when a nation chooses to ignore its problems, they come back redoubled in strength. Lack of justice Get ready for more terrorism. Huge shortfall in affordable housing Prepare for ever-more slums.

This year and forward, let's put into practice what we already know: a successful country is one that recognises and addresses its problems, just as surely as it celebrates its triumphs. Let's find space in our hearts for the negative stories. Because they define who we are and what we can be. Because they are us too.