So, I lied . . . This post is, in fact, the final installment of India Now and will conclude the four part narrative of my trip to India:
One of the neighbors in my grandmother’s gated community in Andheri East has a driver. The driver, a member of India’s server class, is impoverished like most of the people in his position. Unlike many of the servants in the community, this driver has a reputation for being reliable. Neighbors frequently complain about other servants stealing from their households and talking maliciously about them behind turned backs. Not this driver. He has received muted praise from the community for the loyalty he shows his employer. The employer, however, offers few compliments, believing that too much appreciation can create unnecessary complacency.
The employer-servant relationship continued for years in a fairly professional manner. One night the driver chauffeured his employer and his wife to a social function. Instructed to wait outside in the night heat until the party let out, the driver was surprised to see his employer’s wife step out to the car a bit early. She considerately greeted him with a cup of water. She also insisted the driver try some dessert. The driver declined, not wanting to overstep professional boundaries. She would not hear it and returned with a bowl of sweets anyway. Her husband followed shortly behind. When he arrived to see the driver enjoying some of the party’s spoils, he was outraged at the driver’s apparent trespass on the social affair. After berating the driver, the employer felt he had no choice but to punish his servant’s indiscretion with a beating.
Neighbors familiar with this story quietly approved of the employer’s actions. They reasoned, the man could not let his driver think such unprofessionalism would be tolerated. After the incident, the driver continued with his post as loyally as before. The employer and his neighbors felt vindicated in their beliefs—beating servants was the only way to guarantee obedience, much like a dog.
The caste system might have been abolished in India but the poor are still often treated like second-class citizens. Slumdog’s chai-wala aside the impoverished lead rather despondent lives. Yes, stories of rags to riches do exist, but compared to the lower socioeconomic strata of the United States who find themselves in project housing or trailers with indoor plumbing, the jhoper patti dwelling poor of India have it really bad. Worse, no one seems to care. When poverty permeates a place so deeply, desensitization is almost inevitable. Unfortunately, dehumanization accompanies the desensitization.
During our hike up to Vaishno Devi Sherpa-like guides called pitus carried our bags up the mountain. As natives of the region, they were very well conditioned to lugging heavy cargo up and down the mountain on a daily basis. While my brother and I found it a bit awkward to have these thin, older men carry the bags of two guys in the physical prime of their lives, we went with the flow. We figured they would be compensated for their efforts. When we reached the top and settled into our hotel room, we were dismayed to discover that the pitus were not permitted shelter with us. They spent the blustery night on the streets curled up in shawls. By the end of the trip they had garnered so much goodwill in Rajeev’s and my eyes that we decided to leave them a generous tip, but we were discouraged by our relatives. There was a norm to tipping that we apparently didn’t understand. We were only to offer a nominal amount to express our gratitude. I wound up having to take Rajeev’s share along with mine and clandestinely slip it to the pitus.
The glaring visuals of disfigured beggars roaming the roadsides often overshadow the struggles of the servant class, but the reality is that they’re all part of the 42% of the Indian population that is impoverished. As dark as their plight seems at time, however, it might not be entirely hopeless. During a day trip to the small city of Vadodra in the state of Gujarat, I ran into a mother and daughter team begging for money as I exited a restaurant. Vadodra has a growing NRI population, many of whom are buying property to serve as vacation or retirement homes. The poor are cognizant of this trend and have taken advantage of it, positioning themselves at NRI hubs. As we left the restaurant, it was fairly obvious to the mother and daughter duo that we weren’t locals. Perhaps it was the polos or the fact that we were drinking diet soda, but whatever the tell, they swarmed us without hesitation. One of my younger cousins urged us along to the car. As the driver started backing out, the daughter poked her hand inside my window. Not wanting to hurt the girl, I handed her my bottle of Diet Pepsi. She snatched it greedily. My cousin snapped at me, “You shouldn’t encourage them! They prey on NRIs.” Rajeev followed my lead and tossed his soft drink to the mother on the other side of the car. As our cousin continued scolding us, we couldn’t help but crack up laughing.
Why our cousin was so offended by my brother and me gifting two half-finished soda bottles eluded us. Even she started smirking at the absurdity of the situation. Glancing out the window at the mother and daughter team as we hurriedly pulled away, I saw that they too found the whole ordeal very amusing and were laughing. The mother knew that they could have done without the diet sodas. By their appearance, it was obvious that they didn’t miss many meals. They were poor, but they weren’t starving and possibly not even homeless. All of us recognized that begging for money had become a game in India. The begging mother knew that my Indian cousin would only have rebuked her, and thus, she turned to Rajeev and me instead. My cousin frowned upon their success because she realized it would soon lead more beggars to patrol that area. Rajeev and I knew that the girl and woman weren’t completely destitute, but we didn’t want the soda and were leaving India soon enough anyway. Our collective laughter was just the outburst of knowing we were all complicit in a never-ending game.
The real problem in towns like Vadodra is that the reemergence of NRIs, with the power of non-Indian currency at their disposal, raises the cost of living for the working class. Acquiescing to appeals for money was just another example of the disturbance of local norms. Western influence in general is having this tumultuous impact all over India. The change in socioeconomic behaviors and the interactions between disparate classes is one of the more tangible transformations.
To the poor girl sipping on my soda, Diet Pepsi represented the taste of a better life. Unaccustomed to the artificial flavor, she probably didn’t even like it. Still, she understood that this foreign object meant a future different from her present life, and the newfound Indian optimism equates this “different” future with a better one. This mentality is not limited to the poor. The information technology industry was a boon to the Indian economy, and growth in other industries rapidly followed. With a rising gross domestic product, India experienced a surge in its middle class.
The young population can carry the middle class to new heights of affluence. India’s youth needs only to be wary of disillusionment. The definition of middle class is changing. Membership to this class currently grants access to a superficially richer lifestyle in which it is not uncommon to rub elbows with Bollywood stars at nightclubs and parties. Legacy upper and middle class members who have been supported by the wealth of family businesses and generous patriarchs are mixing with people who are starting their own businesses and working for multinational corporations. Universal economic growth eventually slows, and certain key industries continue to flourish. That time might be a while away, but when it comes, it is very possible that not everyone achieves the promise of a better life. As Western forces and Indian tradition reach equilibrium, it should become more apparent to the youth what the best niches in society are for them. Until then, confusion remains mixed with optimism as Indians continue finding their identity in the new millennium.
 “New Global Poverty Numbers – What It Means for India.” The World Bank, 2005.