The way we were then
A couple of days ago I read a scintillating article by poet-writer-filmmaker Pritish Nandy. Titled ‘The way we are today’, it takes us back in time when we were all poor (some had no money, some had little and none had a lot) but happy and nursed radical ideas over cups of nimbu-chai, tumblers of filter coffee or glasses of rum pani, depending on the state of the health of our wallet. I don’t know about others who read the essay, but I was transported to my growing up years in what was then a one-street up country town called Jamshedpur.
Barring pockets of privately-owned dwellings which were also islands of relative affluence, Jamshedpur was one sprawling colony where everybody was equally un-rich. We belonged to what was referred to as the ‘middle-class’, quite unlike today’s middle-classes. Values, and not the monthly salary daddy brought home, defined this amorphous segment of Indian society.
One of the proverbs I learned early in life (though I have not practised it) was ‘Cut your coat according to your cloth’. My mother would not tire of reminding me, ‘Waste not, want not’. Food was never thrown into the garbage bin, it was recycled and reborn with exotic names, possibly coined to gloss over the misery of having to make do with shortages.
We were not poor, nor were our neighbours, including those in the extended neighbourhood. We were, as I said, un-rich. Our parents counted their pennies. We wore cotton as terylene was too flash and terrycot too expensive. We wore Bata shoes bought during festive season discount sale. A pair of stretchlon pants was the owner’s pride and the beholder’s envy.
Simple living, high thinking was a mantra of sorts. Being spartan was fashionable. Mahatma Gandhi would not have approved any deviation from the Biblical strait and the narrow. In a sense, being un-rich was nice, the rich were to be tolerated but not emulated.
The way we were was largely on account of the way India was. The shortage economy, governed by the licence-permit-quota raj, was the only economy we knew. What we knew of the West was a coloured version: Materialism was not a guarantor of happiness. We were happy.
We were happy to make do with shoddy ‘Made in India’ merchandise and drool over ‘Made in Japan’ two-in-ones. At home, medicine foil was recycled to scrub utensils and newspapers and magazines were sold separately as the latter fetched more money. Jugaad, the means of doing without what would be considered necessary anywhere else in the world, for instance in repairing an iron or making a ramshackle radio with burned out valves work, became a national passion.
Never mind the iron, repaired laboriously with a bit of this and a bit of that, would either over-heat or remain stone cold, and the radio would have more hiss and cackle than decipherable sound. We never innovated nor designed, we copy-catted and produced wretched replicas of which we were immensely proud. Fine sewing needles, much in demand, were smuggled in from Japan. They were then stamped ‘Made in USA’ —Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association, or so the joke went.
Life in my town was predetermined, as were ambitions pre-defined. Most of us who went to Loyola School dreamt of three ‘F’s, that would follow in normal course if you were able to land a job with the Tatas: a flat, a fridge and a Fiat. In Calcutta, where Pritish Nandy was growing up, young men and women from un-rich families dreamt of revolution and the People’s Liberation Army marching in. In the meanwhile, they read Brecht, debated dialectics of materialism and wrote Dylanesque poems that were published by Writers Workshop.
When the Revolution failed and the PLA stayed put at Shanghai, Pritish Nandy and his friends slipped into jobs and professions that were always open to them. The blue chip companies which had their headquarters in Calcutta would not hire anybody else. The ad agencies thought the world of Bengali copywriters and designers. Only Aparna Sen could make a film like 36 Chowringhee Lane and Paroma (in whose production Pritish Nandy had more than a little role).
And when they got bored they moved on. To new jobs, new cities, new lives. As for those of use who baulked at the thought of staying on in Jamshedpur, we sailed forth in search of a living, if not fame and fortune. That’s how the un-rich became rich. And that's how India changed, gradually at first and rapidly later, making the pursuit of wealth a perfectly legitimate and respectable aim in life.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta