The weight of inequality

[ Three months after the India trip, my mind is still on what happened there. ]

The morning after I landed in Bangalore, I went for a haircut. Raja Haircutting Saloon is near a junction in Koramangala, where the quiet lane from my apartment meets a busy thoroughfare, surrounded by a cluster of small stores selling vegetables, hardware, newspapers and magazines, Internet services, stationery, South Indian breakfasts and meals. The saloon had three empty chairs facing a wall-to-wall mirror. An unfamiliar Bollywood song was playing on the radio. On the wall opposite the mirror hung a full-size poster of Priyanka Chopra in a blue chiffon sari, hands on her hips. A dark-skinned and well-built young man in a bright yellow T-shirt appeared from behind a curtain and showed me a chair. His oily hair was combed back, he smelled of Brylcreem, and standing beside Priyanka Chopra he looked like a Hindi movie baddie. I placed my camera on the counter and sat on the reclining swivel chair. The barber spoke in Hindi.

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15 Replies to “The weight of inequality”

  1. Just returned from India myself. The mind is filled with many such things.

    I was hoping to see the photograph at the end of the piece.

  2. Parmanu:

    Excellent post. Other than that, I am speechless. Well, almost speechless … you are not the only one who feels the chasm. On trips to India, I try to blend in as best I can but I know I stand out like a sore thumb.

    BTW – and this is sort of off-topic – a couple of weeks ago, a question popped up in a personal finance-related bulletin board I frequent – how often do you have a $100 per person meal (that’s in US Dollars; all-inclusive, i.e., appetizers, food, desserts, wine/booze) in a year?

    Trying to formulate my response (later, I gave up), I struggled to count how often, if ever, I had had that expensive a meal in my life. Never ever. Let alone $100, I was hard-pressed to think of occasions when I’ve spent even $25 on a meal for myself.

    When I brought up this topic among my work buddies, I realized that I am not alone in this regard. Of the four people I asked, three had never spent $100 on a one-person meal. The fourth had had a few – mostly on the company’s dime when he worked at Microsoft. Though we work in a corporate IT environment and not a ‘pure’ IT shop such as Yahoo! or google or IBM, I would pretty much say that the folks I asked are among the top quartile of the USA population in terms of earnings and about mid-career middle-age level.

    In other thoughts, what is with the site medium.com? Don’t know whether you’ve always had it, but today was the first time I noticed it. Also, I didn’t quite get the import of the last two sentences there. RTI?

    – Porcupyn

    1. If you haven’t spent even $25 on a meal for yourself, you must probably be (like me) a vegetarian. Eating mosaranna at the end of each meal!

      Medium.com is a new publishing platform created by the founders of Twitter, and I’m just trying it out as an experiment. Still early days — I’ll share some thoughts when once I get a better handle on what such a platform can mean for online publishing.

      Ah, the last two sentences. They are what they are. If I explain too much, it would take away the mystery. This blog is a progressive story of a life, so perhaps there will be more on that theme in the posts that follow.

  3. Didn’t mean a picture of you. But a picture. To accompany the piece. Though I wouldn’t complain if it was a picture of you. 🙂

  4. Just loved this “I knew what this meant. I had to return to the country of my birth, leaving behind this land of equals.”
    One of those statements which is meaningful in itself, but rather diminished without context…

  5. loved it Parmanu. Now you know why I feel the weight so badly here. A lot many times I wish I could feel free and just leave everything behind. But like you….I am tied by karma to this land of my birth.

    Sharing this story with my colleagues. They will love it.

  6. I knew what this meant. I had to return to the country of my birth, leaving behind this land of equals……

    These words will stay with me for long. Thank you.

  7. A very Interesting post. I feel similar when I leave New York to visit my family in North India, every year. On one hand I despise the Indian “middle-class’s” apathy and derision towards the poor. On the other hand, richer Indians have no ability to make much of a change to society individually, thus apathy is the only way for them to cope with the inequity they see every day.

    When I come back to New York, I feel relief and freedom; as you described. But this is only momentary, as the same inequality exists in the US, just on a slightly smaller scale. The truth is its impossible to run away from the guilt, for even when you reside in more equal society like Germany, you are still living in a poor world. Though you may be thousands of miles away from poverty, that weight is always there.

    My Interpretation of Orpheus:
    We must walk on along the narrow path. Don’t look back! Don’t watch too keenly the world’s misery; lest you be sent astray forever, lest you lose all. Take with you what you love, harm no one, but search not for the faces that fill these endless groans of terror. For we must plod on along this narrow path. Look not back Orpheus! Look not.

    1. Thank you for your thought-provoking response, Basant.

      Intellectually we know that we live in a poor world (even if what surrounds us does not show it), but what this experience of mine showed was the extent to which we are shaped by our immediate environment. We want to be consistent in our responses (especially on serious matters like these), but we can’t — we are driven by many factors, internal and external, and our awareness of (and empathy for) the poor and underprivileged does not stay unwavering.

      I think about these issues much more when I’m in India than in Germany. Initially this used to trouble me. Now I understand and accept this limitation.

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