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The lifeboat privilege

Illus: for TH_sreejith r.kumar  

I grew up in a bowl of privilege. Even the travails we went through were those of the elite, taxing the imaginations of the heart but never actually threatening the defences of the body.

I inherited an industrial engineering company that was founded by my grandfather. The contracting industry is a place where worlds collide. Where the purity of physical effort by migrant labourers roasted by the sun, delivers to the world around them the comforts of modern infrastructure. Everything here is centred on the basics. Basic needs, basic hopes, and basic aspirations and expectations.

A few years ago one of our construction managers, let’s call him SS, died of a sudden heart attack. He was in his late 40s. His wife came from her village in Bihar to meet us for help. We employed her son SK, who was just out of college, as a storekeeper.

He was a calm boy, anchored by the recent acceptance of death and detached from the inconsistent character of strangers. In rural middle class homes, there is no time to mourn death. Counter-measures are taken to manage the sharp shift in the trajectory of the lives of the survivors. Fresh defences are built to protect their dignity. Hopes are realigned into the shadows of new breadwinners as they learn to cradle an uncertain future on their still soft shoulders.

SS was the second among three brothers. His elder brother was the only one their parents could afford to send to engineering college. In time he rose to become the general manager at a Fortune 500 Indian oil company. SS could only be put through an ordinary graduate degree. His elder brother, who was our customer, got him a job with us three decades ago, where he learnt the ropes and provided for his family. When SS’s younger brother finished school, the gates for any further education had closed for the family given the expenses that would have been involved.

SS, in turn, got his younger brother a job on our worksite as a welder. In an era of limited means, all three were now on their own. Their capacity to give was exhausted by the minimal needs contained within their own walls.

I learnt of this family network only after he died, when his younger brother accompanied the body back to their village and his elder brother had to be informed. The stark class divisions that occupy and fracture the daily lives of the world confronted me with a rare force, through the way they played out across one generation of one small family.

The elder brother’s son KK now lives in Gurgaon and works with a multinational oil sector company. The distance between him and the rest of the family has grown too large over time to bridge. As he scaled the cliffs out of rural memories, they continued the exertion required to remain where they were.

SS’s younger brother is still Welder # 546. The identity of a migrant worker that is tied in to statistics and numbers that are not that easy to change. I imagine a time when he would have cradled his elder brother’s son as a young child on his lap. Rejoiced at the sound of his first cogent word and steady step. Long before their bonds of blood were diluted by the buffering distance of language, by the first brush of an urban lifestyle rushing to escape a long legacy of poverty, by the fresh fears that roam in KK’s blood like a stark reminder of the porous barriers between the cultural pretence of new comforts and the visceral alertness of old uncertainties.

Conversations from the past about the constraining Indian aspiration for every child to grow up into a doctor or engineer, those ‘safe’ careers, squirmed as they floated through my mind.

It brought home to me the effects of sharp inequalities and the poverty that sustains them. Warren Buffet once said, “If you don’t find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work until you die.” The view from the other side is that many people need to be bound into working until they die so a few people can earn as they sleep.

There is no great honour in rescuing others once we have gained the safety of a lifeboat. What justification can the uneven concentration of money give, if it must come at the cost of fracturing the families of others and eroding the hearts of all humans? When worlds collide, these things become hard to escape and even harder to understand.

Until we return back to the basics, where relationships are recognised in their essence as being warm, vulnerable and soulful. It is when these truths of our own lives are redeemed, that the world can be reshaped into a truer reflection of all that is good and beautiful within us.

It is not so hard to imagine that, when we pay attention to the right part of every quote or story. The ones that want us to give, the ones that want us to nurture, the ones that want us to love and the ones that want us to protect each other.

This is always where it begins.

anand@vijaytanks.com

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 9:29:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-lifeboat-privilege/article23711491.ece

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