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When two eras overlap

January 20, 2017 04:18 pm | Updated May 30, 2023 12:44 pm IST

I consider myself fortunate that I was born in 1970, though sometimes I wish I was born a couple of decades before: that would have accorded me more time in an India that was simpler and slower.

As a 1970-born, I have lived in the times when there was no television or telephone; when there were only grocery stores and no supermarkets; when you chased your tailor and waited for the arrival of the postman; when summer vacation meant going to granny’s home; when one walked or bicycled to school; when a monthly salary of Rs. 2,000 was considered decent; when a postcard cost just five paise and you actually bought them. And as a 1970-born, I also happen to be one of the younger citizens of the 21st Century, and I am not going to waste words describing how we live today — we all know it. So I straddle both eras — one of them now memory, the other a reality — which I consider to be a great privilege.

But since I straddle both eras, I can also see how disconnected the two have become of late. Today, I behave as if I was born with a smartphone in my hand, even though the truth is that during the first half of my life, the fastest mode of communication I knew was the telegram. Who said old habits die hard? You only need to be handed a new habit.

These days, I rarely call my father, now 73, to find out how he is doing: I know he is fine when I find him ‘online’ on WhatsApp. If my father and I can behave as if the telegram never existed, think of those who were born in, say, 1995 or 2000: for them, humankind came into existence with the birth of the smartphone and social media.

Usually, there is an overlap between two eras — that’s how it has been ever since the first human walked on the planet. But there was something different about the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century — especially for India. Globalisation, coupled with the unprecedented leaps made in the field of information technology, has made the 20th Century almost unrecognisable to the 21st-Century Indians.

Just look at what’s happening today. Clothes are purchased either from malls or bought online. Food is bought over apps. Milk is delivered in sachets. All types of food grains and vegetables are available in the supermarket. No one, any longer, spares a thought for the faceless tailor, who could be toiling either in China or Bangladesh or Vietnam (or even India). Or for the cook who puts together the dishes. Or for the cow that produces the milk. Or for the farmer who actually produces the food grains and also grows the vegetables. I won’t be surprised if some of today’s kids happen to be under the impression that milk is something that materialises in sachets and lentils are grown in supermarkets.

When I was growing up in Kanpur, one of the domestic duties assigned to me was to get fresh milk from the village next-door — back then, villages still coexisted with urban neighbourhoods — and I knew that milk was something that was drawn from the udders of a cow or buffalo. As I grew older, I was handed an additional responsibility: to take freshly washed and dried wheat to the nearest grinder — chakki — and return home with hot wheat flour, or atta . The chakki closed down many years ago because of lack of patronage. Its erstwhile patrons, including my father, now buy packaged atta from the supermarket. The farmer — whose invisible presence you felt while touching the grains of wheat — is out of the picture. That explains the disconnect.

And this disconnect, I feel, is the reason behind the massive protests currently taking place in Chennai over jallikattu, the bull-taming sport: it’s essentially a clash between the past and the present.

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