Although, as it turns out, Marie Antoinette’s famous saying was actually a rumour perpetuated by the revolutionaries to feed the animosity that French peasants had for their rulers, these four words best epitomize the callous indifference of those in any position of wealth or power (the haves) towards their fellow citizens who cannot afford bread, let alone munch on cake (the have nots). And, when people ask me about my impressions of India after returning from the US following twelve long years spent living abroad, although generally positive, time and again I am reminded of these four words. Presumably, being able to afford a nice apartment in a secure, gated complex with a gym and a swimming pool, I’m a "have" and a chill runs down my spine imagining if someday my head will roll off the sharp blade of a guillotine.
But India is prospering, they tell me. Double-digit growth. Low cost tech capital of the world. Business process outsourcing leader. Largest democracy. Multi-ethnic vibrant society. Strong secular credentials. Superb banking and financial institutions. Rising rupee. IT parks. Biotech boom. Special Economic Zones…. The list is endless, they reassure me.
It warms my heart and a thrill runs down my spine whenever I revise this list. I want to believe in it. I want to raise my hands and congratulate my billion plus brothers and sisters that they’re part of a miracle. But congratulating them would be congratulating… I, me, myself. Congratulating the "haves" who’ve always had. They just have more now. More often than not, when I’ve turned to congratulate a "have-not" I’ve had to withdraw my hand and hang my head in shame, praying he’ll ignore the irony of my outstretched hand and forget both--the incident as well as the part about being in the middle of economic betterment. Their lives are improving rapidly, aren’t they?
One incident occurred when we bought a washing machine and refrigerator from a swanky electronics store in a beautiful mall in the heart of the city. When I had left India, I didn’t know what a mall was. Now, standing in the middle of a three storied architectural marvel of glass and steel, as I admired the polished floors, the smooth escalators, the capsule elevators and the gleaming storefronts, I felt confident; India was on the rise. Inside the store my wife an I were treated like royalty, attended to by a flock of smartly dressed young men and women, serving us tea and coffee liberally, answering our questions with certainty and reassuring us that delivery would be free of cost and within 48hours. And lo and behold, within 48 hours there was a telephone call from the security gate in the apartment complex to inform me that some men had come to deliver our washing machine and the 260-litre refrigerator.
I opened the front door slightly and waited. And waited. Five minutes rolled into ten and then into twenty. I peeked outside a couple of times to ensure that the elevators up to our apartment on the sixth floor were working. They were… and when no one showed up to deliver anything after forty-five minutes had flown by, a vein of irritation began to buzz in my head.
Then there was a light knock on the door and a young man, younger and thinner than me, stood outside, panting, wondering if he had the right address to deliver two appliances. On that hot, humid July afternoon, he stood sweating like he had just stepped out of a shower. His perspiration made his tawdry clothes stick to his body as though they were painted on him, and the first thing he asked me after I confirmed that he indeed had the right address was whether he could have a glass of water for himself and his friend, still struggling up the stairs, lugging the washing machine on his back.
I was shocked. Why hadn’t he used the elevator, I asked him.
The security guards downstairs wouldn’t allow it, he informed me matter-of-factly, as though the error was in his unreasonable request not in the guard’s denial.
I was flabbergasted. Using the elevator to ferry a couple of heavy objects up six floors was a privilege… not a right? What if we had lived on the thirteenth floor? What if we had bought a 300-liter refrigerator?
Anger welled up inside me and I felt tears of outrage sting my eyes. I marched down to the security office and demanded an explanation from the first person I met. The guard informed me that he had simply followed the estate manager’s rules.
Rules? There was a rule saying that people couldn’t transport heavy appliances on elevators? I’d forgive a rule insisting that heavy object may only be transported on an elevator as the product of a bureaucratic mind with too much idle time on their hands.
Yes, the guard informed me with a serious face, there were rules for everything. He justified his concern by stating that heavy objects like appliances tend to have sharp edges that could scratch the paint or dent the elevator walls.
I had to shake my head to dispel any doubts that I wasn’t in the midst of a strange dream or trapped by some Seinfeldian fantasy in "bizarro" land. Meanwhile, the estate manager showed up, and, after a quick exchange of conspiratorial whispers, was brought up to speed on the situation by the guard.
What if the man had twisted his ankle while hauling up the heavy luggage or worse, broken his leg, I asked the big, burly estate manager. The man’s response was a casual shrug. By now I had begun absorbing shock well. What if the refrigerator had fallen on him and crushed him, I asked. The estate manager frowned, missed my point completely and informed me that the company would surely replace the damaged goods to my apartment free of cost. This is the new India, he smiled and informed me, where customer is king. The deliveryman, damn it! Don’t worry, he reassured me, the company would find ten more people like him to complete the job.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I argued with the man, trying to educate him on the basics of humanity, humility and human rights. But it was just not done, he informed me. Why? I asked, and offered to take responsibility for any dents and scratches that might disfigure the elevators. My proposal wouldn’t influence the man. Why? I pestered him… Why? After a few moments of dodging my pointed questions he said that other tenants of this upscale apartment complex might take offence to sharing elevators with sweaty delivery boys and smelly milkmen.
And that’s when visions of murderous crowds with hatchets and spears baying for bourgeois blood begin to fill my head.
Upstairs, my wife was feeling equally sorry for the deliverymen. When I returned, I found them sitting under the fan in one corner of our living room, munching on something. The men were hungry, my wife informed me, and, since we didn’t have any bread, she had given them some left over cake.
Anirban Bose's debut novel Bombay Rains, Bombay Girls is due out in May.