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Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A brown sahib in a bus

Date: 07/19/2011

The bus starts out empty.

“Pranay, like it or not, you will be a gringo in India.” Dr. Guerrant warned me as I got ready to fly to India, my own country. Gringo is the picturesque Latin American term for foreigners. Personally, I had felt slightly outraged. I am, after all, a passport carrying citizen of India! Born in humid Kolkata and raised in the dry heat of New Delhi, I did not consider myself a brown sahib, a term reserved for the educated Indians who served the British raj in India. Brown sahibs were often more English than the English.

I was still bristling at Dr. Guerrant’s warning when I boarded the bus this morning. After tossing three well-worn one rupee coins to the conductor, I curled myself into a window seat. I say curled because it is impossible for anyone taller than 5 feet to sit in those seats without an impromptou display of contortionism. Reading on the bus is physically impossible-- the customary jerks are colossal enough to rearrange your visceral organs. If this were not enough, the imaginative interpretation of traffic laws by most bus drivers is sufficient to reacquaint any traveling atheists with the deities they staunchly deny.  I have learned my lesson and now just sit and commune with my fellow Indians quietly.

And ends up looking like this.

Five minutes into my jangly bus ride, I saw a lady, in a gorgeous saffron sari who was squatting behind a small bush. She was defecating. Seeing the bus approach, she made a few perfunctory moves to conceal herself, but she knew as well as I that it was futile. I averted my gaze to give her some privacy. Though I had seen similar sights hundreds of times before, it shook me up in a way that the bus could not. I was struck by the thought that my India was so different than hers.

“India’s economy will soon overtake China’s,” is the proud boast of a vocal minority in India, a minority I regrettably belong to. Indians like me suddenly have the capacity to patronize brands such as Bvlgari and BMW. You know you’ve been left out of the prosperity party when you cower behind bushes as you carry out you basic bodily functions, clutching at the last vestiges of your dignity. This is the case for 638 million people in India. That’s twice the population of the United States.

Two schoolgirls were sitting in the sear in front of me. They were attired in white shirts and navy blue skirts. I got occasional whiffs of coconut oil from their well-oiled braids secured with ribbons that matched their skirts. The braids oscillated in phase with the stochastic shudders of the bus. A wave of nostalgia gripped me as I heard them chanting the preamble to the Indian constitution, a feat every good middle-schooler in India is expected to master:

What do I have in common with these men?

We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved… to secure to all its citizens:
Justice, social, economic and political;

Liberty, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

Equality of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all

Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation

I couldn’t help but wonder: if Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity are the lifeblood of modern democracies, is India, with its extreme inequalities, truly a democracy? If we, wealthy and educated Indians spout clichés, act fashionably desensitized to the poverty in our faces, and allow the creation of a permanent economic underclass, won’t our democratic claims ring unforgivably hollow? Won’t history judge us harshly for this denigration of our fellow humans?

 “Doctor sahib, can you help me?”
My reverie was suddenly broken by my young co-passenger who had had spotted my stethoscope. I clarified that I was a lowly med student, but agreed to look at a leg wound that he wanted to show me. The wound looked dirty and was crusted with some dried exudate. A fly promptly buzzed in and began probing the injured area. I swatted the fly away with my hand and suggested some simple wound care and tetanus prophylaxis to the lad.

Often Indians communicate more by jiggling their heads than they do through their words. There is the ready sideways head-jiggle of the Indian who is on the same page as you and then there is the slow, tenuous cranial swaying of the Indian who is mystified, but too proud to admit it. From the amplitude and frequency of the boy’s head, I could tell that my vocabulary and accent were impenetrable for him. My English is inspired by Oscar Wilde. His was inspired by necessity. I broke into Tamlish (a hybrid of Tamil and English) and descriptive gestures to communicate with him.
We need the optimism and perseverance of this man. He knows the street will be dirty within hours and yet he sweeps undaunted.

As I clumsily counseled the boy with broken words and jerky gestures, I felt a sickening twinge: I truly was a wretched brown sahib, a gringo. Dr. Guerrant was right. I spoke, essentially, a different language. As is the case with visiting Americans, the rupee had a completely different meaning for me-- the 3 rupees I had paid thoughtlessly to the conductor are almost 10% of the daily earnings of millions of Indians who subsist on 99 cents a day. My parents, both Doctors, kept saved me from debilitating malnutrition and paid for expensive athletic abilities. No wonder I look physically distinct from the emaciated poor who comprise the bulk of India’s population. In that moment, I resented and despised everything from my expensive education to my posh-sounding accent. They were exposed as the products of inequalities deeply ingrained in Indian society, the same inequalities I vehemently decry. I felt like I had somehow swindled the man next to me.

If you want to meet an optimist in India, shake hands with a traffic policeman. They deal with chaos beyond imagination.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. My brain is unimpaired by malnutrition. My education hasn’t been discontinued at an early age due to lack of funds. My body is not crippled by preventable diseases. I have the capacity to advocate for my voiceless Indian brothers and sisters. I owe my country and my fellow citizens at least this much. This will be my atonement.

The progress made so far has been at the pace of a bullock-cart. This is simply unsustainable. We, the privileged children of India, can hasten the process of change.


  1. Let's not feel guilty about being privileged.

    It's one thing to want to help the folks that aren't as well off as us, another to feel that our attire, language, education, grooming, etc. are what cheated the others out of "equality" that a democracy promises.

  2. Bhaiya, I didn't say that our attire, language, and education cheated them. I'm just saying these are very visible markers of the inequalities in our society. Is that clear?

  3. Amazing entries. I can only imagine your adjustment now--to be back here with our glistening, climate-controlled, nxgen facilities with our ipads, macbooks, and googledocs.

    Well, what say you to some wine and cheese this weekend? I'll share a bit more about my month. Kidding and not kidding simultaneously, haha.