Sunday, August 17, 2008

True or Hopeless? Read it

In her Sunday Times column today, Shobhaa De writes something that moves you. Read it and decide for yourself how much you agree.

Little things make us happy. We are a bit too easy to please! One gold medal at the Olympic Games, and we are over the moon. As India enters the 61st year of its independence, it's important to get a few key perspectives in place. I heard about Abhinav Bindra's thrilling win from a bedraggled little girl selling tabloids at the traffic lights. It was raining rather heavily, and she was dressed in rags. Her tiny body and saucer eyes made her resemble the archetypal, romanticised waif — the poster girl for poverty, like the iconic image of the popular musical, Les Miserables. She tapped on the window of my car and lisped, "Madam, madam.... India ko gold medal mil gaya." She was shivering as she sold the damp paper to motorists, most of whom shooed her away.

The irony of the moment was hard to miss. While nobody can take away from crorepati Abhinav Bindra's individual achievement, the image of this emaciated street kid announcing his victory in distant Beijing, was a study in horrifying contrasts. Just a few metres away, i could see the rest of her family huddled under bright blue plastic sheets. The father was sorting out a heap of pirated books, while her mother was stringing jasmine blossoms into gajras... perhaps to adorn the chignons of our Mumbai memsaabs stepping out later for a night on the town. The kid was dancing with impatience, watchful of the traffic light turning green. Her unshod feet were immersed in puddles of filthy rain water. She could not possibly have known what that medal meant... but she did know it would sell more papers that day. And that made her happy! Amazing, how a complete stranger's win touches lives on different levels.

For the little girl, those few extra rupees may have translated into an extra vada pav at dinner. But for our canny politicians, Bindra's medal was an opportunity worth milking for their own glory. Take Maharashtra's chief minister, who magnanimously offered Rs 10 lakh to the gold medalist. Does this rich boy need it? Where does Maharashtra come into it? If the CM had Rs 10 lakh to spare and wished to acknowledge Bindra's victory, why didn't he put that money into a sports scholarship to benefit promising youngsters? Why offer monetary awards to someone who is a millionaire to begin with? Bindra is a particularly privileged sportsman who was born with a silver rifle... er ... spoon, in his mouth. He got to his present position, thanks to the happy fact that his father had the financial clout to support his son's passion. Lucky Bindra. He had what it takes to create a champion — the grit, determination and dough! India merely happens to be the country of his birth and can claim no credit for his impressive win. Bindra rose above and beyond what his country can provide... not only to him, but millions of others. He won despite being an Indian. Isn't that a really sad acknowledgement of this tattered state of ours?

But the waif at the traffic light proclaiming his victory to motorists does not realise this. She will never get to see the inside of a pucca home. For her, the blue plastic sheets will have to suffice. When she is a little older, her life will change. From selling newspapers, she may end up selling her body. Like so many others who survive on Mumbai's mean streets, turning tricks, hustling, peddling drugs. Her bright eyes and cheerful smile will be replaced by a hard, stony expression, a twisted mouth...but chances are she will still be working the same street, ducking into the back seat of an autorickshaw to satisfy customers looking for a monsoon quickie. If her father and mother haven't succumbed to some disease by then, they, too, will be languishing under the plastic sheets, living off her meagre earnings. Her line, "India ko gold mil gaya..." in such a depressing context, makes me ask, "Aur aapko — koila? Ya... woh bhi nahi?" Try telling her our Bharat is mahan. She may just punch you!

Original Text from The Sunday Times of India, August 17th 'o8.

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