In search of a homeland

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 25, 2013 20:23 hrs

The debate between India and Bharat has come to the fore again with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on rape. A financial daily recently reported on the rising investments made by residents of Bharat, viz farmers, in mutual funds and real estate. With the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act providing job security in the hinterland, the daily said, several farmers were moving to sophisticated investment methods.

The debate between India and Bharat is an old one, with its roots in C K Prahalad’s “bottom of the pyramid” paradigm and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s unsuccessful attempt at fusing the two with its 2004 “India Shining” campaign. Broadly, Bharat has come to mean the rural and urban poor still stuck in the pre-liberalisation era. India, on the other hand, is the rapidly rising domain of a 300-million-strong middle class buying its way to consumerist nirvana.

But is the dichotomy that deeply etched? One of my students, Naseem, a business process outsourcing (BPO) employee, earns Rs 20,000 a month working in a voice process for a British retailer. He contributes Rs 5,000 towards an equated monthly instalment (EMI) for a home loan. He uses the rest of his income to run his house. Since he lives in Pune, not the costliest city, he is also able to put Rs 1,000 into a recurring account every month. He is 25 and given that he does not see much growth in his current job, he is preparing for a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

His parents are separated and he has two sisters, both of whom are married. His mother, a Hindu who converted to Islam after marriage, works an administrative job in a private firm and lives separately. Naseem hasn’t seen his father in five years. No one knows where he lives. The father’s family, farmers living on Pune’s outskirts, are in intermittent touch with Naseem.

Naseem was raised by a Catholic lady and her granddaughter. These two women stay with him in the house he bought with his money. The older lady is close to 100 but surprisingly active for her age. Her granddaughter, who is really Naseem’s mother’s age, is unmarried and works as an accountant in the Army canteen.

Their monthly income includes Naseem’s Rs 20,000, the old lady’s pension (Rs 4,000 — her husband was a rifleman in the Army) and the Rs 25,000 the old lady’s granddaughter earns. On a recent visit, I found the family live reasonably well. They have most amenities of a comfortable middle-class existence: a washing machine, a refrigerator and a television, though no air conditioner which, frankly, Pune’s climate does not call for.

However, this has been possible in the past four years or so after Naseem started working. When he was still in school, the old lady’s pension and her granddaughter’s salary were not enough. For years, they stayed in a rented accommodation in a rather shady part of Pune and struggled to make ends meet. Only when Naseem took up the BPO job after his Bachelor of Commerce, the situation improved.

If he were to take a study break, which is what a two-year MBA programme amounts to, the household finances will go haywire again. Without Naseem’s salary, the EMI will be a painful cash outgo every month. The old lady’s pension hasn’t been touched since Naseem started working. That sacred contract might need to be dissolved.

Despite these troubles, Naseem’s heart is on an MBA. His logic is simple: If his family can pull through the two years he will be away, he would come into a much better position at the end of that period and make good any hardships they suffered. The old lady and the granddaughter agree.

So, Naseem travels to Mumbai from Pune every weekend to attend classes at the common admission test (CAT) coaching institute I work at. He is one of my better students — an outcome he attributes to his interacting with difficult British customers at the BPO. I have learnt more about the difference between British, Scottish and Irish accents from him than I have need for.

Naseem’s quiet perseverance makes me wonder: Where among the many tales of unsung India do I place his story? The debate over India-versus-Bharat is split along two distinct lines. One field of inquiry rightly ascribes the rapid downfall in poverty figures to India’s urbanisation. The other, equally legitimately, speaks of the inequitable nature of India’s growth.

So drawn in sand are these two positions that one searches in vain for accounts of those who are neither India nor Bharat but somewhere in the middle. The media, in its infinite wisdom, is wont to cover either the depredations of grinding poverty or, more frequently, the vapid ministrations of the fashionable. If policymakers are to frame policies that are genuinely inclusive, they should pay heed to people such as Naseem, young men and women, a generation removed from both Bharat and India.

The author has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one

More from Sify: