In my 50th year this summer, I read A Fine Balance, a novel Rohinton Mistry has set in the mid- seventies of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. The reading first evoked in me a surge of guilt.
Caste atrocities in the decade of my birth I learnt of only now. Molten lead poured into the ears of a man who dared to be close enough to the temple to hear the singing there. A family is burnt to death when its man questions the illegal ballots of the upper caste headman. The man himself is hanged on a tree after torture.
Simple dreams fed on raw courage –
A dream to give one’s kid an education (the kids get beaten for entering a classroom curious).
A dream to feed one’s kids well (the mother gets raped stealing oranges at night).
Hope boiled over centuries ago. The accident of birth is the single and lifelong determinant of the most banal of human needs.
I was ashamed to not have known what the so-called lower castes have endured, what their women have been doubly humiliated with, and then the dark climax of the story where the have-nots who dare to dream of simple things are muffled and beggared, their simple future torn, with no reprisals for the criminals who shelter with aplomb in political and caste power.
To know I live in this India in my privileged life, daring to haggle with the rehriwala and with the domestic help, I am almost pleased now that the domestics are rebelling even if sometimes viciously. Bring it on I say to them, we deserve it.
To not know what I did not know, what I still do not know. All that was denied light.
The microcosms which remain unseen, the reach of literature today being more limited than in yesteryears.
Educated people appending their faith in a person with “he is from a good family”, good implying “like us, middle class with status”, is ashamedly common in India. The accident of birth in this status is overlooked. We inhabit a world immured from the Other’s.
Selected works of fiction have to be essential reading for hard science curricula in engineering and medical colleges as well as in business schools and civil services training.
Stories are twenty-two times more powerful to persuade than any data I am told. To evoke empathy and action, hopefully in activism, personal or public, and I cannot assert this enough: read fiction.
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