Saturday, March 18, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Reforming the middle class
By Khushwant Singh

PAVAN K. VERMA is a senior member of the Indian Foreign Service. Also author of several books, including a biography of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and much more. But the most provocative of his books published two years ago was The Great Indian Middle Class. In this he analysed the vast and increasing disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Those who have the means to live decent lives form a bare five per cent of the population; the rest either manage to eke out a living or die in abysmal ignorance and poverty. Yet the two have to live cheek-by-jowl to the irritation of the well-to-do, envy and growing resentment of the poor. No matter how high the rich raise the walls of their houses, armed sentinels and watch-dogs they have, the poor who live in slums around them hate their guts and when opportunities occur rob their homes, kidnap their children, steal their cars and molest their women folk. The rich would wish the poor to be eliminated from the country by some act of providence. The poor would like to dispossess the rich of their wealth by any means, mostly foul. With this sharp division in our society we have to admit we are sitting on the top of a volcano which can erupt at any time.

  After prophesying doomsday, Pavan Verma owed it to himself and his countrymen to suggest ways and means of taking out the version of hatred the Indian poor are building up against their better-off countrymen. So have an action plan for the middle class in a slender volume of 145 pages entitled Maximize Your Life (Viking). The first half is a resume of what Verma had written in The Great Indian Middle Class. In my review I had described it as brilliant. I would use the same word for the short resume. What follows is a list of dos and don’ts for responsible citizens of the country. Don’t throw litter on public places, don’t defecate or urinate outside lavatories, don’t burst loud-crackers on Divali, don’t use loudspeakers, don’t give or accept bribes, report law-breakers to the police; if it takes no action, report to a senior officer; give correct figures of your income and pay taxes on them; And so on. Verma gives instances of men, women and organisations engaged in these laudable pursuits, all very exemplary and heart-warming.

I can add a few instances of conscientious citizens doing their duty. One was the late Field Marshal Cariappa. Once on his way from Gwalior Airport to the hotel where he was due to speak, he spied a man urinating by the roadside. The crusty old General ordered the chauffeur to pull up, went and stood behind the urinator. When he had finished and was adjusting his dhoti, Cariappa told him in his best Hindi "Aap bahut bura kaam karta what you are doing is very bad — gandgee phailta — it spreads dirt — beemaaree phailta — it spreads disease". The urinator who recognised the Field Marshal was annoyed and exploded: "You may have been a Field Marshal but I am no aira-ghaira (a nobody); I am a Municipal Commissioner; you have no right to talk to me like this." I have no doubt the worthy city father continues to assert his right to urinate wherever he likes; the incident added yet another joke to the collection of Cariappa anthology of humour.

Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s mother-in-law was a formidable dowager who always pulled up people throwing litter, spitting or urinating in public places causing much embarrassment to her son and his family. I too was witness to an incident at Pune airport some years ago. Suresh Kalmadi happened to be sitting by me when a lady stormed up to us and insisted that we as Members of Parliament see the filthy state of the women’s lavatory and do something about it. I left it to Kalmadi to attend to the complaint. They returned with the lady still in high dudgeon and Kalmadi very crestfallen. The airport manager got his share of tongue-lashing. Passengers waiting for their flights found the incident very amusing and began to giggle. The lady’s two grandchildren were acutely embarrassed and pleaded with their granny to stop. She sat down and broke into sobs. I felt ashamed of myself.

I agree with Verma that we middle-class citizens should be made aware of our responsibilities to society and the country. But there is nothing very new in what he has to say. And it sounds somewhat adolescent and boy-scoutish. However, I have decided that when I go to Lodhi Park next time I will carry a large bag to collect the garbage of plastic water bottles, cups and saucers left strewn on the lawns by picnickers and dump it into litter boxes. I will undoubtedly be taken for a Kabaariwala. So what!

Flower pilgrimage

I make an annual pilgrimage to Buddha Jayanti Park on the Ridge. I usually do so in the last week of February and early March. New Delhi’s roundabout gardens and parks are full of flowers. Buddha Jayanti has a more dazzling display than any other park in the city. It is also the largest park, stretching over a mile of rocky terrain out of which sprout a variety of Keekar, semal (silk cotton), mesquite (kabuli keekar) and palas or dhatt (flame of the forest). By early March palas sheds its leaves; shortly before Holi it bursts into fiery red, parrot-beak shaped flowers. They have no fragrance and last barely a fortnight. When in full bloom they are kings of jungle trees. The park also has waterways which are usually without water except round an island on which a massive golden statue of the Buddha sits. In this small patch with water float a dozen pet ducks.

The park has two entrances. The bigger and better access is on its south side. The southern entrance is smaller and leads you past a stinking latrine down to a very pleasant cafetaria from which emanates loud filmi music. It provides chairs and tables for those who wish to sit away from noise in shade of trees. You get a good view of a stretch of undulating lawns and trees planted by visiting foreign dignitaries. For a good reason I prefer the southern entrance; it is where all the flowers are. What distinguishes Buddha Jayanti from all other parks is that flowers are laid out in masses: 50 yards of salvia, another 50 of pansies or calendulas or other varieties. The spread of the same variety makes a very pleasant scene. Also you enjoy different kinds of fragrance as you go past one long flower bed to another. Compared to other parks, Buddha Jayanti is free of litter.

This time I went to the park on the afternoon of the last Saturday of February. There were no flowers. It was not the prolonged winter which had delayed them, none had been planted. I am deeply disappointed. I sit on a bench watching the courtship of ducks: males chasing females across dusty path, catching up and mounting them. Ducks waddling along at speed made a very amusing sight. It reminded me of my stroll in Lodhi Gardens, the day before. There was a large party of fat, old behenjis, many of whom had brought collapsable garden chairs because they could not sit on the grass, or having sat down found it hard to get up. There they were guzzling parathas followed by cakes. When they had finished their al fresco feast they picked up their chairs and moved en masse towards their cars, belching. They left all their paper plates and remains of their food on the lawns. They had not learnt of the Rs 50 fine for spreading litter.

Diabetic ant

A line of ants ran into a heap of granulated sugar. Each one took a granule and proceeded along its way to the ant hole. However, one ant refused to take any. Others asked it, "Why aren’t you taking a granule of sugar?" The ant patted its belly, "You see my doctor has forbidden me to do so. I have a sugar problem."

(Contributed by Sham Sunder, Gurgaon)

Valentine-Day bullies

You know how intensely I love you

(though I can’t proclaim it through a noisy band)

My love is pure yet I hate to profess

For I live in a loveless land.

You greet me on Holi or Divali

or any day that suits you well.

For God’s sake, don’t meet me on V-Day

Lest the goons let loose a hell!

(Contributed by G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)