[5 MINUTE READ] A story from the contracting industry regarding the sharp inequalities in the modern world and their impact on people.
I grew up in a bowl of privilege. Even the travails we went through were those of the elite, taxing the imaginations of the heart but never threatening the defences of the body.
One of my grandfather’s few stock celebrations of his life was that he was a matric fail who dropped out of school. He said it with enigmatic conviction, and I understood it in many different ways over time. That setbacks become victories that return into defeat – in cycles like every other creation of time. That the anxiety of hope and the relief of fulfilment were both undercurrents that betray a lack of faith in destiny. That the journey from poverty to wealth is one determined largely by the dice of fate, and if we forsake empathy for pride when we cross that border, everything about that wealth would lose its value.
His children were raised in a modest home, whose purpose seemed to orbit around his magnetic spirit of adventure. Simple enough to not seek contentment and satisfaction in all the wrong places. My father raised us inside the fragile bubble of affluence. We floated away into a world lost to the magic of small things, disconnected from suffering that is denied the consolation of hope and so unable to allow the heart to remain at the centre of things. The apathy of affluence is preserved through well-meaning gestures that choose not to fathom its own duplicity – in the way it can liberate some while deftly enslaving many others.
I inherited an Industrial Engineering Company that was founded by my grandfather. At a time of great upheaval when we only knew that we would just keep going. When we had stopped counting all that was destroyed around us or all that would be rebuilt tomorrow. When all that possessed me were the deeds of the day.
The contracting industry is a place where worlds collide. Where the purity of physical effort by migrant labourers roasted by the sun, delivers to the world around them the comforts of modern infrastructure. Everything here is centred on the basics. Basic needs, basic hopes and basic expectations.
A few years ago one of our Construction Managers, SS, died of a sudden heart attack. He was in his late 40s. His wife came from her village in Bihar to meet us for help. We employed her son SK, just out of college, as a storekeeper. He was a calm boy, anchored by the recent acceptance of death and detached from the inconsistent character of strangers. In rural middle class homes, there is no time to mourn death. Countermeasures are taken to manage the sharp shift in the trajectory of the lives of the survivor’s. Fresh defences built to protect their dignity. Hopes realigned into the shadows of new breadwinners as they learn to cradle an uncertain future on their still soft shoulders.
SS was the middle of three brothers. His elder brother was the only one their parents could afford to send to engineering college. In time he rose to become the GM at a Fortune 500 Indian Oil Company. SS could only be put through an ordinary graduate degree. His elder brother, who was our customer, got him a job with us three decades ago, where he learnt the ropes and provided for his family. When SS’s younger brother finished school, the gates for any further education had closed for the family. SS in turn, got his younger brother a job on our worksite as a welder. In an era of limited means, all three were now on their own. Their capacity to give exhausted by the minimal needs contained within their own walls.
I learnt of this family network only after he died, when his younger brother accompanied the body back to their village and his elder brother had to be informed. The stark class divisions that occupy and fracture the daily lives of the world confronted me with a rare force, through the way they played out across one generation of one small family.
The elder brother’s son KK now lives in Gurgaon and works with an MNC Oil Company. The distance between him and the rest of the family has grown too large over time to bridge. As he scaled the cliffs out of rural memories, they continued the exertion required to remain where they were. SS’s younger brother is still Welder # 546. The identity of a migrant worker that is tied in to statistics and numbers that are not that easy to change. I imagine a time when he cradled his elder brother’s son as a young child on his lap. Rejoiced at the sound of his first cogent word and steady step. Long before their bonds of blood were diluted by the buffering distance of language, by the first brush of an urban lifestyle rushing to escape a long legacy of poverty, by the fresh fears that roam in KK’s blood like a stark reminder of the porous barriers between the cultural pretence of new comforts and the visceral alertness of old uncertainties.
Conversations from the past about the constraining Indian aspiration for every child to grow up into a doctor or an engineer, squirmed as they floated through my mind.
It brought home to me the effects of sharp inequalities and the poverty that sustains it. Warren Buffet once said, ‘If you don’t find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work until you die’. The view from the other side is that many people need to be bound into working until they die so that a few people can earn while they sleep.
There is no great honour in rescuing others once we have gained the safety of a lifeboat. What justification can the uneven concentration of money give, if it must come at the cost of fracturing the families of others and eroding the hearts of all humans. When worlds collide, these things become hard to escape and even harder to understand.
Until we return back to the basics, where relationships are recognised in their essence as being warm, vulnerable and soulful. It is when these truths of our own lives are redeemed, that the world can be reshaped into a truer reflection of all that is good and beautiful within us.
It is not so hard to imagine that, when we pay attention to the right part of every quote or story. The ones that want us to give, the ones that want us to nurture, the ones that want us to love and the ones that want us to protect each other.
This is always where it begins.
(A condensed version of this post was also published in ‘The Hindu’)