The lifeboat privilege

[5 MINUTE READ] A story from the contracting industry regarding the sharp inequalities in the modern world and their impact on people.

water worker

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’)

27 thoughts on “The lifeboat privilege

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  1. “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….”…wonderfully summarised !

    The construction sector is one which does bring out the stark inequality in society…I feel this particularly when I see road construction projects where a young lady is walking around with cement and sand on her head and a young toddler playing blissfully in the dirt immune to the heat and dust!

    Fantastic piece …shows a capitalist can still think and act like a socialist given the right upbringing ….! The world will be a better place if more entrepreneurs think like this !


  2. Excellent reflection of the present society. In majority of the cases, son placed in senior position doesn’t recognize his old dirty clad parents.
    But the law of karma is so unique that it balances everything. If you are good to society, returns will be good for you and if you are otherwise then you will have to face the music.
    Thus a balance between the rich & poor will help the society.


  3. my everyday lament is that, in India, we live in a world of “Raja” in a system that is supposed to be “Praja” – capitalist or not – the umbrella system needs to be one of democracy and equal opportunities. Instead, we try and bring in reservations for the historically downtrodden, and have bandaids that put food on the table for a family where a calamity has taken the breadwinner.. and all in all, I feel we are all searching for something that would makes us feel good without really going to the bottom of it. Still waiting for the Praja system to happen.


  4. Brilliantly written Anand! Yes we have seen this kind of a situation since childhood! I sometimes wonder why ?Is this manmade or god made (Or karma) I still don’t find the answer.


  5. Anand. you are an amazing observer. How did you get this? Must be your family DNA. The so called Haves and Havenots still exist. One’s worth is measured by his money and the style of living. Love and simplicity are fading away. This is my personal view.


  6. Fantastic piece Anand . You have brought out clearly the inequalities in society and the rural urban divide when one member moves out . It is poignant but also the reality. We can only help people but change in society will cone slowly. Except the scandinavian countries the problem of inequlity is prevalent all over the world .


  7. “The contracting industry is a field where worlds collide”
    The recognition you give to this statement is deep and meaningful Anand. This piece of work has made me extremely contemplative. It’s still sinking in!
    Thank you for this insight,


  8. Everyday encounters pass most of us by. Grateful for your reflections as they make me observe more consciously.


  9. Your post is a true reflection of the present status of society. Is it a bane of the
    capitalist economy that a majority of humanity slogs to enable a minority to make money while sleeping?

    The lifeboat privilege reminds me of an incident which I witnessed in 1951 or so when I was ten years old. It had rained heavily for a few days in Madras and the sewerage channel in front of the Gopalapuram school got clogged.  I saw the fire service personnel bringing three dead bodies out of the manhole in front of the school. The entire scene has remained etched in my memory and it caused a turmoil in my mind.  Why such a tragedy for a few?

    Social inequality, poverty etc., are the result of the principle “action and reaction are equal” operating at a “nano-nano-nano-..” level, what we term as karma.  For everything one has to pay a price.  Technological development and advancement at what cost – at the cost of living in harmony with nature.  Even now there are tribals who live in harmony with nature oblivious of technologically advanced society all around.  Many conservationists say they are the real guardians of nature.

    During my teaching career I did not merely stop with Mathematics and Physics, I did digress on the importance of health as the bedrock of hard work and achievement.  Think of the “roti,  kappada aur makkhan” (Lifeboat of privilege) you are blessed with while millions of stomachs go without food.  Contentment is ultimately the secret of happiness.

    Honour and shame from no condition rise
    Act well your part, there all the honour lies.


  10. Brilliantly penned, Anand,

    Preservation of empathy while being in the “boat “ of luxury , ability to feel the pain in the soles of underprivileged while enjoying the cushions of best branded footwear and faculty to observe and make an observant comment on crumbling family ties driven by inequalities of fate and uneven opportunities is a blessing you have inherited from your grandparents and parents. I must compliment them first before I compliment you !!

    And God is so kind to give you a mental and family ambience where these blessings can flourish !!

    Am so happy that by articulating these feelings and thoughts, you will surely leave a rich legacy , not only for your own children but of countless others. Keep going.

    Thanks for the joy of reading.


  11. Wow – amazing exploration of human empathy, relationships, social mobility and fate rolled into one article. Will need to reread a few times to get the various flavors this article offers. Super stuff!


  12. I see some sort of a nativity in your writings. I am not sure if it’s the nativity between you and me, a nativity between you and this soil or a mere collision of wavelength.

    “My father raised us inside the fragile bubble of affluence” – Yes,what else a mere richness could be if not a fragile bubble of affluence. Well I got another sentence to carry where ever I go like – the fear that binds us to money is the uncertainty of it’s true role in our lives. Wake me up at midnight I would say it. I would have shared this line with not less than a hundred people so far and the count would continue along with this new arrival – a fragile bubble of affluence.

    …by the new 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 – to utter such words one should have certainly lived well, then lived unwell and then again living well. Otherwise one couldn’t captured these kind of thoughts to pass on to a reader. I am sure Anand would have lived, unlived and living again!!

    Who said you have inherited an Industrial Engineering Company founded by your grandfather – you have indeed inherited their values and wisdom which seem to be evident in every perspective of your life!


  13. Anand ,
    Thanks for the recent blog ,Life’s boat.
    I become thirsty,I wait for the next blog.
    Well said,a drop can make ocean and not vice versa.
    One day I was strolling in a Goa beach.
    I heard a feeble voice,I am just a drop of water,nobody looks at me all look at vast sea,I feel like crying.
    I replied,
    To see a world,I need a drop water in my eyes.Dry battery does not work if it is not really dry.Between the haves and have not,it is the latter who teach us in our life boat.
    Let us move on caring for the have-nots.


  14. Anand,
    Living in a relatively privileged world, my parents did not have to differentiate between children, it is a poignant reminder that others are not so fortunate.


  15. Achingly lovely Anand … stunningly sad that educational opportunities and misses led to so much difference within the same generation of this family.

    Feel sad at the tough reality that is a fact for so many. And guilty for my privilege, as you mention in the title of your essay.

    It’s a pleasure reading your posts, thank you.


  16. ‭Sunflowers turn according to the position of the sun, in other words, they “chase the light.”
    You might already know this, but there is another fact that you probably do not know!
    Have you ever wondered what happens on cloudy, rainy days when the sun is completely covered by clouds?
    This is an interesting question, isn’t it? Perhaps you think the sunflower withers or turns its head towards the ground. Is this what crossed your mind? Well, that’s incorrect! Do you know what happens? They turn to each other to share their energy.
    Nature’s perfection is amazing; now let’s apply this reflection to our lives.
    We all want this light and seek it in different ways: in our family, friends, religion, work and so on. But there are always going to be cloudy days, sad days, because there is no escaping them! When this happens, most people become overwhelmed, low-spirited, and the most vulnerable ones, sometimes, become depressed.
    Nature has so much to teach us! How about following the example of the beautiful sunflowers? In a moment of pain, despair, anguish, look within yourself with sincerity and know there is also a light within you and this light can be shared with the ones you love.
    Difficult and painful feelings that are repressed, sooner or later, turn into an illness. Do you need to be affected by an illness to start working on opening up to others? Don’t make things harder! Look at the sunflowers! They don’t dwell on, “Oh, the sun is hidden, so I’m going to stand here feeling sad, with my head hanging low, waiting for him to come back…”
    No! At that very moment, they activate their inner light and share it with others…
    Probably the above article On sunflowers. Shows that bonding between two entities becomes the strongest , when the relation happens at the level of soul ( read two sunflowers, because one sunflower may be considereed as one soul) and at that level, distance does not get limited by distance and the silent surrounding also becomes a part of the communication process!
    Good expressions by Mr Ansnd

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I happened to meet your grandfather sometime in 1979 and since then know all three generations of your family . I have been following your blogs but never commented on the same . The subject of your current thoughts is so real and perhaps affects all middle class families if not in every family .
    To know all members of a family because two became your employees and you were in touch with third one is typical of Anand to deal with everyone with empathy and humanly . Keep it up . I have never seen any of your family members in all generations in any sense as capitalists . Simplicity is in DNA .
    In all middle class families even if everyone is qualified almost at equal basis the rise of everyone is not same . May be due to lack of opportunity the rise of everyone is different . Very few families support those who are left behind . The brothers and sisters who grow up together become uncomfortable with each other simply because of income or status disparity . Such incidents are more common than exception .The court cases of properties are reflection of such disparities in addition to allied factors . We encounter such families everyday.
    You touched a raw nerve by narrating real story . Your own analysis and beautiful presentations on your blog are true reflection of the company of intellectuals you enjoy and your true character . I find myself at a loss to contribute anything worthwhile on such wonderful humane thoughts.My regards to you all .


  18. First time I read your blog and I was amazed to see your amazing quality of writing with so much depth on the subject.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Only a month back I lost my father at an age of 92 and then only I asked my mother how could both of them afford to raise three sons to become Engineers and one son an MBA along with supporting his three sisters and 4 brother’s with a meagre Accountant job. As my parents built lifeboat for all of us to have privileged life, how many sacrifices they must have made. I don’t think we can ever imagine. On one month since my father left us, my children decided to distribute biscuit packets to the underprivileged children rather than going to temple which gave them immense happiness.
    Sorry, I digressed but your blog is so absorbing that brought out some emotions out of me.


  19. Brilliant piece and very sensitive perceptions.As long as economic capitalism treats individual bereft of his relationship resources as individual resource this heartbreaking stories will be the norm as it has happened in the West.In the net, man effectively becomes a weakened consuming animal.
    Only if resistance to consumption becomes a virtue(to minimise consumption) that is fashionable cultivated can any degree of equity can be hoped for.
    Even the point about accepting destiny is a great one, because that is the one lesson of life of everyone.
    Fact is we dont know why we are born as human,we dont know why we are born to the parents we have, why we go through things as they happen,Infact we dont know how we get the shakthi to do whatever we are doing –we somehow fool ourselves believe we know we are schooled.Most importantly we are not grateful for whatever we have and worry about what we dont–this is where the problem is, as I see it


  20. A beautifully written blog. One never knows when tragedy strikes in life or how sustained lack of opportunities determine the destiny of most people in our country. I heard an expression “when you go up send the elevators for others so that they too can climb up”. An opportunity can change a life. Let’s hope and work towards creating opportunities for others. Though am not sure of many people in this world are as wise and fortunate as Mr.WB to make money while sleeping.


  21. Very nicely highlighted about paradoxcal scenario of labour industry I.e. especially migrant construction workers.But it my personnel observation that people talk about this issues but only few people believe in equality, execution of labour laws and most of the time labours are exploited.Please don’t mind this is my personnel observation in field.🙏


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