Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Capital Sincerity

Yesterday I met a particular breed of Delhi-ite at a bar. He came and sat down – introductions all around. Then he started talking.

“I’m rich,” he said, “very very rich.” Or words to that effect (disclaimer, I didn’t take notes, so a lot of this conversation is vague - from memories making their way out of the fog of this damned hangover). Anyhow, we were suitably impressed. Then he went on to tell us how he got to be this way.

“My parents are rich,” he said, “very very rich.” He’d been doing his MBA in America, when a call came from home – the family business needed him. He came back. Then the opinion at home was that he should get married. Alright, done. Subsequently two sons. He thought he’d start his own side business, but his father insisted that he would not give our man a single penny to start it up – so he built it from scratch. Working long, stressful hours, six days a week he’s built it up. He enumerated all his big clients – again, we nodded our heads, widening our eyes enough to indicate that note had been taken. “But Saturday afternoon,” he said, “I make it a point to get home by 4 pm to play with my two young sons. They’re at that age, you know, where you have to cherish every moment.”

I was loving it. A bit drunk, a bit depressed (we had just come to the bar after a book reading – where I hung at the fringes convinced that nothing I’d ever write would be interesting enough to be anything but mocked by this crowd). And here is this guy, on a long soliloquy about his life, and it was absolutely delightful.

“I’m a BJP man,” he said, “not particularly because I like BJP, but because I absolutely hate the Congress. And the Left! – come on – only idiots could vote for the Left.” Uh-huh, I said to myself. Of course he’s a BJP man.

Then he said something that made me sit up from the leaning-back-on-barseat-clutching-mojito-for-dear-dear-life stance that I had adopted. “Now Mayawati,” he said, “I could see her as our next PM.”


“You see,” he said, “the BSP and the BJP are very complementary. The BSP starts at the bottom of the caste system and works its way up, and the BJP starts from the top and can potentially work down. They are both forward-thinking, very constructive…”

Constructive! BJP! “Now hold it there cowboy!” I said (again, perhaps not in those exact words). “What about the nasty communalism?” He gave me a pitying look. “Yes, the VHP et al. are making a mess of things,” he said “but communalism is not what the BJP stands for at the core. And it’s a truly democratic party – people have worked their way up to the top – not simply landing there because they happen to be descended in some way from Nehru.”

True, I grudgingly agreed. I had gone to the Congress website to register as a supporter, but got turned off when I was asked to tick a box pledging undying fealty to Sonia Gandhi. (Sidebar: What’s up with that?! How would Nehru have felt about that?!)

But I quickly gathered myself together. I was agreeing with a BJP man?! It must be the alcohol (not really – only one mojito, that too on a full stomach, does not a drunk Sherry make).

Alright, so on to the litmus test. “Modi as PM, or not?” He pursed his lips, settling in for a fight. “Absolutely,” he said, “I don’t see why not.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I cannot continue this conversation.”

“Yes, yes, a massacre happened,” he said, “and it shouldn’t have. Modi would have to ‘regret’ it in some form or the other before taking the national stage. But keep things in perspective – people are being massacred all over India – Naxalites, policemen, tribals, Christians – it’s a tough country. But look at all the good things Modi has done.”

“Is it so hard,” I asked, “for someone to be an honest and effective politician and NOT be a mass murderer? I mean, Modi was doing fine along the career track when 2002 happened. He didn’t Need to do it.” Our man shook his head and said - “the way the constitution of this country is written, it’s almost impossible…”

“Sheila Dikshit!” I yelled triumphantly, interrupting him. “Honest, effective, and hasn’t yet overseen any genocides.” He graciously gave me the point.

“And of course bad things happen all over the country,” I said. “The point is that ALL the perpetrators should be imprisoned. Jagdish Tytler should be in jail for the ’84 Sikh massacres.”

“Yes,” he nodded eagerly, “and so should Rajiv Gandhi.”

“Well…” I said, “I’m not sure about that one… but sure, he should’ve been investigated like anyone else. The Salwa Judum should be incarcerated, so should any Naxalites that have committed murders, and here’s the kicker: SO SHOULD MODI!!”

Was that a hint of acquiescence I detected in his eyes?

He changed the subject – “so what would you think of Mayawati as PM?”

My turn to purse the lips. “She would be an embarrassment to the country,” I said.

“Oh, because she doesn’t speak English!” he sputtered.

“No,” I said, “because she steals money from her very impoverished state. To build big elephants, big monuments to herself; throw the infamously big birthday parties, stuff the party coffers.”

“I deal with big projects in Noida,” he puffed, “and she’s very effective at getting things done.”

“That’s because she personally owns a large share of each of the companies that get these big projects!” I exclaimed. “A bit of a conflict of interest, no?”

A pause.

“The important thing,” he said, “is to stay open to these arguments. Keep your mind open. For example, I myself was an atheist till ten years ago,” (again, a pricking up of interest – this was another little departure from the box that I had inserted his stereotyped character into), “but now I think, how can I be so sure there is no God?”

“Sure,” I said, relaxing back to my mojito, “I’m all about open minds.”

I’m not sure why I’m reporting this conversation. Part of my general warming-up to middle-class Delhi, I think. I’ve been reading a lot of the popular Delhi-walla blog and I do resent, a little bit, the way it, and the literati class, dismiss suburban Delhi as being uncouth, unread, uninteresting. It just seems wrong to be so contemptuous of this huge class of people – they are hard working after all, they do love their families as much as anyone. They weren’t brought up to read tomes about the profound ironies of meaningless Russian lives, or the absurd cruelties inflicted on Prague after its famed spring. But, or maybe because of this, they have a sweet sincerity, a generosity, a lack of sarcasm and cynicism that is refreshing to someone like me, who is constantly inflicting more jadedness on what is, really, a perfectly lovely life.

I didn’t win points on all aspects of our conversation. A lot of times, there weren’t any to win.

“We have extensive garment businesses,” he said, “and I went to the government to ask for a tax break.” (The government had increased the minimum wage, hitting their bottom line hard). The guy in charge basically said that he’d give their business an exception (for a fee, needless to say). The garment industry could keep the minimum wages low. Our man protested, saying that he didn’t mind increasing the wages; he just wanted some help on other aspects of the tax code. The babu said, “Saab, isn’t getting more money all you want?” “No,” our man protested vehemently, “it’s giving employment, creating a good business.”

“For nine years,” he said (unsolicited, again, and in no context that I can remember), “I have ensured that no matter what, we get our employees their salaries on the first of the month. That is the top priority, the thing I’d never compromise on.”

Now, in a land cringing beneath the jadedness inflicted by Satyam, that’s kind of sweet.