The year was 1975. As I, a 10 year old, diminutive & under nourished kid, clutching a princely sum of 80 Paise in my sweaty palm, walked into the coal depot to buy the family’s monthly quota of cooking coal, the depot owner looked at me with all the scorn & contempt and commented, “God knows how these beggars get wind of coal’s arrival. They land up before supplies are unloaded.” Ridiculed & derided, as I wanted my world to just disappear, or wanted to die of shame there and then, if I knew that this shame would later be termed as simplicity, I would have felt a lot better.
In the same year, when the corner grocery store owner commented, “Whole family is educated but you come again with your 30 Paise to buy 100 grams of lentils.” I could have told him that it is not poverty that makes it difficult to afford buying lentils for entire month but austerity, as eloquently explained by Mukul Kesavan now, I could have felt better.
Or around the same time, dragging myself back home from the ration shop (Yes, they were called ration shops, back then, not the respectable ‘Fair Price Shops’ as they are called now), carrying only 1.6 kg of sugar, much less than monthly ration of 3.5 kg for the family of five, as the shop owner had, with all his imperial airs, declared that the sugar quota for the month had been cut, thinking how to face my mother back home, words like simplicity or austerity were not in any dictionary I had come across.
Or in 1978, when my brother succeeded in clearing written tests for State Civil Services and when during the interview, he was told that the bribe for clearing the interview would be Rs 1.5 lakhs, we realized in despair that our house, our only house, could fetch only around Rs. 40000. This, despite knowing that the only way families could get out of the economic rut and join the company of haves was to have a government job, a powerful position at that. Then, we had to let go the opportunity of a lifetime, relegating a bright young man to a life of struggle & hardships. We did not know that we were doing it so that we could feel nostalgic about it around 40 years later.
Shall I continue with more examples of austerity as to why we did not buy a scooter even if we could afford it in 1980 or get a phone line till 1993? Simplicity & austerity?
No Mr. Kesavan, the pre reform era was not a period we remember for austerity, simplicity or with any kind of nostalgia.
We, and 99.999% of Indians, associate this period with the despairing rut of economic imprisonment, impotence of our dreams, subjugation to poverty and of servitude to the corrupt ruling elite.
We also remember this period for a clear distinction between haves and have not’s.
Typically haves were those who were born to or related to ruling party, controlling all the licenses, deciding who gets to eat, drink and wear what, making tonnes of money skimming off the supplies and quotas and are now romanticizing about Wrigley, Seiko or Parkers and the have not’s were those whose life was wasted running around ration shops, firewood depots., licensing authorities (even bicycles & radios needed licenses) and waiting for the day when one member of the family would get the most coveted position in the world; a job in with government, any department, any position.
Now, as I write this, with a Mont Blanc, bought from my own, honestly earned, tax paid income, I can say it with authority that for you, reforms might have been an event that brought you all that you coveted, from foreign lands, but for millions of us Indians, they changed our life, extracted us from sub human, extreme poverty, gave us imagination to dream, created an economic environment to realize those dreams and thinking beyond daily survival.
And we cannot continue with the charade of selling poverty as virtue, shortages as austerity, shackled dreams as simplicity and horrible, tormenting tribulations as nostalgia.
We have had too much of our history, contemporary and medieval, coloured by romanticized outlook, directed by those with silver spoons and Khadi pothras, written by the court chroniclers, sung by the loyal bards. We should not make the same mistake again, history should not repeat itself and the court chroniclers should not be allowed to write this chapter of history from their standpoint only.
When the story of liberalization is written, it needs to be dominated by the life changing experiences of ordinary Indians.