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The hunt for Aladdin’s lamp

Published Aug 09, 2012 01:02am


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WHEN President Pranab Mukherjee in his inaugural address described his journey “from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi”, he may have unwittingly measured the distance from stark reality to resplendent illusion.

The oil lamp flickers on stoically in India’s electricity deficit towns and villages. Naturally, their inhabitants took scant notice of the world’s worst blackout that hit much of the country last week. Most of the residents were used to longer outages anyway, which last for days, sometimes weeks.

Others didn’t pay heed because they do not know what it means to have electricity to begin with. On the other hand, the chandeliers adorning the British-built Presidential Palace have become part of a national narrative — the media calls it the growth story — with an uncertain denouement.

Material evolution is not disconnected with its societal womb. Mr Mukherjee’s early experience with oil lamps in his ancestral village was not the only occasion the utility found mention in an Indian president’s words. The nation’s first head of state in his autobiography shared his own, more sociologically layered experience with lamps and their absence too by a quirky social fiat.

His story reveals a link rather than a dichotomy between primitive social structures and India’s atavistic modernity.

According to Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, he was allowed access to his wife only in the pitch dark of her unventilated boudoir. A housemaid accompanied him with a lamp to the threshold of the room assigned to his wife in the upper-caste Bihari joint family. The maid would then walk away with the light to leave the master alone with his wife and, according to his memoirs, without giving him a chance to see her. Custom required him to return to his own bed in the men’s section of the mansion before daybreak.

The purdah tradition of mediaeval India has not waned, only mutated from its erstwhile upper-caste rigidities to be embraced by the more numerous lower castes straddling all major religions. Sociologists know the phenomenon as Sanskritisation. The tendency ought to have been discouraged but Gandhiji torpedoed Subhas Chandra Bose as Congress president, the one possible gender-sensitive hope India had, and foisted Prasad as the new leader.

As paradoxes go in India’s complex evolution, Subhas Bose, virtually shunned by Gandhi’s Congress acolytes, became the one significant Indian leader to raise an armed brigade of women fighters to frontally take on the British rulers. The iconic Captain Laxmi Sehgal of the Indian National Army, a doctor by profession, died last month in Kanpur in her nineties. If Florence Nightingale was the Lady with the Lamp, Laxmi Sehgal, a protégé of Bose, was a powerhouse of hope for those she touched and tended to. After giving decades of medical counselling to an unending flow of impoverished women free, she fell short, not surprisingly, of the required votes when she fought the election for India’s president a decade ago.

There is no law, of course, that requires any degree of modernity or a progressive outlook in a society to make it eligible for its fair share of electricity. Equally, we can only see it as a myth the claim that abundant electricity could bring to India its promised sugar-candy mountain, a panacea for its many gaping wounds and illnesses.

What use is abundant energy (for that matter any other offspring of science), if the end users are to remain trapped in a societal time warp? Countries in the Gulf are a case in point. They have all the modern amenities one can imagine. But look at the status of their women, half the population.

I happened to be in Japan where I experienced the rumble of the earthquake in Tokyo the day the Fukushima disaster rattled the country. What brought tears to my eyes was not the enormity of the tragedy, which took its time to be revealed slowly, but the extreme calm and civility with which everyone negotiated the trudge home after efficiently vacating their offices.

It was in that moment of induced power failure in Tokyo that one could discern hope for a society, which was not too long ago ranged against its women, making way for a fairer future. In another place, another time, we saw how scientifically endowed people, commanding the development and consumption of energy, could not deter the human calamity that befell Europe in the first half of the previous century.

So what is the way out for India? Where can we draw the line between a Luddite impulse to regard with suspicion all material progress aided by scientific knowledge and overstressing on the hand and the need to push reckless plans to produce electricity at any cost? What is worse is that these plans, including the disastrous nuclear option, are offered as a cure-all for what ails the country.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Punjab’s female foeticide rate is as high as its share in generating power for the country. When the blackout occurred the main wailing mourners were not so distraught that people were inconvenienced, that lives were put at risk in hospitals, trains had stalled, flights were cancelled. Their main worry was that the grid failure had embarrassed India with foreign investors. ‘Superpower India, RIP,’ sighed the Economic Times, the country’s most read business paper.

A quick reference to the superpower status was on display on the TV monitors. Three or four bronzes and a silver at the London Olympics was enough to send the country of a billion plus, via its vocal cheerleaders, into self-congratulatory raptures. Did India not win a single medal in Barcelona because the electricity situation was iffy? And did it bag a few third places and a second slot by a default in London because the electricity supply had improved?

One of the worst scandals to hit the headlines recently involved the selling of airwaves to vendors of cellphones and other contraptions. Is it not a bigger scandal that in large swathes of India village panchayats are forcing young women not to own or use cellphones because it violates an ancient notion of morality? To bail out these women and to repair much else that torments the country, India needs Aladdin’s lamp, not more electricity.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (28) Closed

raika45 Aug 09, 2012 12:47pm
One major power break down and your writer goes to town.From electricity to social,economic and behavioral patterns.Making a "kichde" or sort of porridge of the situation.India has a problem, no doubts about about that.However he should have looked at his own backyard [Pakistan].One wonders what actually is he trying to convey.Throwing India into bad public light, or trying to gain points with the Pakistan public.Dawn has mainly mature readers that have a pretty good grasp on regional going on.It is time this paper take a deeper look as to what has merit to be posted.What do you think would be the Pakistani response if an Indian based journalist in your country wrote such an article regarding your country in a reputable Indian news paper.
ali Aug 09, 2012 03:13am
Whatever.. but electricity is a basic necessity.
Calis Aug 09, 2012 03:36am
``... including the disastrous nuclear option..'' Every nuclear plant now being constructed is safer than the one in Fukushima. Nuclear does not pollute the atmosphere, does not contribute to global warming. We have found and are finding better ways to dispose of the waste. This should be easier with thorium anyway, which is going to be India's main nuclear fuel. However much you would like it, solar and windpower will contribute very little to overall generation of electricity in the next 30 yrs. Please check - Japan has restarted two of the nuclear plants it had shut down. Naqvi's Luddite impulse shows. Is energy generation the panacea to all problems? Certainly not. But most certainly without energy we will not have the basic food security that is essential to create an educated nation.
hoshiari Aug 09, 2012 03:45am
I must confess that Jawed Naqvi's columns fail to make sense to me regardless how hard I try.. Not that there is not a fact here and there in his columns but the way he mixes and connects them almost always takes him to weird and fantastic conclusions.
webwiz Aug 09, 2012 04:51am
I guess the only solution for India would be to license the water kit from Pakistan. India does not have shortage of water (yet) so all the power problems will be resolved in an eco-friendly way with near infinite repository of energy now available. This will get India out of its current embarrassment and also allow it to rebuild relations with Pakistan. I am killing so many birds with one stone. :)
Vineeth Aug 09, 2012 06:21am
I do not know if the problem is with me, but I always have a tough time trying to figure out what Jawed Naqvi is trying to say. His articles always appear disjointed, as if he copy-pasted sections from different places, and many times it begins telling one thing and ends telling another. M.J.Akbar's articles seems like an excellent contrast to this with its fluid narrative. Maybe its just me..
Vineeth Aug 09, 2012 06:45am
I do not know if the problem is with me, but I always have a tough time trying to figure out what Jawed Naqvi is trying to say. His articles always appear disjointed, as if he copy-pasted sections from different places, and many times it begins telling one thing and ends telling another. M.J.Akbar's articles seems like an excellent contrast to this with its fluid narrative. Maybe its just me.
anil Aug 09, 2012 06:46am
@Jawed, You are right . But what can we do ? History of India is filled with such examples . People wow when they see TajMahal which was a showpiece built for someone's beloved wife , at the cost of billions of rupees and gallons of blood . But People show sympathy towards LalBahdur or Gandhi for their utterly humble life style . Mr.Mukharjee might have had a poor child hood , but he couldn't resist his love for beautiful and soft lawn in Presidential palace and expressed it even in media.But don't worry Mr.Naqvi , we still have some aladin lamps in our society and they would lead us for sure.
Surendran Aug 09, 2012 07:31am
Good article, sums up the real situation in India. We have a long way to go to aspire to be a SUPERPOWER, more mundane, everyday problems are crying for solutions across the country.
U Gupta Aug 09, 2012 11:45am
Naqvi Sahib must be feeling relaxed now. What a master piece.
Prakash Aug 09, 2012 12:17pm
Scientific development does impinge on societal changes, but it takes time but would that mean we should shun scientific progress. I failed to understand what author is suggesting .I have experienced power failure even in New York in 2003,where millions were as badly hit as in the recent power breakdown in India,would that mean US is not developed country or lone super power? What he want to prove by Rajendra Prasad example, which is a different story in different time make,how it make any sense now.
vishal Aug 09, 2012 02:07pm
Nothing is wrong with u, Javed can be best described as a Pendulam. He starts for place x but ends at y. He is very confused person. But he certainly point out negativity in Indian society i hope we all learn from it and strive to improve, learn and overcome our shortcomings. The day is not far when we will be having electricity 24x7.
Ajay Aug 09, 2012 02:28pm
No, the problem is not with you; Jawed has a one point agenda of trying to prove that India is the most casteist and communal country which oppresses its minorities and lower castes; To prove that he mixes fact with fiction, draws his own wierd conculsion . Till date I have never read an article from him which makes sense.
manu Aug 09, 2012 03:27pm
Mr. Naqvi's column's are often very confusing. His hatred and prejudice for India and Indians overshadows his skills of a literary figure. This makes him more of a ignorant ranter than a qualified columnist.
aditya Aug 09, 2012 05:19pm
pot calling the kettle difference is its a begging pot
does not matter Aug 09, 2012 07:54pm
May be what Pranab meant was that in India even a boy from a poor family can make it to the highest government post. Can Pakistan boast of it in current times?
G.a Aug 09, 2012 09:38pm
Jawed Naqwi is an Indian writing for Dawn as far as I know.
A Bose Aug 09, 2012 10:05pm
Finally, author may have presented some good historical point of view of our freedom struggle. Things may have been different if Subhas Chandra Bose steered our country. Yes it would have been better. However, as usual article is incoherent and devoid of any main theme. What is Mr. Naqvi's qualification? I just like to know. Anyone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Salman Aug 09, 2012 10:10pm
Jawed naqvi is an indian by the way...
BNS Aug 09, 2012 10:12pm
I think instead of picking few words here and there that are used to complete the story we should try understand the message the writer is trying to communicate. The message here is that in addition to material economic progress countries should also pay atttention to the social well being of common people as well, example used is of women. And the problem is common to all south asian countries.
vijay Aug 09, 2012 10:22pm
I just wasted my time reading this shit. An article without any actual statistics. First of this kind I have ever read!!! Probably the news will not sell if contained statistics.
Shoaib Aug 09, 2012 11:30pm
I don't see why the Indian readers on this page are suggesting that this article aims to 'portray India in a negative light'. The problems India currently faces are transferable to Pakistan, from human rights issues to our crippled power infrastructure. It is imperative that both countries cut their military expenditure and other useless costs from and redirect these funds to intelligently improve the quality of life in South Asia - namely via radical reforms. If China, which has a powerful military and plenty of regional and International problems, can do it, then why can't India and Pakistan?
Venky Aug 10, 2012 02:13am
It is not you, but me too. On many articles, I find an agenda rather than a pure journalism. BTW, may be you may not see this reply, as Dawn refuses to publishes my comment. Probably they do not like my frankness.
Agnostic Aug 10, 2012 02:05pm
If society were to wait for an illusive Alladin's lamp it will remain in darkness for ever and for everyone. It is better for some to have a bright future than for all to suffer darkness, isn't it? That way there is atleast a path for the rest to follow to, perhaps, see the light.
adithan Aug 10, 2012 04:35pm
it is not electricity, it is a mogul's flights of fancy- is Naqvi an Arab name are u just from the sub-continent
Trips Aug 10, 2012 10:11pm
Oh Come On Guys....Naqvi is hilarious.....I always find his articles to be extremelly funny
Calis Aug 11, 2012 04:31am
We know. But I agree with hoshiari. It is never possible to figure out what he is saying. In any single piece he is chasing a half dozen themes. Goal seems to be self-gratification, not communication.
Anup Aug 12, 2012 01:26pm
Jawed Naqwi Strikes Back, star wars part 7, 8, 9, .................and so on and Jedi Indians fighting with his fictional army. Lol, I don't know when this writer from India will get any recognition and receive "Patrkar Ratna" award. There is a way to express feelings and there is also way to write thoroughly researched articles. Jawed Naqwi should should clearly talk about his own vision for India and South Asia in all. It is very easy to criticize anything with own convenience but difficult to give solutions. I will love to see his positive and inclusive thoughts on the Indian subcontinent. Also, will be happy to see him treating India and Pakistan as different countries with their different journeys.