Suddenly I felt the shudder of a Maltusian nightmare. It was only involuntary yet verily true. A harassed driver on the overcrowded Mahatma Gandhi Setu of Patna or a restless passenger in a cramped local train of Mumbai should understand me better. In Europe things are different; one can even pick up from the floor one's contact lens in a crowded running bus. Their crowd has no comparison with ours.
Visiting a new land should bring new realization in its wake—haven’t great Indian souls (re)discovered India when they are abroad? To a person like me who has lived and breathed pure Indian way for more than half a century, what should come to him so striking in the West? Well, it cannot be the high-rise buildings with glass and steel exterior, for our cities in India now have oodles of them already defining the landscape. The European metro is no longer an out-of-this-world system, for our Delhi Metro is already a world class system and will soon surpass others in spread and volume of passenger movement. Paris is as much a multicultural city as some of our metros, thanks to liberalization and IT business. On the flip side, I have seen beggar-musicians at the city centre of Frankfurt and in the metro rail of Paris, semi-begging pursuits for raising funds for deaf and dumb right before the Louvre or before the famous church of Sacre-Coeur in Paris. Even in one of the alleys of Paris just a few hundred meters from the bank of the Seine near the metro station of Bibliotheque, I saw people rummaging the trash bin at 7:30 PM to grub out the loaves of bread discarded by the restaurant. I did not want to take its photograph for it would have proved nothing. Of course I took a snap of the multilingual notice board at the entry point of Louvre that warned tourists, “Beware of pickpockets inside the museum.”
Then what else could have made me feel that I’m in a land altogether different in ambience?
Well, it is the population sparseness that made me feel I was undoubtedly in a different land. Paris appeared to me a little crowded, but then it was nowhere near Mumbai or Kolkata. Everywhere else I found more buildings than humans. Let me say it a bit figuratively: Sometimes, their shops had more mannequins than men. Even today they have enough room for bicycles to fearlessly ply on their roads and there are dedicated bicycle tracks too. In Paris I saw bikers happily pedaling their way along Champ de Elysses. As per Wikipedia, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is one of the most famous streets and one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world. In Netherland I was waiting for a bus at Delft to go to the city centre and the bus did not stop. The simple reason was that it was full. A full bus giving the waiting passengers on the route a slip is nothing unusual in India and so it could not have sprung any surprise on me. But others waiting for the bus were surprised. A Chinese student who had been there for a year or so stated that it was for the first time that he could come across a bus which was really full. Others standing there endorsed the statement. Then I realized what I felt so good about the place: quietude. Yes, what we call it in India, a pin-drop silence. Whereas we believe in the principle the more the merrier, they celebrate the symphony of silence. On our arrival at the airport of Frankfurt we took a shuttle bus to the hotel nearby and en route had many things to talk among ourselves. Our cacophony was the expression of our happiness…and it was an honest expression at that. It was the driver of the bus who could not withstand our noise. And he commanded us to be silent. Our being happy stepping on their land was thus misunderstood. His rudeness had definitely meant insult to many of us, but then, in the process we could get some first-hand knowledge about their profile and preference. Aha! They are businesslike--they're simply silent, serious and successful.
In Switzerland, while going to Lausanne from Geneva airport, I saw vast expanse of farming lands with some crop already in them. But I could not see a single person working there. There were cows grazing but none to look after them. As if the cows in Switzerland behaved as per their model code of conduct! Otherwise, it appeared their farming activities were so much mechanized that they had no need of manpower? Looking at their docile and law-abiding cows I was reminded of a hilarious joke that once I read in one of Khushwant Singh’s Joke books: In Pakistan the owner of a certain poultry firm stopped feeding his birds; he just gave them 25 paise each so that they could buy themselves food of their choice from the market. Joking apart, let me recall what I saw at the stations of Europe—there were only ticketing terminals like a bank of ATMs in a row and nobody was seen selling tickets. The cost of operation is saved this way. In the restaurants, nobody was there to make us a coffee; there was a machine to give us coffee, tea, cappuccino, hot milk, chocolate drink. One should only understand the control panel as to which switch was to be pressed. Oh yes, I learned it just by observing: one should press the switch glowing with letters “Lait” to get hot milk, for “Lait” in French meant milk.
I wonder if they are not thinking of inserting a chip in the body of people which would store information like how many occasions one has travelled in metro or taken coffee from a restaurant or crossed the traffic signal so that it will connect to the banks via wireless to debit his/her accounts! By this it will further reduce labour cost.
In India it is the population that makes all our progress appear pathetically inadequate. It is the big denominator hazard. Everything achieved is divided by population and what one gets is a miniscule average. It may be quality of life index or poverty index. The kind of comfort a bus journey or for that matter train journey one enjoys in Switzerland is just unthinkable here. How many buses will it require to transport the office-goers in Mumbai if only 15 to 20 persons commute per coach that is invariably air-conditioned? Don’t they say, in Mumbai you can more easily get a place in one’s heart than in a local train! Again, we have more people to spit on roads than to clean them. Nobody, not even we Indians visiting their country, ever spits on their roads. Not to speak of roadside defecation, their railway tracks are devoid of trash, for the toilets of their coaches do not drain onto the tracks. Somebody said it humorously, “With a bottle of water selling more than 6 Euros (some 420 rupees) who can afford to drink water just to visit the loo?” Well, a vegetable-eater is more likely to defecate in a train than a meat- and cheese-eater.
Now, let me be serious for once: at the end of the day, can we skirt the issue by telling jokes? True, our most popular politicians have won their elections in the past by telling jokes. Yet, can jokes bring us the level of development achieved in the west? Hot water cannot burn haystacks and jokes cannot melt underdevelopment. We have to work and the starting point is to rein in the population growth…and to develop the living human resources.
A. N. Nanda