Although, as it turns out, Marie Antoinette’s famous saying was actually a rumour perpetuated by the revolutionaries, these four words best epitomise the callous indifference of those in any position of wealth or power (the haves) towards those who cannot afford bread, let alone cake (the have-nots).
And,when people ask me about my impressions of India after returning from the US after 12 years, although generally positive, time and again I am reminded of these four words. Presumably, being able to afford a nice apartment in a gated complex with a gym and a swimming pool, I’m a ‘have’ and a chill runs down my spine imagining if some day my head will roll off the sharp blade of a guillotine.
But India is prospering, they tell me. Double-digit growth. Low-cost tech capital of the world. Largest democracy. Superb banking and financial institutions. Special Economic Zones…The list is endless, they reassure me.
Recently, we bought a washing machine and refrigerator from a swanky store in a beautiful mall. When I had left India, I didn’t know what a mall was. Now, standing in the middle of an architectural marvel of glass and steel, I felt confident. India was on the rise. My wife and I were treated like royalty by a flock of smart men and women serving us tea and coffee and reassuring us that delivery would be free and within 48 hours. And lo and behold, within 48 hours there was a telephone call from the security gate to inform me that the men had come to deliver our washing machine and 260-litre refrigerator.
I opened the front door slightly and waited. And waited. Five minutes rolled into ten and then 20. I peeked outside a couple of times to ensure that the elevators were working. They were. When no one had showed up after 45 minutes, a vein of irritation began to throb in my head.
Then there was a light knock on the door and a man younger and thinner than me stood outside, panting, won dering if he had the right ad dress. On that hot, humid af ternoon, he stood sweating as if he had just stepped out of a
shower. His perspiration made his clothes stick to his body as though they were painted on him. He asked if he could have a glass of water for himself and his friend, still struggling up the stairs, lugging the washing machine on his back.
I was shocked. Why hadn’t he used the elevator, I asked. The security guards downstairs wouldn’t allow it, he replied matter-of-factly, as if the error was in the unreasonable request not in the guard’s denial. I was flabbergasted. Using the elevator to ferry a couple of heavy objects up six floors was a privilege, not a right? What if we had lived on the thirteenth floor or bought a 300-litre refrigerator?
Anger welled up inside me and I felt tears of outrage sting my eyes. I marched down to the security office. The guard informed me that he had simply followed the estate manager’s rules. Rules? There was a rule saying that people couldn’t transport heavy appliances on elevators? Yes, the guard informed me with a serious face, there were rules. He justified his concern saying that appliances tend to have sharp edges that could scratch the paint or dent the elevator walls
What if the man had twisted his ankle or what if the refrigerator had fallen on him and crushed him, I asked the big, burly estate manager who had shown up. The manager missed my point completely and informed me that the company would surely replace the damaged goods free of cost. This is the new India where customer is king. The delivery man, damn it! Don’t worry, he reassured me, the company would find ten more people like him to do the job.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I argued, trying to educate him on the basics of humanity, humility and human rights. After a few moments of dodging my pointed questions he said that other tenants of this upscale complex might not want to share elevators with sweaty delivery boys and smelly milkmen. And that’s when visions of murderous crowds with hatchets and spears baying for bourgeois blood begin to fill my head.
Upstairs, my wife was feeling equally sorry for the delivery men. I found them sitting in a corner of our living room, muching on something. The men were hungry, my wife informed me, and, since we didn’t have any bread, she had given them some leftover cake…