Saturday, January 21, 2006

HOPE. Is it in the hands of China's industrialists, America's foreign policy-makers, or India's village women?

Mumbai, 8:30pm, Tuesday, 17th January, 2006.

I popped downstairs to the café of the hotel, to down a quick cup of masala chai (milky tea infused with cardamom, clove and ginger) before hitting the sack. It may have been 8:30 in Mumbai, but it was 11 back home.

A couple of Oriental blokes - a rare sight in India – were sipping coffee. One of them was lighting up a stick of Chunghua, China's most expensive cigarettes.

Neither of them could have been any older than 31 or 32.

They looked up as I sauntered over to my favourite table by the window, just next to theirs, their gaze following me all the way to my seat.

I offered them a broad smile. They deserved it, I thought, for flattering an old woman like that.

Soon after I had ordered my drink, one of them hollered.

"Ni naali ren?" (Where are you from?) "Woh sze Malaiseeya ren," I replied. That was the extent of my Mandarin, of course, but hey, out here in curryville, who's to know?

Not long after, they held a hushed and hurried conversation among themselves (Mandarin when whispered quickly sounds rather like distant helicopters, I observed). They promptly carried themselves and their cups over to my table, and sat down with the greatest aplomb.

They were wondering if I knew where the nearest Chinese restaurant was. There were several, I told them, but the best I had been to so far, was China Garden at Crossroads Mall.

"Would you take us there?" they asked excitedly. Dinner would be on them, they proudly declared. "Not tonight," I said, "but thank you for offering just the same."

A moment of silence.

"Are you here on business?" I enquired.

"We sell steel," one of them replied eagerly, "and we want to break into the Indian market."

"I think you'll find the Indians make their own steel," I said.

"Ah, but ours is a special grade of steel cables, the best for the conveyance of electricity, which they don't have." I caught them winking at each other.

"Would you sell people things they don't really need?" I asked. "I know all about that, you see. I'm in advertising."

They laughed heartily. "Ah, maybe, maybe," they nodded rapidly, and winked at each other again. "The whole world wants to sell, sell, sell more, and buy less, less, less. China will be number one."

"In my opinion, within my own set of criteria," I said, "India is number one, and has been so for many years."

"No, no, no, no, no!" insisted Xiao Gang, the older of the two, "India will be number two! They are good, but they will be number two."

"Number one," I repeated stubbornly.

The two of them fell silent and turned to each other. Now the helicopter fan blades started whirring furiously again. Then they stopped just as soon as they started.

Wang Di, the younger one, turned to me and asked, "Would you care to share with us the set of criteria you were talking about?"

"Well," I began, taking a deep breath before continuing, "I'm presently making a documentary about the working class women of India.

"Just the other day, I interviewed a wonderful woman called Chetna. Having received accolades in the field of economics from Yale and Harvard, Chetna came home and realised several things. One of them was that, in the small town and villages of India, women were never given loans by banks. The reason for it, they had no collaterals and they were largely illiterate.

"Besides, these women wanted loans as small as only 15 cents US, and preferred to pay back by the end of the day itself."

Xiao Gang and Wang Di threw their head back with laughter. "What bank would give such a loan?"

"Precisely," I said. "And because no bank would give them such loans, these women would borrow from moneylenders who charged them 200 to 300 per cent interest."

Now the men stopped laughing and cleared their throats uncomfortably. I continued to explain my case further.

"So instead of embarking upon a well-deserved lucrative career, Chetna opted for much humbler remuneration, finding ways to provide the women in the little town of Satara with loans; loans they needed to buy goats, and umbrellas under which they could sell their goods on hot days.

"She formed the Mann Deshi Mahila bank for women.

"Now, the village women, grateful for their new-found means of acquiring finances, turned out to be prompt pay-masters, prudent managers of their small businesses, and charted long-term plans for growth.

"But most inspiring of all, today, Chetna's good deeds are proof of the old Indian belief that kindness breeds more kindness.

"At a recent gathering of these account holders, Chetna found a lady feeding the hundred village women in attendance with food she had prepared the night before. When asked why she was doing such a generous thing when she herself was a wage labourer of meagre income who wasn't even certain where her next day's meal would come from, the cheerful little woman replied, 'On God's earth, there are two types of people. Givers and Takers. Givers will give even when they're poor, and the good Lord will often mysteriously place things into their hands, that they may continue giving. Takers, on the other hand, will keep taking, no matter how much wealth they've amassed. You just have to decide which one you want to be. In today's world, many wealthy people have a bad habit of taking, taking, taking, and from people who are poorer than them.'

"India has its fair share of Takers, of course. But unlike most greedy societies like yours and mine, India has Givers too. Mrs Chetna is just one of many.

"And that, my friends, is why India is number one to me."

Mumbai, 10am, Wednesday, 18th January, 2006.

Seema, our project manager, and I were in a taxi heading for the edit house that's working on the final touches of our documentary entitled "Voices At The Bottom Of The Pyramid."

The driver was on some sort of a death wish, weaving through hordes of pedestrians, narrowly missing an old lady hobbling across a back alley.

"Sabar karo (have patience)!" I bellowed, tapping him on the shoulder.

He turned to me, smiled cheekily, slowed down, and said…

"Sabar karo, sabar karo
Sabar badhi cheez hai
Aaj raat chand niklega
Kal subha eidh hai."

Seema translated it for me. It was a poem that said, "Have patience, have patience, for patience is a big virtue. The moon will rear her head tonight, and tomorrow we shall celebrate the Eidh."

I turned my head to him sharply, scowled, turned away again, and looked out the window.

In response to my sulking, he broke out into another poem that went something like this:

"When my eyes met her eyes
she turned her head away.
The world is made of hearts so small
With no place for Love today."

I smiled quietly, still gazing out the window. A taxi driver who recited poetry. I couldn't imagine it happening anywhere else other than this crazy but blessed country.

"Yes," I thought, "India IS number one."