By Umang Kumar
For a while now, there has been an earnest (and renewed) search for the “Soul of India.” Many people concerned with the instances of rising bigotry and intolerance, have wondered if the supposedly accommodating and diverse Soul of India was not somehow being slowly undermined. To all such people, the Soul of India is, in the ultimate analysis, tolerant, expansive, multi-religious, multicultural, multi-ethnic, despite its many obvious flaws.
But there have always been protests over such characterizations of and yearning for the Soul of India. Some said that seeking a single Soul of India was futile; India had a multiplicity of souls. Others termed this search for a soul nothing but an attempt at essentialization of an irreconcilably diverse people and culture. No Soul of India could be identified, they held. Still others felt that such a quest was entirely misguided because it rested on a romantic notion of India. There was never an innocuous, all-welcoming, all-assimilating, Ellis-Island-India. The Soul of India, as believed by some, has been elitist, casteist and discriminatory towards its own people.
In the past week or so, if any representative images of India and Indians emerged, they were those of migrant workers throughout India trying to return home. They were images of the throngs of trudging masses, of burdened masses, of endlessly snaking queues at bus terminals.
These images crowded and burdened the limited capacities of comprehension and empathy that most of us urbanites possess.
And, horror of horrors, many of these same people had embarked upon journeys home that involved distances of hundreds of miles, on foot, since the government had suddenly shut down all modes of transportation.
Here, despite all the babel of voices and opinions regarding the Soul of India, was unmistakably the Sole of India, a mosaic of thousands of soles of India, stepping onward, as though united and fused in the bid for survival.
As is evident now from various reports on migrants from the length and breadth of the country, the soles of India were pitter-pattering across the entire nation, determined to walk away to where they thought they had a chance to survive. If one were to repurpose a common, grandiloquent claim, repeated fairly recently as well, one would say: From Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Kutch to Arunachal, India was echoing with the thump-thump of a myriad soles beating down on the roads – if you cared to listen.
Some crafty writing in one of our country’s oldest books, considered sacred by a certain set of people, consigned a class of human beings as “springing from the feet” of a primeval man, a Purusha, and assigned them the role of service to the other classes.
On this occasion, however, the feet were their own masters, as thousands upon thousands of feet – and soles – had set off on paths paved not by deceit, but bitumen and tar.
The book which had consigned the people to perpetual service was perversely prescient. It knew that down the ages, the only people who would actually produce something of worth would be the so-called people from the feet; the others would be engaged in either valueless, woolly-headed mind-stuff; or warring; or commerce.
But those from the feet would make sure that everyone’s feet were shod in the best footwear on account of their skills; they would be food producers by laboring on other’s farms; they would build mansions and bridges and everything else useful. To keep them in perpetual servitude – and continually working to serve the other sections of society – was in the interest of the people of the book.
Not much has changed since. It is still the same people who make stuff – and make stuff happen. This is especially so in cities, and still more so in those cities where more and more people move to mind-work, which seems to pay them disproportionately large sums of money, when compared to the people who do the real work.
These ‘mind-work people’ enjoy the service of the ‘feet-work people’ such as domestic servants, car drivers, dog-walkers, car-washers, laundry pickup-and-delivery-boys, round-the-clock security guards, food delivery agents bringing in hot pizzas and fresh salads at all times of the day, and all manner of e-commerce delivery-boys zipping in-and-out of their gated complexes laden with backpacks.
Outside, the ‘feet-work people’ work in the midst of heavy traffic, sometimes sporting shiny, incongruous, neon safety-vests, to complete toll-free highways for speedier movement of the ‘mind-work people’. Or they are to be found in great numbers at construction sites, building swank apartments that they will never live in.
Cities come up, all glass and steel, roads are built to connect malls and offices, markets spring up to provide necessities for the residents of the city but the people who painstakingly assemble the city lego-block by lego-block and keep it running, are its forgotten architects. Instead the city becomes about so much foo-foo stuff; it is suddenly taken over and overlaid by monied, arrogant residents who are the new owners of the city, who write anew the city’s story with their frivolous creations, like cafes, cinemas, and cake shops.
The people who did – and continue to do – the actual work become bit-part actors on the stage they set up from scratch. They are labeled the outsiders, they are the expendable population of the city – forsaken, looked down upon and constrained to live in humble lodgings.
But the new arrivistes in the city know next to nothing about doing things on their own. Especially anything that at bottom requires manual work. The world outsourced its work to us Indians. And we, the city’s upper classes, the mind-workers, outsourced more and more of the few things we did on our own to the people who were the true workers. Unacknowledged by us, city after city functioned atop a layer of legs and feet who did the real work and kept the city running, literally.
They were the true citizens of the city. They were the true masters of the city. But they preferred to keep quiet and go about their tasks quietly and diligently.
Till one day they were shaken up rudely by the unthinking actions of some who think they are the best brains of the country and know what is best for everyone. With a hastily conceived lockdown, they managed to throw countless lives in disarray. They upended the dogged and determined lives of the working people. They forced them helter-skelter and suddenly the “migrants” were in the news all over India.
At bus stations in interminably long queues, clambering onto buses when they found one, on highways walking single file, bori-bistara on their heads. They were objects of pity, they were objects to be controlled, contained and corralled. They were herded, shoved, pushed, lathi-charged and doused with chemicals.
Yet, some of them had no trust in government schemes, sops and assurances. They had struck out on their own, propelled by desperation, measuring the distance between life and death in sole-lengths. The ground beneath their feet was fast disappearing, yanked unfeelingly by a callous state, and they had to outpace the vanishing certitudes of life.
One could stop looking for a lofty concept such as a Soul of India; instead one could witness the Sole of India in front of one’s eyes – the Sole which represents the hard and callused reality of India more faithfully than any concept of the Soul can.
Umang Kumar is a sometime writer and a socially conscious citizen living in Delhi NCR.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.