Working at home in Kolkata, I’m surrounded by clouds that bring little rain, and by a strange calm. Daytime TV reveals how exceptional Kolkata’s humdrum atmosphere is at the moment. The riots targeting Bangladeshi – and therefore Muslim – migrants in Assam have been competing for news time with the Olympics.
From BBC World, I learn of a massive power outage in north India, leaving even the capital New Delhi without electricity for several hours. And a train approaching Chennai in the south mysteriously caught fire, probably because of a glitch to do, ironically, with electricity, killing at least 32 people. On the Indian channels, the Olympics, and a familiar Indian disappointment, dominate: Abhinav Bindra, the only individual gold medallist India has ever produced, has failed to qualify in the air rifle shooting.
Kolkata, in the 80s, isolated from the rest of India because of its anomalous Left Front government, was infamous for its 16-hour outages. Today there are hardly any power cuts, partly because, received wisdom has it, there’s so little industry around here. Still, from the vantage point of this city, it’s always interesting to see Delhi – which has reaped the greatest benefits of liberalisation in India besides Mumbai, but also showered taxpayers’ money upon itself – in discomfort. That taxpayers’ money should not only have gone towards the power grids that would have prevented such an outage, but also substantially into education, health, roads, villages and other cities – and the railways.
To remind myself that real people are involved, I phoned a friend who divides his time between Dehradun and Allahabad. At present he’s in Dehradun, and told me that the outage began at 2am and ended at 4pm. When he turned on the TV and found out that all of the north was affected, he felt «much better». Allahabad and Dehradun have to do without power anyway for three hours on most mornings. The return of electricity prompts a «flurry of activity»: the fridge begins to work, and so do other machines that need to be taken advantage of.
Not long ago there was always the economy and its growth to admire, even if most of us derived no great reward from it. The economy had flourished because what was once India’s single most embarrassing burden – the size of its population – had now been translated into a market, its greatest asset. That, and the legacy of the educated bourgeoisie, its dated and arraigned socialism, and its last representatives in the judiciary and bureaucracy, have allowed Indians to be complacent about, even derisive of, the civic structures that keep the country running.
Indians prefer to believe that it’s some special Indian magic, colour and resilience – that doesn’t need to obey ordinary rules – that’s edged the country towards prosperity; and a belief in this magic has eroded faith in the hard work that it takes to keep democracy, institutions, society and trains behaving predictably. The consequences of this blitheness come up as either a temporary sputter at home, or as a disaster somewhere else; but its effects will be very real in the days to come, and bring out into the open the nation’s latent but always palpable self-division.
The economy is dipping now, and the media is demanding further market reform; the idea of impending economic reform has become, in spite of the scale and complexity of the problem, a pleasure-giving fix. But much harder, and long overdue, reforms will need to be put in place before the calm of our days feels real. In a country whose pervasive malaise is not corruption but cowardice – moral, political, and intellectual – their arrival will be held up perpetually, like that train that was going to Chennai.
Amit Chaudhuri is professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia.