Friday, November 30, 2018

LOST IN THE BIG PICTURE


Old Delhi is a fascinating place not just for the history, but also for the conversations that the mystic chaos of this place triggers. It was one of such days, in the winter of 2016. We were walking through the haphazard narrow gullies and tangled streets of Old Delhi. It was a puzzle of different eras intertwined together is a small crowded city like a time capsule. This place was once the walled city of Sahajanabad, with busy colourful markets lined up on each side of the streets coming down from the magnificent Red Fort. Sahajanabad was founded by Shah Jahan in 1639. He was the supreme monarch who controlled the markets. Free markets and Adam Smith were yet to be born. While the demographics have not changed much, the market dynamics have completely altered over the last few centuries. The free market has taken over and powerful brands have replaced small businesses. Even Karims survived by evolving into a big brand. But the Baskin-Robbins and Haagen-Dazs have had up until now failed to replace Daulat-ki-chaat, the magical winter dessert for which we have come this far.



Our first stop in the time-capsule maze was Asia's largest spice market - Khari Baoli. This market has become a brand in itself. When we reached there, we were shocked to see the amount of garbage on the road. It was not the usual dirt that this part of Delhi was known for. It was a city that sprang up like a mushroom on an over-filled dustbin. But people kept going on with their usual life completely ignoring the unusual thrash. When asked, we were told that the MCD, who are responsible for cleaning the public dustbins, were on strike. And that was the perfect trigger for a long conversation. The question that came to our mind at that time was why are we in this mess? Is it because of our attitude - this is MCD’s mess and not ours, even though we generate it. Who are responsible for this attitude? Is it the market-driven society that we have built where branded ice-creams would sell more than unbranded Daulat-ki-chaat?



Adam Smith believed that division of labour can increase productivity by a factor of 2000 by eliminating the time wasted in switching between different types of jobs. In the older mercantilism economy, government controlled import and export to hoard silver and gold that made nations rich. Smith identified the flaw in such thinking and showed how labour was more precious than gold or silver. To Smith ‘man was an animal that makes bargains’ and the ‘invisible hand’ of acting in one's self-interest can benefit the society as a whole. To enjoy such benefit government interventions should be minimised. Smith hoped that the free market would give people autonomy and freedom along with prosperity. He probably assumed that humans behaved in a rational way. That was a big mistake. In the free market, jungle norms take over and the fittest survive. It's economic Darwinism that breeds inequality. While valuing labour, Karl Marx was critical of the free market. Marx believed that the free market only made the bourgeoisie class rich. This new privileged class replaced the oppressive kings, but not the oppression of the poor and powerless. Instead of producing an entire product, workers sell their labour by doing a small part for a smaller salary. This creates huge industries that people can never replace. But how is all this related to my Daulat-ki-chaat? To know that we need to solve the maze.



Our next stop was Ghalib ki Haveli, the residence of the famous 19th century poet, Mirza Galib.

bas-ki dushvār hai har kaam  āsāñ honā
aadmī ko bhī mayassar nahīñ insāñ honā


Tis difficult that every goal be easily complete
For a man, too, to be humanis no easy feat


Human beings have a symbol-centric brain. Without the symbolic connect, that Galib’s poems did so eloquently, it is indeed difficult to be human. Inside a big interrelated chaos of things that we cannot relate to, we get lost. Lost in the big picture is a curse of the free market. Just like how the labours are ignorant of the way their work adds up to the product that they are creating, the end users also unaware of how these products magically come to them. In the morning when we get up and brush our teethwe have absolutely no idea who made that paste or where the brush came from. We even have no clue about the food we eat, who grows them, what kind of chemicals are added to make them look good, what kind of atrocities the plants and animals grown in the farms have to suffer. We don’t know how to hunt our food or make our clothes. From all the products we use, to the job we dowe have no clue about the bigger picture. It was not the same with the hunters and gatherers. They made their own clothes. They hunted their own meal. They knew how to make their shelter. They appreciated everything they needed to know about their own life. Modern humans would be lost if left alone because we know nothing.





Because we are the John Snow of the neoliberal world, our choices are easily manipulated. Division of labour has made us so specialized that we have forgotten how to comprehend the big picture. Our likes and dislikes are guided by advertisements. Our happiness and sadness is defined by market. The models flashing on the screens and smiling at you in the big hoardings tells us how to dress, what to eat, and which car to drive. We work hard to earn enough to maintain a lifestyle whose standard is set by someone else. Unfortunately, that standard has nothing to do with who we are, and thus it can never make us happy. And the effort to keep pace with the lifestyle inflation is increasing the stress in our lives. Is there a way out?



We finally found Sanjay Kumar, the man whose family has been selling Daulat-ki-chaat for three generations. We had a long chat with Mr Kumar as he told us all about his family and the art of making the dessert. They come to Old Delhi only in the wintersmake this delicious creamy and frothy dessert topped with khoya and nuts, and then once the season is over they leave for their village to farm. The Kumars have been doing this for decades every year. Every person in their family knows the entire process of how to make Daulat-ki-chaat, and not just parts. They were both happy and proud of their product.



With a scoop of Daulat-ki-chaat melting inside our mouth, we finally solved the maze. We realised the most important factor that was missing from a market driven society. It was the social connect. We are social animals, and market driven societies often does not respect that social nature of human beings. We are slowly losing the emotional connect with friends and family. The inequality resulting from our market society is leading to loneliness and depression. Rate of suicide among young generation is increasing all over the world. The problem is so critical that universities are offering courses on happiness, and countries are appointing ministers for loneliness. This, in turn, is breeding a new industry. Professional cuddling is a new hot occupation. Robot dogs are being manufactured in China to give young people company. Soon paying for companionship, for an evening walk, for even a casual date will become a norm. But it is people like Sanjay Kumar and their Daulat-ki-chaat that gives us hope. Not all connections are lost in the big picture.



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