Sunday, November 29, 2009

The creeping desensitisation

I like The Amazing Race. It's a great show that combines everything one could possibly want in a TV hour - action, adventure, color, travel, competition, occasional comedy and the triumph of human spirit.

I just watched a rerun of an episode where the teams travelled to Jaipur. I smiled at the teams coping with the frustration of immobile cows, disappearing taxi drivers, frisky monkeys and logjammed traffic (Ah, India. Incredible India, indeed. No place like it.) And then...

As the teams drove towards their destination, they passed through a part of the highway adjoined by slums. Cows, dogs and goats roamed freely, the filth was palpable and children were pottering around naked. At one point, some were shown eating leftovers from a pile of garbage. This caused a couple of contestants to break down somewhat inconsolably, and the tone of the show turned very somber for a bit. As the contestants struggled to check their tears, the whole thing gave me food for thought.

I, and possibly many other Indians like me, have become used to such scenes. We take it at face value, and the sheer horror-revulsion-pity-sorrow that a foreigner might feel might make less of an impact on us. We have internalised, accepted the stark in-your-face poverty that India confronts us with everywhere and maybe it ceases to move us as much now.

OK, I'm probably cloaking myself a bit by use of the term 'we'. I won't presume anything about the emotions and viewpoints of my friends or others at my station in life. It ceases to move me as much. After all these years, the poverty and squalor is just another part of the India I call home, and it doesn't hit me as hard any more. And as I thought about it, I found myself understanding why that was the case, but also deeply and unexpectedly uncomfortable about it.

Every year, reports tracking social indicators call out how important it is for concerted action to lift India and ensure every Indian has a decent, human way of life. As per the 2009 Human Development Index stats released by the UNDP (Source) in October 2009, India ranks 134th (of 182) in the world on the Human Development Index and 88th (of 135) on the Human Poverty Index. There's much chest beating (not thumping) and learned discussions on news channels and electronic notice boards at Indian premier educational institutions. The nation is united in its agreement that something must be done at the absolute earliest... until the next big news story comes along.

I feel I have become (relatively) desensitised. I remember when I first came back to India for good over 12 years ago, my reactions were much stronger. I remember feeling deeply sorry about the state of affairs, and trying to do little bits to help. It wasn't much, and largely extended only so far as to give reasonably generously to beggars. And I remember feeling happy in the thought that I was doing some good, in my own childish way.

Now... I don't know. I don't think about it that much. Signs of poverty register in some recess of my brain, but fail to shock me. Although every such experience gives me a renewed realisation of how lucky I am and how I have been able to move forward in life, it isn't as gut-wrenching as it used to be years ago.

I'm sure we all give to charities, for multiple reasons:
- Some because we genuinely care and want to do anything possible to alleviate the suffering of others
- Some because we can afford it and because it is convenient
- Some simply because we have spare change to meet the tax-exempt INR 100000 limit

I spent some time thinking back to my donations over the years, and realise I fall in the second category. Not only is it convenient in terms of my being able to contribute with a reasonable hope that a fair proportion of the money will be used as intended, but it offers me the option of not putting in physical time. The longer I think about it, though, the more I realise it actually helps me assuage my guilt about not putting in sufficient physical time.

Where is this headed, what comes next, how will I take this forward? I don't know. All I know is that at this point in time I'm feeling a little angry, confused, sad, ashamed.