Privilege And Responsibility


We are not only going through a pandemic but also massive protest against, what some see as the pandemic of, racism. I am preparing myself for discussions with friends and colleagues about the rights and wrongs of the protests and I needed a framework to help me navigate those conversations and choose my allies for common good.

Privilege is probably the most used word in the discussion and I wanted to explore that a bit. This is a living debate and I have enriched it with comments from my allies.

My father was a key worker, an engineer in a thermal (coal) power generation plant. Austere pay but stable employment. My mother stayed at home, looked after the three of us and provided the backbone for the extended family on both sides. I did need some serious looking after. I was a fussy eater and was prescribed to eating well after I was diagnosed with a lazy eye. I took a 45 minutes bus journey to go to a missionary school. The school fees were nominal (at least in hindsight), the nuns disciplined and teachers dedicated. They gave us the best education they could imagine was possible. On weekends I went to a dance school ( which deserves its own essay) which was a source of immense joy for me. I had books and magazines and plenty of time to read them.

The list of things I didn’t have is much longer and to be honest it did hurt at the time.

Now let’s imagine that I was born in a family that lived 200 meters, in the direction of the railway station, from the apartments (we used to call them thermal plant quarters) where we lived. After a childhood of love, but little education, my mother, with a great deal of sadness I imagine, would take me to work in one of those apartments. The people in those apartments would be kind to me because of my tender age – given me light work, fed me, given me new clothes even but all their love in the world would not have saved me from my predicament of being a housemaid for the rest of my life.

Yes. I had the privilege of going to school in a country where millions still cannot. I had the privilege of having a father who’s job was not subject to the whims and fancies of the market. I had the privilege of having a stay at home mother who was not forced to work to feed the family.

I did my graduation and post graduation in two very reputed educational institutions. I could memorise and regurgitate the right things at the right moment and that helped secure those positions. My parents didn’t have to pay any fees and neither did I have to take a hefty loan to access that fine education. If the government had decided to spend more on primary education and left higher education to the private funding my life trajectory would be different. Hence one can argue that those poor children who did not get primary education paid for my higher education. That was my privilege.

I got my first job then some more. Not through any family network. The bits of papers from the institutions opened doors which are otherwise closed to millions. One privilege led to another.

My friends reminded me that I also had the privilege of class and that requires a few pages.

I didn’t know I had privilege before I entered a wider world where people had far more privilege than I did. Privilege like comfort is something one notices only when one does not have it. And one of those opportunities that I do not have is commonly called “white privilege”.

Imagine you are a young person with a good job in one of the financial capitals of the western world. You dress in very expensive clothing and go to a fancy restaurant and eat with the wrong set of forks. Now according to the school of white privilege philosophy – What people make of it will depend on the colour of your skin. If you are black they would surmise that you didn’t have a good upbringing whereas if you are white they might even admire your endeavour to rise above such trivial rituals.

But really is it that simple? Remember Julia Robert in pretty woman and how scared she was about making a mess of that oyster. She was white. And so was Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic and how awkward was he when invited to the high table.

And I, and any other white person for that matter, can walk into a restaurant in India in a pair of slippers but my avatar (the housemaid) who was born 200 meters away from me might be shooed away even if she had the means to pay for the meal.

The phrase white privilege is very simple but encompasses a very broad range of discrimination. Its complexity is understood by academics and simplicity exploited by divisive forces. Therefore I will have to be careful with this word. Yes there is institutional racism and we have to fight it wherever we see it. But if we want to win this war against discrimination we do need to know who are allies are too.

There are people who believe in the superiority of the white race. There are others who understand what white privilege means, aware it exists but will not acknowledge it nor change it because it is inconvenient for them. Many, cognisant of the changing tide, do not candidly express their feelings but careful observation of their actions, not just their words, reveals it all. Some, however, are confident and passionate enough to flaunt their true colours (forgive the pun).

There are others who acknowledge that as white people they do enjoy certain hidden benefits in society. They can be our allies and most of them want to. But it is up to us to permit them to join the struggle. And when we do we will have to be patient with their apparent ignorance because they, like me, will not always appreciate the depth and complexity of the advantages they enjoy.

I will stop here to clarify that most people who are not white, but unlike me ,have grown up in a predominantly white country find it most difficult to comprehend and justify the ignorance of their fellow white citizens. A simple question like – “How many times did I, as a teenager, get stopped by police and how many times did my black friend get stopped? ” would have given them enough clues. My friend pointed this out and I agree that people like us, who are not white but did enjoy privileges in another society, will have to own the responsibility for the hard work.

Moreover sometimes our white allies will be baffled by this word white privilege because, intelligent as they are, will notice plenty of brown or black people who enjoy privilege but want to use their skin tone to claim the lack of it. It will demand honesty on our part to accept that oppression and misuse of power is equally present in other societies. No doubt in our discourses with these allies there will be difference of opinions, maybe altercations even, but I will be mindful of their intentions not just their interpretations.

And lastly there are plenty of others who have white skin but they didn’t have any opportunities for generations and even now things are not going in the right direction for them. They are constantly led down by the institutions that ought to protect them. The way some UK police departments treated white girls from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds when they were victims of systematic sexual exploitation is a good example of institutions failing the white. The word white privilege accuses these people of enjoying something they never had. It excludes them from this fight for justice. Hence we, the non white but privileged, have to be very careful in our choice of words in public demonstration of anger. Black Lives Matter, for example , is a simple slogan that captures generations of anger and resentment. But repeated in isolation and without context it can lead to make these sections feel that they don’t matter. The truly powerful and privileged white then cajole them into their agenda with the mantra “we are all in this together”.

It is complex but writing this and having discussions with a lot of my friends has given some clarity and ideas to take forward.

On a lighter note I took this picture of my larder a while back to talk about the “little things that spark joy”. As we went into the pandemic lock down and people started hoarding food I realised how lucky I am to have such a full larder at all times. It is not a little thing, it is a pure privilege.

A Super Cyclone is Coming Your Way

On 20th May 2020 a super cyclone hit Kolkata, the city on the banks of river Ganga in the eastern part of India. When the storm was passing through the city I was calling up my family to check on them. They were not interested in giving me status updates or assuring me. They were too busy surviving. And after the storm had passed I called them again and they were ecstatic. They had stared death in the face and had survived. They didn’t say as much but it was clear from the tone of their voice. Their high rise buildings had swayed, windows shattered, rooms flooded, trees uprooted, power supply cut off but they were till standing and the beast was no longer howling on their doors. And this is from a section of society that can socio economically be classified as well heeled middle class. I really cannot imagine the level of trauma the less fortunate endured.

The chief minister said that “Sob Chole Gache. ” We have lost everything” and looking at the pictures that is how it feels. She can take solace from the number of lives she has saved by using the state machinery, as she rightly should, to evacuate people.

Bengal will be rebuilt. Most places do. It will be easier to remove the trees and restore electricity but the salinity of the farmlands will haunt us for years to come.

And what happens if another cyclone comes even as people are rebuilding. In UK we had three storms in one month.

Cyclones are a part of nature. But studies are showing that cyclones are becoming more frequent and more destructive. And that is mostly due to that word a lot of us do not want to hear “Global Warming”.

Yes the globe is heating, so are the oceans. As oceans heat they create larger amounts of moisture, which create stronger clouds and hit the land harder. It is really as simple as that. One of the predictions of this storm was that waves in the Bay of Bengal would flood as far as Kolkata. And the fear is those predictions will come to be true.

And these cyclones almost help create more cyclones. For example a large number of trees have been uprooted by this cyclone. We know trees are our friends against climate change. And as we lose them our capability to absorb all the CO2 decreases which leads to even more heating. More heating means more cyclone. I simplify it a bit but you get the picture. Similarly all the debris that is created leads to landfill and even more land grab from trees and even more heating.

When the cyclone was raging through Kolkata people all over the world were sending messages – God Bless, Stay Safe. If I remember correctly even the PM of India said he was praying for the people. Hence it is good to know that we all care.

And if we care we have the power to show it. The power to stop Climate Change and its devastating impacts.

Just like the evil pandemic the evil Climate Change will not go away. We will have to take action to bring it under control. The vaccine for Climate Change is to stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

But what can ordinary people like you and I do. If you are reading this you are no ordinary people. You have access to education and internet. And it is upon people like you and me that the world depends to take action.

We will have to change the way we eat (less meat), we travel (as little on planes and cars more on trains), we buy (buy less, repair more and throw less), but mostly we will have to change the way we do our politics. We have to support organisations that are fighting against climate change and voting for people who care about it and make policies accordingly. Make our governments accountable for their action against Climate Change.

Climate Change is the biggest threat we face as a race. The threat against our existence. Nature will survive but humans may not.

And if we do not then we will be like mythical Nero who was playing flute as Rome was burning.

The time to act is now. The people in Kolkata cannot think any more. They are still busy surviving. But we can.

If I was writing this note last year I would have said “A super cyclone is coming our children’s way.” But given the speed of climate change means I am saying “A super cyclone is coming our way.”

You can stop it.

The Importance of Exams

In the 1970s Tarapda Ray, a well known Bengali humorist, created two characters Dodo and Tatai. The writer used these two eight year old boys to document the growing up of his own son. The friends who were also neighbours called each other Dodo Babu and Tatai Babu and saluted each other with “Apni” just like two honourable Bengali gentleman would do. And why shouldn’t they?

One day Tatai Babu found Dodo Babu rather depressed and on enquiry all was revealed. Dodo Babu had not fared well in the geography exams for no fault of his own. He was asked to name five animals found in the forests of Africa and he had diligently listed – lion, zebra, elephant, giraffe and another lion. The teacher unfairly (according to Dodo Babu) was not happy with this second lion and marked him down. Dodo Babu was surprised when Tatai Babu sided with the teacher.

As a little girl I giggled at the nativity of Dodo Babu. Now after a life in the real world I am not so sure.

In school examinations essays were used to evaluate our ability to think creatively and write coherently. Or so we were made to believe. Faced with the question “A cow is a a man’s best friend. Discuss.” we sweated our brains and applied our language prowess to formulate the usefulness of the cow to get the right rewards. But a child who let the imagination run a little further, and transported a wandering cow to the crematorium ground and wrote eloquently about the futility of human existence as observed by the creature, would probably have to leave school without the certificate of graduation.

As a teenager I was worried about the future of this child.

Not any more.

Because the world of political leadership is for her to conquer. And when quizzed about the availability of PPE in hospitals ( if I am being topical) she will talk passionately about why PPE is so important, how expensive it is, how it ought to be used, what may or may not happen if not used correctly, how expensive it is, where it is manufactured, what kind of industries could and should manufacture and why the PPE manufactured in this country is better than anywhere else. And all of us who wrote about the usefulness of cows are left wondering “Do our doctors and nurses have PPE? “

The same is true for corporations. We are not awarded for answering questions but for evading them. As one of my savvy colleagues advised me – the less you say the less they can hold anything against you. It is the sport of constructive ambiguity and when CEOs of tech giants face government enquiries the politicians are beaten in their home turf. “Do you or do you not agree that it is your responsibility to stop the proliferation of fake news. A simple Yes or No would do” – the politicians plead. The executives, university drop outs or MBAs, are clever enough to know that huge salaries cannot be justified for answering questions with a objective Yes or No. Only fools are good at the True or False questions that are so prevalent in school examinations. People with important jobs know it all depends.

The current dilemma about “to sit” or “not to sit” for board exams made me ponder about what did I really learn from these rituals. The answer is quite a lot and, as it happens, most of which I had to unlearn to hold on to my job.

Dodo Babu, I suppose, must be exemplary in an important job because he had shown a natural knack for repeating irrelevant answers and being totally oblivious to the absurdity or wrongness of it all.

As for Tatai Babu I hope he is instrumental in making the world a better place though admittedly I am a bit worried about his sanity.