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.

Health – Money And Connections

It was end of April 2021 and Covid 19 was ravaging through India. A doctor by the name of Dr Subrata Dutta was on the BBC Radio Today Show. Dr Dutta spoke with clarity, empathy and determination about the various challenges of his peers and his hopes on the vaccine.

However he truly grabbed my attention when he made a comment on the very delicate issue of` privilege of access to health care. As a head of medical association of India he had written to the PM of India asking him to put a pause to the, what he described, as the VIP culture. Young doctors were not only having to cope with the deluge of people struggling to breathe but also having to deal with phone calls from ministers and officials seeking favours to get accelerated access to already threadbare and now dwindling health care system.

Dr Dutta’s bold demands reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend after his wife had a surgical treatment in a hospital in UK – “We had no trouble getting the operation done even though we didn’t know anyone in the hospital. And it was all free.” Me and my husband had been long enough in the UK to expect this ease of access to health but we intuitively understood what he meant by “We didn’t know anybody in the system.” The fact that one could walk into a hospital and get excellent free care without having any personal references was definitely something to write home about because the idea that one has to have connections to be treated fairly by the medical system has been ingrained in us.

Dr Dutta’s comment lead me to reflect on my life experience in the Indian medical system and the issues of money, connections and trust.

My father worked for a Thermal power plant and I grew up in the residential Township adjacent to the power plant. There was a small hospital within the boundaries of the Township and all the employees and their families had access to it. The patients from the adjoining villages were not turned away. There were a few doctors and nurses and the equipment was good enough to manage small emergencies. We went there to get vaccinated or to treat a cut that warranted a stitch. In case of the measles or chicken pox the doctor would pay a visit home to confirm the suspicion and bestow a home quarantine. However our parents didn’t have much trust in these doctors, often referred to as” Township Doctors” and felt obliged to look beyond the amenities of this free hospital. Yes the “Township Doctor” would always be consulted but if your parents didn’t call in the big guns when your high fever shows no sign of abating after three days then the neighbourhood would be rumbling with allegations of parental stupidity and neglect. The “Township Doctors” had learnt to accept this inevitable arrangement so much so that if called in an emergency situation in the middle of the night they would politely enquire – “What did Dr paid and hence more dependable say?”

This magician who was called upon for these perceived serious cases was a doctor who ran a private clinic in a nearby town. It was a 45 minute rickshaw ride from the Township and the queues were long. But he had a telephone (a rare commodity) and one could book a home visit with him. He also had a car (another rarity) and would visit us in the afternoons. He would mostly confirm the treatment already prescribed by the Township Doctor. I felt better as soon as I heard him greet my parents at the door. His fees were not high but even then it was an expense we could ill afford but never did I hear my father complain about the value of the doctors visit. His voice was almost apologetic when he said “Doctor Babu your fees” as he hurriedly passed on a ten rupee note (the crispiest one that he had pre-selected in preparation of the visit) to him.

The doctor’s reputation was not untainted however – people complained of delayed visits (he bundled up visits to minimise fuel expenses they said), misdiagnosis and over prescription of drugs. Did he treat us better because his daughter knew me or because we showed greater trust in him. We will never know.

I had a serious eye condition and we had to travel to the big city of Kolkata to see a specialist. The nearby city must have had ophthalmologists but a respected and well connected relative in the family had recommended this elderly doctor and that was that. His fees were affordable and appointment easily available. Those appointments in the dull and dark treatment room with the frail doctor and his slow movements were one of the worst days of my life. But he knew someone in our family and that meant we trusted him to do his best.

And then was those really serious diseases which require hospitalisation and may be fatal. My grand father died of a heart attack after a short bout of seasonal flu. The family had no telephone, the daughters (my aunts) travelled a few good kilometres into town to fetch the doctor. He came as soon as he could but that was still too late. He refused a visiting fee. My grand father was not just his patient but his friend too.

My father’s mother had a less easy escape. She had cancer and was admitted to a government hospital. We didn’t have enough disposable cash to admit her to a private hospital but one of my father’s sister was married well. Her in laws had good connection which gave my father’s family a way into a reputed cancer specialist and, through him, to a government hospital. We didn’t dare to question what would have happened If that connection didn’t exist.

As a young adult I fell under the influence of a viral fever ahead of, what may be considered as the most important examination of a young Indian’s life – the pre University examination. My aunt, the one who married well, came to our rescue. She had befriended a very young but talented doctor. The doctor came to see me at home (only the best for the adopted niece) and clever as he was sussed it out at a glance. He asked my parents to leave the room and assured me that I was probably more prepared for my exams than I had estimated. I will be forever grateful to him for correctly diagnosing that my condition was more psychological than physical. Thanks to my aunt’s connections I was rescued from the possibility of a less able doctor.

Later as a engineering student I had a serious ailment and under the impression that I was dying. I saw a few doctors in Hyderabad but things didn’t improve. I came back to my parents with a body covered with large, juicy, yellow angry boils so much so that I could not even walk. My father’s brother said that one of his friends was a “dangerously good doctor”. My uncle arranged for an appointment and on the first one he diagnosed me with a metal allergy (nickel to be specific).

By the time I left Kolkata for other cities in India and eventually left the country the health system in Kolkata was undergoing tectonic shifts. The city was dotted with tall white shiny buildings hosting hospitals run by corporate houses – referred to as corporate hospitals. The roadside billboards were plastered with advertisements of the wares these providers sold along with the prices – Get your bypass surgery done for XX lakhs of rupees or your kidney stone removed for YY lakhs and so on.

A few years later I received a call form my mother saying my father was not well, he had been admitted to one of these corporate hospitals and would need a surgery. That surgery had to be cancelled at the last moment and I took a flight back to Kolkata. The level of incompetence and negligence leading to the cancellation of the surgery was rather distressing and we didn’t have the trust to go through the procedure in that institution. I got in touch with a very good friend of mine, she introduced me to a friend consultant, he made time for me, helped me to find a bed for my father in another corporate hospital and agreed to do the operation. We transferred my father there and my father made a good recovery. The day of the surgery (a very simple procedure) was long and anxious. In the evening mother and I lay in the dark listening to a phone-in radio show on the local Bengali station when a young girl called in to talk about her father who was ill from the same medical condition my father was recovering from. The girl’s father had suffered a painful death because the government hospital couldn’t attach a catheter. We processed the vivid description in rapt silence as she publicly ruminated the struggle her father went through in the final hours. Was it just a coincidence or our conscience telling us that one day it could be us. The financial distress my pensioner father would have been under if he had to himself pay for this operation was not lost on us. The crowd funding platforms are dotted with respectable educated middleclass families seeking out kindness of strangers to fund the treatment, and sometimes even palliative care, for their loved ones. We only beg because we have drained all their live savings in the process – they plea.

Towards the end of March 2021 news of scarcity of beds and O2 in India started to flow in through the news channels and the social media but there is one which aptly encapsulated the situation for me. The young man said ” I am shivering as I see influential people begging for beds on twitter. These people would have no problem getting a bed not just in ordinary times but in extra ordinary times too. This must be a catastrophe.”

Is our brave Dr Dutta merely telling the VIPs – Do not call and distract us because there is nothing to buy with your money or connections.

Would this levelling of scarcity lead to levelling of access in the future? We live in hope.