At first, I thought the essay was excellent. Because I could relate to many parts of it. This article about Urban Poverty in case you’re wondering. But the second time I read it, something made me uncomfortable. I didn’t share it on fb immediately, because I was unable to put a finger on why I felt uneasy. I spent all of today thinking about it (while I wasn’t faffing out of control on fb, of course) and realised eventually that it’s not so much the contents of the essay, but the phrasing that I have a problem with.
I’ve seen some criticism about the piece that points out that problematic phrasing, but in the process completely disregards the very real issues the piece brings to the fore. And if you wonder if the issues are real or manufactured, look at the hundreds of shares it’s got from young people all saying “me too”. That is a worrying sign, and evidence enough that the condition is real, not imagined.
To disregard that completely by saying “but there are so many more *really* poor (and not urban poor) people in this country” amounts to a kind of whataboutery that us Indians are ace at. Yes, perhaps the piece could have delved deeper into a wider scope of “real” (I think the issues were pretty real, given the demographic, and I’ve known people who fit that entitled, privileged and out-of-control bill completely) issues, and perhaps it could have adopted a better term to begin with. But that is the writer’s prerogative. To reduce the entire criticism to semantics, to debate the terms used, and ignore the issues raised is a little unfair, I thought.
I completely believe and understand that the existence of this demographic is closely linked to our obsession with log kya kahenge and our hyper focus on maintaining appearances and pretence of a certain lifestyle, sometimes even at the cost of basic necessities. The “fake-it-till-you-make-it” people, as someone called them yesterday, are around us all the time. I have seen way too many of them right through my 20s.
The piece really got me thinking, and took me right back to my home and our upbringing that was rife with lessons in consuming only what is necessary, not giving in to every want all the time, learning to prune those desires that tend to crop up all the time, and small everyday lessons in saving up and knowing what is realistic and what isn’t. I think I was saved a lot of suffering I saw others around me experience because I grew up being made to feel, realise and understand the value of everything we had. More importantly, I was made to see that that was a privilege and a choice at every step of the way. My folks took the trouble to consciously dial down the presence of stuff in our lives. Our every whim was not gratified, and they didn’t pander to every desire expressed.
My parents led by example, so this became the family way of life. I realise today that that takes a lot of effort, consistency and conviction. The kind that I don’t see a lot anymore. It’s far easier to give in to the temptation of stuff, than to teach kids important lessons that aren’t taught overnight, but really invest in it for the long haul.
We’ve become a generation that puts an unrealistic and unhealthy premium on stuff over all else. Growing up on a steady diet of gross, unchecked consumption of all kinds can only lead to children growing up with skewed priorities, the inability to manage finances and learning to do without stuff when they find themselves in a financial crunch. (Tangent: Some years ago I’d posted this wonderful piece that resonated with me, about the Tyranny of Trend, and how it can lead to an unhealthy obsession with stuff, and a life of perpetual debt.)
You cannot grudge an entire generation for being privileged and entitled, if they were born into those circumstances. You can only ruefully comment on the upbringing and parenting they’ve had that hasn’t equipped them to tell the difference between what they need-to-have and what is just good-to-have. I’ve had conversations with friends (parents themselves) who tell me the tendency to overcompensate for parenting inadequacies with stuff, is real. I’ve seen couples use stuff to lure each other into doing things they might not naturally come around to doing. I know adults well into their 30s and 40s who have questionable (to me) spending habits that border on unhealthy. So yeah, I do think it boils down to being taught well, and taught right. And when these fundamentals aren’t introduced to children early on, and stuff becomes the very reason for doing anything, I suppose its only time before stuff replaces values, manners, ethics and even your sense of reality.
That said, I realise that there’s a lot of different ways to approach the crux of the matter that the essay deals with. However, some of the criticism (what little I read of it at least – Firstpost and Scroll had some really silly rebuttals) I saw seemed just downright unfair. I’m growing very tired of criticism and feedback that comes packaged on a high-horse, that aims to tell writers how the ought to say something, or how they ought to feel about something. Especially in the context of personal essays and opinion pieces. There is no right and wrong way to discuss these issues, given that every person’s take is based on individual, personal experiences and perceptions formed because of it. These are unique, individual experiences and opinions. So while it is okay to disagree with a writer’s approach or opinion on an issue, it is completely not okay to tell her she was wrong in her approach and that the piece should have taken a different angle. As a reader, if you feel so strongly about it, critique the analysis, write your own opinion piece, present a counter stance. But please, don’t tell a writer that she was wrong to approach a topic the way she chose to.
Because of this, I came away from reading the criticism worried that in debating the semantics of the phrasing, no matter how valid that argument may be, we run the risk of losing sight of the seriousness of this very crucial issue that exists in our midst. The west has been talking about this phenomenon for a while now. Perhaps we are at the start of it and can begin to bring change. If only we’d acknowledge the issue, especially when it is coming from the horse’s mouth. By over-intellectualising the semantics part of it, we’re choosing not to see how many young people have actually found the piece to resonate with them and their lives. And really, there is no bigger and more alarming evidence of a situation that needs fixing, than that.