I once had an argument with Pinky about whether looks matter. To me the answer was obvious. Of course looks matter. Here in mother India, looks matter a whole lot. They matter in the sense that looks are relevant to the established hierarchy, the pecking order, the class and caste system. I’m beginning to think it’s impossible in this country for people to treat each other as equals. What would you do with a billion equal people anyway? Would the country implode?
I trucked merrily down to the Royal Calcutta Golf Club last Thursday morning. Tucked away in-between shanty sprouting, narrow lanes in Tollygunge, the RCGC claims to be the 2nd oldest golf club in the world, the first being Royal St. Andrews. The caddy who met me as I pulled up was named Chandan. Single names are an indicator of social status here, reserved for the “help”. Chandan fixed my grip, so God bless him for that. I had stroked my first drive down the fairway — “Far and Sure” is the Anglophonic club motto — and decided that because I was alone and the course was practically empty, it would be more fun to play with someone. I asked Chandan if he wanted to play. He agreed and went back for his clubs (meaning his favorite set from the pro shop), and for two more caddies.
Thus the hierarchy of caddy life was introduced into my Thanksgiving Day round of golf. Clearly, Chandan is a decent golfer, and has paid his dues to move up the RCGC caddy ladder. He’s worked there twenty years, showed me his teaching professional’s apprentice card which expires in 2007, and claims a 4 handicap (I’d say a 6 was more accurate). Chandan played the part of golfer, but also of senior caddy, berating my caddy once because he showed me the incorrect line of a putt. He reveled in the good shots he hit, impressing the caddies every time, but never let them take a swing.
I finished up the front 9 (people here don’t often play 18) and returned to the clubhouse with Chandan as our caddies took our bags through the shortcut across fairways and through unmarked paths known only to caddies. Suddenly it hit me that Chandan couldn’t go into the locker room, couldn’t go upstairs as I talked to the RCGC Chief Executive about membership, and would wait outside in the drop-off area/parking lot with the other caddies. King of the parking lot, and reminding me of Anthony Michael Hall saying he’s the “king of the dipshits” in 16 Candles.
Later that day — me going to the Writers’ Building to meet with the Chief Minister’s Special Secretary. (The CM also has two personal secretaries and a joint secretary, WTF is the difference between them I have no idea). The SpecSec was, to put it bluntly, a bastard in manner and speech. Short, impolite, curt, interrupting, all at the same time. I’m convinced — and I don’t say this without a whole lot of thinking about it — that it was because I’m not white. Some others at work have given me other explanations, many of which are probably true in part, but at the end of the day it was about rank, hierarchy, and maintaining power. All of which were made more clear in his mind by the color of my skin.
Everyone’s talking about India’s progress. But look around and you see that there’s progress and then there’s fantasy. This country isn’t progressing the way it claims to be. It hasn’t dealt with its internal structures, it’s baser truths, and its history. That’s the story that needs to be considered more accurately by anyone writing about India. And once you get beyond that, then what kind of country will you have? Is there a common sense of purpose? A goal for India itself? Or is it going to be the continuing battle between regional, class, caste, and clan based groups that subsumes everything? I’ve been thinking a lot about Mexico, and whether there are appropriate parallels with India. Maybe this is just the same issue that we’re seeing in many countries around the world.