Last week, just after listening to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address, I met a fine young man at a friend’s home. Why “fine”? Let’s start with the lineage. Impeccable. Education? Top rate. Attitude? Awesome.
Not only was he an engaging and impassioned speaker, he made a lot of sense.
Representing old money and coming from an affluent South Mumbai business family, the good-looking, stylish young man was exactly the kind one could glibly dismiss as a “dandy” or a “dilettante”.
At best (and only if one were to be in an exceptionally generous mood), one might have a second glass of wine with such a person, just to indulge him. I did just that and asked idly what he had been doing during the lockdown… did he have any specific plans for the immediate future? Yup, as a matter of fact, he did!
He had arrived at an important decision and he seemed very happy with it. Check out what he did! A few weeks ago he had received a coveted letter of acceptance from Harvard University. He sensibly figured that it was going to be way too much money to spend on virtual classes.
But… he still lusted after that Harvard degree. Tough. So, he went ahead and asked if his admission could be deferred by a year he was certain he’d be turned down.
But hey he wasn’t! That left him with another question: what to do during these trying times while waiting for the world to get back on its feet? He applied for and got into a top corporate house, thanks to his impressive academic credentials.
As a passionate environmentalist, civic issues were a top priority. He had put in four slog years teaching underprivileged children in Mumbai. He was not a resident of La La Land Mumbai’s grotty ground realities did not faze this young man.
And his new assignment brought him a little closer to what he dreams of doing eventually working to improve basic living conditions for those with little or zero access to almost every little thing he himself has taken for granted his entire life.
There are many, highly motivated young people like him. They want to use their privileges and education to “make a difference” even if that is an overused cliché. They are aware of the countless challenges especially in an increasingly vitiated political environment but they remain undaunted.
This young man has taught himself to understand the system and work with it, not against it. Yes, there are frustrations galore, especially when one is up against bureaucratic hurdles that seem designed to discourage anybody from attempting change.
He spoke with feeling about the shrinking space for freedoms, big and small. He talked about the power of dissent in a democracy and how it is being systematically stifled.
He has realised that the might of the State can silence anybody who does not fit into a grid decided by authority. Despite that, he is full of constructive ideas which aren’t OTT. But as in most such matters where does he find the funding? It’s back to boring money! Isn’t it always?
Then comes the question of infrastructure and getting like-minded people together -- he assures me there are hundreds more like him, in his locality alone, who are eager to participate in activities that can transform the city and make Mumbai shine.
But for that dream to materialise, he will need to play ball with babudom -- and nothing can kill a young man’s enthusiasm as much as sarkari hurdles.
In a country as young as ours, we are failing to harness our greatest asset -- the youth. Most are directionless and adrift, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those who have put themselves out there and engaged in community work, speak about the immense sense of satisfaction they derive from seeing projects big and small getting off the ground, despite the odds.
The common lament is over the absence of moral leadership, and the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere that is being imposed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Are we shortchanging this generation of intelligent, capable young people? We refuse to pay attention when they voice their concerns.
We are not willing to co-opt them in the decision-making process. This is the time for some long-overdue introspection, when the world has hit the pause button.
Especially in our cities, where we have ample opportunities to motivate people like the young man I met, whose commitment to India cannot be in doubt. He has the brains and the vision to contribute in a meaningful way to remake India. Will we continue to be foolish enough to destroy his idealism?
By way of contrast, I am looking at the bold decision taken by a couple in their forties (who are friends of friends), who have relocated to Canada recently and are willing to start from scratch.
“We’re done with India!” they announced jauntily, and off they went. Come on you two it’s not all that easy to be “done with India”! Instead, this is the perfect time to reimagine India, with all its fault lines. Unfortunately, an idealised “leader” is nowhere in sight. In such a scenario, how does one tell the youth of our country that their dreams do matter? That they matter? That idealism and imagination are what will finally redeem us all?
The vaccine to battle the Covid-19 pandemic may be around the corner. Of course, it will save countless lives. Only then will the real battle to recapture the minds of young India begin.
Let’s hope someone will also discover a vaccine for hate by then. Through centuries, the pandemic of hate has killed far more people than the coronavirus ever could. Sad, but true.
Jai Ho! All is not lost… Prashant Bhushan has shown the way. Idealisitic India lives on… to rise another day.