You could Rubik’s Cube certain ‘truths’ out of the last couple of decades. In certain areas, we are international heavy-hitters, such as that well-worn mascot, software programming. Employment and education are more widespread than ever before. There have been gains in health. Certain notions of social and sexual freedom have had a wide trickledown into the lower-middle and working classes, especially in our teeming cities. There is far greater awareness of women’s rights than 20-30 years ago. But if you look at this period through a ‘happiness filter’, the colours stop looking so funky and bright.
For instance, the Indian urban business class, whether rich or middling, no matter whether they are Marwari, Gujarati, Sindhi, Punjabi, South Indian (or, from where I write, nouveau riche Bengalis), are the unhappiest people I’ve seen. Their aggression, their sense of being hard done by, their callousness is unmatched by any striving lower-middle-class or by any tribal or Dalit in a life-and-death situation. While other sections do things to strive to be less unhappy, this class keeps playing strip-teen-patti for the Happiness Jackpot at the Misery Casino, never realising that the cards are fixed, that they can never win. And, as they keep losing, their frustrations keep spreading in toxic seismic circles to the rest of us who surround them.
If you look at a newspaper ad for Incredible India! and then turn and look out at one of these fellows, enraged about something, pressing his car horn with both hands at 6.30 in the morning, you have to wonder what went wrong.
When we start connecting countries to the idea of ‘happiness’, one of the first things that come to mind is the American Declaration of Independence. That document defines as inalienable the rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Since that time, Americans have been hunting down happiness as though it was a large herd of bison on the prairie. As the number of hunters has grown, the herd has shrunk to the point where the bison of happiness is almost as rare as the dodo. The thing is, what that document actually says is that this pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right not just for Americans but for all humans. Across the two hundred and thirty-five years since the Declaration, large parts of the world have become infected with the thrill of this chase.
We Sub-Continentals, on the other hand, have been taught over millennia not to run after happiness. We’ve been warned about illusory rainbows plotting in tandem with non-existent pots of gold. We’ve been advised not to fetishise satisfaction. To switch metaphors, we’ve been coached, again and again, not to fish outside life’s off-stump and to let the ball come to us. This has been true from the time the Mahabharata was written to the time our Constitution was constructed.
In terms of constitutions and such, it may have had something to do with scale. It was one thing for American revolutionary leaders to institutionalise happiness for a small crew of goras totalling around two million in 1776. More recently, it seems radically good that the previous King of Bhutan established a Happiness Index for an even more exclusive club of the seven lakh Bhutanese. While laying out stuff like adult franchise, secular principles and the right to live and work anywhere in the new republic, the authors of our own Constitution were wise enough to avoid putting in anything about pursuing happiness. They sensed, perhaps, that 35 million people chasing happiness in different directions might seriously trample over each other.
In any case, translating ‘happiness’ into, say, just Hindi is already complicated. The words ‘sukh’ and ‘anand’ immediately thrust themselves forward but there are other strong candidates, ranging from the elation/joy end of the scale—ulhaas—to the calm/peace end—shanti. On the antonym side, ‘unhappiness’ pulls towards it all kinds of words from the ancient ‘dukh’ to the relatively recent kidnapee, ‘taynsion’. And, no matter how you negotiate its translation, there are some unnegotiable things that give meaning to ‘happiness’. In competing order: good health, good and plentiful food, decent shelter, decent work, the psychic and physical space where people can love one another. The bald fact is, across sixty-five years, most Indians have never had these.
Ever since America incorporated pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, happiness is being hunted like a bison herd on the prairie.
The first 30-odd years of Independence saw a vague balance, or, to be more precise, a kind of imbalance that could sort of be comprehended even as you noted the grotesqueness of it. The tiny minority of the rich were filthy rich, sure, but the cartilage between the mismatched bones of the extremely wealthy and the abysmally poor, the so-called ‘middle-class buffer’, was, in a way, healthy enough to take the load by dint of being connected to the vast majority of this country. The middle-wallas had Ambassadors to ride but the first-class train carriages they travelled in were non-AC, the same soot and the same rain came in from the windows as did in the unreserved third class. Everyone except for the toffs in the one air-conditioned bogey shared some of the same happiness when a cool breeze saw off the boiling summer afternoon. There was an inequality but it was an inequality the poor Indian could touch, even if the touch was a beggar’s hand coming through an open car window and nudging the shirt or blouse-wearing shoulder inside. Within the arena of happiness, what the middle class hoped their gods would shower upon them was not that far from what was beseeched by the poor from their deities.
Despite the fact that we felt deeply shortchanged at the time, the three decades between 1950 and 1980 were happy-ish years for the Indian middle class. There were no foreign goods to speak of, there were very few Western films, the music we loved all came second-hand, taped from records and original cassettes brought in by the privileged few, getting laid (and sex in general) was still complicated, and you needed proper arm and leg muscles to drive the cars available. Despite being surrounded by a vigorous and wide erudition, there was a sense we were peering at the rest of the world through a vast, irregularly translucent prophylactic that stretched tight over our whole class. It was awful, but it was a sight better than the thick burqa of deprivation that covered the mass of poor below us.
Sometime in the early 1980s, things began to shift. Some would pinpoint the World Cup win in 1983, some would go back a year and talk about the lifting of import restrictions on colour TVs for the 1982 Asiad, some might say the arrival of the newly invented vhs players and tapes also had a lot to do with it. Now we in the middle layer of the uneven sandwich could also ‘see’ the world along with the slab above us: news, sports, Hollywood and West European films, music videos, pop and rock songs suddenly accompanied by moving pictures of the bands actually playing. This is also the point where the moles we had patiently been sending into the Western world reached critical mass. Suddenly every other family seemed to have someone who was doing well States-ma or tey-Iyukkay-tey, sons, cousins, younger uncles rising in companies or running their own businesses in places like Silicon Valley and Atlanta, in Leicester or Antwerp, moving up the ladder, pulling across others from the motherland as they did. By the time of the Great Leap Into Profit of the early ’90s, the middle class had begun to knock on the doors of the same gods the rich had been hanging out with all this while.
Certain things were already in place before the GLIP. If you compared what made urban, educated young Indians happy at different points of recent history, you’d see a huge difference between 1960 and 1985 but very little substantial difference between 1985 and 2010. Across the second 25-year period you scored new music, you went to the ‘disc’, you drank frequently and copiously, a lot of you smoked pot and a smaller percentage did some other drugs. Girls and boys were more or less equally interested in scoring action. You had an idea you were attached to the planet and that other young people anywhere in the world would welcome you as equals. Your relationship with your parents became fundamentally a Western one, i.e. far more atomised, with ideas of filial loyalty and duty taking a beating, one result being that you began to far less frequently put the cart of marriage before the horse of career. All of this, it would seem, far more happy-making than those before-waaley grey times.
However, across this same quarter century, other, deeper things have shifted.
Let’s try and think of the ’80s as the decade during which a Trojan horse called ‘Happy’ entered our consciousness. What it released inside us were the advance troops of deep and constant dissatisfaction and, once the full blast of GLIP hit, we were in bad psychic trouble. It’s not that things were better before—they clearly weren’t—but what we’ve actually done as a society is exchange the misery of a protectionist provincialism for the despair of a barren, capitalist-internationalism. Instead of increasing, our scope for real happiness is actually shrinking. Because, following the initial Trojan, when we began the all-out McDonalding of our society, we inadvertently downloaded a huge Lack/Want worm into our operating system, a worm that takes over and taints everything we do, all that we think. Rapidly, so much has become about ‘being competitive’, ‘taking out the opposition’, ‘winning’, ‘being awesome’. That middle class, perhaps briefly, genuinely happy in the ’80s, is now geared towards generating more and more desire for unattainable objects and lifestyles.
The cartilage that was the ‘old’ middle class has now thinned and fused with the small bone of the wealthy, leaving the much larger bone below with no choice but to skewer upwards in lethally painful abrasion. There was a time when many better-off people, especially in the cities, believed the rural poor were unshakably happy in their ‘simple but pure’ existence. Only truly insane people believe this now. But what has trickled down to the poor for sure is this sense of lack, this desire for the glitz, for the jhin-chak, a craving layered on top of genuine want built up over the years. Just like everyone else, they too want to join the hunt, the aggressive pursuit of happiness.
Given the situation in India and on our planet, maybe we need to think out of the box about where happiness can really be found. Maybe, we Indians with our traditions of understanding the pitfalls of maya and lobh are the ones who are going to need to show the way, to lead the world with some brand new Renunciation/Do-Without societal cleansing software. It may not lead to happiness-happiness, but it may reduce widespread, critically deep dukh and taynsion.