January 23, 2020
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Vikings, Anyone?

If disparity is what strikes you the most about India, the lack of it is perhaps the best part about Norwegian society.

Vikings, Anyone?
illustration by Jayachandran A few years ago, when I decided to marry a Norwegian, my friends were aghast. An American or British, they could understand. But a Norwegian? The last one heard of them was about 1,000 years ago, legends of how the tall, blue-eyed plundering Vikings spread terror on land and ocean, chopping off people's heads and drinking mead from human skulls. And as far as most people knew, Norwegians lived in a corner of the North Pole, still frozen in the Ice Age and Weird Weather. As my friend K.J. Alphons, the bureaucrat, remarked: "Of all the godforsaken places! First the sun doesn't set for several months and then when it sets, refuses to rise for the next several months. What sort of a place is this Norway?"

The best. And that's not me saying it, but the latest UN Human Development Index report which has ranked Norway the best country to live in the world, and not just for the pristine air and spectacular scenery. Norway is number one on a list of 162 countries, scoring high on purchasing power parity, health, education, gender equality, life expectancy, crimelessness and income. Australia is ranked second, United States sixth, Switzerland 11th, the UK 14th and Germany 17th. Sri Lanka is 81, India 115 and Pakistan 127, while Ethiopia and Sierra Leone bring up the rear.

This year's UN report focuses as much on the state of well-being in a nation as economic indicators. And having lived for short periods in Norway and travelled extensively in Europe and America, I can vouchsafe the veracity of the UN report in day-to-day living conditions. Norway is one of the richest countries in the world today, and we live in Baerum commune on the west side of Oslo, which is the richest commune in Norway. So by that token, we live in one of the richest spots on Earth.

It is easy and yet hard to believe that. If by riches, you mean flashy villas with limousines and liveried servants, it's impossible to believe that. Our neighbourhood is no patch on Beverly Hills or Malibu or those stretches of magnificent real estate on sections of the Spanish or French coast. But yes it is rich, if you look at the overall well-being of the neighbourhood—large wooden houses with beautiful, well-tended gardens bursting with flowers and fruit. The signs of plenty are on the trees, heavy with red apples and purple plums. They lean outwards, so it's easy for passers-by to pluck them. But nobody does. Everybody has enough of their own.

What strikes me most about Norway's well-being is its innocence and wholesomeness. The family as a unit is still very strong. Summer evenings see families gathering on the porch grilling, guffawing and guzzling wine, and teenagers munch apples instead of greasy French fries, dogs chase balls in the yard, while pink-cheeked, golden-haired children jump on the trampoline. The most remarkable quality about Norwegian wealth is its egalitarianism. It probably has the largest proportion of the middle class in the world. If disparity is what strikes you most about India, the lack of it is perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of Norwegian society.

But only a hundred years ago, Norway was poor and many of its citizens emigrated to the United States. The German occupation in World War II traumatised the country. But it also strengthened national resolve to collectively rebuild their homeland. The ideal was a welfare nation funded through high taxes. It is perhaps the only country in the world that guarantees not just a job to its citizens, but a meaningful job.

What helped Norway become rich was the discovery of oil in 1969. Today, its oil fund is $55 billion. Like the plums on the trees, it is untouched, to be used only in an emergency. Besides, distribution of national wealth is easier when there are only 4.5 million people.

Yet, there are lessons we could learn from them. Reader's Digest conducted an interesting survey early this year. They dropped 1,100 wallets containing Rs 2,000 in local currency in different countries in churches, shops, parking lots, trains and offices. The wallet contained the name and telephone number of the owner. In Norway, every wallet was returned. In Japan only 70% were returned, in the US 67%, in Britain 65%, Italy 35%, China 30% and Mexico 21%. The survey was not done in India.

Norwegian ethic is seen in every aspect of their lives. Ninety-seven per cent of Norwegians don't go to church, but they are truly Christian in spirit. Commenting on the UN report, Norway's minister for international development, Anne Kristin Sydnes, told her citizens: "There is no need for self-exaltation. As one of the world's richest countries, we have a special responsibility to help diminish the disparities in the world." Norway is already the second highest aid donor in the world, disbursing 0.91% of their gnp, while Japan gives 0.35% and the US 0.1%.

They also have a strong work ethic, genuinely believing in the dignity of labour. They don't keep servants and it's common to see husbands painting the house and wives mowing the lawn on weekends. They are also very law-abiding. They do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because there is someone cracking the whip. Indian ingenuity is seen in the way we break laws and find loopholes. But Norwegians believe entirely in self-regulation. In Norway, you are prohibited to drive if you drink more than a small glass of wine. I have never seen police checks, but I have never seen a single Norwegian drink more than that permitted glass of wine. The husband or wife take turns to drink at parties so that the evening's teetotaler can drive the couple back home.

How far the Norwegians have come from guzzling gallons of mead in human skulls! And how many bmw accidents we could avoid if only we believed in self-regulation.

(The author can be contacted at anitapratap@yahoo.com)
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