By Deepak Gopalakrishnan May. 07, 2021
We’ve all heard of Javed Khan, the rickshaw driver who sold his wife’s jewellery to convert his vehicle into a mobile ambulance. Though heartening, these tales of sacrifices make me gloomy. Each one of these positive stories come with the unsaid failure by the state or those in a better position to help.
Javed Khan, an autorickshaw driver from Bhopal, sold his wife’s jewellery to convert his vehicle into a mobile ambulance. In just a few days, he was able to save several lives. Down south, teacher K Bairavi took out ₹50,000 of her savings to be able to buy mobile phones for students to facilitate e-learning.
Khan and Bairavi’s acts of generosity are far from isolated. Along with the distressing cries for help and images of overcrowded crematoriums, our timelines today are full of heartwarming stories like these, even if they pale in number. They act as some balm, some silver lining, in all the gloom and doom. Their protagonists are everyday folks – many from lower-middle-income groups going well beyond their call of duty and stretching their own personal finances in order to make a difference. There’s no expectation of reward, PR coverage or social media brownie points – just a desire to make some difference, any difference. You’ve probably seen many stories like these. The New Indian Express has an entire section devoted to them, comedian Atul Khatri highlights them in a new video series, and there’s always the reliable peddlers of positivity, The Better India.
Along with the distressing cries for help and images of overcrowded crematoriums, our timelines today are full of heartwarming stories like these, even if they pale in number.
So here’s my confession: Far from acting as upliftment, many of these stories make me gloomy. Sometimes, more than bad news.
To me, these stories aren’t “good news” as much as people showing tremendous resolve and personal drive for the greater good in the face of this massive crisis. All these are stories of sacrifices that shouldn’t have had to be made. Admirable? Yes. Heartwarming? Certainly. Good news? Not sure I can call it that.
With every tale of auto drivers making sacrifices, we’re reminded that the country’s richest have contributed nothing from their personal wealth. With each heartwarming social media success for crowdsourcing supplies, we’re reminded there are opportunistic politicians stalling them for photo-ops or hoarding them for political gains. Each one of these positive tales, hence, comes with the unsaid failure by the state or those in a better position to help.
Don’t get me wrong. What these people are doing is wonderful, and gives me hope not just for the country, but for humanity as a whole. But the very fact that they need to do this in the first place points to systemic failure or apathy. Have we really reached a point where daily-wage workers need to contribute their wedding savings to feed a few people?
The fact that we celebrate Javed bhai selling jewellery for ₹5000, while the country’s richest man (who makes that amount in 0.02 seconds) has contributed nothing from his rapidly-growing personal wealth, is telling. Let me also make one thing extremely clear, I am not against generosity by any means. But it’s saddening that the bulk of sacrifice is being borne by those who already have little means to do so. We wouldn’t need this generosity if those in power did what their manifestos promised (and this is a criticism of every politician, not just those in power).
It’s saddening that the bulk of sacrifice is being borne by those who already have little means to do so.
An extremely low bar
Another reason why such “good news” is distressing is it makes us realise the extremely low bar for what constitutes the term. Consider this headline: “UP: Muslim youths help cremate 60-year-old Hindu man who died of COVID-19”. Again, definitely admirable. But the sheer fact that we celebrate this shows what we expect of society (particularly that state) otherwise. We are now ecstatic that the courts are standing up for people begging for oxygen on Twitter. That’s right – we’ve reached the point where “didn’t get arrested for doing the right thing” is something fist-pump-worthy, something that Dr Kafeel Khan might know a thing or two about).
It all leads to a larger malaise. The administrators and government can wash their hands off everything, and ordinary citizens will take care of things at a micro-level. They will make sacrifices, set up websites, collect and distribute relief funds, and even provide free healthcare. Maybe, in a roundabout sort of way, this is good news in the long run. As many have joked about before, the country has shown that it is truly atma nirbhar. It’s a wonderfully libertarian argument to make: Several Indians have shown that the country can function without a working government (or might even work better without one!).
What should real good news look like, then? Increased vaccine orders and better rollout. Easing of rules and red tape. Ramping up of aid and social support. Improving healthcare infrastructure and frontline worker benefits. The culpable being held for accountability. Billionaires actually doing their bit rather than use existing CSR funds to get some neat PR. Basically, good news is long-term solutions, rather than using band-aid to plug a sinking ship’s hole.
I’d like to conclude the way I started: Good news is NOT an act of heroism or selflessness on the part of the poor. That is sacrifice. And sacrifice comes when something is not going right. The best news, really, will be when we don’t need to rely on the sacrifices made every day by India’s Everyman.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.