Saturday, August 28, 2010

If we have no machines, must we perish?

I have always wondered why in India we have not been able to use science to empower the weak and the oppressed. More so, after I had seen a carpenter in England hack away on a raw piece of wood, single-handed; doing practically everything from sawing to chopping to slicing it off, even shaping it into objects of common use.
Quite simply, an ordinary worker in the West is equipped with all kinds of small handy machines that make his life hassle-free. All he needs is a bagful of simple machine tools to complete his routine chores, which for an average Indian workman, would make life burdensome, even miserable.
So, when a couple of years ago, Chandigarh Administration decided to convert local dhobi ghats into state-of-the-art washing marts, I was among those who had stood by and applauded quite generously. I felt that Chandigarh administration was not only people friendly, but was also making a genuine bid to soften up the tough, hard life of a neglected section of society.
Like other people in our society, who work with their hands, dhobis have to work under the most inhospitable conditions to make a living. Well, I thought, science was finally knocking at their door, giving them an open invitation to revolutionize their lives, only if they so desired.
During this period, I visited the dhobi ghat on several occasions. Every time, I saw the place buzzing with activity, as dhobis, young and old, ran around cheerily, loading dirty piles into the machines, switching them on, setting a program and then waiting for the washing cycle to complete itself.
On each of these occasions, I was impressed seeing their faces glow with a rare pride, and their immersion in work, total. It was as if they were born to work on these ‘machines,’ no strangers to this new found ‘mechanization.’ 
The other day, when I visited this dhobi ghat, again, after a gap of a year or more, I was quite shocked to see the place look deserted, almost gloomy. In the sultry afternoon heat, I could only spot a solitary young dhobi, going about his work, desultorily. He was busy drying up a pile of clothes he had manually washed.
Surprised, when I asked him the reason, he informed how the washing mart had closed down, and how things were now pretty much back to square one. On probing further, he revealed that the dhobis had run into trouble with the ‘authorities.’ 
Apart from charging them hefty rent, the ‘authorities’ insisted that they pay the exorbitant electricity bills of the Administration-owned machines, too. Stung by the blatant injustice of it all, I had expected him to turn plaintive and launch forth into a litany of complaints. On the contrary, he simply wound up the conversation, saying, “We are negotiating with the Administration. I’m sure, something positive would come off it.” In the face of an apparently provocative situation, I had found the young man’s composure, calmness and unnerving self-confidence almost unsettling.   
Puzzling over the response of the young dhobi, as I walked back home, it was as if someone whispered in my ears, “To heck with the machines. Science or no science – we, the poor and the neglected have our pride and dignity, too, and know how to preserve our ‘positive outlook.’

By Rana Nayar

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