The weight of inequality
The morning after I landed in Bangalore, I went for a haircut. Raja Haircutting Saloon is near a junction in Koramangala, where the quiet lane from my apartment meets a busy thoroughfare, surrounded by a cluster of small stores selling vegetables, hardware, newspapers and magazines, Internet services, stationery, South Indian breakfasts and meals. The saloon had three empty chairs facing a wall-to-wall mirror. An unfamiliar Bollywood song was playing on the radio. On the wall opposite the mirror hung a full-size poster of Priyanka Chopra in a blue chiffon sari, hands on her hips. A dark-skinned and well-built young man in a bright yellow T-shirt appeared from behind a curtain and showed me a chair. His oily hair was combed back, he smelled of Brylcreem, and standing beside Priyanka Chopra he looked like a Hindi movie baddie. I placed my camera on the counter and sat on the reclining swivel chair. The barber spoke in Hindi.
“What would you like - Haircut? Shave?”
“Haircut. Medium - not too short.”
The barber began above the nape and worked his way up with the detached efficiency of someone skilled. I asked where he was from.
“When did you move to Bangalore?”
“Two years ago.”
“Why did you come here?”
“In search of work.”
He had worked as a barber in Mumbai and Hyderabad. He moved from one city to next looking for better work (“Money?” “Yes money, and good conditions.”) and also to see different people. But after all these years he understood that people everywhere were the same.
“What do you mean by that?”
The barber replied at once. “People everywhere had the same desires, same fears. There was greed, there was corruption, and there was also kindness.”
He said this in a matter of fact way, without the elevated sense of authority or wisdom we middle-class folks assume while making similar assertions. But the barber could not take an elevated position even if he wished to: he could not treat a customer as an equal. His modesty was not a put on either: he knew where he stood, and he seemed comfortable with it.
He worked six days a week, starting at eight each morning and finishing around nine at night, and on his day off - Tuesdays - he slept. He had no family yet.
“Are you new to this area?” he asked. The radio had stopped. Another customer sat on the far side.
“I live in Germany. I’m visiting my parents here.”
This produced an unexpected response. “An elderly man comes here now and then, and talks about his visits to Germany where his son lives.”
“That’s my father.”
He laughed, recalling anecdotes about Germany my father narrated during haircuts.
“He is such a jolly man!”
“He is.” I smiled.
When he finished I asked if I could take a photo with him. He understood, picked up the camera with both hands, and gave it to me. Another man, who had so far stood in a corner listening to us speak, came over and asked if that was a camera.
“Yes, it is a camera,” I said, taking a picture of the barber and myself in the mirror. The Fuji x100 was a newly acquired piece, a retro-looking gadget not larger than a compact but with the power of a DSLR. Inconspicuous and old-fashioned: I assumed the camera would go unnoticed in India.
“How much does it cost?” this man asked. The barber looked on in silence.
“ It does not matter.”
“Just give me an idea, what's wrong?”
“About eight hundred Euros.” I hoped the figure in Euros would divert the man's attention.
“How much is it in Indian rupees?”
I wanted to pay for the haircut and leave. But I did not wish to be impolite. Not after that friendly conversation with the barber. Without thinking much, I named a figure.
“About fifty thousand rupees.”
I cannot forget what followed this remark. Their faces, the man's and the barber's, froze. They stood like statues, staring at me in disbelief. I checked the figure again, converting eight hundred Euros into Indian rupees. It was correct. Neither man spoke as I paid for the haircut, thanked the barber, and left. On the walk home I considered the episode. Why did that man persist so much? Why didn’t I give the man a smaller figure? Why didn’t I deny his request to name the price? What did the number mean to them? Fifty thousand rupees, the sum I paid for a digital toy, a sum they would take years to earn.
In the days that followed, I found myself thinking often of the common man on the street and the gap between us. I imagined people - the elevator boy, the waiter in a restaurant, the pizza delivery guy - looking at me, sizing up my net value, and comparing it to their own. On streets I often hid my camera. I sensed a strange notion of guilt, for things I possessed and they did not. I found this condition disturbing, and I wondered how others like me coped. I spoke with some friends.
“We know inequality as an abstraction, and we think we understand it. But putting a number to it, not statistically but in the context of an everyday situation, is something else.”
I was with an ex-colleague who now divided his time between the corporate and social sector.
I continued: “This is what happened when I gave that figure to the barber - I put down a number that made the gap between us explicit. Before this incident I ignored these people, now I think of them everyday.”
“I see what you mean,” he said.
“You live here - how do you cope with this on a daily basis?”
“I deal with it by contributing to social causes. And I tell myself that to do this, I need to keep a certain level of prosperity - good clothes, a car, an apartment, and so on. I need to keep myself satisfied, so that I can have an impact on others.”
“This may sound like a justification. But that’s how I reconcile the gap between me and the poor man on the street.”
Another friend, a senior manager in an IT company, thought this gap was common in India and the poor dealt with it themselves.
“I drive by a slum each day to work,” she said, “and I sometimes glimpse snatches of that life. Life goes on in the slums, you know - they manage it.”
One day my wife hired a driver for a few hours. She wanted to go shopping in UB City, and I decided to accompany her. The driver was a young man with South Indian features, and he carried himself with a pride unusual among his tribe. On the drive to UB City I asked him about his choice to work as a part-time driver: why not work full time? The driver revealed that his passion was acting, and this part-time job let him choose when to work. He acted in Kannada TV serials, playing small roles.
“Arundhati. You can see me in episode 640. And Raghavendra Mahime, episodes 37 and 38.”
I had not heard of these serials (I did not watch Kannada TV). I asked him about the roles he played.
“Police constable, lawyer, hero's brother - all small roles,” he said. But he hoped to get bigger roles some day. It needed luck. And connections. But if one was committed it would work out in the end.
Later, speaking to my wife, I said the driver was a symbol.
“A symbol of what?” she asked.
“A symbol of the common man in India trying to escape the fate of his inherited class.”
“You've begun to speak like a social anthropologist.”
“Maybe. But look at it this way - if he makes it, if he realizes his dreams, there will be one less unequal person.”
She was skeptical. “He may then be equal to people like you and me, but unequal to those he leaves behind.”
“I didn't think of it that way.”
Three weeks later, back in Germany, I was walking on the main shopping street in town when something odd struck me. I suddenly felt "free" - that was the word that came to mind. I sensed a lightness I had not known since weeks. Why?
At Rutz I picked up a croissant and a pretzel, at Deutsche Post I bought a set of envelopes, at a medical store I bought vitamins. It was a Saturday morning, and people were on their way to shops or returning home. Outside Woolworth I saw our cleaning woman scanning handbags on sale. At Bell Conditorei I spotted a familiar face at a table: the Penny Markt checkout counter girl. At that moment I understood the source of my lightness. I saw no difference between myself and people around me. We were equals. Each one of us. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. In India I had had the opposite sensation. Every social transaction - with the security guard at the gate, the fruit seller on the street, the rickshaw driver taking me home, the man behind the shop counter - was coated with the colour of difference. I could not think of them as equals. I had, after a week in India, gotten used to it, but now it was evident that a dim awareness of this difference had remained. The contrast in Germany struck me with the force of epiphany.
I knew what this meant. I had to return to the country of my birth, leaving behind this land of equals.