Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ralph Nader, Upton Sinclair and Vasantha Balan

I am often asked what is it about USA that thrills me so much. The questions and wonderment get sharper in response to my carping about India. I turn 40 next year by which time I'd have spent most of my adulthood, 18+, in USA. I left India as a 25 year old, I could not leave earlier unfortunately. I wear my opinions on my sleeve and I make no bones about what I think of anything. Here is an issue that draws the distinction clear and bright between two civilizations.

Last year a Tamil movie, 'Angaadi Theru' ('Merchandise Street' or something close) became an unexpected blockbuster. The movie was made with teenage newbie actors on a very medium budget. The dialogues were penned by a popular contemporary Tamil writer, Jeyamohan. The dialogues were pedestrian and lacked any panache marking the pen of a writer. The movie was a thinly veiled, in fact not at all veiled, fiction of  the travails of employees in a store in a particular street in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Renganathan Street near the Mambalam station is famous for its clutter of stores and of course, dirt and squalor. "Saravana Stores"is a prominent well known departmental stores selling everything from sarees to dresses to utensils etc. Every now and then 'Saravana Stores' would feature in some story in Junior Vikatan, a vernacular gossip magazine. Invariably the accounts would be about some woman customer being abused on charges of theft. Other than that nobody knew much about the store. After all this is India where nobody has time for anything other than immediate concerns.

'Angaadi Theru' laid bare very ugly truths about the store. The movie featured prominent hints about the store starting with their popular ad jingle to store logo and in one shot the camera would linger on 'Saravana Stores' neon signs itself. The movie relates how the store management would fish out teenage and sometimes plain children out of destitute families and later treat them like bonded labor. Abusing women employees, making employees live and eat in crowded areas, physical abuse, torture etc were portrayed unflinchingly. What is worse, the director said that what was shown was still not 100%. Watch the below clipping



The movie was a big surprise hit. In a state where movies packaged like bromides with no story or logic save super human heroes and voluptuous heroines are the fare this story of impoverished child workers was a very surprise hit. And the story ends there tragically.

There was no social awakening, no public furore, no zeal to legislate and correct such inhuman acts, no boycott of the stores. Nothing. Zip. Recently Tamil Nadu's top drawing star Surya recorded an ad for 'Saravana Stores'. Surya is no George Clooney.



There is no society with ills else it would be paradise. Even paradise was not liked by its occupants who nevertheless yearned for the forbidden fruit. How a society responds to ills and how remedies come forth, how the remedies remain institutionalized uprooting the ills forever are all the hallmarks of a responsible and responsive society.

Prompted by another thought I intend to blog on how America is a country of deep intellectual traditions influenced by ideas and books but here is a good sampling. 

Upton Sinclair wrote his bestseller  "The Jungle" about the meat packing industry in Chicago. Sinclair's intended focus was  the horrific circumstances of the workers and the appalling unhygienic conditions of how meat was packed and sold. The book, published in 1906, caused a furore and was instrumental in USA enacting the "Pure Food and Drug Act", the forerunner of the now functioning 'Food and Drug Administration' (FDA). Sinclair was disappointed that people only focused on the unhygienic meat part and did not address the workers conditions. Those were to be addressed later and workers rights became contentious issues.

Ralph Nader is mostly now known as the spoiler for Al Gore becoming President. Nader, however, is the quintessential 'consumer activist'. His book "Unsafe at Any Speed" , 1965, sent shock waves into the auto industry by causing an uproar amongst US consumers by ripping into how unsafe the cars were. GM, then US auto giant, tried to silence Nader by every crookish method. However the furore reached such proportions that Congressional Committee hearings were held. GM apologized to Nader and later paid out a settlement to Nader on a lawsuit on the harassment. Nader, wikipedia says, used the money to lobby for the creation of a watchdog agency, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). 

Tamils often mistake that culture is something about some hoary ancient literature (using words that are mostly not used in daily life) or some hazy notions of ill defined chauvinistic identity that has no basis in history or anthropology culture is beyond all that. About all that some other time.



2 comments:

Krishna said...

> I turn 40 next year by which time
> I'd have spent most of my
> adulthood, 18+, in USA. I left
> India as a 25 year old

[Wearing my math-nazi hat] At 40,if you had been in USA for 18 years, you would've had to leave India by age 22. The next 6 six words suggest you are off by 3 years! As a programmer, I can understand off-by-one...but not by 3. :)

Vasu said...

Enjoyed reading it, Aravindan!
Particularly loved the ending comments "Tamils often mistake that culture is something about some hoary ancient literature (using words that are mostly not used in daily life) or some hazy notions of ill defined chauvinistic identity that has no basis in history or anthropology"
-- Brought a smile ; You have articulated my thoughts so well.