(Reprinted from author’s Facebook page)
Aparajita Sengupta lives and works on a farm in Birbhum, West Bengal with her daughter Prateeti and husband Debal, trying to produce all the food that her family eats with the help of natural farming methods. Her dream is to buy as little as possible and live a low-energy, low impact, community-based, ecologically sustainable life. She also (quite accidentally) engages in some fun and alternative learning with the neighborhood kids. Aparajita used to teach English and Film earlier, but is now more interested in writing about alternative/ sustainable livelihoods (as opposed to employment), chemical-free farming and localism.
Happiness is such a neglected sentiment in our time and world, and we tend so easily to confuse it with pleasure or fun or excitement that I often feel that educated, urban people have forgotten the true taste of deep, enduring happiness. It is rather unfortunate that these feelings lie so close together in our brain so that it was easy for some people to convince us that happiness could be traded for its more trivial and temporal cousins.
Most of us believe that although we are often unhappy, we have experienced true happiness in our lives. We also generally tend to believe that we were happier when we were younger unless we have had particularly traumatic experiences growing up. Being loved and doing things we value also usually makes us happy. Food, drink, sex, addictive substances and shopping also make us happy in a sense, and even though we recognize the fleeting nature of the happiness derived from these acts, it hardly keep us from indulging in them. Other experiences might elevate or pacify or fulfill, but they are not the same as the complex mix of pleasure, peace, well-being and joy that happiness is.
I was quite sure I had experienced true happiness by the time I was say, twenty. But I also realized that these were moments of happiness, not a state of mind that feels almost permanent or even strong enough to balance the constant sense of irritation and anger that I have carried with me most of my adult life. Something about it, however, seems to have changed fundamentally since me and my husband decided to come and settle in a village to grow our own food through natural farming methods. This decision has been the culmination of a long process of thoughts and actions that goaded us to seek a hands-on answer to things that were keeping us bitter—the loss of ecosystems and traditional livelihoods, the power of corporations over farmers, and our own helplessness when it came to real political change. I had sought this path looking specifically for solutions to the agrarian crisis in India, and the aspect of happiness presented itself to me rather unexpectedly. I was walking the red mud trail just outside our new farm, gazing out to the rice paddies stretching to the horizon, the sun going down over a thicket of palms, birds chirping in the hedges, when I saw my daughter, who had run ahead, running back to me, her laughter rippling on the chilly winter wind. As I wrapped her up in my arms, I felt something I had never felt before. It had a little to do with my love for her, but was more about the freedom, peace and comfort that I have recently experienced.
Helena Norberg’s concept of the economics of happiness had long stirred me, and I have really come to believe that the industrial civilization has increasingly robbed human societies of community, leisure and happiness. I do see the wage-earner as a victim of capitalism, irrespective of the wage they earn. Higher wages only mean less physical labor, it does not earn one more time with friends and family or to do things they like to do. I have seen in my talented friends a trend to give up what they enjoyed doing or were good at, for something that earns them more money more easily. Not surprisingly, these large paychecks do not even mean they have the time to spend that money any more—the choice is restricted to buying very expensive things, or making pricy but short trips. Many are in too much debt to make significant savings, and the remaining stay tantalizingly close to their dream of achieving a sense of permanent mental security in terms of health or education, but never get there. Very few can say “I have enough”, and even if they do, they can’t step off the treadmill. In her beautiful analysis of pre-1970s Ladakhi society, Norberg touches upon many of these issues, comparing them to a modern industrialized society where capitalism disallows the existence of community-based support systems and robs individuals of the scope of leisure and creativity by binding them in cycles of endless and repetitive labor. Deeply disturbed by the truth I saw in these statements, I tried to share them with close friends, but it is very hard to discuss these ideas with someone without making it seem that I was pointing fingers at them. People understandably get defensive if I try to suggest that they are victims of a system where 99% of the wealth belongs to 1% of the people. Our belief in the litmus test of capitalism has convinced us that we are successful because we can earn our living. So our so called education, our class positions, and the fact that we have spent so much time becoming what we are make us react violently if someone tries to point out that we are victims. As we argue that we have indeed achieved concrete things with the help of the capitalist system, a true test of things can happen on asking the question about happpiness. It is not a philosophical question that can be brushed off by saying that human beings are generally unhappy; it is rather about asking ourselves if we are increasingly brushing off our real needs—pure food, water, and air, kinships, community and leisure—in trying to pay for things we might not really need.
At the beginning of our current journey, me and Debal had been invited by a well-known IT company in Kolkata to speak about sustainability. On our way back from Rajarhaat, Kolkata’s IT hub, I witnessed scenes that Debal had lived daily in his own career—carloads of professionals, men and women, leaving their workplaces at around 8.00 at night. Jumping into a similar carpool ourselves, I had looked around (with considerable difficulty, because the car was packed beyond capacity) at tired faces with headphones plugged into ears, staring ahead to avoid communication. I was reminded of the scenes in Gorky’s Mother, where exhausted workers leave the factory at the end of the day. True that these people are not worried about their next meal, but to delve into the realities of that meal is to understand the shocking similarity between the two scenes. Most of the people who get in these cars are in debt, and beyond the need to keep their families fed, they are working 10 hour days because they need to keep their heads above the rushing waters of EMIs. They might own apartments or cars, but when they get home, they pick up children who have been left in the care of women who have left their own children somewhere we do not want to know about. The meal that awaits them was made by someone they did not have a chance to converse with during the entire day. The meal itself is fast becoming an industrial product, comprised of things produced in a factory, or produce that travels so far that the producer has no moral obligation for the safety of the consumer, and has hence sprayed it liberally with poison. The water for drinking, dubious in color and smell where it emerges from its source beneath the soil, has been passed through filters made by large corporations that polluted rivers trying to produce those filters. There is possibly a moment of relaxation, when a box set up in a corner of the room sends out happy pictures and sounds, images of complete, happy families with double incomes and beautiful skin and clean rooms but no sweaty servants. We are not bound to pay attention to kids or to housework during this time of the day, especially if we are men. Some usually do because they are human, but working women in India still carry the responsibility, if not the actual physical labor, of housework and tending to kids much more than men do. What I am trying to say is that the comparison that I formed in my head between poor factory workers and “wealthy” corporate sector employees is not a metaphorical comparison. The problems are of equal magnitude—the loss of the quality of basic needs like food, air, water, as well as that of community, leisure and most of all, happiness.
When I share this comparison with friends who are actually living this life, first and foremost I hurt them incredibly. Many get angry and start to question my own choices. Many keep insisting that they are happy doing their 12 hour jobs, or find true happiness going to good restaurants or drinking good wine. Some accept the truth in the comparison, and speak about their pains. Many end by saying that they are doing this for their children. I do not doubt that statement: as a parent, I dare not. These little beings who carry our dreams are so precious to us. But I see that although we are really uncomfortable to make them the burdens of our dreams of peace and equality and love, we still let them carry the burdens of corporate dreams. We encourage their free will, and we swear to ourselves that we will not dictate their every move but remain powerless to defend them from the dreams that the TV spews out at them. We teach them to give alms to beggars, and would have loved to help slum kids or volunteer at old peoples’ homes, but we do not have the time ourselves or to show our kids how to do these things. Taking them to places that come with tough messages seems hard and tiring, so we take our kids and ourselves to the mall and to restaurants to break out of the boredom that surrounds us, and we find momentary happiness in buying things. We also find that the kids seem happy in malls and fast-food restaurants, and we tell ourselves that we will let them enjoy that spontaneous happiness because we believe in individual freedom, but we ignore the fact that they might be seeing the fast-food mascot about twenty times on an average on TV every day. We have no idea how we will be towards the end of our lives as the first generation of middle class Indians who have enjoyed private cars and air-conditioners but do not have pension from employers, the first people who wanted to set our children free from our expectations and would like them to be something other than doctors and engineers, but are almost sure that they will not stay with us when we grow old.
One thing that keeps us going is the promise of future happiness. We have been convinced that we will find happiness in our old age even if we do not find it now; we keep working hard to ensure financial security when we grow old, even as we have no time to think about other kinds of securities. Because financial logic has been hailed as the highest kind of logic in the Western world for a long time, and in the urban Indian society in the last thirty years or so, the logic of security from community seems sentimental and useless. When Norberg discusses the position of the aged in Ladakhi society, she points out how the very design of society ensures security, respect and happiness in old age. Aged members of Ladakhi society are at the center of families, because they are not spent and wrung-out by the time they reach old age. They are the keepers of actual knowledge and wisdom, tellers of tales they have themselves lived, a little lacking in physical strength, but the strongest in terms of everything else. Their positions in society are not the ones that no one else is willing to undertake, but the ones no one else can take up. I do not want to draw the examples of countless couples who are committing suicide in Indian cities to avoid the loneliness of old age, because I also know of countless couples who take up hobbies or travel once they retire and because I still feel that the complexities of Indian society keeps a check on extreme individualism leading to loneliness as it is seen in many Western societies. Many of my friends still live with their parents; many have found a way to see parents regularly without sharing a household. But coming to a village has once again opened my eyes to the state of being old in a society that is fast turning more and more individualistic. Where I live right now, the older folk seem much happier than those in the city, because beyond immediate family, they enjoy their positions within the community. They are routinely called out to public meetings and salishi (judgements); they participate and hold special positions in all rituals; their lives often revolve around more people than their own children. Looking at their cheerful selves, I often wonder about the times when our generation will grow old.
Coming to the village, I have also realized that I did not know community before this. I have had great friends and wonderful neighbors, but I never knew the feeling when all these people are bound together and to me by a common thread. I love the freedom to travel and to see new people, but I never recognized the feeling of belonging and responsibility that comes from spending most of your life in one place. Just as we do not necessarily always love everything about our immediate family, but feel responsible for their well-being and forgive their quirks easily, belonging in a community means extending that attitude to many more people. In the little neighborhood that I live in right now, people hang out together in the evening right after they have cursed the life out of each other in public that very morning. Initially, this was shameless to my urban eyes; after all, neighbors in Kolkata stop speaking to each other for the rest of their lives over throwing trash from an upstairs window. Here even disputes over serious matters such as land and relationships do not keep people from communicating with each other or keeping up social terms such as inviting people on special occasions. Their tendency to fight and make up almost immediately, and their disregard for privacies, both on personal matters and physical space, seemed to be a lack of finesse from my perspective, until I saw that the whole community actually treat each other like we treat immediate family. Our sense of privacy might actually leave us angry if someone decides to step into our bedroom to leave a gift without our permission. But just as we might allow a few people to do it, and overlook the privacy aspect because of the sentiment involved, the village here allows the whole immediate community to “encroach” upon their privacy. I have, for example, walked into my kitchen several times to discover gifts—fresh produce, home-made sweet treats, wild mushrooms—left there by a friend. It usually takes me several days to find out who left the gift for me and thank that person for this special act of kindness. Sometimes the exchange is not in the form of actual gifts, but through more symbolic gestures—I’ve had candles lit on my doorstep by kids on Dewali, and alpana designs drawn on Sankranti (harvest festival) day. What I would have otherwise considered an affront to my atheism came to express so much love and kindness, and with such a sense of kinship, that my established ideas of privacy, space and who I can call my own had to be revisited.
Even when I have blundered through the urban wilderness looking for happiness, I always sensed that giving or sharing offers a feeling that is special. I am not talking about giving things to people who cannot afford those things; I am not a big fan of charity. I used to be, but looking at corporate charity has made me sensitive to the fact that charity is often an act that puts the giver in a better position than it ever does the receiver. When it is not a hefty tax break check, it is usually a mixed feeling of pride and self-worth that makes charity worthwhile. Even if there is such a thing as selfless giving, it can only be extremely detrimental to social change in a society of disproportionate wealth divisions. I feel that giving away money or materials in charity takes away the moral responsibility of the giver towards deeper social change, and will often portray the exploiter as the benefactor to the receiver of charity. When a multinational mining corporation comes to exploit a people and destroy their rights to forest lands, they build schools and charitable hospitals and are often successful as portraying themselves as benefactors to the very people they plan to destroy. So I am not thinking about charity when I say sharing and giving; I am thinking more in terms of being there at the hospital for a friend’s surgery when her family is estranged, or having dinner ready for relatives coming home from a trip, and such small acts of kindness. These acts, even if they do not fill you with the kind of pride that charity does, offer you a taste of happiness, a sense of being connected to those around us. When poorer nations show higher happiness indices, or when my village community seems happier than urban communities I have seen, it is perhaps these opportunities of feeling connected that creates a window for happiness to flow in. Even the most materialistic amongst us realize this, but these opportunities are rare in our lives, and our concepts of privacy and space create an awkwardness that shut them off when they do arise.
Even the idea of poverty that I held in my head has been challenged somewhat here. True community alleviates poverty, not in any romantic sense, but in the practical ways where one person goes fishing in the irrigation canal to bring back fish to be shared among the 15 families in this neighbourhood, or where chancing upon a patch of edible greens or mushrooms in the forest means the whole village enjoys the seasonal goodies. A forest often makes a people much prosperous in terms of food and other resources than abusive chemical agriculture ever does.This must be the reason why even people who are landless, and whose earthly possessions can be easily packed into a medium sized cardboard box, live with less insecurity than someone with a six figure salary. Having been collectively jobless for over a year now, me and husband often wonder why the sense of panic that overwhelmed us during our salaried days has lessened now. We are currently growing almost all of our food except fruits, and our expenses have come down considerably. We know we have to figure out a way to pay for our other expenses as we are running out of our savings, but we are much more relaxed in our daily lives than we were earlier. We see people around us who are financially much poorer and landless live happy, satisfying lives, and we have come to understand that people for whom a bicycle rider with a couple of boxes hanging from it signifies the only (traveling) mall do not think of themselves as poor. This is, once again, not a romantic exaggeration—these same people might perceive themselves as poor if they are exposed to more consumer goods either directly or through communication media. For now, they are happy because the community and a nearby forest ensure they do not starve; their unhappiness, if any, comes from our dysfunctional public healthcare and education systems. The houses they live in are simple, natural-material based, and can be built without compromising on either comfort or aesthetics. When I talk about beautiful natural-material housing, many people are quick to point out that such houses are not exactly zero cost, and difficult to maintain. My natural argument is that we spend way more money building living spaces that are small and inefficient, and we often spend a big chunk of our lives trying to pay for that house. Every house needs maintenance; with good care, natural material housing can last even hundreds of years. Poorly designed concrete houses that depend on fossil fuels even to maintain comfortable temperatures inside are not the only available options; they are valued because we have attached artificial value to them. I do believe that every household should have a bathroom; it is just that the whole house does not need to be a concrete monstrosity all the time. Living in simple, earth-friendly houses and growing one’s own food means that one can have leisure, and the opportunity to be connected to nature and each other. I want to underline the fact that I do not want to hail a connection with nature by rejecting all forms of scientific knowledge. I am speaking for a system of balance where we are guided by nature, and science remains a tool to make a few things slightly easy. No society is perfect; the village in contemporary India is still marked by its caste-based neighbourhoods, bitter skirmishes for gaining rights to land, volatile politics, and a general disregard for reason. The lesson that I have gathered is simply that human societies that still hold lessons of community and sustainable living should be the ones we look up to instead of the ones that advertise their biggest, tallest or most expensive.
But development and its ideas of bigger, faster, pricier have come home to roost in India. While forests disappear and rivers choke up with plastic waste, in the city we talk books and movies and politics with friends, we declare the Left dead, we assure ourselves that we were right about communism being a failed system, we celebrate the trickling down of cell-phones to servants in the trickle-down economy, we love malls but would love to see more green in the city, we think we might not that far away from the American dream after all. The roads are coming, we have a flashy airport, Modi is PM. No, we can’t be too far away from the clean streets, honest police, tallest building, beautiful park, matching accessories, dyed hair, red lips, high heels, designer watch, weekend home, maybe a boat, pretty kids, fully air-conditioned dream, can we? But going home at around 9 o’clock after endless skirmishes at work, we wonder if that’s the dream we had dreamt. Happiness, needless to say, remains elusive.
Accompanying photo: Madhushree