I always negotiate with auto-drivers. Once you learn to do it, it's notoriously hard to unlearn.
"Sir Qutab Minar chhod do?"
"Sir 50 me jaate the, aap toh 100 hi pahucha diye."
"Arrey bhai... chalo 80 de dena."
"Chalo 70 de denge."
This is my daily existence. One day, my friend asked me a question, "Kya karoge 30 rupay bachake?"
As a topic, negotiating with auto-drivers is interesting to me because its a habit that reinforces the way the world is. I claim to be someone who disapproves of the way the world is, so there's a clear dissonance here between action and belief.
The ethical non-dilemma
I am horrified by deep inequality in India which places me in the top 1% of this country. I feel no sense in which I deserve this privilege. I also think the auto-driver who's working 7 days a week for 10-12 hours should earn much more than I do as a person who enjoys a comfortable 40-hour work week.
I don't think these beliefs are too radical. I'm also not particularly judgemental towards people who don't see things this way. It's just what makes sense to me, and I haven't found compelling reasons to think otherwise.
The average auto-driver in South Delhi makes anywhere between Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 25,000 per month. It is also often the case that they're the sole earner in the family. If so, the household income of this family is lesser than my expenses as an individual each month.
When I think about it this way and recall what I believe about inequality, it just does not make sense that I'd want to pay him less for his service. What happened to being horrified by inequality?
Who's a good person?
I don't mean to justify the negotiating. In my book, it's not good to do it and I want to do it less and less. But on some days, emotion gets the better of me. On some days, when the world has only taken from me, I don't feel like giving to it.
We like to believe we're all good people. I'm finding that notion hard to justify, at least for myself. There are too many ways in which I am actively complicit in systems that are not good. I know it, I understand it, and I participate anyway. This is the mess I must own up to and live with.
The way I've made sense of it is that such complicity is part and parcel of striving to be a good person. I think good personhood is not something you arrive at, at least not if the world you inhabit is unjust in the first place. I think you're always only striving towards it.
As an aside, I was listening to the DIVINE song 'Punya Paap' recently, and I heard it in a wholly different way: Jabse paida tabse kiye humne punya-paap. Of course, I cannot fathom or relate to it in the context of his childhood. I do think, though, that it speaks to the messiness of finding ourselves in systems of oppression, and reckoning with how we ourselves behave inside of those systems.
Striving for A Better Future
Thinking about ethics and dissonance also reminded me of a time when Alexandria Occasio Cortez was criticized for buying expensive shoes, especially since her public persona was all about being the voice of the oppressed. To that, she responded on Twitter, "Living in the present is not an argument against building a better future."
I saved that response because I thought it was interesting. I don't know if I'm convinced by AOC here, but I mention it to say that there is no single way of being a political person who wants a better world.
I can allow myself the contradictions and still strive when I can to live up to my beliefs. As long as there is the messiness instead of high-headedness, and there are the dilemmas instead of convictions, I think I'll do okay. What do you think?
📖 What to read this week?
I have an inkling I might've shared this piece before, but it was too compelling today given the theme of this newsletter. At a time when we're bombarded with suffering on our feeds, what is our responsibility as viewers?
This responsibility, for Azoulay, is not abstract. Photographers and people who have let themselves be photographed assume that someday people will see their images and do something in response to what they see, she argues. They imagined you, their future viewer, hovering above them at the moment the picture was taken, and you must live up to their expectations.