WHISSLING ROKET

By Viresh Patel

During the Hindu festival of Diwali I was living in small rural village of south Gujarat. This entry is a snapshot of time spent with a pair of brothers from a wealthier Hindu family in the village, providing a brief insight into their perspectives on alcohol, the local village government, and manufactured goods.

Ranchhod is in his late 20s. A recent graduate with a Ba in Psychology from the city, he lives in a small pakka ghar (concrete house) with his parents and brother. Following the family’s annual tradition, during the build up to Diwali I accompanied Ranchhod on a trip into the nearby city to purchase a small selection of fireworks for he and his family to celebrate.

One warm evening we head out onto the rooftop terrace of the house, accompanied by his elder brother, Prabhu. Ranchhod crouches down, carefully loading the mislabelled ‘Whissling Roket’ into an empty bottle by the dim light of his mobile phone screen. Shrugging off the misspelt English, I tilt my head slightly and lean in to examine the bottle more closely: ‘Haywards 5000 – Indian Premium Beer’. As Ranchhod strikes a loose match, the shimmering light illuminates a series of other discarded Haywards-branded bottles and cans scattered across the mosaicked terrace floor.

Noting my intrigue, Prabhu proceeds to explain. “In all India, daru (alcohol) is banned in only our state but still Gujarat has the biggest business of black (illegal) daru. So instead we buy 100 percent proper alcohol. It is better for your health.”

As our conversation continues, Ranchhod burns through three more matches. I ask whether there are ever any attempts to curb the local trade of illegally brewed alcohol. With his eyes fixated on the light of the match, Ranchhod dismissively points out that the police do sometimes come to raid villages but usually “some politics happens and a rate is agreed.” Prabhu, visibly disgruntled by the topic of conversation, proceeds on a two minute long rant about the Panchayat (village government) and how they control the brewing business. “Look, I’ll tell you”, he says, tucking a large piece of chewing tobacco under his lower lip and proceeding to speak in a muffled tone, “They’re all involved. Police, Panchayat, people who brew desi daru. To us, they brew it, drink it, come to do raids; to us, they’re all the same person. You get involved and it’s dangerous.” 

Especially with Daru”, chimes in Ranchhod, holding a freshly lit match to the rocket’s fuse. “People get addicted to the chemicals and will do anything for another bag (in the village daru is typically distributed in watertight plastic bags)”.

Conversation is interrupted as the rocket begins to howl prematurely, not yet having launched itself from the bottle. Retreating a few metres further back, Prabhu shouts in jest, “Look, Viresh! Look! Mangalyaan!”, a humorous reference to India’s Mars Orbiter Mission launched in November 2013. A huge explosion of light briefly blinds us all as the defective rocket erupts on the terrace, accompanied by an ear-splitting ‘BANG!’. As my hearing comes to, I notice the heckles of a group of village youth who have gathered on the roadside below to set off small firecrackers near the local bus stop.

China! China!”, they shout, “That’s from China!

A hot-headed Prabhu proceeds to hurl profanities in the vague direction of the bus stop whilst a more collected Ranchhod smirks at his elder brother’s reaction. As the two of us stray over to perch on the terrace’s parapet, he looks back at his brother and tells him to calm down. “In the city”, he explains to me, “a lot of cheap products sold on the roadside come from China. You can buy a Rs.100 rocket for Rs.15 or Rs.20 if it comes from China. Stores all over the city buy imported goods from over there, they sell mostly electronics but also when big festivals come products are imported.

I question the youths’ immediate and vociferous reaction to the rocket’s failure to launch. Ranchhod takes out his phone and hands it to me. “Look at this mobile phone. This is not from China. But if you visit an electronics store in the city, you will find one that looks 100 percent the same. Look at the plastic here, the big parts will look exactly like this. But instead of quality parts inside, these parts.. .”, he demonstrates, pointing out the power button and volume switch, “. ..are different. Instead of expensive components they are cheap and will break easily. When they do, villagers have to pay more to repair them or will just buy a new phone and sell the old one for repair work.

I cast my mind back to time spent in the nearby city; elderly men patrol the streets heaving huge netted sacks over their backs hawking all sorts of discounted goods, from kitchen knives to counterfeit iPhone earphones and mobile phone chargers, all for exceptionally low prices. Granted not all of these will be Chinese imports, but the sentiment among youth in this village indicates that a notable proportion is likely to be.

On a broader level, statistics support Ranchhod’s on-the-ground observations. Bilateral trade between India and China is considerably unbalanced; China currently exports a $51bn worth of goods compared to India’s $15bn, alongside a heavier focus on manufactured goods as opposed to India’s raw materials export. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making steps to address this imbalance. In September 2014 he unveiled his ‘Make in India’ campaign, a national drive with the aim of turning India into a global manufacturing hub. The campaign incentivises companies, both domestic and international, to invest in 25 key sectors in all states across India, with Modi promising a ‘red carpet, not red tape’ to investors.

I briefly mention the campaign to Ranchhod, suggesting that maybe this will see a change in cost and quality of products found in the city. Maybe it will bring about a noticeable shift toward more local, Gujarat-made goods being sold in and around the city? My comment appears to aggravate his elder brother. “Look”, Prabhu interjects, apparently still fuming at audacity of the hecklers down below, “these campaigns come and go. The big men stay big, and us little men stay little. All of this money comes in but we will never see it.

Gujarat, where Modi held his position as Chief Minister for 12 and a half years, has long played a key role in India’s economic development and is no stranger to attracting domestic and international investment. In January 2015 it will hold its seventh Vibrant Gujarat Summit, a biennial event held by the Government of Gujarat designed to promote an investor-friendly climate. Many have perceived the summit as a great success, attracting increasing foreign investment commitments since its inception in 2003. However, it has also come under great scrutiny. Many of whom I have spoken to allege the state’s ‘big-business’ approach to be at the expense of the everyday villager. When in their early stages, commercial drives to set up medium- and large-scale industries in rural areas boast job creation for rural youth and semi-skilled workers, but many rural villagers suggest that sustained employment opportunities fail to materialise.

The Vibrant Gujarat Summit has an ongoing action plan for Industry Responsive Skill Development, acknowledging how ‘the major skill gaps are at the entry level as students are not ‘industry ready’”. These deficiencies are in need of addressing if Gujarat’s rural population is to take up some of the 100 million additional jobs the Make in India campaign hopes to creates by 2022. Perhaps in the near future youth from the village will be manufacturing their own high quality, low-cost replacement components for their mobile phones in a factory nearby.

As we turn to head back indoors, Prabhu shines his torch over to the upright beer bottle, sitting in its original place unscathed from the failed launch attempt.

Majbūt! (Strong!)”, he shouts, marvelling at its resilience.

Must be made in India”, Ranchhod smirks.

WHISSLING ROKET

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