The forgotten ones in India

EVERY time I go home to Bombay it takes me longer to ''adjust.'' And every year I tell myself that it's not India that is changing, it is I. The poverty was always there; the acceptance of the poverty was always there. Heartlessness and greed are timeless emotions, and only the unsophisticated, the naive, and politicians at election time ask why disparity exists.

Yet, artless thoughts flood me. I see the symptoms of the new ''black money'' culture: I see garish magazines telling where to get smuggled Levis; I notice people talking about how to get pirated tapes of ''Dynasty''; I see billboards advertising a new diet drink that is guaranteed to ''Take it off and keep it off ,'' placed over huts with gaunt, wrinkled children playing outside.

Yes, India is changing, a prominent ''social worker'' friend says. We are sitting in his chauffeur-driven Toyota, threading through traffic. The car is uncomfortable, but worth it, he says, because it's imported and so the quality is good. I ask him if he thinks people are getting poorer. ''Oh no,'' he says, ''it's changing for the better. Consumer goods are selling like never before.'' We are stopped by the lights. Very few of the ramshackle dwellings that dot the pavements of Bombay have toilet facilities; very few have any amenities other than what the street has to offer. Everybody knows that, so there is nothing to talk about. My friend follows my gaze and smiles. ''Only in India,'' he says. ''Do you know'' he prattles on, ''that India is the only developing country to put a man in space?'' I see women from the local hutment washing clothes in the gutter. I ask my friend what good putting a man in space is going to do. I am surprised at the gaucheness of my question, and so is he. ''It makes one proud to be an Indian,'' he says. I ask him about the black-money problem. He is confident that it will solve itself. ''They (the black marketeers) will kill themselves off,'' he says. ''Do you know that a lot of their children are taking to drugs because of parental neglect?''

I'm having dinner with one of the richest families in India. The women are jaded, the men enthusiastic. They ask me if I sense a change in India - a new vitality. I say the poor are just as poor as ever. They give each other strange looks and wander off. I am getting boring.

Later, I talk with a young engineer who wants to go to university in the United States. He tells me he is a big fan of P. G. Wodehouse and would have preferred to go to university in England but that he got no financial aid. I ask him why he wants to leave Bombay. He tells me Bombay is changing; all sorts of people who can't even speak English properly are getting to be important because of government policies. ''Do you know,'' he says, ''my last boss did not even know who Bob Dylan is?''

The local newspaper states that a known smuggler is going to start a political party. I ask my servant what he thinks of this development. He shrugs his shoulders and says the smuggler could not be any worse than the people in power now. The last I heard, the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had sent out ''feelers'' for a possible coalition with the smuggler's party, at election time.

The news of Mrs. Gandhi's death is temporarily numbing. We have more pressing problems now: the threats to existence posed by separatist movements and religious hatred. Now, throbbing pains have relegated the duller ones to the background. Yes, things have changed in India; the old order has jerkily yielded place to the new. Somehow, though, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Usha C. Venkatesan is a PhD student in international business at New York University.

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