Urban life: An analysis on self-destruction in the working class


I recently watched the Calcutta trilogy (by Satyajit Ray), and it made me think. The next few paragraphs will be me trying to put those haphazard thoughts into words. Expecting life to give you a reward after you get through all the troubles simply makes you self-destruct. Modern cities enact this notion in a very harsh manner. The essay talks about why so many people end up so frustrated with city life, and struggle to look for a solution, for the metaphorical ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. The paper tries to say that maybe there is no end to the tunnel, and maybe that isn’t as bad of a thing as it sounds.

Since the beginning of the industrial era, cities have been associated with ‘chasing of dreams’ and ‘breaking out of shells’ and other such concepts which lure in ambitious people. The countryside is portrayed as being stagnant in a way, and that the competition in city life is something that will take the most ambitious, competitive people and give them success like nothing else. People are taught from childhood if they’re not in that successful group, the city will just leave them drowning. No child wants to be the one left drowning, so the struggle starts. Every person who starts the struggle is taught to expect the reward at the end, since for a child, the concept of doing something because you are simply incapable of escaping it cannot be explained to a child, or even a young person. So they are given the idea of some material gain. And this is what starts the path of self destruction.

The movie Pratidwandi (Satyajit Ray) starts off with a scene in a crowded bus. For a working person in a city, this is a sight that they will be very familiar with. Cities may have superficial beauty in monuments and parks and other fancy buildings, but that fact is that being able to appreciate these things daily is a privilege. For people going through the struggle of surviving and staying afloat, that beauty simply does not matter. The idea that a worker moves from the countryside to a city and is taken in by how pretty everything looks is simply temporary. You could even say that the urban world, especially in cities, has made appreciating the beauty of your surroundings into a privilege that few have. Earning that privilege is also something that defies all notions taught during childhood. It is taught that the benefits you reap will be defined by the effort you put into sowing them. This concept completely falls apart in city life, since the hardest working people earn the least, in both the very big picture; compare a sweeper to a computer engineer, and a smaller picture; compare a person with his boss. Even the idea of earning the job that you get gets a bit convoluted, since nepotism, luck, attractiveness etc come into the picture. The concept of success becomes a lottery to a very large degree, and a small hiccup can make everything come crashing down. Living with this constant fear along with the fact that the older you grow, the more you come to realize that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, is what makes people so frustrated with city life. The city takes grandiose ambitions and levels them down, unless you already have the resources to prop yourself up above all the other drowning people. Your skill, wittiness, depth as a person etc simply doesn’t matter, as shown in the first interview scene in Pratidwandi. The protagonist is able to show off his knowledge, and his wittiness, but is not accepted. There isn’t even room for him to work on his shortcomings, because he will never know where he went wrong. It is extremely difficult to not get caught up in the dreary flow of city life; your dreams are destroyed, a lot of your morals trampled upon. If you try to hold on to something that the city doesn’t want to hold on to, you’re left behind. One of the characters says a very interesting line - “The whole country is going down, do you want me to stay suspended”. Such is city life. The countryside also feels the effects of this modernisation, but not to the extent that the city does, because the modern city, in some sense, is based on the ideology of leaving people behind if they do not conform to the very competitive standards it demands. One consequence of this is that people begin to get caught up in fantasies and other ways to relieve stress. There is so much you want to do, but the city instills in you a fear of ever breaking the routine, of making things worse than they already are, so you can never do anything. Everyone is waiting for someone else to start fighting this system, but nobody does anything.

The two common solutions that people have found for this is by either being part of the flow and doing whatever you have to to excel at it. This requires you to be a shrewd person, and forget what you were taught as a child, letting go of the past. The other solution is to fight the system, do your best to try and resist it publicly, let people know of the struggle and the pain and the people taking advantage of you. But a lot of people are simply not able to do either of these things, and these are the people that end up self-destructing, and it is heavily implied that there is no solution besides the aforementioned ones. But there is a third solution. Acceptance. You take what you’ve got, and try to find happiness in whatever little things you can. Don’t constantly look for the ‘ultimate happiness’ at the end of all your struggles, because that does not exist. Accept the fact that you’re a human, and your brain has evolved in a way that will never let you rest. If it did, then we would not have advanced so far as a species. As an organism, you are not meant to find the ultimate everlasting happiness. There is no escaping the tunnel, and you cannot stop moving. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, but there are little lights along the way that help you get through. Don’t let those little lights make you greedy, because you're only going to self destruct doing that.