Society & Lifestyle
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|by Aruni Mukherjee|
The ideational convergence of contemporary globalization and its influence is a fact India prefers to avoid.
As a foggy morning descended upon the Thames, I got ready for a shower to begin yet another week at the office. Without my glasses I can see as much as a person with normal eyesight could on that morning. My dodgy boiler had overheated the shower, and the excruciating pain of standing under the fiery water was unbearable. But my body got accustomed after a while and it started feeling sort of comfy.
That weekend I was to go on a whirlwind trip to Calcutta , flying in from Mumbai on Saturday morning, only to fly back out to London on Sunday morning. In the olden days, the mere thought of flying back to India sent waves of joy through my body. I used to feel the pull of the umbilical chord when I used to get on the return flight back to London . But not anymore. These days the thought of flying back to India irritates me. No, these are not the mutterings of a fossilized old man- I am mere another of the technocratic monstrosities that work in the glossy buildings of London's Canary Wharf (or New York's Manhattan for that matter) and pass judgement on the country I am eager to disown- oh when will I qualify for a British passport?
The pain that I felt initially by standing underneath a burning shower is precisely why I try to steer clear of India these days. People who live in the country day in and day out have become acclimatized to the pain, to the extent that they are oblivious to it. But people like me who go in and come out have to bear the full brunt of the pain.
Oh here we go again- another spoilt brat of a NRI who deserted his country giving us sermons on how to do things! In fact, India's ground realities- although tragic- are not the most problematic aspect of its current state at all. Yes, out of Mumbai's 20-odd baggage conveyer belts only two worked (each in opposite ends of the terminal and nobody being quite sure where the luggage was going to be strewn upon, people kept going to and fro), and I had to bribe the airport official to get on the bus that connects the domestic and the international terminal. Yes, there was pollution, traffic jams, dirty toilets, people using mobile phones on the plane- and so on and so forth. But all this doesn't penetrate beyond my skin.
I was born and raised in Calcutta. My parents weren't exactly comfortable during my childhood, and have worked very hard to attain a stable middle class status only by now. I may not be a landless laborer from Orissa, but I've shared a bathroom with a frog, a snake and about a hundred spiders. I've lived without a phone and a color television for most of my time in India. I've cried for the umpteenth time in front of my father, begging him to take me on the taxi, hating the torturous experience of being crammed inside one of those steel cages passed off as buses, but knowing equally well that my old man would not put me through this if he had a choice. I've sat in an auto rickshaw with a bus emitting all its CO2 at my face. As an American would probably say- 'Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.'
Today the stakes are much higher. Earlier in the week a colleague who's from Chennai was boasting that one of his friends had recently made out with one of India's most famous cricket players in a London nightclub and had later found him too dehaati and was ignoring his calls. Whether this was true or not I don't know, but the overflowing crowd of skimpily dressed girls (with ogling men nearby) outside a Park Street nightclub jostling to get in was certainly true. 'No one sleeps on a Saturday night. Welcome to Calcutta sir', was the rather brazen welcome I received from a heavily makeup wearing fluently English-speaking receptionist at my hotel. That could've been Mayfair or Trafalgar Square.
Francis Fukuyama heralded the victory of free market liberalism and Western democracy in his The End of History. Whether that strand of Western philosophy has finally proved to be mankind's destiny I am not equipped to judge. What I will say is that European history, knowledge, culture, science, civilization and ideas have become the prima facie point from which the world is understood, not just by Westerners but by everyone. What we understand by democracy, freedom, liberalism, economics, etc. is determined by our mastery of one or more branches of the Western knowledge system. We may think that we are reading about our country's past when we read Indian history. In reality, history matters only as far as historiography, i.e. the way history is written. Whether it is E H Carr's notion of the omnipresent progress or Leopold von Ranke's aim of absolute factual history or Marx's class history, today history is written, consciously or subconsciously, from a Western framework. In essence, we are studying our history as if we were outsiders.
In essence, we don't really know what our history is, as its always been narrated to us. Indian historiography is dead. As is Indian philosophy. Indians have dropped the baton of knowledge once proudly held by Chanakya Vishnugupta all the way down to Mohandas Gandhi, and have resorted to wholesale borrowing. Scholars studying Indian philosophy don't realize that they're doing so through Western systems of thought. Some people might advocate an interaction between civilizations to foster synthesis of ideas. Lofty aims. But India's own civilization is decaying, and has not evolved internally for many centuries. The West's knowledge nexus is admirably sophisticated and world-spanning. Each minute strand of this nexus has evolved internally through friction, correction and collaboration with various ideas, refining itself at each stage for the past 500 years or so. From the minute details of accounting practices all the way up to the study of natural sciences- on all fronts India possesses no comparable degree of complexity in its indigenous knowledge pool.
India is not alone in its plight. China has suffered a similar fate. But we have gone one step further. If a poll was taken today amidst people aged 18-30 at Calcutta's top colleges, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants and other public places, the relationship between the respondents and their lingua franca would probably be as follows-
I never actually conducted a poll, but a trip to any city shopping mall would vindicate my claims. It is often astounding how Indians treat the ability to speak English as a social mobility tool- catapulting them among the motley crew of the elite. Worse, I seem to get worse service whenever I decide to give my Hindi or Bengali a good practice at any upmarket restaurant. My British public school English gets me a long way, more than it should. Language is not just a communication tool- it is also the device through which we articulate our thoughts and form ideas. Each language has its straitjacketing features, and ideas are truncated to fit that straitjacket. Knowing English is certainly no bad thing- but using your prowess to scoff at another human being who doesn't know it smacks not of cleverness, but slavishness of the first degree. Just for the record, not one of the conversations I witnessed through out my entire 40-odd hours in India between youngish urban people was in any native tongue. Nor was anyone wearing anything resembling some sort of Indian attire. Is it purely their choice as consumers? Does free will exist in today's world with its hegemonic discourses and temptations? Are identities formed naturally or within pre-determined environment that subconsciously automates our behavior? In other words, its way more 'cool' and 'hip' to wear jeans, man!
Consumerism with a big C has hit urban India immensely. The Financial Times and The Economist just can't publish enough articles about India's burgeoning middle class. My friends in India seem to be more up to date on the latest Justin Timberlake single or Nokia phone models than I ever cared to be. What is interesting is the tendency to overexert oneself to stay ahead of the game. It seems odd how people in India can rattle off foreign brands and scandals surrounding Paris Hilton, but don't know how to get from Park Street to Shyambazar. 'I just can't wait until Marks & Spencer comes to Calcutta. Its an amazing American retail brand, jaanish?', one of my friends said expectantly. I wasn't sure whether I should correct him or wait for a patriotic Brit to do the job who would laugh his socks off to think Indians transferred the ownership of one of Britain's most respected high street brands across the Atlantic. Similarly, I am not quite sure since when and how American fast food joints became the symbol of prestige for the middle class to dine in- apparently in Calcutta it seems to be the case.
I am undoubtedly being a little unfair. It is a fact that the modernity that we see around us is a product of the West, and articulating its tentacles is impossible within the rather primitive knowledge structures of countries who suffered from colonialism, like India. But the point is not about shifting blame- it is about pointing out the road India has taken and the direction its headed towards. Its almost as if questioning this journey is somehow un-patriotic. Rabindranath Tagore certainly did when he sighed that India has been following the chariot of the West for the past hundreds of years, choked by the dust and deafened by the noise, and yet we never asked whether this was indeed progress and not caring to avoid the pitfalls in its path. Swami Vivekananda once rather provocatively wondered whether there were any Brahmins left in India- true Brahmins who were the guardians of knowledge and not just executors and emulators.
When I finally came out of baggage claim in Heathrow's Terminal 4 upon my return, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here I was, moments away from taking the tube and getting back to my flat. This had been my most depressing trip to India so far- the earlier one being slightly less so as I had travelled through many remote villages, speaking to scores of people that I felt were those who were India's last hope. That evening in the gathering dark, witnessing a beautiful sunset on the river I realized that the sun was going down on my country- if there was anything left to be called that. It may sound slightly cynical to most people, but asking yourself the following fundamental question might make the reader a little circumspect- 'What is it that sets us apart as an Indian from someone from another country?' Is it our education? No, since the methodologies and the content are both emulated. Is it our family? No, since traditional relationship and family structures are already shaky and will continue to be so as the older generation pass away. Is it our religion? No, since we are increasingly adopting the 'us' and 'them' outlook so alien to India's ameliorative history. Is it our language? No, because we think speaking our native tongue is beneath our dignity. Is it our outlook towards life? No, because we want big money, lots of women (or men, depending on where you stand) and binge drinking sprees at the nightclub every Saturday.
So how can we call ourselves Indian and our country India? Aren't they both increasingly becoming a relic of the past, preserved just in Western history books? Often the process of decay is sub-conscious, as the whole reality of existence around us is seeped in Western discourses. But that still doesn't change the fact that the thug from the most shady parts of London's East End is more complete in his identity than I am- at least he is part of the historical development and evolution of his country's civilization. Am I? I don't think so.
It seems only yesterday that I remember myself throwing my school bag on the bed after coming back from school and racing outside to play cricket with my friends. That's all our lives consisted of. But my younger cousin today seems more interested in hitting the latest hukka bar in town, or getting the latest computer game than a good old mad dash in the mud for a game of football. My friends think playing cricket on a Saturday night is 'sad' and something 'losers' do. As I type this line at 2 a.m. in the morning, I hear English with Indian accent outside my window as a number of young men and women drink the night away, throwing the empty bottles in the river, unaware of what else they may be throwing away at the same time.
I can't bear to see my country slip away like this, so I prefer to stay thousands of miles away in denial. I pray every week at my local temple. India needs every one of them if it is to survive as a civilization and not just a geographical entity. But prayers may just not be enough. India aims to be a world leader, but leadership is won through powerful ideas and visions, not by acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Adam Smith and John Locke's ideas run the world today, and the power of ideas is the greatest power mankind has ever witnessed or will ever witness. For it lends the thinker power over hearts and minds, the power to shape our thoughts.
Where's the old man in a loin cloth when we really need him?
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