The Unconscious Foreigner


Michael Willis isn't happy. He is a teacher at an eminent independent school in the picturesque and typically British town of Brentwood. Don't get me wrong ' he loves his job. He's been doing it for nearly 30 years. It's just that his students are not hard working and diligent as he was in his teens- nearly 40 years ago. Never has he shied away from doing more than he should and helping a struggling student. But the irony is that struggling students couldn't care enough to seek additional help.

Wishing the teacher 'Good morning', doing all the homework on time and not misbehaving with him are traits that I found were at a premium while doing my schooling in Britain. A student possessing all the three qualities is as rare as Ajit Agarkar scoring a century in international cricket. The question then is ' how do these students- when they graduate from university ' fuel the engine of the world's fourth largest economy? The answer ' They increasingly don't.

A report in The Telegraph on the 7th of February cited a British Council report suggesting that there had been a 14% increase in the number of students arriving in Britain from India in 2004-05 vis-'-vis 2003-04. That was the second year in succession when the rate of growth was 14%, far exceeding the 5-6% target of the council. The number of Chinese students has also seen an increase, given the United States' strict visa regime since 9/11.

Linking the growing number of international students to the job market is problematic, as anyone studying in Britain who is from outside the European Union would testify. The work permit is extremely hard to obtain, especially for students in non-required skills fields.

But the point is that Britain is facing a potential skills shortage which will arguably be filled by international ' a large proportion being Indian ' students. Already 30% of the National Health Service's doctors are Indian, and they are also present in London's financial markets and IT companies.

The Office of National Statistics has long published reports which show that ethnic Indian and Chinese students perform markedly better at school than their whitecounterparts. A report in The Times and many other publications cited the Association of Graduate Employers in Britain complaining that they increasingly face difficulties in recruiting graduates with adequate skills for their positions.

If you're thinking that this is an article about how bright the prospects of Indians aspiring to come to the United Kingdom are, then read on. Because that is precisely not why I penned this piece.

My problem is with the 'discourse' that sweeps across the minds of most Indians when they study at a foreign institution. This is the same 'discourse' that Michel Foucault spoke of, that determines terms and assumptions one uses in a dialogue. Edward Said's 'other' speaks in the same language as his 'us'. The ultimate irony is that by using their terms, I am implicitly a part-member of this discourse too.

Too abstract? Here's a simplification.

I have seen many sociology or politics students here at Warwick espousing Marx and Gramsci to argue against globalisation in India, which they term 'Western imperialism'. Almost none of these students are Indian (Politics isn't exactly a typical desi degree). Yet, they cite facts and figures and channel them through ideological models just as well as any Indian would've done. Often I find myself citing these same figures to argue against those activist types.

The crucial things that go unnoticed are that the terms of these debates as well as the ideas that shape them. They are not Indian. These debates are essentially the same as those that take place across academic campuses in India, as well as onBig Fight on NDTV. What difference does it make to be an Indian to talk about India? The fact is that it doesn't.

We are all foreigners ' those of us living outside India, as well as those who live inside India ' if not by skin colour, then by the imprints on our minds. While in India, some of our 'discourses' are still alive in day-to-day life (although not at the fundamental level). Here, even that is dead.

Not being disrespectful even to the slightest to Western civilisation and society, I don't believe that India's destiny lies in being just another bastion for either capitalism or socialism. India is being judged and talked about in these alien terms, and Indians have accepted it. This is not how it should be if India is truly to be the flourishing civilisation it once was. India should talk about itself in its own terms.

We should have our own theories that squabble with one another, our own paradigms to see the world through. It doesn't mean to shut oneself off from the rest of the world- that would be contrary to the inclusiveness that has been the hallmark of India through the ages. But giving Chanakya Vishnugupta an equal place as John Rawls or Karl Marx in a political science degree syllabus would not be such a bad starting point.

I don't know whether Bhaskara did invent the theorem that made Pythagoras famous. Most Indian students interested in science must've heard of those famous words of Stephen Hawking ' 'If we find the answer to'why [and not how] it is that we and the universe exist'that would be the ultimate triumph of human reason ' for then we should know the mind of God.'

But have they heard of these strikingly similar words of the Rig Veda that don't even spare God from questions and concede that even He might not know?

Neither being (sat) nor non-being was as yet. 
What was concealed? 
And where? 
And in whose protection? 
Who really knows? 
Who can declare it? 
Whence was it born, and whence came this creation? 
The devas were born later than this world's creation, so who knows from where it came into existence? 
None can know from where creation has arisen, and whether he has or has not produced it. 
He who surveys it in the highest heavens, he alone knows-or perhaps does not know.
 (Rig Veda 10. 129)


More by :  Aruni Mukherjee

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