Posts Tagged ‘culture’
Tehelka has an outstanding piece in this week’s issue about the hyper-sexualization of Indian culture which you should definitely read. In a land where only one generation ago arranged marriages were the norm and pre-marital abstinence a steel command, India’s youth have undergone a startling shift in accepted mores.
At this moment thousands of Indian parents are uneasily wondering whether they really want to know what is going on. Mini’s parents still don’t know how to deal with what they found out. Mini is a dainty, extremely pretty 14-year-old. When she was 12, her first boyfriend and she were both eager to claim BTDT (Been There, Done That) about oral sex. One evening at home alone, they tried it out, anticipating a definite move up the social ladder. Sure enough, the next day at school her friends congratulated her even while making faces at the slight grossness in ‘going down’ on a boy.
Dr Prakash Kothari, founder of the World Association For Sexual Health, a man familiar to India through his ubiquitous sex columns, says that one reason children are sexually active earlier is because better nutrition leads to earlier puberty. He says of his new, young clients: “Thirty years ago, only married couples came in looking for advice on safe sex and contraceptives. Today, young girls and boys walk in and ask about sex toys and tonics. Some even ask us if being high on LSD andcharas will enhance their sexual experience.”
Tehelka gets major points for noting the influence of American television:
Alisha describes the extent of OC role-play in her circle: Alisha’s slender best friend was considered to be like rail-thin Marissa from the show. Alisha, who used to be plump until recently, was automatically typecast as Marissa’s best friend Summer since the girls considered Summer chubby. (Look up Rachel Bilson, the waifish actress who plays Summer, and decide for yourself whether our kids are gripped with hatred for their bodies.) The identification with these shows is so close that Alisha’s best friend decided to “do it” with her boyfriend after OC’s lead couple, Ryan and Marissa, did it for the first time. The pressure then began for Alisha (aka best friend Summer) to also ‘pop the cherry’. All this is recounted without any sense of its bizarreness.
But fails to take into account what I believe to be a major factor in this trend: the ever-rising age of marriage. 50 years ago this kind of blatant promiscuity may have been uncommon, but teenage sex was practiced and widespread. Except the teenagers tended to be married. I have no statistics on hand, but my grandmother, to take the most parochial example, was married and had her first child by age 16. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, was married as an infant and first discovered sex at age 13. No one thought very much of it at the time.
Today, among the upper classes, women and men are generally expected to marry in their mid-to-late twenties, respectively. But they are also expected to keep to the same traditions as their parents’ generation, including arranged marriages and strict abstinence. A child that reaches sexual maturity at age 14-16 but is expected to wait a full decade before “popping the cherry” (as the vulgar expression goes), will almost inevitably engage in promiscuity at some point.
The average age of marriage has gone up across the socioeconomic spectrum, but nowhere has the trend been as acute as among the upper-classes. I think it is telling that they are who comprise most of the anecdotes for the Tehelka piece. Among the middle and lower classes (where the average age dips down to the early 20s to late teens), I should imagine one would find this sort of thing quite a bit less.
I don’t want to make too much of this point, because I think the rise of American television in India is the real culprit, as Tehelka mentions. But I want to also point out the conspiracy of silence that still surrounds sexual matters in Indian culture. Most Indian children would be horrified to discuss these issues with their parents, and their parents no less so. It’s the ultimate taboo. In my own experience, my parents didn’t speak a word of it to me – they left that for the school.
But sex education is almost nonexistent in India, and many states have actually banned teaching sex education in schools. The Internet is a dirty place, as you know, and the television shows these children watch (Tehelka mentions The OC and Gossip Girl) contain scenes that would be impossible for a child to understand. With all adults refusing to speak of it, it is natural they should get a warped perception.
However despite all these rationalizations, this is a very disturbing trend in Indian society, and though Tehelka must have sensationalized it a bit, I think it is a valuable lesson in how children, in an absence of understanding adults, will interpret their new cultural surroundings.
The New York Review of Books has an excellent article by Garry Kasparov on the art of chess – and the implications of computers that can beat any human at it. Definitely worth a read.
There have been many unintended consequences, both positive and negative, of the rapid proliferation of powerful chess software. Kids love computers and take to them naturally, so it’s no surprise that the same is true of the combination of chess and computers. With the introduction of super-powerful software it became possible for a youngster to have a top- level opponent at home instead of need ing a professional trainer from an early age. Countries with little by way of chess tradition and few available coaches can now produce prodigies. I am in fact coaching one of them this year, nineteen-year-old Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, where relatively little chess is played.
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.
Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review bemoans the death of fiction in an excellent Mother Jones piece.
Some strong stuff here:
Last summer, Louis Menand tabulated that there were 822 creative writing programs. Consider this for a moment: If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves. And with that in mind, writers have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers—and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.
To all would-be novelists, this article is for you.
Hyderabad is perpetually ensconced in a dim, grey haze. It penetrates every crevasse of every home, fills every lung, and obscures all vision beyond 150 meters or so. It flows, milky-white, from the nozzle of every vehicle (more than a million in Hyderabad alone), and stands as a testament both to India’s vaunted “development” and to the price she pays to attain it. Sitting atop a 5-story terrace one can view in three-hundred sixty degrees the dull miasma hanging low over the city, refracting the sunlight into a cloudy yellow glow.
And still they churn, the endless vehicles and their poisonous effluent. I am told that Hyderabad adds several hundred every day – and India as a whole, tens of thousands. But it is hard to view such statistics with anything more than curious detachment. From day to day the crowds and pollution do not grow noticeably worse, and one can only meet the prospect of several million new cars by the end of the year with a dreary fatalism.
“What, are we not allowed to drive? Do we not deserve cars?” The civil servant, already receiving his share of bribes, asked with hilarious indignation. It was the same argument put forth by India and the other so-called “developing countries” at the Copenhagen conference. I have heard it often from apologists of India’s pollution, and I can hardly blame them. It is a terrible thing, to constantly be called a “developing country”, a member of the “third world”, to be looked down upon as a “backward nation”. These phrases have so entered the Indian psyche that I have even heard Indians referring to themselves, in all earnestness, as a “second-rate” people.
“Why should only America be allowed to burn carbon?”, he demanded, “Do we not also deserve to develop? We are not your colony anymore that you may do with what you like! You cannot keep us in subjugation.”
It was an unanswerable argument. The only possible response – a vague gesture to the handkerchiefs one must clutch to their face in order to breathe – somehow failed to deliver the point. It would be difficult to explain that the sort of “development” India seeks is itself a Western construct, a bow to a new form of subjugation, that it implies a terrible poisoning of its “motherland”, oft extolled in song and poetry, but which in practice has been used as a giant latrine. It would be still more difficult to explain that India as a “developed” country is all but impossible, that we would require three Earths to give each of its 1,200 million inhabitants a car, and apartment, a flat-screen television and 3,000 calories per day.
But still one hears, from every podium: “By 2030 India will join the developed world.” Grandiose claims, but bless their hearts, they do give an impression of believing their own rhetoric. Do they know what it means, this “development”? Here one is obliged to start guessing – no one in a position to give a coherent answer seems capable of doing so. Taking aside the superlative definitions (“more steel production, more automobiles, more television, more money”), the unconscious consensus seems to be: To live as they do in the West. To have rebellious, well-fed children. To drive about in motorcars; and above all, to escape the crowds and corruption of the India they know.
“Once India is developed,” a wealthy banker informed me, “we will no longer have to look at that.” He pointed to a stinking open drainage ditch, running parallel to the road. It was rimmed with shanty tenements of cloth and aluminum – tents, really – where women did their washing in the fecal water and their numerous brood ran about naked as the day they were born. What did he think would happen to the ditch, to the people surrounding it? The ditch would be covered, of course, paved into a proper underground sewer. And the people? Well, perhaps they, too, would “develop” like this banker had; they would shed their rags, gain employment, move into a flat, buy a car (well, maybe a scooter), and join the middle class. Heaven is a world where everyone is rich. I’m sure many in India would be happy with a nutritious meal every day; but as India “develops”, their chances of getting even that begin to diminish.
Hyderabad is “developing” faster than most Indian cities and is now now considered an “IT capital of India. Shopping malls now tower where modest two-story houses sat only a decade ago. Several Indian IT companies chose to make their headquarters here (including, unfortunately, the Satyam ponzi-scheme) and the five-star hotels, of which Hyderabad now has four, sprang like mushrooms after the rain. The unceasing air traffic came to overwhelm Hyderabad’s ramshackle little two-runway airport, and, sniffing a “development opportunity”, it began expropriating land to build what would become India’s biggest airport. The facility at Samshabad opened in 2009 to great fanfare and adulation; encompassing more than 5,000 acres, it stood as the latest avatar of India’s “progress”. Hyderabadis speak with open pride of their beloved airport, of the “progress” it signifies, the “modernity” it heralds.
But what of that 5000-acre stretch’s previous inhabitants? I’ve asked quite a few people, but no one quite knows. Some say confidently, “that was government land” with the assumption that it had no inhabitants, while others say vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they were somehow compensated.” None of the major newspapers focused on the villager’s situation, save for the Deccan Herald, which ran an article on June 24, 2000, when the airport was still being planned.
This article deserves to be read in full, but here is a taste of what went on (all emphasis mine):
About 1500 families of more than 10 villages near Hyderabad are spending sleepless nights. The people are faced with losing their homes, land and their livelihood as the government plans to acquire about 5000 acres to build the prestigious international airport in Shamshabad mandal near Hyderabad, abutting the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway. ”What is thisdevelopment? How is an airport useful to us?” asked Mrs Nagamani, mother of three sons, with tears in her eyes. Her village, Chinnagollapally, is one of the 10 that is going to be acquired. ”It is like mowing down a tree and making the birds homeless,” she said.
And another view:
Balaraj Goud of the same village said the only alternative open to them was to turn into rag-pickers, and then they would have to live with the ”sin” of displacing the present rag-pickers and depriving them of their livelihood. ”Perhaps the government should drop a bomb on us to spare us this trauma and then take our village for development,” Goud said bitterly.
At least the villagers received some remuneration, right?
The Shamshabad International Airport Land-losers Welfare Association points out that the government was dealing a double blow to the affected people. Not only is it displacing them, but offering a pittance of a compensation of Rs 45,000 per acre whereas the prevailing market rate is between Rs 160,000 and Rs 220,000 per acre.
On the bright side, at least the jet-setting businessmen, those gurus of development, will have a nice airport to land in, and a nearby 5-star hotel too!
Such examples abound. They are an inextricable by-product of “development” – at least, in the prevailing model – as inevitable as soot from a fire.
The dominant political slogan for the BJP a few years ago was “India Shining!”, to which Sonia Gandhi countered, “Who is India Shining for?” It was all meaningless political sloganeering, but Sonia’s response, I think, hit closer to the mark. At any rate, her party trounced the BJP in that election. But, having won, they turned around, as so often happens in politics, and began to advocate what they once denounced. India must shine after all – the world is watching. India was a land of problems, but those problems had a ready nostrum: Development!
Meanwhile, it is clear that as India “develops” its problems have tended to exacerbate, not ease. Social inequality is undoubtedly on the rise; where, before, the rich were merely well-to-do, now they command trillions of rupees, billions of dollars, while 500 million (almost twice the population of the US) still lives on less than 20 rupees per day. And more money inevitably means more corruption, something with which India has always wrestled, but which now threatens to swallow its fragile polity whole. The pollution in Hyderabad is quite characteristic of all Indian cities, and has begun to spread to the countryside. Trash now litters the entire 200 km stretch between Hyderabad and Warangal; the fields lay rotten and fallow, littered with so many plastic bags.
It is important to realize that these problems are borne of “development”, and they cannot be erased with yet more “development”. The pollution, the social stratification, the political corruption, the dilution of culture, the overpopulation – these are all the fruits of progress. Against them, what can one boast? That rich young men can finally buy Nike? That businessmen now wear suits instead of dhotis and travel first-class to New York? That 5 city-dwellers get a “European” flat for every 500 that sleep in the street?
“They laughed at him then, but Gandhi was a green thinker ahead of his time,” a wise coworker told me. And I wonder how many of India’s problems might have been avoided had they followed his prescriptions. In Gandhi’s numerous articles he consistently spoke out against mechanization, against the machine civilization, against cities, and even a centralized state. The India of his dreams was an exclusively rural country, “a village republic”, as he once called it, bereft of centralized politics beyond the level of a village council. I think Gandhi’s view of ‘development’ can be summed in his reaction to mechanized agriculture. “Show me a tractor,” he said, “that makes milk and fertilizer while it plows our fields.”
He was laughed at then, and even now evokes much derision among Indians. Predictably, the complaints against him are that he was “anti-development”, he “wanted to keep us poor”, he was a “selfish man”. But taking aside his personal flaws (which, one must admit, were substantial), Gandhi stood as a nationalist, a defender against the corrupting influences of Britain (then the premier representative of “the west”), a pursuer of a vision of India which may have been flawed, but, in the sense which I think most would give the word, was at least “authentic”.
India today has transformed into nothing of the sort; it has shed whatever authenticity it one had and has settled, as if it already knew its place, back into an imperial role. With every Coca-cola sold, every pair of Nikes worn, India slips further away from whatever independence it may have gained.
And looking now upon this wasted continent, half-developed, half-forgotten, one cannot help but feel despair. Unwittingly, India has allowed itself to become colonized once again!
Hyderabad heaved a sigh of relief today as the general strike and demonstration at the legislative assembly did not happen. Congress leadership has indicated that they have drafted a bill to create a separate Telengana state, K.C Rao has ended his hunger strike, and the city is once again jerking along in its regular rhythms.
Over the past decades India has seen tremendous balkanization, of which this Telangana dispute stands as yet another symptom. Winston Churchill, that magnificent racist, once opined that “India is no more a country than is the Equator”, and while events have later discredited that remark, the ghost of his sentiment has been present throughout. After independence every language group wanted its own state, and once that had been arranged, further interest groups began agitating for their own homeland. Telangana will be the fourth new state created this decade. In developments like these one can very clearly see the divisions still plaguing India today, the “communal sentiments” (as residents like to call them), and the way in which the Indian government operates.
The Telangana issue has stuck in Indian politics for 40 years or so, and its recent resurgence can be attributed mainly to climate change (or “drought”, for you non-believers). Over the years, Telangana has seen its share of water rights gradually diminished, as irrigation projects led by neighboring Andhra have diverted water away from the Telangana countryside. Several years of light rainfall eventually brought this issue to a head, after which one saw emotional speeches by Telengana leaders, hunger strikes, city-wide boycotts, and riots.
Such breakdowns of law and order betray a lethargy on the part of the Central Government, an unwillingness, or at least a perceived unwillingness to take these grievances seriously. One does not declare a fast unto death, sparking riots, police beatings, and paramilitary operations, if one believes he has a decent chance of being heard without these things. So in one sense this episode betrays a failure in the Indian decision-making process. After all, it is clear that the Telangana grievances, though quite real, could still be addressed without the creation of a new state. But it was precisely because the Telangana supporters were convinced their voice would not be heard via the usual channels that they resorted to demonstrations and violence.
Central leadership finally acceded to the protesters’ demands this morning, validating, perhaps, their violent methods. But this is the way in which things happen in India – one generally cannot achieve a result without loud demonstrations. This also indicates the severe strain of emotionalism which runs through Indian politics. Telangana supporters, when asked, will point to drought and jobs as the overriding reasons for their dispute, but the matter goes deeper than that: they know, in their hearts, they “deserve” a Telangana state, and no compromises, no palliative alleviations will suffice. It speaks to the lack of “national identity”, to the general identification with smaller social groups: state, religion, caste, political party, and who knows what else.
But even more than that, this little episode exemplifies the sort of issue that can mobilize large crowds in India. After all, to an outsider (such as myself) it is a matter of profound indifference under which administrative district Telangana happens to fall. The overriding problems facing India as a whole, systemic corruption, massive income disparities, an exploding population, etc., could never elicit such as response as Telangana did. Increasingly, such problems are coming to be seen as somebody else’s mess – namely, India’s: a country with which fewer and fewer identify.
Addendum: Former Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddy’s untimely death in a helicopter crash this September can explain the precise timing of this movement. A formidable politician, adept at keeping a lid on disputes like these, his absence left a wide diplomatic hole. Reddy’s successor, a self-inflated septuagenarian named K. Rosiah, was not equal to the task of satisfying the Telangana supporters.
A young man on the street was gracious enough to share his opinions regarding India:
“Corruption is endemic here. Let’s say, for example, I get stopped by the police. I jumped a red light. Now I can either take the ticket, around Rs. 1000 or so, or I can simply bribe the policeman, say Rs. 200. Who, I ask you, would prefer to pay the ticket? 99.9% of us will just give the bribe and be done with it. That sort of thing simply cannot happen in America.”
“Oh yes, income inequality is still huge, still a major problem, but I think there is reason to believe it is getting better. If you came here, say, 10 years ago, you would have seen it a lot worse. Come in another 10 years or so, and you’ll likely see it less. Can poverty ever be truly eradicated here? Probably not. The rich are getting a lot richer in this country; they have been for the past two decades. The poor have not seen anything like that; life for the bottom has continued in much the same way.”
“Pollution… well, what can you say about a people who throw their trash on the ground and then blithely forget it? These are cultural problems, but they are also political problems. You think there isn’t enough money to make it so that people don’t have to beg? You think we lack the knowledge and manpower – I mean, you think it’s beyond us to construct a decent municipal trash system, to make sure the sewer reaches all areas of the city, to make regularized trash pickup a basic right? Of course it isn’t, but the political will to enact such programs just isn’t there. The vested interests who run our political system would rather see our resources to go different ends. Their ends. Look at New York City – every vehicle has a catalytic converter, trash is superbly managed – hell, there’s a trash can on every street corner. We’re a long way from that.”
“In fact, I would say we in India are about 100 years behind the West.”
(At this, I demurred.)
“No, certainly we are! The things you take for granted there – social security, regularized pensions, food banks, homeless shelters, scrupulous policeman; we have none of those here. P. Sainath said that all the judges and magistrates in India don’t have the power of a single police constable, and he said it right. We hardly even have a sense of ourselves as a nation, as such. We would much rather identify with smaller communal structures: Religion, race, caste, social status, and so forth. What do the Indian billionaires really have in common with the destitute on the street? Not a damn thing.”
“But – and here is the rub – we are all implicated! Take the example of the policeman. Who will say they have never given a bribe? I know I have. Our politicians – we say they are corrupt, we complain and moan, but in the end who elected them? We did. It is a vicious circle, without a beginning or end.”
“Perhaps I misspoke, however. If I could point to a beginning of the circle, it would surely be the population. All of our problems stem from that. But again, it is a cultural problem. Everyone gets married here; it is basically a law. And if you get married and don’t have kids, people will immediately assume something is wrong. The gossip one hears! ‘Cheh, did you hear so-and-so still hasn’t had a child? They’ve been married for more than a year! I think his wife may be infertile. Such a shame, such a shame!” One cannot escape talk like that, and one cannot, I think, live with it for more than a short time. So we are compelled to have children by a thousand different pressures. And one is not enough, you must have at least two! And woe unto you if they turn out to be girls, especially if you’re poor! In that case the dominant strategy is to just keep having children until a boy turns up. What can you do in the face of that? We distribute condoms, but nobody uses them – we hold sessions on family planning, but no one shows up.”
“About the future, I am not too optimistic. Our pollution corresponds directly with our need for an “affluent lifestyle”, and there is no getting away from it. We rely on coal to an alarming extent. Our population keeps growing and there seems no power strong enough to check it. 40% of our population is under the age of 30, but that is both a blessing and a curse. What will we do in ten years when they all start to want families?”
“Oh, you can’t trust the Muslims,” a coworker of mine informed me, “They follow their own rules. They act as one. I mean, look at their religion! No morality whatsoever! If you want to have five wives, well, go right ahead. If you want to blow yourself up, just be sure to shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ beforehand.”
He continued: “We Hindus, on the other hand, when can you point to a single instance of violence originating from us? Where can you point to a single Hindu trying to convert someone by force?”
Meekly, (for I knew how hot emotions run during times such as these) I mentioned the Partition Riots that took place in 1947, or the periodic bouts of ‘communal violence’ which seem to crop up every two years or so.
“The communal riots, that’s something totally different!” he barked, “Those are usually started by the other side anyway. Are you saying we shouldn’t defend ourselves? Anyway, can you point to a single Hindu suicide bomber?”
I could not. Yet it seemed pointless to mention at that time the danger of the views he espoused, that by perpetuating the “Us vs. Them” mentality he did damage of a far more insidious sort than quite a lot of suicide bombers together.
I mention this episode because it was so similar in nature to many other conversations I have had with Hindus regarding Hindu-Muslim relations. Perhaps it is a symptom of the unspoken segregation that exists in India that I have not yet had the chance to get a Muslim view on the subject, though I suspect such a conversation would go quite the same, only in favor of their “side”.
Unspoken though it may be, Hindu-Musilm segregation is quite real, and it stands apparent even to a foreigner such as myself. The city in which I stay, Hyderabad, is famous for the peace with which its population lives, despite being an almost fully hybrid city. Hindu temples dot the sidewalks in one district, and merely a few kilometers away one can hear the local Mosque’s ringing call to prayer. Yet one sees very little commingling between Hindus and Muslims. The city is pocked with Hindu or Muslim enclaves, and their residents rarely venture to the other side. And it is an undeniable fact that the Muslim neighborhoods are worse off in almost every respect to the Hindu boroughs. The few Muslim neighborhoods I visited were crowded labyrinths of squeezed-together houses and suffered from a lack of fresh water, lack of access to sewage systems, poor and irregular food delivery and almost no sanitation to speak of, while the neighborhoods I saw with all the ‘modern amenities’ were populated almost exclusively by Hindus.
“India will never solve its problems,” a pessimistic friend of mine once said, “because India will never get along with itself. If you had a stone in the middle of the road and were trying to organize people to help move it to the side, it just wouldn’t happen. One person will say we should move it to the right. The other person will insist on moving it to the left. They’ll form parties over the issue, hold elections, even. Whatever the outcome, no matter how well monitored, the losing side will insist that it had been cheated, that the elections were fraudulent. Then there will be recounts, runoff elections. One faction of the ‘right side of the road’ party will splinter off, saying it is no longer represented by party leadership, and form its own party – say, the ‘further down the road’ coalition which states that the rock should neither be moved to the right nor left. Hindus will insist on taking leadership positions in the moving of the rock, Muslims will howl at the injustice of it all. Perhaps they’ll agitate for their own rock, to move in a fashion they see fit.”
At that point he ran out of examples, but I could continue for him if he wished: “Then, a language controversy would erupt. Marati speakers would insist on writing their language on the rock; Hindi speakers will make the same demands, and so will the Tamils. The lesser represented languages will join together in a coalition which, of course, will subsequently break apart.” And so forth.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. “In such a country,” my friend concluded, “It’s impossible to believe that anything gets done.”
It is clear, however, that things are getting done, and one need look no further than India’s new crop of billionaires to see it. But one wonders if India will ever move beyond its communal mentality, if it will ever see itself, and its problems, holistically. There is much evidence that this is already happening, however slowly.
On the other hand, I have even heard the overpopulation problem blamed on the Muslims.
Lack of updates these past two weeks due to my relocation to India, where I shall be for the next four months. I will be interning with The Indian Express, a mid-sized daily newspaper, and living in Hyderabad, at the heart of the subcontinent.
India is a maze, a warren, a crazy mosaic of languages and cultures. And also, apparently, economic conditions. Nowhere else, save perhaps for China, can one so easily view rich and poor, privileged and deprived, hungry and satiated, living side by side, literally on top of one another. The inequality here is so stark as to astound a visitor from the “developed” world, and one needs only to open their eyes to see it.
This is not, of course, to say that America is any paragon of social equality. Indeed, the inequality one finds in America (the top 1% of American earners reap more than 66% of income gains) roughly compares to its Indian counterpart – but devices were put in place long ago to mask this, such that you would have to go back sixty or seventy years to see the kind of open poverty one views today in India.
Aravind Adiga, in his excellent novel The White Tiger, remarked that there were, in fact, two Indias: rich and poor, urban and rural, light and dark. But that betrays, I think, an anthropogenic love for duality. Would it not be more accurate to say there are tens of Indias, thousands, millions? There is still the Anglo-India, kow-towing to all things western, obsessed with “progress”, “advancement”; there is political India, where millionaires sit drinking tea served by “houseboys”, making pious speeches to one another about “the poor” while ensuring their houseboys don’t go anywhere; there is old India, whose fading citizens still carry dim memories of the British Raj, whom the rapid development of the past decades has left in utter confusion. And there is young India, comprising more than a quarter of the population, born after 1980, already in a world light-years from that of their parents. Beset by ceaseless advertisements and consumerism on one hand, and the receding puritanism of their parents on the other, their confusion is the confusion India faces today. Does not every one of India’s 250 + dialects confer its own reality, its own India? And then: do the myriad cities, each variegated in a manner so far removed from American homogeniety, not confer their own Indias? One more India we cannot forget, one which is growing more powerful and ruthless by the day: Corporate India.
Overpopulation is the defining issue of our day, and nowhere does it strike one so forcefully as India. When one steps out into the swirling chaos of the streets, when one stands admidst the teeming masses with faces so much like your own, when one looks down from a rooftop at the quivering mass of thousands, tens of thousands, it strikes: Can there truly be so many? And: What do all these people do? How do they survive?
Badly, as it turns out. My cousin informed me that 60% of India’s population lives hand-to-mouth, on less than 1,000 calories per day. “You could hardly call that living!” she exclaimed. And yet somehow it is. Confronted by the magnitude of the population problem, which is truly that of the whole world, one has no choice but to shut it out of his mind. Doing so, of course, is much easier in the West, where the density has not yet reached critical mass, but even in India, where one must live with it daily, one finds a curious detachment. Not that they don’t realize the problem; indeed, when brought up it is usually met with a disapproving shake of the head and cluck of the tongue, but invariably a shrug and some noises to the effect that “there is nothing to be done.”
Perhaps of a sense of powerlessness, then, one is able to look out the window at the roadways choked with 15 types of vehicle, the cars and motorcycles viciously competing for inches of space, the clouds of blue smoke that never quite disperse, or the thousands, tens of thousands of faces seen once and forgotten with a mere shrug. They have grown accustomed to it, so to speak, and I can already feel myself growing accustomed as well.
Very often, as you stroll down a major Indian thoroughfare, you can see spiritual tourists from the West patronizing the corner-store rishis. Wide-eyed, glowing with excitement about “enlightenment” and “finding themselves”, they dutifully perform the rites and chants as prescribed by their eastern philosophers-for-hire. And when they have finished, they leave for their homes in the West full with thoughts of their “life changing experience” in India: a land of swamijis and rickshaws, a country of mystics and philosophers, an ancient civilization of enlightenment. That such a vision corresponds very little to the actual picture of India is immaterial. Even the fact that the world of Indian spiritualism is being quickly dismantled in favor of a “market-oriented” culture bears little importance. To the cultural imperialists descending from Europe and America, India exists as a spiritual haven, a land apart, which no amount of development can truly change.
But change is occurring – apparent to those with eyes for it, and faster than any observer from the 1990s could have dreamt. Already a tourist can stay at a Sheraton, dine at Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or McDonald’s, shop in a mall, use wi-fi internet, and find themselves beset by advertisements and eager entrepreneurs, supposing of course, they should want to. Bollywood now blares open sexuality on television and film screens, and many youth in India have embraced rock music, rap, alcohol, dating, and myriad other social cues from Western youth. Belief in religion persists, but its meaning has changed beyond recognition. And the growing ranks of diaspora, already large in the 1980s, have given rise to a new class of Indians, raised in the west with only a very vague connection to the subcontinent or its people.