India, Unhappy in its own Way

The Hindu FEATURES » BOOK REVIEW    May 1, 2012

India, unhappy in its own way

Murali Sivaramakrishnan

Essays on the paradox of India as a wealth-producing machine with a deep division between the rich and the poor

The IPL fever these days is felt in every sphere of Indian life: it is telecast live and otherwise through every possible channel. And MNCs are quick to latch onto the league’s immense reach. Exquisitely prepared commercials, equally wily in their content, invoke the fast-track wave of smart technology that is sweeping through the country and deliberately tease the viewer to grapple with the world of make-believe and the whirligig of development. That this fanfare is all about professional event management and there is little about the game to make it more exciting than any other, is common knowledge. And the fact is it but provides a platform for rival brands to leverage the opportunity to prosper — very much in tune with the media-hyped Commonwealth Games 2010. Mega events powered by self-styled international brands have become almost every day events in our country.

India’s World, 2012


Ideal marketplace

Granted, India is now the ideal market place for the promised utopia. Indian corporates have gone global in a big way with Indian media groups signing deals with corporate giants, Indian auto markets competing with U.S. and European markets, and Indian students getting admitted to the finest universities in the US and Europe in record numbers. In many ways, then, India is on the fast-track to economic success. But nevertheless, the contradictions and crises that India encounters are equally massive and challenging.Arjun Appadurai and Arien Mack have produced an anthology of writings that pose multi-levelled questions from amidst this apparent paradox of success and failures. As Appadurai caustically points out in his introduction, the country reveals at least one feature of social division that appears global in its reach, namely the gap between the richest and poorest members.

What perhaps has happened in the post-independence era is that India has become an unrelenting wealth-producing machine, where state policies and private enterprise have created legal and economic frameworks in which ironically the fetters to private enterprise and wealth accumulation have been broken. A combination of political corruption and black money has weakened Indian parliamentary politics and brought a hitherto unprecedented scale of crooks, criminals, and thugs into all aspects of the public sphere. The essays in this volume reach into the major aspects of Indian politics, history, science and culture, and debate on the dilemmas and issues that are paradoxical. The question that all eleven contributors raise, in their own various ways, is how to understand the relationship between India’s success and its failures. In all, this issue of the politics of creativity in a fast-globalising society, as visualised by these very intriguing essays, is bound to disturb and at the same time inspire any reader concerned with the fate of India.

India is well on the way to losing its memory: one cannot simply go around a tradition to overcome it and wipe out its memory—one certainly has to encounter it and go through the same with an open mind. This is the situation as posited by Shelden Pollock, in the context of debating the crisis in the classical language of the Gods . Corporatisation, commodification, and technologisation have been the root cause for the calamity staring at classical studies in India. With prophetic insight he writes: “India is confronting a calamitous endangerment of its classic knowledge, and India today may have reached the point the rest of the world will reach tomorrow.” This is indeed a dismal picture of a nation casually laying aside its classical lineage.

Writing in English

However what has emerged successful is Indian writing in English—the language re-establishing itself for the wrong reason in the market place of consumerist culture. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s essay leads to the unravelling of the nation-centred novels in the post-Rushdie mould. The paradox of the postcolonial novel of nation lies typically in the deployment of nation as narrative in combination with a critique of nationalism.

Suvir Kaul traces the subversive contexts of Kashmiri poetry and its inherent political tensions and tragedies, while Ranjani Mazumdar depicts Bollywood cinema’s tryst with terror, conspiracy, and violence as the bridge between popular culture and entertainment in India today. Indian liberalism might have helped Dalits acquire self-esteem, in terms of some tangible assets, at the cost of self-respect, points out Gopal Guru, because Indian democracy exists in the shadow of the eternal truth of caste. In the pervasive resurgence of a religious Puritanism on the other hand, as Wendy Doniger argues, citing Burton’s translation of Kama Sutra , India has given rise to its own home-grown traditions of prudery in opposition to its history of sensuality and openness. There is a great lapse of memory in the fall of kama and the rise of karma .

Contradictions abound in the education sector: the IT services revolution has blinded the already befuddled policy makers in the process of transfer of learning. School and University systems have virtually closed themselves to a measure of science and technology at the expense of all other forms of knowledge. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s essay on Science Today and Ajit Balakrishnan’s India’s IT Industry , speak of the breakdown between science education and the demands of technology.

The rise of the IT industry could be even traced back to the 12{+t}{+h}century when the Persian mathematician Musa al-Khwarizmi’s book on Hindu numerals was translated and made available to the western world, however, its future success may lie in its ability to make the transition from being a mere provider of low-cost programming services. What is similarly called for is a committed workforce capable of teaching in high-quality higher educational institutions: for knowledge is best acquired where knowledge is created, not only for those who receive it but also for those who create it. We need to rethink with policy administrators in terms of extending quality education rather than allowing educational plans to peter out as mere “strategies for university buildings and not for building universities” (Mehta 2008, Pollock)

Growth & equity

Appadurai has paraphrased Tolstoy thus: “in a world of multiple modernities every modern society is unhappy in its own way.” Indian cultural resources run deep in history and the haste and waste of modernisation has posed its own issues. By way of offering a solace in view of all these crises Appadurai sums up: “we need to search our own hearts and minds to rethink the relationships between wealth and inclusion, growth and equity, success for some and survival for all.” This is the collective task of criticism, debate, and social reconstruction possible only in a genuine public sphere where all voices are heard — more so the dissenting ones.

Disinheriting its own memory but powered by the market and technology, India thus is on the highways of globalising development. Despite internationally celebrated economic growth rates, its illiteracy and infant mortality rates, food security, and the gap between rich and poor continue to remain at unhealthily high levels. While more and more magnificent highways are charted out over the heart of this ancient land and super-fast vehicles fly like wind over newly tarred surface between metros brightened by colossal hoardings on either side, the common man and woman wait gingerly hidden behind the commercial hoardings for the mystery of a super-transformation. This volume of essays is bound to be of immense interest to anyone concerned with the future and present of a nation that has almost disinherited its memory and is currently struggling at the threshold of emergent new registers. Michael Foucault drew a distinction between universal intellectuals, concerned with larger issues, and specific intellectuals involved with small-scale issues in particular sectors of society. However distinct each might sound there is a fractal relationship between them: this is true of this volume as well. Each essay in its characteristic way focuses on grass-root issues and leads on to discussions in a broader spectrum.