Monday, January 10, 2011

A Tryst with Destiny, One Billion Strong

You’ve heard of childhood and adulthood, but have you heard of ‘personhood’? You’ve heard of the middle ground, or the middle child, but have you heard of ‘middleness’? Can you hear India calling?

Anand Giridharadas (AG) can, and it’s not just because of his kickass mountain-scape-like, 5-syllable last name (that I’m sure gives him sharp eyesight and keen hearing). A journalist for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, he spent 4.5 years living in and reporting on India, and returned to the United States in 2009, where he continues to transcribe the Subcontinent’s rumblings. His book, INDIA CALLING: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, was published by Times Books last week, and he is touring North America publicizing it, armed with books to sign, spiffy blazers, a microphone and refined ideas about India.

The evening starts with an excerpt from AG’s book which he reads easily, stretched comfortably in his chair. He selects an excerpt about the Dube joint family where cousins grow up as siblings and adults are parents, aunts and uncles at the same time. The “noisy, overwhelming love” that such families cultivate in small spaces is that unmistakable trait of Indian families, the “ambient love…unlike the kind that I had grown up with,” AG tells us. This is a traditional family where sagacity comes experience: “old always has the upper hand; new always stands on the defensive.” The providers in the family are “Upstairs Chacha” (uncle) and “Downstairs Chacha”—childhood brothers—who live, appropriately, in the upstairs and downstairs sections of the house.

Over time, AG observes the “family Marxism” morph into separate households each Chacha has “cleaved” for his family. “A rupture was torn,” AG writes, which manifests in the house’s physical upkeep, the parents’ ambitions for the children and the methodical expansions of parts of the house. “Money makes a man perfect,” Upstairs Chacha explains to AG, which used to “come from love” but no more. Recognizing this, Upstairs Chacha reconfigures his priorities while Downstairs Chacha enjoys the complacent pace of life, the conversations “filled with banalities and gossip.” Upstairs, time is to be seized; downstairs, it is to be endured. Which is right?

After a 15-minute reading, Aseem Chhabra moderates a discussion with AG, opening with a reference to Slumdog Millionaire and the can-do attitude creeping over India’s farthest corners like a fat monsoon cloud. Specifically, can AG tell us about one particular character who really made an impact on him?

Most of the books characters represent a “sliver” of India’s bulging populace, but if there is one person who “stands for the transformation in India,” it would be Ravindra Misal from Umred, an unexceptional town in Maharashtra, who climbed up in a world that “no one sensibly would think anyone could get out of.” He has developed a new genre of entrepreneurship, stemming from the “great epiphany” that he is not alone in wanting to do more, be more, receive more. AG finds it a “fascinating and complicated question” when a child of squalor wakes up and declares, ‘I will not become like my parents.’ It is can-do in its rawest form. Misal leaves the classroom after surrendering to an unforgiving exam system, picks up a series vocational skills and returns as a teacher—a triumph of karma? Realizing that he can channel hope and dreams into the town’s youth, Misal creates an English Academy and organizes roller skating classes.

Chhabra interrupts with a smile. Roller skating?

To people who come from such poor, rural backgrounds, “simple, meritocratic competition appeals” the most, AG explains, so the idea is that cheap “two by two” roller skates are sufficient to create a game and enliven an entire town.

It is a matter of time before the roller skating amateurs turn into pros competing in international competitions. Gregarious, talkative Misal—India’s roller skating team manager—is unusually tacit on the plane to Hong Kong, where he “just kept his camera on the window, pointed down at the farmland” he was leaving behind. AG pauses and we reflect with Misal about how far he has come, and how different home looks from so high up.

Chhabra describes the typical, and now more frequent, Indian story of the poor villager traveling to a city, his success culminating in a house, employment and an upgraded dignity: the ol’ rags to riches tale.

“I think the reason I like [Misal’s] story is because he didn’t reach a Bombay or a Delhi,” AG says. He believes that the “story of modern India” is a million “incremental bumps up” rather than a stampede to Bombay or Delhi, cities which are rapidly reaching critical mass, as the New York Times reported last November. Success comes from the more inherent acknowledgement of “personhood,” recognizing that you are a person, a body of potential that ought to be tapped.

Chhabra connects this new sense of independence to India’s economic liberalization. Does AG agree?

Not quite. Not all of India’s development should be attributed to India’s new economics or the “gust of capitalism.” Sure, “capitalism is a contributor,” but AG sees something larger: the mind shift from society being God-made to being manmade. He quotes Dr. Reddy, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India from 2003 to 2008, who praised the marriage of economic empowerment and social empowerment that enabled millions of Indians to recognize that “they are people.” The term ‘emerging market’ is “such a reduction,” AG continues. You can’t tell one billion people with millennia of history that they amount to an emerging market. Look at Russia and China; they have had and continue to show extraordinary growth; but do they have the same “people dynamism” as India does? Finding their voices, Indians are evolving from a culture of “paupers and maharajas” to a culture of “middleness” – it’s the middle class who are shaping new developments, championing causes, and demanding change.

Chhabra asks about angry reactions from NRIs that AG has faced in response to articles about India’s less uplifting statistics: high farmer suicide rates, ultra-poverty and gaping corruption, to name a few.

AG shrugs. “It makes your blood curdle driving through India even if people in big houses don’t want to read about it in the New York Times.”

Does AG want to comment on the “monstrosity” of Mukesh Ambani’s billion dollar home?

Another dismissal. “I don’t care… He spends a lot less on housing than you or I do…I’d rather he also create an AIDS foundation…I don’t begrudge him for what he does.” AG points out that an Ambani endowment could be the next world-changing foundation. “It’s not the Gates Foundation; it could be.”

Chhabra tries another angle: having returned from India, is there anything AG reflects on from his time there that saddens him?

AG returns to Misal’s incredible story. It’s “so striking what these kids learn,” he says; they are so “hungry to get ahead.” Misal is imparting concepts like SWOT (a strategic planning tool, popular in consulting-speak, which stands for ‘Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats’) to 16-year olds; most Americans don’t encounter it until their first job in their early twenties. AG observes some of Misal’s classes and sees that, in teaching these eager adolescents how to speak, you are trimming what they think about, focusing on ambition and independence. “They are being trained, not necessarily educated,” he says, which means there is no priority to learn “Tagore, Ashoka, Kabir.” India has 5,000 years of history but that is being put aside, and “that’s what worries me.”

AG turns to the audience: students at Columbia’s Journalism School have made a choice not to go into investment banking but instead to “make less and make a difference,” which is a culture that has not yet come to India. Right now there is “ambition and private dynamism,” but what about collective endeavors, what are the “social tradeoffs?” He reminds us that “just making money won’t bear out.”

Chhabra opens the discussion to the audience for questions.

Q: Is the ongoing psychological revolution—this new-found sense of opportunity and entitlement—creating a culture of evils, inciting more clashes between the old and young?

A: You can draw a million lines in India—upper/lower caste, upper/lower class, rich/poor—but the most important is young/old, since they span the psychological rift spreading over the nation. America went through this evolution of thinking over 150 years and India’s now cramming it into 20 years in an “orgy of development” where “churn is the only kind of change.” That is a “very bitter truth” for an older person to reconcile with, given that he cannot adapt as quickly. Whether he is rich or poor, the old man is resentful because his plans and dreams no longer apply; the rules, the landscape, his world, have changed.

Q: Has Ravindra Misal’s story and success spread to other villages, are others adopting his ideas?

A: Only a few people know his complete story the way Giridharadas has chronicled it; one or two are aware of his success. However, he is the “ambassador of escape,” the “most respected young person in that town,” which is a strong currency in India. “There is a change in the hierarchy of respectability,” demonstrated in Umred both dangerously and comically: During a motorcycle joy ride—Misal driving, Giridharadas behind him—they were stopped every few minutes by townspeople eager to greet their village hero. They wished him with folded palms—namaskar—which Misal happily returned with his own palms folded, casually taking his hands off the motorcycle and giving Ghiridharadas several heart attacks!

Q: Is there any disapproval by the youth to India’s rising growth and consumerist attitude?

A: It’s too soon for such a reaction to manifest. The current young generations see their future in this growth; it’s too early to tell. Consumerism isn’t all bad, after all. A “consumer-based pecking order” is a “lot less stupid” than doling out respect and opportunity based on one’s great-great-great-great grandfather’s profession. Money can be the “gush” to break up such thoughts of caste-driven respect, and it “needs time to do its work.”

Q: Do India’s elderly show dissatisfaction with India’s goal of modernization because they didn’t have that freedom or chance to do what their progeny are doing now?

A: Absolutely. Today’s elderly are in a sad state of limbo and can still remember being restricted in their youth, something their children and grandchildren are no longer stymied by.

AG’s grandmother lived through this. At first, she said she was thinking the ‘wrong thoughts’ by seeking more in life beyond her role as a woman/wife/mother/daughter-in-law. So she stopped vocalizing them. Then she just stopped having thoughts: “I just realized that I wasn’t supposed to talk.” Today, however, she is the head of an NGO working in the slums. Similarly, and on an inspiringly large scale, people from tiny villages in rural India passionately express their opinions in response to an AG article, because they finally feel that sense of entitlement, that they matter, that their voice ought to be heard. History, politics and culture did a bad job instilling a land teeming with people with the notion that they have a legitimacy to assert, and the tides are slowly reversing.

Q: You were recently in China, have you written about the India/China contrasts in their approach to the 21st century?

A: Yes, an essay called ‘Chinese Dreams’ that was published in the Antioch Review. The key difference is that the Chinese realize that they’re on the verge of becoming a “big stinking economy”…with no personality. China “wiped out everything”—Confucius, Mao—to get to where it got. “India didn’t do that. Wisely.” India’s a little soulless, but not as bad. If anything, AG adds, it’s a “little frustrating how often the past wins.”

Q: How is India’s youth reacting to the environmental risks of such aggressive development?

A: It’s a “really, really tough issue.” Two-thirds of India lives in villages, most of which are yet to enter consumer culture, so it’s hard to tell them to stop when they haven’t yet started. A villager brings home his first electric lamp, and you want to tell him to cut back? After watching An Inconvenient Truth, AG’s young Indian friends reacted with, “Man, America really needs to do something.” It’s not yet (the bulk of) India’s responsibility or prerogative; they aren’t there yet.

If one follows the Western road to modernism—summed up by AG as rural to urban; clan-based to independence-based; women’s rights; and so on—you can see how things end: marriages don’t last and the environment starts to crumble. The question is, can we liberate women and not get stuck with a 50% divorce rate, or give 100% of India electricity without increasing pollution? Is it possible to pick the positives without the good-and-bad “prix fixe” of Western development?

Q: How can we reconcile all this development with the boss of indigenous knowledge (native languages, etc.)?

A: Misal, for example, is neither a master of English, Hindi nor Marathi. Hillary Clinton and William Dalrymple describe India as a nation of “linguistic half-castes.” But is that so bad? AG dismisses this as the “transitional stuff of a country figuring itself out.” He’s less comfortable with the 48% child malnourishment rate.

Q: Aren’t Indians in India still figuring out who they are relative to Western societies?

A: AG responds two ways, both heralding promise. “The happiest thing that I’ve found,” he starts, and “the most important drama of Modern India” is the “erosion of that inferiority complex.” No longer feeling the effects of the “old colonial hangover,” Indians are “falling back in love with themselves”.

He presents a couple examples:

  • Speaking with a strong Indian accent no longer precludes someone from being part of the “bona fide Indian elite,” a la Mukesh Ambani.
  • Indian advertisements in the 1920s and 30s were inaccessible to the majority of the country. Their slogans read, “…pause that refreshes:” definitely indecipherable to non-English speakers. Fast forward to the past decade; Dominos in India tempts customers with “hungry kya?”

Today’s thinking is: address the masses and their responses will resound. Send a text message—I mean an SMS—in that ghastly text-speak “u r 2 sweet 2 b 4 got 10’, comment on the news with poor English, create English Academies that teach catch phrases and corporate jargon, it doesn’t matter; your voice will be heard. The new is on the offensive.

It’s “such a profound revolution,” AG enthuses, and remembers a recently returned-to-India friend’s description of India: “it’s like a big dance party!”

India is calling, and this is one call you don’t want to miss.

Watch AG's INK by TED talk here:

Read The Indian Express' miffed and witty opinion on the book here:


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