Future past. Impressions of an exile. India 2.

One of the books I am reading now is Santosh Desai’s MOTHER PIOUS LADY, a compilation of columns he has written over the years observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of middle class India. It is funny, full of sharp observations and often nostalgic about Gen X growing up in a pre-globalised India. One reviewer likened it to RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons. Those who grew up in India and still live there know what I am talking about. The hardships, the ‘can-do-must-do’ attitude, the emphasis on dignity, the little treats once-in-a-while, the first time a family bought a television/scooter/refrigerator/electronics/even a Prestige cooker, arranged marriages, native villages as origin and end etc. Most of all the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Now that has changed. Liberalised, aspirational middle-class India does not know that eating ice-cream happened only at wedding receptions (Cassata anyone?) and on rare occasions otherwise. Or that trunk calls used to be made from post offices and generally meant bad news; otherwise people sent telegrams. We used to get post cards for 25 paise-I am not sure they are around any more. Still, this is not an exercise in nostalgia. Economic liberalisation, free-trade market, globalisation and related states were inevitable. Young Indians look into the future with positivity. The mobility, entrepreneurship, consumption, independence and individuality-to some extent. They seem to have it all. Yet the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Grounded in complacency and denial. Perhaps I have a ‘Western’ outlook to discourse and democratic responsibility and I want analysis. Every time I argued about civic process, populism and the relationship of the polity with the populace I was told ‘You have stayed away too long’, ‘We are an emotional people, we don’t like change’, ‘New Zealand is a small country so run differently’, ‘We should give the people what they want’ etc. No doubt India is a tough country to govern and Indians are complex. The culture does not make it easy either. Isn’t that precisely why Indians should be more self-aware? Shouldn’t the easier access to knowledge, information (not government process-but that is another story) and communication make us argumentative for the better?

In one of his articles Desai observes that Indians change at a pace that is comfortable with small, almost invisible steps which do not seem to disturb the status quo but actually is. Fine. But the pace at which ambition, aspiration, consumption and social behaviour is zooming such small steps create a massive disparity and inability to deal with the situation. Thomas Friedman, the great propagator of free market and author of THE WORLD IS FLAT praised India’s liberalisation and could only foresee a bright future (=money+material). There was no analysis of the social and cultural impact on Indians so deeply rooted in their traditions and structures. Here is what I thought.

Young India cannot deal with the material glut because there is no precedence. Then it turns to the past. There it is safe, there is reassurance, solidness and warmth like a mother’s bosom. Then we can chalta-hai, be like-this-only complacent because there is no need to examine the disparity between what we have, how it affects us and how we react. Because apparently everything will be alright!

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